The Inspiration Issue: Asif Khan (Part 5/5) - Design Bureau

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The Inspiration Issue: Asif Khan (Part 5/5)

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Portrait by Steve Benistry, other images courtesy of Asif Khan

In our July 2013 cover story on Asif Khan, we dubbed the young designer the “anti- starchitect,” and with good reason. But long before he decided to skirt gigs at London’s big firms and instead open his own right out of school, before he was creating commissioned works for Coca-Cola and the Olympics, and before he was collecting accolades such as Design Miami’s “Designer of the Future,” he found himself enchanted by science and all of the questions that come with it.

That fascination stayed with the rising architect from childhood to his time at the University College London’s Bartlett School and the Architectural Association School of Architecture. To this day, Khan is both personally and professionally captivated with anything that falls under science’s massive umbrella of knowledge. “The belief that there is more to discover in architecture permeates what we do at the studio and why we do it,” he says. “I like to think that anything we imagine could be possible until proven otherwise. Science seems like it has a greater freedom than design in this respect, and I find that exhilarating.”

Design Bureau: When did you first yourself inspired by science?

Asif Khan: I remember a book from my childhood called Funnybones. The central characters are a family of skeletons. Four-year-old me understood that I had a skeleton inside of my body and was trying to figure out what else was in there. I think I asked an adult, “How does the meat make my arm move?” They couldn’t explain it to me, but it set me off asking questions. I’m still asking questions.

DB: How did you try to answer those questions as a child?

AK: I used to spend hours reading shopping catalogs—Argos, RadioShack, Yellow Pages, “The Innovations Report”— anything encyclopedic. As my birthday approached, my attention focused to the toy sections, and specifically, the science kits. The 130-in-one electronic lab kit, 100-in-one chemistry kit, 30-in-one mechanical lab kit, and the 30-in-one microscope kit—this was my world growing up. I just wanted to experiment, understand, and make things.

DB: What types of science are you most inspired by?

AK:  I have a set of CERN bubble-chamber transparencies from the ’70s, which sit framed on my wall. This combination of a photographic technique with a huge tank of supercooled liquid hydrogen could actually capture the tracks of subatomic charged particles. At the other end of the scale, you have those beautiful deep-space images of enormous objects, which the Hubble Space Telescope was sending back over the past 20 years. It’s the sense that we’re connected to everything— yet so far from everything—that I find sublimely beautiful.

DB: Where do you see science improving architecture and design in the next 10 or 20 years?

AK: In the next10 years, improvements will be in the connectivity, energy performance, the 3D printing of objects at home from waste materials, and more kinetic and smart facades. In 20 years, we'll have moved forward in efficient-energy storage. You'll have a lot of homes fully off-grid, there will be transparent insulation in glazing, volumetric displays will be commonplace, and the reduction of computing size will complete the merging of our digital and physical worlds.

DB: How about in the next 50?

AK: In 50 years, we will be full swing into the age of nano materials. Super lightweight composite structures will be used in skyscraper construction, beards will be hip again, and material engineering exploiting biological processes will be commonplace in design and construction. Cities will become smarter than their inhabitants.

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