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Shaping Space for Shared Culture with Asif Khan

Shaping Space for Shared Culture with Asif Khan


Asif Khan is a London-based architect with a hand in some of the most culturally ambitious arts projects in the world – from The Museum of the Incense Road in Saudi Arabia to repurposing Canning Dock in Liverpool as a place for collective reflection on Britain’s role in the slave trade.


As part of an ongoing RIBA x VitrA Talks series featuring international voices on themes pertinent to architecture today, Khan recently delivered a powerful lecture at the RIBA. Unpacking the vision and collaboration behind built and forthcoming projects and taking the audience on a global journey, Khan wove the metaphysical with the tangible, the cosmos with the senses. “How will we live?” he asked at the outset of his keynote, “What rituals will be part of our civilisation? What could human wellbeing feel like?”.


Ritual, cultural identity and architecture

Migration, global exchange, cultural identity and universal experience are leitmotifs of Khan’s work. Born in London in 1979 to parents from Tanzania and Pakistan, a seminal childhood experience was weekend visits to the then newly completed lakeside at the Barbican Centre. His father, Khan noted, was drawn to this public realm because of the presence of water and nostalgia for the Mughal-era Shalimar Gardens in Lahore.


Water, observed Khan, is of central importance to ritual and religion everywhere – “We have been submerged in water for the first nine months of our lives; water is the first immersive sensory experience. We are also water mostly ourselves, and bathing is a process of water returning to water”. Today, Khan is working on proposals to renew the Barbican Centre he experienced as a child, having recently won an international competition in collaboration with Allies and Morrison Architects.


Time, space and the universe


The elements, light, time and space are all fundamental to Khan’s design worldview. “At 7 years old I discovered I could find the cosmos in a computer. I would spend entire days travelling between stars, referencing the 1984 open-ended game Elite,” he explained, tracing the origins of projects like a pavilion at Pyeongchang Winter Olympics where he “wanted to reveal the cosmos to everyone, as though we had cut a hole in the bright blue sky”. Similarly, for Astana Expo 2017 Khan collaborated with composer Brian Eno and astrophysicist Dr Catherine Heymans to explore infinite time in infinite space, creating an immersive installation where the circular Kazakh nomadic yurt structure serves as a microcosm of the world. Khan observes that, for him, this project represents an archetype – a form of environmentally-tuned architecture he believes civilisation might ultimately return to.




Other experiments from Khan have included Parhalia for Design Miami 2012 – a physical space designed to emulate an indoor ice halo he had made with the University of Manchester – and a project involving 100,000 participants to explore the human face as a vehicle for amplifying empathetic sensations. In Melbourne in 2014, Khan’s Radiant Lines installation investigated light as a metaphor for human existence, using a Lidar sensor to detect people’s presence and translate their being into an encircling field of light lines – illuminating the space for a next generation of visitors in turn.


Completing the progression from virtual worlds to physical world-making, at Expo 2020 in the UAE, Khan created a towering entry portal in the form of a folded mashrabiya screen – a futuristic interpretation of an ancient vernacular that mediates airflow and sunlight. Inside the site, Khan designed 6km of public realm, including scented gardens, water features and a route of shared surfaces inspired by the textures of local weaving traditions and Arabic calligraphy.


© Asif Khan Dubai Expo Jason O'Rear


On the horizon


Along with the Barbican Centre renewal, here are three forthcoming cultural projects from Asif Khan to look out for.


In the UK capital, Khan is repurposing part of Smithfield Market and 47 shop fronts into the new London Museum with Stanton Williams Architects. Due to open in 2026, the museum is conceived as an incubator of the future as much as a vessel of the past. Innovative uses and evolving forms of engagement will, says Khan, ensure that the new museum will always be a relevant part of the changing city.


In the UNESCO-protected region of AlUla in Saudi Arabia – a stopping point on a prehistoric global route from East to West – Khan is working on The Museum of the Incense Road. Here, the architect’s proposals will harness the universal power of scent, including cross-cultural associations with frankincense and myrrh. The museum will come to life in the cooler hours of darkness, creating the world’s first night museum and echoing the experience of historic travellers who navigated by the stars.


In Liverpool, Khan is collaborating with American artist Theaster Gates on a project for Canning Dock that will explore Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. Liverpool was once the world’s busiest and wealthiest trading port, but its docks were also the site of the transportation of over 1.5 million enslaved African men, women and children to the Americas. Khan’s aim for the project is to transcend traditional museum space, with no thresholds. The existing dry dock will be made accessible to the public while a new volume symbolising a slave ship will be created at its centre. This stone and cast-glass block edifice is designed to remain for as long as the dock itself, with 15,000 glass blocks bringing light and refracting it into colour. “This is the light carried from our nearest star,” explained Khan. “It will be a space for people to come together for spoken word, music, performance – rather than for only hearing about the past. It's a space for listening to each other and moving forward together. It's a space for healing, where light brings us together.”


AKS ©_A_Moment_Canning_Dock_Liverpool


For more information on VitrA’s partnership with the Royal Institute of British Architects and to find out about upcoming events click here.