Melbournians crave light and warmth in winter – something to sustain through the long dark nights.
This June, as part of the Light in Winter Festival, their prayers have been answered by British architectural wunderkid, Asif Khan.
Khan, who is 34 and based in London, has set Federation Square ablaze with Radiant Lines, his first Australian commission.
Radiant Lines explores the concepts of line, rhythm, velocity and volume. It’s comprised of forty layered rings of raw aluminium which appear suspended in space. At dusk, the rings become illuminated by hundreds of tiny pulsating LED lights. New orbits of light are triggered by visitors moving back and forth across concentric thresholds which radiate out across Federation Square.
Visitors can move under the illuminated rings into the centre of the sculpture and become immersed in the light, energy and dynamism generated at its very heart.
“Every person that enters Federation Square will be transformed into a beam of light that orbits round the structure,” Khan says. “It lives on even after they’ve left the square and eventually disappears and becomes part of the memory of everyone that was here. It’s a way of thinking about the idea of a shrine but in a new way.”
Glimpsed from a distance or from above, Radiant Lines has something of the flying saucer about it. Move closer, however, and the dizzying bands become multiple halos, radiating light into the surrounding darkness.
Khan’s practice spans architecture, industrial and furniture design and has been described by Hugh Pearman in The Sunday Times as “doing what it set out to do, which is move architecture forward.”
In an interview last year, Khan said that the essence of his work was to engage with his audience. “The consistent thing about the projects that I do is the approach…the experiential language that connects all of us is universal, so I can bring that into a project. I’m trying to connect with people to find a way so that architecture connects to the individual as much as it does to the city.”
This desire to connect with his audiences is clear in his previous work.
Khan designed the ‘Coca-Cola Beatbox’ at the London 2012 Olympic Games – a distinctive red and white jagged pavilion which visitors could ‘play’ like a musical instrument to remix a specially commissioned track by Mark Ronson.
Earlier this year, Khan designed the MegaFaces Pavilion at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Memorably described as “a Mount Rushmore for the digital age”, the installation turned visitors’ ‘selfies’ into 3D images on the side of the Olympic Pavilion.
As well as his high-profile commissions, Khan works quietly off the radar too. He designed the West Beach Café at the genteel English seaside resort of Littlehampton – a building with an everyday purpose which quietly complements its traditional seaside surroundings.
Khan also works with international design houses such as Danese Milano to produce furniture and light fittings, lectures globally on his work and regularly collaborates with the likes of the Design Museum, the British Council, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Architecture Foundation.
One of Khan’s most fruitful collaborations is with his friend Pernilla Ohrstedt whom he met when they both studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London.
Ohrstedt collaborated with Khan on his London 2012 project in what Architects Journal describe as a “pop-up practice”. Khan says “we work together because it’s so much fun and that’s important to producing good work”.
Many architects have to wait until their fifties or even sixties before achieving widespread recognition. Khan’s resume, however, already glitters with praise and critical acclaim.
In 2011, he was awarded the ‘Designer of the Future’ award by Design Miami. According to The New York Times he has an “inventiveness and enthusiasm for all areas of design that yields delightful results.” The Daily Telegraph commented that “not all architects think outside the box, but for Asif Khan it comes naturally.”
However, alongside the plaudits, the odd brickbat has been raised. In a 2012 Architects Journal piece, Rory Olcayto bemoaned the rise of the “starchitect”, arguing that “the future of architecture is in public relations. Soon, rather than actually designing the building, the architect will be hired to simply ‘front’ a project.” Olcayto went on to cite Khan’s partnership with Ohrstedt as a “masterclass in architectural PR, and more important than the actual design.”
Architectural PR or not, Radiant Lines has been a hit in sunlight-starved wintery Melbourne. “Super-impressed”, “magnificent” and “loved it!” were just some of the reactions on Twitter.
As Melbournians soak up the last few rays of light, Khan is busy with his next two projects – a new school playground in East London and a large scale installation for the London Design Festival later this year. We know to expect something that is innovative, thoughtful and accessible to its audience.
Radiant Lines runs until Sunday 22 June as part of Light in Winter.