Each of his projects are exciting and sensuous, whether it concerns a kid’s playground, a portable restaurant or a collaboration with Brian Eno. DAMNº has the pleasure to announce that Asif Khan is designing the temporary pavilion at Palazzo Litta’s courtyard in Milan, were DAMNº and Mosca Partners organize their yearly gathering during the Salone del Mobile.
Being shortlisted to design the new Guggenheim in Helsinki in 2015 was only the most obvious prove that there was something about Asif Khan. It was a slow train coming, because before that, he had continuously been building up his varied portfolio with remarkable projects, all very much bearing his signature interest in science, art and human interaction. In 2012 there was his interactive Beatbox for Coca-Cola at the London Olympics in collaboration with DJ Mark Ronson – a pavilion that could be played like a musical instrument, thus connecting architecture with music. “It was also the first time Coca-Cola agreed to promote itself without using their logo. They had realized that architecture is a better way of telling stories than slapping their logo on pavilions.” At Design Miami Basel 2012 his award-winning Parhelia installation for Swarovski marveled the audience as it was the world’s first man-made ice halo, constructed with 1.5 million crystals. In 2014, Kahn’s MegaFaces pavilion at the Winter Olympics in Sochi received a Lion d’Or in Cannes, which made Khan the very first architect ever receiving this prestigious award. Furthermore, in 2016 there were among others his Serpentine Summer House, the portable restaurant Xiringuito, and Asif Kahn studio also won the competition to design a new building for the Museum of London. This summer the UK Pavilion at Astana EXPO 2017 in Kazakhstan was unveiled, showing the result of Khan’s collaboration with musician Brian Eno. These projects are so diverse it seems that architecture is only a means through which Khan contributes to the world. Or should we radically change our idea about architecture as we know it - just like today's design is increasingly less about creating another new chair and much more about developing sustainable ideas and problem-solving? If architecture is finally living a new spring, then Asif Khan must be certainly one of it’s early birds. Will this swallow make the spring?
“Architecture is always a reflection of society, so if society changes, architecture changes as well. However, it is the absolute slowest medium to adapt – economy is the first to pick up changes, art is second.” Somehow for a long time this call for change didn't reach the architecture world indeed. “We always assume that science will become better, that new drugs to treat diseases or make us live longer will be discovered. We expect progression, evolution.” With architecture this demand was less prominent. “Today, there is demand for a new approach to architecture globally. The shift is happening now. So it’s a very good time to experiment and explore. My generation has literacy and tools for this, as digital is part of our daily lives”, Khan says. He calls his studio’s approach holistic and based on research, curiosity and intuition – “we need to think about the entire ecosystem, not only about the shape of architecture. I believe that in the future architecture will be light, intelligent and simple – like clouds.” (For his Cloud project at Design Miami Basel in 2011, Asif Khan investigated if architecture could be as simple yet as complex as a cloud in the sky. He created a roof of floating clouds made of helium gas, water and soap, thus challenging the audience to think about the future of architecture.)
Asif Khan believes architects can make cities better for citizens. “As architects we should always be a step forward, for the people’s sake. We all know the power of public spaces in changing our cities and our individual lives. How people move, how people engage with public space: at our studio we explore all this. Awareness for human experience in architecture is a driver for our way of thinking. People’s relationship with materials, nature and, especially, technology: we research all that and work with it. This approach is not always easy – we spend a lot of time thinking what our approach could be, and we always question our own process. But coming to the studio is each day a real pleasure, and I am very thankful. I mean: a robot can’t do this. Actually everything I do is to avoid being replaced by a robot… haha!”
He might be asked for top notch projects all over the world, the young architect didn't loose his connection with his grassroots in London. A project such as an elevated playground for Chisenhale Primary School in Bow, East London – the school where his 2 kids are - he realized in collaboration with the American Hardwood Export Council, and developed in consultation with the other kid’s parents. It was a pro bono project since the school didn't have a big budget. “I felt we had to do something back, and it was also our contribution to the local community.” Asif Khan studio also designed the process of engagement, looked at how to involve the kids, organized fundraising among the parents. “The outcome was amazing, and then I mean by that the entire process. All together, we managed to make 5 or 7 year old kids get to know the world of architecture! It was also a nice example of how to engage parents with different skills. We also learned a lot – for instance about how to find sponsors for a small local school like this.”
It’s also Khan’s concern that his architecture – even though it’s based on complex processes in research, technology and innovation; and it’s often utterly cool and displayed on exclusive events – looks appealing, simple, and easy to digest for everyone, in all possible ways. Khan wants us to feel, hear, see architecture. He is very aware though that not everyone is visually literate. “I am trying not to make it seem arrogant, as something which needs education to experience it. That would be a very exclusive way of working. My parents had the benefit to be educated, but I want my grandmother from Pakistan also to understand our projects as much as a curator who has the visible literacy would do. At the same time we need to challenge people and open up their world. Often there is a trigger – curiosity and also something that ties back to their senses. Kenya Hara, art director
Muji, knew that design can be driven by the senses instead of by technology. I find that a very strong approach.” An example of that approach is the project Asif Khan just finished with one of his heroes, musician Brian Eno: an immersive soundscape that makes you experience architecture (the UK Pavilion at Astana EXPO 2017 in Kazakhstan). “It’s a multisensory installation – you see it, you hear it, you feel it under your feet. It really changes your experience of time and space in the project. Brian did amazing work, providing a kind of key to the architectural narrative.” Asif Khan recalls he was 19 years old when he heard ‘Music for Airports’ (first released in 1979) for the first time – it blew him away. The album consisted of instrumental music made with the purpose to defuse the tense, anxious atmosphere in an airport terminal, intended to induce calm and a space to think. Khan didn’t hesitate to ask Eno to collaborate for Astana EXPO 2017. “I learned so much from him. And it was amazing to find a common language. Brian is extremely creative and open, and it’s a real pleasure to work with someone whom you can be equally open to”, says the humane architect who seems to find his brothers in arms across all possible borders.