Blueprint Innovation Interviews at Arper: Asif Khan


Filmed at Arper's London showroom, we talk to designer Asif Khan about what innovation means to him and the common themes that thread through his practice's work, from the Coca-Cola pavilion at London's 2012 Olympics to the Serpentine Galleries' Summer Houses


Asif Khan’s London-based practice works across the field of architecture, industrial and furniture design. 

Recently he was shortlisted for the Guggenheim Helsinki competition from 1,700 international entries. In recognition of his design for the MegaFaces Pavilion at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Khan was awarded a Cannes Lions Grand Prix for Innovation. At London’s 2012 Olympics he designed Coca-Cola’s landmark pavilion. In 2010 he was the first architect to be chosen for the Designers in Residence programme at the Design Museum London and was awarded Designer of the Future in 2011 by Design Miami. Khan has just completed one of the Serpentine Galleries’ Summer Houses, on show in Kensington Gardens until 9 October.

I tend not to really think about the word innovation, what I’m interested in is the unknown. For me, the word innovation suggests to me unknown territory, something waiting to be discovered. That’s very much the principle of my work, trying to discover things we don’t know yet. Sometimes it might be understanding a site at a level which it hasn’t been understood at before, sometimes it might be about a material that we haven’t asked or persuaded to act in a certain way before, or sometimes it might be a way of engaging the public in a project.

My job is to mediate those design possibilities and push them in new directions.

Our work is heavily research-based. You can take the scientific method for a good analogy of how I work - there’s an established truth that exists and through our projects we try and bounce up against that. I like to think beyond the status quo, which the majority of people are quite happy to accept as a reality.

Asif Khan: Photo: Alice MastersAsif Khan: Photo: Alice Masters

The research begins with listening really carefully to a client, a brief, a site - unravelling everything about its history, and its potential and where it can go in the future. Or it might be looking at a whole city, or a quarter of a city, and where you think that’s moving. This begins to give you clues about how you might react. But we’re not doing it for the sake of innovation, we’re doing it for the sake of progressing the medium, the art form, the city; changing our attitude to materials and spaces. I see it as our role as architects to take each project and try and push it as far as it can go. If we don’t do that, what we’re doing is replicating other people’s work and assuming that it’s the peak of our knowledge, which I refuse to admit.

If I take the Serpentine project as an example of our process. The brief was to respond to Queen Caroline’s Temple, a structure built in 1734 and designed by William Kent. It was the time of the Enlightenment when the Queen was surrounded by a coterie of thinkers, philosophers and makers, and I think the garden is a manifestation of a new way of thinking about space and time. It’s history but at the same time it’s important for how we might react today. We found that the temple is orientated towards the sunrise on Queen Caroline’s birthday, for one moment in time, one moment a year, for one person. What I wanted to do was a subversion of that and create a summer house which orientates towards multiple viewpoints, multiple moments of time and for many people. It’s about seeing the park in a new way; you could see it as a democratisation of Queen Caroline’s Temple.

Flexibility in architecture is a theme that keeps coming up in my work. The cloud project, which I did around 2010, was another attempt to borrow from atmospheric phenomena and the natural world and use it in architecture. Could we create architecture that is lightweight, simple, textural and familiar like a cloud? This project is a good way of understanding what I do.

We went and questioned the material and the language completely, and tried to remove any form of style so it becomes completely objective. At the same time it’s intentionally playful, it’s not trying to say this is the future of architecture, it’s saying what if we think about things in different ways.

Then, when the Olympics came to London, it was a really exciting moment - the Architecture Foundation and Coca-Cola invited some proposals for a pavilion in the park. We proposed and eventually built a pavilion with no branding on it at all. The building I think more of as an experience; it was more about creating a building that you could touch and play as a musical instrument, so in a way breaking down known physical rules of how you engage with a building. For me, this was a way of stretching the idea of participation in an event, and stretching the limits of architecture, where it starts to incorporate performance really directly.

Shortlisted design for the Helsinki Guggenheim. Courtesy Asif KhanShortlisted design for the Helsinki Guggenheim. Courtesy Asif Khan

The project we did at the Sochi Olympics played with a similar idea. I wanted to use the immediacy of the digital medium to give people visiting this pavilion, and the Olympic Games, a new status there. I wanted this pavilion to be incredibly inclusive and the best way to do that was make its facade something that could showcase everyone that visited the building. I created a building that was a digital Mount Rushmore, and everyone who visited, their faces were displayed on the facade as heroes, no matter where they came from.

Helsinki is a city which I have been visiting for many years, so when the competition for the Guggenheim came up, I knew the site very well and thought we have to be involved with this.

The proposal we developed for it was born out of conversations with a group of collaborators about the city’s history and what Helsinki needs in this moment in time. We tried to create something that has resonance with a very large amount of people so it can be adopted as something that has really grown from that place, hence the use of glass that reminds us of Finnish craftsmanship. The proposal has a lot of connections with things we’ve done elsewhere - there’s a skin of a glass which starts translucent and only allows ambient light through, then at the top it becomes transparent to offer views out across the city.

We believe very strongly that the future of architecture and what it can become lies in the people that use it. If we place people at the centre of architecture it begins to have so much more possibilities than if we place architecture at the centre of architecture.

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