Designer Spotlight: Ricardo de Jesús Maga Rojas

As a design community, there’s no better way to share, learn, and grow than by having conversations with and sharing the work of fellow designers — which is what our latest series set out to do. For our Designer Spotlight series, we talked to designers who are using their creative talents for good and bringing the community together.

Our first Designer Spotlight is on Ricardo de Jesús Maga Rojas. Ricardo is a designer at GFF, serves on AIA Austin’s Board of Directors as the Membership and Community Building Commissioner, and is also on this year’s Advisory Board for ADW.

Below, Ricardo shares a little about his background and inspirations, what he believes architecture’s role in design is, and how designers can be a force for change by helping shape and serve our communities.

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    Charmed Re-Imagined: Ricardo's first or second house design in high school inspired by a show called Charmed; Medium: Ink on Mylar

Tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to pursue a career in architecture.

I was born in Banes, Cuba within the Holguin Province and emigrated to Miami, Florida in 1992. Growing up Afro-Cuban, I was exposed to African culture, music, and dance. In Miami, my family attended Afro-Cuban religious celebrations which always consisted of dancing, drumming, singing and African religious icons draped in a multitude of extravagant colors. In elementary school, I was exposed to theater and drawing. In junior high, I took art and photography classes as my creative outlet. When I was applying for high schools, I sought a myriad of magnet programs but was not successful in getting admitted into any Art-related programs. I decided to enroll at Miami Jackson Sr. High in the Academy of International Business and Finance (AIBF) Magnet Program. After a few conversations with my guidance counselor and finance instructor we were able to switch my enrollment to the Magnet Academy for Engineering, Commercial Arts, and Architecture (MECAA) where I began to focus on art and architectural drafting.

What kind of contributions do you want to make through design?

I would like to explore the nexus between architecture and urban planning to understand the politics of space, social issues - race and gender systems, and urban redevelopment. Architecture is political and by understanding the end user and perspective of the end user’s surroundings, we can begin to make these spaces sustainable for the community to thrive.

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    Deconstructed Cuba: A sketch by Ricardo that deconstructed the Cuban flag from its traditional star and stripes.

How has your Afro-Cuban heritage influenced your work?

Afro-Cuban heritage is heavily community-centric. It takes a village for us to create space whether that is dancing, drummers, singers, religious activities, the list goes on. This has manifested itself in my role as a Citizen Architect. When I first moved to Austin, I became involved in community organization efforts to understand the needs of the residents in East Austin. Every community member is my client as a designer. I serve on the City of Austin Board and Commissions because representation matters and it helps spotlight the issues that are prevalent within our community. The onus is on us as designers to put forth the effort to serve everyone.

What drives your passion for service? How have you given back to Austin’s design community?

I am compelled to serve others — I have a volunteer problem. In 2016, when I moved to Austin, I joined the Austin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Austin) and the Texas Society of Architects (TxA), the voice for Texas Architecture. I have served on a few committees at AIA Austin: DesignVoice, Emerging Professionals, Latinos in Architecture, Homes Tour, to name a few. Some of my contributions include the design, construction of a modular installation for Park(ing) Day where our group BoomSpace created a modular installation that was able to be used at different events including SXSWEco; composing a grant for securing architecture study materials to assist emerging architects through their architecture exams; promoting diverse representation and mentorship through Hip-Hop Architecture Camp, ACE Mentor Program of Austin, and DV3x2; speaking on the importance of the role of community design and diversity and inclusion within architecture. Through TxA, I served on the Emerging Leaders Grassroots and Architects Day at the State Capitol advocating for the profession of architecture alongside colleagues. When the 2017 TxA Convention came to Austin, I was responsible for leading the programming of local architecture tours. I continue to serve the design community through AIA Austin Board of Directors and Austin Design Week Advisory Board.

What has inspired you lately?

The continued fight for racial justice and wanting to create a more just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive society continues to inspire me. As protests ensue within the nation and globally, silence is not allyship. I remain encouraged to use my voice as a black designer in a profession that is not representative of me. Despite the obstacles, it will take a village to change how systemic racism and institutional racism has embedded itself within the tapestry of our societal structure — working with allies, having the difficult and uncomfortable conversations, and recognizing that the disproportionate impact to communities of color, make everyone’s lives worse. Let us strive to make everyone’s lives better.

How does that inspiration influence your design process?

While the designs that I have worked on are not inherently tied to racial justice, when I begin a design process I like to take a step back and analyze how a particular aspect of a design was done in the past and reflect on the future implications. I tend to place myself in the shoes of the end user and try to navigate a space in that same way, like the choreography of dance.

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    SHI Garza Office: Ricardo's first project at his last firm, GSC Architects that he worked on.

How would you describe architecture's role in design?

Architecture strives to marry the needs, values, and representation of the client. The Architect hired by the client work together to bring a concept into reality. Throughout history, architecture has existed to design a physical environment for others to inhabit. As we move forward, I expect architecture will focus on creating space for communities to thrive. I envision that the conversations we have today with regards to social issues and development will focus on how to use politics to design equitable and sustainable spaces for communities that are more disproportionately affected than others. As architects, we tend to design socio-petal spaces but amidst COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that architects will begin to think about design for socio-fugal spaces as well.

What are some of the challenges you see facing the architecture industry and what would you like to see changed?

Architecture has faced many challenges since its inception from battling stereotypes to lack of clarity about what we do to inherent systemic racism to the disconnect between education and the profession. I would be interested in how the architecture industry moves beyond diversity and begins to encompass justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion within the workplace and in the work for clients. Architects cannot afford to be silent. I expect to see uncomfortable conversations free of bias and intent on transformation. I suspect that this will manifest itself in architects carving out a place and time to learn more about the communities they serve. After all, understanding how and where residents want to be heard remains paramount.

What are you embracing right now?

I am learning to embrace my core values - faith, community, and inclusivity. When I went through Leadership Austin’s Emerge Class of 2019, we spent time defining those values for ourselves. I already spend a lot of time in meditation, exercising, and dancing to let my mind and spirit wander. Self-reflection and having constant dialogues with myself allow me to check where I have been in the past, where I want to be in the future, and how I am showing up for others. It is one thing to declare that you have values and it is another thing altogether to act on those values. I show up for others by being exuberant in everything I do, advocating for others who feel like they do not have a voice, and connecting friends/colleagues who would not have otherwise known each other.

Design that Inspires Ricardo