Meet Adam Khan, Adam Khan Architects


with Jemima Burrill, curator and cultural consultant to NOW Gallery

Broadcaster Jon Snow has described Adam Khan as ‘one of the most inspiring, original and committed architects of his generation.’ For the eighth talk in the series, Jemima Burrill spoke with Khan about collaboration, domesticity, picnic blanket architecture and beauty-as-sustainability.

Adam Khan is committed to beauty. For him it’s a way of ensuring buildings last — what he calls an ‘aesthetic sustainability.’ Even though his buildings are comparably modest in scale, he often turns to grand structures such as palaces for inspiration, understanding that the secret of their preservation is the pleasure people take in reappropriating them from one decade to the next. After no longer fulfilling their original purpose, such buildings aren’t demolished but take on new lives: ‘They have been banks, schools, universities, dance schools, as well as the home for the very wealthy person who built it.’ 

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Arguably, when it comes to architecture, beauty and façade are closely intertwined. Khan describes a building as ‘being generous’ when it communicates with the city through its exterior. Decoration, he says, is not so much about disguise but rather a conscious act of ‘dressing-up,’ while taking into account ‘different codes and meanings.’ 

Adam Khan Architects has played on this idea from its first proposal, a colourful and exuberantly decorated library in Stockholm. The exterior wouldn’t precisely communicate its function but evoke the sense that something important was happening inside: shared, communal, joyful.

Highlighting the importance of collaboration and conversation in his work, Khan turned to the New Horizon Youth Centre, a day centre for homeless youth in London, completed in 2012. Dialogue with staff initially revolved around safety concerns and practical needs, but over time the idea of ‘home’ was introduced, and the conversation became ‘more generative,’ expanding the potential for what the new space might be. ‘As a practice we’re very interested in the relationship between the institution and domesticity,’ Khan says. 

Speaking with some of the young homeless people who would be using the space, the architects learned the value they placed on quiet spots to read or opportunities for gardening, and looked to their ‘huge reservoir of very precise knowledge of how public space works.’

Khan considers architecture to be a set of prompts, providing a chance for occupants to arrive at their own conclusions as to how a building might be used and adapted. He invokes the advice of his teacher Florian Beigel: we should be creating the rug not the picnic. ‘The picnic will be brought by other people,’ Khan elaborates, ‘and it will be more magnificent than you could ever imagine.’

To collaborate successfully with a client, Khan says, ‘you have to relax a bit.’ He describes it as a playful process, but also an ‘efficient way of generating new knowledge.’ In initial meetings with Design District’s developer, Knight Dragon, they experimented by rearranging blocks and turning models upside down to allow for all possibilities.

Although similarly rectangular in form, Khan’s pair of buildings look starkly different. Initially, the intention was for both to be concrete, referencing other developments happening in the area. ‘There are so many fantastic concrete frame contractors working in the Greenwich Peninsula… even when they’re building a carpark, the concrete is beautiful.’ 

Khan took inspiration for building A3 from utilitarian details such as recesses on the carpark pillars designed to house reflective panels. In an era where the workings of our devices and the structure of buildings are increasingly hidden, ‘to sense what something is actually made of is a rare kind of pleasure,’ he enthuses.

As it turned out, concrete was not an option for B3, the practice’s other building. The proposed route of the Silvertown Tunnel runs directly beneath it, meaning it had to be significantly lighter. In response, lightness was considered not just in terms of materials, but also optics.

Thinking about optical illusions, dazzle camouflage and op art, the architects came up with a design of thin vertical stripes in red, green and blue: ‘the colours you used to get on an old tv set.’ Furthermore, each floor is shifted slightly like misaligned building blocks, creating breaks in the coloured lines that suggest a cathode-ray tube being adjusted.

While other pairs of Design District buildings resemble twins, Khan’s hefty, monolithic concrete A3 and the light, shimmering B3 are more ambiguously related. The architect points out that their locations mean they’ll never be seen together, so perhaps most people won’t identify a connection between the two. Nonetheless, for Khan they’ll always be what he calls ‘a contrary couple.’

The next Meet the Design District Architects will be with David Saxby, Co-Founder at Architecture 00 on Friday, 23 October. Book now [link].