Asif Khan is a young architect in an enviable position. He’s been hailed by Design Miami 2011 as a ‘Designer of the Future’, written up in the New York Times as one of five designers to watch this year, and awarded a prestigious ‘designer in residence’ slot at the Design Museum – the first architect ever to be given that honour. And all within a couple of years of setting up his own practice.
Khan’s output so far has been eclectic, from living furniture (Harvest, furniture fashioned from weeds, for the Design Museum) through kitchen storage, to sculptural baubles for fashion shows. He’s completed a couple of striking small-scale buildings too – the much drooled-over West Beach Cafe in Littlehampton, and the newly opened Elliot’s cafe in London’s Borough Market – and designed almost all the furniture and some of the lighting too.
This year, his project Cloud was a major conversation piece for W Hotel’s Art Basel exhibition: a machine which released cloud bubbles made of soap and water into a fishnet stretched across the ceiling, creating a translucent, ever-evolving canopy. This October his first temporary pavilion was unveiled in Singapore as part of Archifest: a commission from the British Council. It was a showcase piece, intended to generate excitement about the younger generation of British architects.
In person Khan appears grounded, engaging and refreshingly free of egotism – he’s a collaborator to his core. His conversation is peppered with the names of all the people he has serendipitously encountered and then woven into his work.
Khan’s network is organic, rather than strategic: many of his collaborators are neighbours, either at his studio in Bethnal Green (the iron foundry that made many elements of his latest restaurant, Elliot’s) or at his home near Victoria Park, in Hackney. Here he met artist Peter Liversedge, with whom he designed a modular lighting system for West Beach Cafe, and Finbar Williamson, an engineer whose confectionery-shaping machines inspired Khan’s Cloud project.
His first commercial-built project was in Victoria Park itself: the revamping of the Pavilion cafe for Brett Green and Rob Redman, a pair of foodie entrepreneurs who then brought Khan with them to design the much-praised Elliot’s in Borough Market.
To keep such a diverse range of collaborative, multidisciplinary activities going alongside hardcore architectural projects would appear to be a task of brain-frying complexity as a lone practitioner, hence the formation of the practice with fellow Bartlett graduate Pernilla Ohrstedt.
Ohrstedt brings experimental, curatorial and organisational experience to support Khan’s imaginative, sculptural aesthetic. A protégé of the remarkable Dr Rachel Armstrong, founder of the UCL/Bartlett collaborative laboratory which sees scientists and architects working to find solutions both practical and inspiring (refloating Venice on a sea of bioengineered coral, for example), Ohrstedt spent a year as curator and producer for New York’s collaborative Storefront for Art and Architecture gallery (she co-founded its pop-up events that launched Storefront outside its New York base).
Her CV features a number of experimental, large-scale installations, including participating in the creation of the stunning Hylozoic Ground installation by Canadian architect/sculptor Philip Beesley for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2010. Ohrstedt has already been influential in the creation of Khan’s Harvest and Cloud installations.
Says Khan: ‘The projects, when we do them together, are about stretching the envelope of what’s possible within that category. For example, the Harvest piece was about exploring the limit of what furniture is, and Cloud is about exploring the limits of what architecture can be.’
Ohrstedt has been fully on-board with the British Council commission, which comes under the umbrella of the Royal Academy of the Arts’ current Future Memory programme. The Future Memory Pavilion is designed to inspire engagement with Singapore’s land and climate issues in ways that are both poetic and provocative.
During their research, Ohrstedt and Khan discovered that in order to expand the buildable land mass of this tiny but economically powerful island, soil and rock have been systematically removed from its mountaintops and placed around its shore-line, supplemented with sand imported from around the world. Also, in a land where air-conditioning is king, they discovered that as far back as the 1850s wealthy Singaporeans were importing blocks of ice, removed from lakes in New England and shipped across the world, to make the local humidity and heat more tolerable.
Their Future Memory Pavilion takes the form of two symbolic ‘mountains’ made of rope, one containing blocks of ice and the other piles of sand. Visitors will be invited to interact with and manipulate the materials. Open to the elements, the pieces will erode and evolve, through both man-made and natural interventions.
Vicky Richardson, head of architecture, design and fashion at the British Council, says Khan was selected for the Singapore commission because of his ‘thoughtful and innovative’ approach. ‘We knew that he would come back to us with something we wouldn’t have thought up ourselves. And he has,’ she says.
But let’s hope that in the expansion of the practice’s collaborative and artistic horizons Khan still finds time to express his more traditional architectural skills. His West Beach Cafe in Littlehampton is a beautifully simple and flexible design: the hinged sash windows that form the sea-facing fascia of his box-like space split open to delineate extra seating space on to the beach, doubling cafe occupancy when the weather permits.
Elliot’s, in Borough Market, south London, is a similarly happy marriage between site, ethos and aesthetic. With an artisan food offer that plucks the best from the day’s market fare, the design conveys a perfect balance of honesty and artistry. The ceiling is an expanse of black-painted slim wood slats, its dimensions precisely echoing those of the metal shutters that had been used to secure this venue at night. Sleek iron lighting rails float just below them, studded with small yellow light bulbs – a stylistic reference to the adjacent market’s lighting gantries, but without the trailing cables. Original Victorian walls have been partially stripped of centuries-old paint, with the richness and depth of the brick’s ochre tones emerging through a coat of wet-look varnish. A black and white striped awning, plus a concrete floor, bring the market hall to the space, while a family of shapely wooden chairs, tables and stools are scattered companionably around an impressive, black, cast-iron sharing table.
The brief, says co-owner Brett Green, was ‘to make it feel like an extension of the market. To bring out a connection between the inside and outside. The walls are bare, the floor is bare. But we wanted a certain level of sophistication and uniqueness’. Objective achieved.
There are no other building projects currently on the horizon. Says Khan: ‘Buildings require so much time – especially the buildings that we design.We don’t want to make a massive office building before we’ve learned how to design large-scale buildings well. We do get asked endlessly to do stuff, and we have turned most of them down.’
In the meantime, Ohrstedt and Khan are absorbed in defining their new practice – rather cutesily named Pernilla & Asif. They talk of a ‘propositional’ approach, in not waiting for people to come to them but taking their ideas out into the market.In order to keep the scale of collaboration and diversity of projects rich, they embrace the prospect of creative direction as well as hands-on involvement. And their focus is strongly international. Though they love being based in the designer/maker heartland of East London, ‘neither of us has got that much recognition from the British scene’, says Khan. ‘I think it will take a while for us to be let in – compared to the Japanese, the Italians or Americans, all of whom we have worked with’. Khan is not the first to rail against the rather narrow view of the UK’s architectural establishment of failing to embrace the architect as product designer or providing opportunities for more leftfield experimental work. Khan’s British Council commission, however, would indicate that the UK architectural establishment has decided his vision of architecture is one it most definitely wants to ‘let in’.
And though he complains that the high cost of living and working in London – and the scarcity of cheap studio space – ‘makes it more difficult to be a young practice here than it is abroad’, he’s not about to let that get in their way. Khan concludes: ‘Opportunities come if you are not afraid of looking for them.’