Before he became the “super successful” (his words) construction engineer he is today, Hanif Kara ran a dry cleaning business around London. Before that he studied civil engineering at Salford University. On Wednesday night he delivered a homecoming lecture at John Rylands Library as part of the Manchester Architecture and Design Festival. He talked about structural sections, innovation, engineering curiosity and the construction metaphor wherein it is not about the bird picking up the elephant, but the elephant picking up the bird. Mostly, he talked about love and money.
Hanif Kara is incrementally changing the world more than any of the individual architects he works with. Foster, Hadid, Chipperfield, Heatherwick need him and his team at AKT to help them throw those contemporary shapes and modern takes on familiar building types.
Adams Kara Taylor is emphatically a design-led practice. Right now its client list is second to none. “It gives me great pleasure and excitement that I can be working with Zaha (Hadid) in the morning and (David) Chipperfield in the afternoon”.
Just to be clear: Hanif Kara is a Ugandan Asian of Gujarati Muslim origin. His parents moved to refugee housing in RAF barracks in Leicester when Idi Amin chucked them out. As Ove Arup redefined engineering in the 1960s when he made Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House stand up, so Hanif Kara has made solid buildings out of the electronic filigree that is Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, Germany, Will Alsop’s inverted 'L' that is the Peckham Library, amongst a catalogue of stand out structures that seem to defy at least some of the laws of physics.
Last week AKT successfully transplanted English Grass in Shanghai. Hanif shows a slide of rolling wind-blown meadow. This had been the visual inspiration for the British Pavilion at Shanghi Expo that opened last week. Says the New York Times: “In terms of innovation Heatherwick Studio’s UK Pavilion is by far the most intriguing of the national pavilions”. That is designer Thomas Heatherwick (of the late 'B of the Bang') and AKT’s Seed Cathedral, popularly christened The Dandelion.
The structure comprises 60,000 fibre optic rods that form the swaying exterior. The rods project through to the inside where each glowing end contains a seed from the National Seed Bank at Kew, to be distributed to Chinese school children when Expo closes.
Hanif is sad he wasn’t around to work with Heatherwick on B of the Bang. “Our development of The Dandelion was put on hold when Thomas had the problems in Manchester. I’m not saying we could have solved them, but with hindsight we know it should have been different. That really is the problem with innovation. We try to incrementally innovate. On Zaha’s Phaeno Centre the section (through the building) changed every half metre. We needed to develop the software to handle that”.
Hanif Kara is changing the world incrementally, much as the top-flight architects he gets to work with. Foster, Hadid, Chipperfield, Heatherwick need him and his team at AKT to help them throw those contemporary shapes and modern takes on familiar building types. There are exciting things to come. Hanif talks about Carpenters Footbridge at the heart of the 2012 Olympic site that AKT won the competition to build along with architect Heneghan Peng. “Once we’d decided that it wasn’t about the bridge, we were able to concentrate on the land it springs from. Now it is a much bigger site.”
At the beginning of his talk Hanif showed an image of a Stingray and described it as a fish that thinks it can fly. At the end he answered a question about fees with the clear assertion that AKT is perhaps a tad more expensive than any other engineer he knows. Utzon got to soar above Sydney Harbour, born on the structure that Ove Arup created for him. At Salford University Hanif Kara began to learn to love architects and to understand that they need his help to get their dreams off the ground. And, most importantly, that the very best ones will be prepared to pay the premium to get up there.
Hanif Kara appeared at John Rylands Library on 12 May as part of Manchester Architecture and Design Festival
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