Asif Khan and Placemaking
Designing Space and Identity in East London
By Nathan Ardaiz
Published Jan 2016
The car company, MINI, has made a statement about the future of the private automobile. They’ve invested in and sponsored several projects around the world - physical manifestations of said future – that express their opinion loud and clear; one such project they’ve dubbed: ‘MINI LIVING.’ MINI LIVING, however, was designed by an architect. MINI LIVING is not a private automobile at all, in fact; it’s a public space. The project is in London’s East End, and the architect is Asif Khan. One of these spaces is situated in Charles Square in the London Borough of Hackney. The square rests in the shadows of London’s Old Street and some allusion to Silicon Valley and the loom of tech corporations – Charles Square is the centre of a social housing complex, which is important. Khan, whose designs have been featured at the Serpentine Summer House, and have recently been selected as the winner for the new Museum of London competition, has designed three of these temporary spatial interventions for the nine day long London Design Festival, all within walking distance of one another. “These are prototypical spaces,” Khan explains. “They are essentially empty spaces with plants in them… and they’re very benign forms… they’re just boxes made from polycarbonate with shading.” MINI has used this opportunity to explain how car sharing, and more communal forms of economy have begun to take hold of the automobile industry. These spaces, however, are clearly not concerned with any “sharing economy.” They’re not even concerned with cars. Rather these spaces speak to local identity and the value of relationships. If truth be told, Khan describes the thinking behind these ‘third spaces’ where people connect, with poetry and grace, adjectives this author cannot associate with such stuff as Airbnb and Uber. “They have to be sort of disarmed from ownership in a way, so that other people can take ownership. They also have to be familiar in some way, but different to their own spaces that they have in their homes… This is why the plants are used, to temper this idea of public and private space…” The ‘share’ part of the sharing economy hinges on the exchange of currency; it’s a false concept, really. These spaces which Khan describes start to form a new shape out of an old material. Robert Putnam famously wrote about the decline of social capital in the United States – the coffers of our relationships. This decline is not a symptom exclusive to North America, however, and lies equally relevant in London’s East End. Khan, also, perhaps sees this project in a similar light. “It’s an opportunity to broaden horizons a little bit, and that’s it in a way... and if people use the spaces, then that is also useful,” Khan says. It’s not clear if Khan is referring to the Design Festival audience, the counsel in which these interventions sit, or those reading these words, but it is clear that these pieces have considered the people who are moving through them. In the spirit of Jane Jacobs, these are about individuals building relationships and engaging with their environment, which makes MINI’s sponsorship all the more telling. “It’s very simple moves: providing a seat, providing shade, providing shelter from the rain and also a sense of occupation. Existing occupation through the plants, and the gesture of exchange, that you can take a plant away and you can bring a plant. You feel a contributor to something, you feel a party to the way something evolves or changes,” Khan shares. Khan starts to allude to a balance, really - the power and love of creation in the urban centre. He speaks of a harmony between the extremes of top down versus bottom up. In particular, he speaks of the challenge of engaging local communities when creating. “Yes, you know you’d like to have a deep interaction. On the other hand, through a different process, you create a kind of crucible for things to happen, which might not otherwise happen if you did have that interaction,” Khan says. The desires of the community, however, speak to an unyielding truth about the creation of any space - that timelines and project constraints have little bearing on the sense of self and the internal creation that occurs, regardless of whether the community is involved in the process or not. There is a story of an elderly gentleman who once lived in Hackney. After his death, a collection of maps was discovered among his belongings. The maps were documented walks that this gentleman had taken around the neighbourhood; they were his co-created reality via the built environment and the interventions that find themselves in that space. There is a narrative being crafted, a plot and arch that moves our egos through the designed world. This author senses that this intimate connection is at the core of what we might call placemaking, and one that Khan has just begun to explore.