BRANDED ARTICLE: Architect Asif Khan Unfurls a Universe Within Astana Expo's UK Pavilion


CNN • Shana Ting Lipton


In the beginning there was sound — one note, to be exact — crafted by none other than British musical pioneer Brian Eno. At least that’s how top London architect Asif Khan interpreted the genesis and evolution of energy in his design of Astana Expo’s United Kingdom Pavilion.

The world fair features pavilions from 115 countries and 22 international organizations, with each taking it’s own inspiration from this year’s theme of future energy. The UK pavilion – Khan’s first project featuring Eno — has taken him over a year and a half to realize.

“My approach was to think about the origins of energy,” he says. “To explore that, you need to go 13.8 billion years back to the birth of the universe,” he adds, referring to Eno’s primordial audio contribution.



Visitors to the UK pavilion are taken on a ‘We are Energy’-themed odyssey through the creation of particles, matter, planets, weather systems, life, civilization and cities through to contemporary human ingenuity and invention. This epic story plays out on a 360-degree panoramic display screen landscape.



The nucleus of Khan’s ambitious multi-sensory vision for the UK pavilion is a yurt. This structure – which has existed for millennia in Central Asia as a portable home for a culture of nomads – is also a feature of the Kazakhstan coat of arms.


“The Kazakh yurt is an archetype of energy efficiency,” he says, “It’s something which is a human scale, deployable.. It’s flexible, made from repeated components, it can be carried around.” He also sees it as symbolic of a family unit or social framework. But unlike the traditional tent-like innovation, Khan’s yurt has a futuristic sci-fi look and feel to it.


'My approach was to think about the origins of energy. To explore that, you need to go 13.8 billion years back to the birth of the universe'

The South London architect and designer, of Pakistani descent, explains that the UK pavilion consists of “maybe the largest computer-generated landscape ever created.” So, within a dark, mysterious space, festival attendees are guided by interwoven light and an epic soundscape, through a touch-responsive experience whose scientific context is provided by University of Edinburgh Professor of Astrophysics Catherine Heymans.


And one might be hard-pressed to find a more inspiring pairing than astrophysics and Eno.


Khan describes how the latter’s symphony evolves as the pavilion exhibition’s story unfolds from, “a single note at the beginning of the universe all the way through to being quantized into a polyphony.”


Eno, sometimes referred to as the godfather of ambient music, first rose to fame in the early 1970s with art rock/glam band Roxy Music, and later via highly acclaimed solo work. He also produced music by equally legendary artists like David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2.




And he is of course no stranger to the sorts of spacey, evocative musical scores wafting through the UK Astana Pavilion: one of his most celebrated works was the ethereal Music for Airports (1978). In January of this year, Eno released the album Reflection, ‘the world’s first infinite album.’


And, Khan is no stranger to interactive architectural experiences. His installation for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics invited visitors to have their faces scanned digitally so that they could be displayed on a cylinder-based facade, extending eight meters high. An award-winning architect, he has also been commissioned to work on the new Museum of London and the 2020 Expo in Dubai.



The international pavilions at Expo 2017 are temporary, but Khan’s intention through the British one is to plant a seed in visitors’ minds and thus leave behind a legacy of how they think about energy for generations to come.


The space he’s fashioned is a nod to human ingenuity and knowledge — represented in the pavilion by UK discoveries such as the steam engine, the world wide web and graphene. Khan hopes this will become a vehicle through which attendees can learn “to think about more perfect ways to explore, to inhabit the earth around us — through energy systems related to the environment, social systems, groups, nomadism, travel materials and responsible relationships to the environment.”


'We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.' -R. Buckminster Fuller