Adam Khan Architects rejects ‘white cube architecture’ in favour of design that is nuanced, flexible, and looks into shades of social and community context
Adam Khan Architects is probably a practice you know. The studio was responsible for Brockholes Visitor Centre outside Preston, New Horizons Youth Centre in Somers Town, London, or maybe you saw its Seizure Gallery for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. But the practice has been going since 2006, it employs 12 people and those things considered, it is quite quiet.
‘We had an approach of building and not talking for the first 10 years,’ explains Khan, and it’s worked. A quick search online reveals very few published projects. RIBAJ has been chasing some of the studio’s projects for nearly a year – it’s open yet never ready, which is often a hint of too much curation and control in the background. Khan doesn’t really have a reason why the practice doesn’t try for publication more. On meeting him and his business and life partner Juliette Scalbert at the office off Broadway Market in east London, it seems they just haven’t got round to it, but should. This interview might be a first step, and our conversation revealed a deep portfolio of beautifully produced, thoughtful buildings that at the same time aren’t too precious. In person, Khan and Scalbert are also surprisingly chatty, jovial, smiley and willing to talk discursively. It becomes clear that the practice wins most of its work through competitions or via frameworks it has been selected for, so it depends less on being seen, although word of mouth plays a part.
The office is a typical architects’ lair – a large double-aspect space at the end of an external access deck in a mid-century reclaimed building that had been an unusual, stacked factory typology. They share it with other makers and creatives. On one side is Regent’s Canal: through the window you see a varied urban scene of gasholders and bricky 20th century mid-rise apartment blocks. Inside, large-scale models are arranged on shelves enveloping a chunky structural column. Specification samples are half displayed, half stored in the open. Densely packed bookcases separate the communal table, more private meeting space and desk area. The practice moved here after lockdown one, only a handful of people are in but they work collaboratively at each other’s desks (which look handmade) while I am there.
Both Khan and Scalbert’s routes into architecture are, however, far from typical. They met in 2000 while Khan was studying for his third year at London Met. He was a mature student and had been to Central London Polytechnic before in the early 1980s, now the University of Westminster. He did all three years of architecture but came out with a fail.
‘In a way it was an amazing education and I tried very hard but they wouldn’t give me a degree. One day they wouldn’t even look at the work that was pinned up. It would be chalk and cheese, one day you’d be the best thing since sliced bread, but then I left without a degree and a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t figure out what you were supposed to do,’ says Khan.
Following that experience he went to work as a builder for around 15 years, first labouring then setting up a mini contracting firm with its own brickies and chippies. At the time London was stuck in recession. It was while he was a project manager on a scheme in Primrose Hill that he met Brian Greathead, who was teaching with David Grandorge and encouraged him to go back to university.
‘London Met was a different kettle of fish; an amazing place, very open. It took on waifs and strays – people like me. It gave me this opportunity to go into the third year, counting the funny drawings I did back in the day and building work, and I just whooped it. It was such fun,’ says Khan.
Meanwhile, Scalbert had finished her degree the year before they met. She had a more usual trajectory, going to university from school, but she had grown up in south-west France. She went directly to London Met on the advice of an architect uncle. He wrote her a long letter on the merits and disadvantages of a career in architecture and said if she was convinced about doing it, she should study in London, the Netherlands or Switzerland. Khan went on to work for Caruso St John and Scalbert for Feilden Clegg Bradley, Eric Parry and Sergison Bates, but Grandorge introduced them – ‘an inspiring guy who has a strong sense of social agenda and interest in fine art’ says Khan.
This combination has been the foundation of the practice, with an explicit mission from the start to ‘take architecture where it doesn’t usually go’ – which is why competitions have been key. The first win was Brockholes, a visitor centre for a new nature reserve on a redundant quarry in Lancashire. Back then, says Khan, there was either sustainable architecture that was focused on performance, or high architecture; they didn’t mix. His approach in Preston though was to show they could; a village of timber-framed structures roofed with shingles floating on the lake for people to get as close to the water as possible, with Passivhaus ideas and flexibility.
‘Making buildings good and not about their programme is the way to build flexibility, and ultimately sustainability,’ explains Khan. ‘People will want to use them, also in ways that you can’t foresee now. When you take a row of Georgian/Victorian houses in London each one has their bathroom in a different space. Do you find that in contemporary architecture? No. Most architects’ visions are highly prescriptive, telling people how to live. As a place to live I find that uptight, but it’s not sustainable either.’
Scalbert joined the team two years into Brockholes; then came a homeless centre in King’s Cross and another wildlife visitor centre, at Pensthorpe in Norfolk. Here the practice untangled the masterplan, restored five cottages and built a play barn with a sawtooth roof, carefully designed steel frame, lots of daylight and a lining of textured acoustic panels. From photographs, it looks fun externally and an exercise in subtle light and shadow inside not usually afforded to children. The same goes for New Horizons, completed in 2010, where its teenage users recognise the calming and other-worldly effect of the all-timber interior. At Seizure Gallery, Roger Hiorns’ artwork was relocated from a council estate in south-east London to the boundary of the service yard to maintain its feeling of uncertainty. The walls of the space before the artwork are made from segregated concrete slabs, for ventilation, low levels of natural light and to let the sounds of the service yard filter through.
This project has been seminal for Adam Khan. Interesting in its own right, it’s representative of how Khan and Scalbert like to find the synergy between the practical and poetic that is crucial in social projects.
‘We’re interested less in white cube art galleries and more in dark, highly material spaces, and really understanding the nuance of how a space is read,’ says Khan. ‘How do you find the world that is aspirational, joyous and intense, but isn’t just a new hipster place you can’t afford? A lot of architecture is quite naive in terms of how people are going to read it, what it means for a social community or inclusivity and equity.’
This is particularly relevant for the practice’s RichMix project, which opens up the Bethnal Green Road-facing site to Redchurch Street and has an existing community, and for Tower Court, a 132-unit housing scheme for Hackney council in collaboration with muf, where there is a large Orthodox Jewish community. The challenge is how to design flats for large families that need to expand for festivities, as well as have sociable space between blocks. Many current projects involve ideas first honed outside London and abroad, where competitions and briefs were broader in scope, particularly for housing.
‘It can be parochial in the UK,’ says Khan. ‘Public attitudes to architecture are not as developed as in France and Germany. The level of engagement and appetite for it are lower in the UK so it is more rewarding to work in continental Europe.’
‘The work and agenda has really stepped up in London,’ adds Scalbert, ‘although this issue of architecture not being so much in the public domain still comes out in procurement and delivery. While the agenda is amazingly high in London with social infrastructure, this is struggling, and design and build doesn’t always work for quality at the end… With Covid and cuts it seems to be getting worse.’
Indeed, although the studio has taken its foot off the pedal for European work, it is building a new home in a converted glass factory in Brussels for a female artist that has ‘boobs or a bottom’ on the front. The practice would like more housing like its 2019 Hamburg Stadhauser Finkenai project, which is a new street of homes for an intentional community.
We finish our interview across the city at Central Somers Town. It’s a children’s after-school and holidays centre with a football pitch on the roof, outdoor adventure playground and 10 social rent flats. Its upside-down arches appear like a celebratory bunting around its roof. It’s flexible, curious and already well-loved, as its director says: ‘The jewel in the crown of Somers Town.’