As the dust settled on London Design Festival, James Darton, on behalf of Freunde von Freunden joined Asif Khan for a stroll around his home borough Hackney to discuss the architect’s life, work and the three Shoreditch-based installations — Relax, Connect and Create — that Asif designed for MINI Living. The full article is published here.
It makes a perfect sort of sense then that a journey into the life and work of London-based architect Asif Khan should also take the form of a walk around the city he has lived in his entire life.
Specifically, it is a walk around the diverse borough of Hackney that Asif has lived in since moving from his South London birthplace to the Victoria Park residence he now shares with his wife and two children. As London’s property driven transformation continues, it is perhaps the area most obviously in flux. High rise council flats tower above the picturesque Georgian terraces and vibrant, multi-ethnic immigrant communities live alongside a bubble of newly arrived “young professionals” (read: those working in either the financial sector or creative industries).
“When my dad used to visit us in our first flat on Roman Road, the experience actually upset him,” says Asif. “He came here in the early sixties from Pakistan and he said that when he left our flat for the first time he had the same feelings as when he first arrived in London.” Khan Senior couldn’t understand why his son would choose to live in an environment that appeared (on a surface level at least) to mimic the hardships he had experienced as a new arrival in London—a situation he had worked hard to outgrow. “I told him it means something different now—life kind of fluxes like that. In one instance you’re trying to escape something and in the next you’re trying to integrate with it.”
Integration, inclusion: these are themes that Asif returns to time and again, drawn from his personal experiences and manifested to varying degrees across his impressive body of work. “I have no time for exclusion,” he says, weaving through a procession of Afro Caribbean ladies en route to church, their explosively colourful dress lighting up the concrete greys between Homerton and Victoria Park. “Maybe it’s because my parents are social workers, so I gained their values. They are compassionate people and in turn they made me feel empathetic. It’s that burden of understanding or responsibility [in both social work and architecture].”
Asif’s latest project, Forests, feels a little like a culmination to date of all these long gestating ideas. It is there he heads next, after a brief detour via the new playground he recently designed for the Hackney school his children attend. Installed as part of London Design Festival and executed with input the horticulturalist Jin Ahn of Conservatory Archives, Forests’ themes of community, collaboration, and contemplation run throughout every aspect of its being. Spread over three sites in close proximity to Old Street, each cuboid forest is constructed from unassuming polycarbonate sheets and filled with verdant plant life courtesy of Jin. Each is designed with a different use in mind — to Connect, Create and Relax — but all with the overwhelming intention to bring communities together. As we arrive at the first forest, Asif illustrates this by gesturing around at the immediate surroundings. A promenade of permanently busy, buzzy bars stretches off in the direction of Shoreditch High Street whilst at Old Street’s roundabout looms the unmistakeable hallmarks of manic tech investment: huge, contemporary office complexes staring glassy-faced down on the kebab shops and council housing that occupy the interstitial gaps in between. He explains that everyday he sees these three distinct communities — the business guys, the night-time revellers, the bemused locals — living side by side, but never actually “overlapping” as he puts it.
Forests provide a location to disrupt this. Stopping for a moment on a bench inside the Connect forest, he explains that not only does the corridor-like installation act as a plant-filled alternative for a brief stretch of commuting but also as a place people might stop for lunch away from the jarring hustle and bustle outside. Almost as if on cue, a father and his two young children sit down with sandwiches and juice cartons to do exactly that — and as a result, find themselves in dialogue with an internationally renowned architect. It is a beautifully noble and understated project and one that arguably deserves a more permanent lifetime than the nine days LDF gives it.
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