JULIA KING & ASIF KHAN IN CONVERSATION Review
by Clementine Blakemore
Tuesday, 11 November 2014
Architectural Association, London & Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
‘What’s Next’, an exciting new lecture series exploring the diverse paths taken by AA graduates, launched a few weeks ago with a lively conversation between Julia King (in Bedford Square) and Asif Khan (via Skype from somewhere in Brazil). Students of Kenneth Fraser and Simon Beames in Diploma 7, ‘Khan and King’ graduated in 2007 with an award-winning collaborative project based in the Mae Sot refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border. Challenging the conventions of an AA diploma project, which is typically a speculative proposition developed individually, they worked together to develop, and then actually build, an innovative prototype for refugee housing. The introductory image to the lecture was a striking aerial photograph of the camp – an image that that didn’t exist before the two of them decided it was indispensable to the project, hired a plane, and simply took it themselves. That bold and adventurous attitude runs through their work to this day; a shared trait between two otherwise very different forms of practice.
The first part of the lecture expanded upon their Diploma project, not only in terms of design and structure, but also in regards to its often uncomfortable relationship with the academic timetable. Julia told stories of missing crucial presentations half way through the year when they were on the other side of the world, and explained the come-down they experienced on their return to London, after the immensely exciting construction phase… when they realised they had to produce the type of work that would ensure they actually passed the year. One of the outcomes of what Asif described as this ‘retrospective intellectualisation’ was an extraordinary operational diagram: a long thin drawing mapping out the entire process, clarifying their individual roles with in the project, and acknowledging all the other people who had contributed or partnered with them in some way.
Khan and King’s Operative Drawing showing their 5th year collaboration (see below for pdf)
I in fact first heard about this project three years ago, just before I moved to India to do a design/ build project with a fellow AA student during our Year Out, when we were introduced to Julia by Brett. Many of the practical kernels of wisdom she shared with us on that first meeting (which served us very well, and continue to do so) came up in the lecture. But it was Asif’s simple statement that if you believe in what you’re doing, then your tutors and examiners will too, that struck me most.
As should be the case in the 5th year, they were studying as they intended to practice. For Julia this led to a PHD developing large-scale sanitation infrastructure in collaboration with the Indian NGO CURE, an organisation which (as she was keen to point out) has been crucial to the success of the work. She described some of the ongoing projects they have developed, which include a septic tank for a slum resettlement colony in Delhi, shared infrastructure which can be integrated into incremental housing strategies, a micro-credit fund, and ‘Enrepooneur’ – a forgivably ‘shitty’ pun describing a scheme to turn poop into profit, either as a fertiliser or as a component in adobe blocks. For Asif, it has led to a body of work which hovers between the worlds of architecture, art, and installation. He talked about a number of projects ranging from his very first commission, a sea-front cafe which expanded and contracted seasonally, to an experimental canopy made from delicate cloud-like clusters of helium foam, to high-profile corporate collaborations such as the ‘Beat Box Pavilion’ at the 2012 London Olympics, and the ‘MegaFaces’ actuated facade seen at the winter games in Sochi earlier this year.
While Julia is stepping outside the conventional role of architect in order to implement the holistic approach so crucial to the success of development projects, Asif is expanding the role to encompass that of an alchemist and researcher, creating unusual spatial experiences. Too often opposing ways of practicing are pitched against each other, as though to operate in one way is to discount all others. This lecture, however – in the pluralist spirit so indicative of the AA environment – celebrated differences, and sought out unexpected and inspiring common ground.
Julia King in the lecture hall, and Asif Khan via phone from Rio.
Image credit: Eduardo Andreu Gonzalez
For more information:
What’s Next Lecture Series
Julia King & Asif Khan in conversation lecture video
Julia King on AA Conversations
Khan King Operative Drawing