When Swarovski, the Austrian crystal company, asked Asif Khan if he was interested in collaborating on a project for Art Basel in Miami, he told them he’d do it, but only if they’d let him do it big. "I said, 'That would be amazing,'" Khan recalls. "'But I’m going to push you. We’re not going to make an object or a piece of jewelry. We’re going to make a building.'" The result is the structure you see here, simple in its shape but dazzling in its use of the company’s signature materials.
Currently stationed in the Design Miami tent at Art Basel in Miami Beach, Khan’s pavilion is comprised of crystals, a thin metal frame, and little else. The crystals themselves were hand-formed into honeycomb-style panels that make up the structure’s walls, floor, and ceiling, and visitors can actually duck under the stilt-like frame to immerse themselves in the spectacle. "Basically, you just see wall-to-wall light and crystal," Khan says. "It’s strange—although it’s very minimal, it feels cozy."
Part of that experience is just how we’re wired. "It’s about people being phototropic," Khan says. "We’re attracted to light. When you’re bathed in light—even though the sun is millions of miles away from you, when you’re lying in the sun, it feels like a very intimate relationship. That’s sort of what this is like."
But the structure itself was inspired by a particular optical phenomena: parhelia. Also known as sun dogs, parhelia occurs when the atmosphere is filled with ice crystals and the light passes through them at a certain angle, resulting in a sort of illusory halo of light bracketing the sun. Khan has had a "long-term obsession with atmospheric phenomena," he says, and with an unlimited supply of crystals at his disposal, the parhelia was the first place his mind went.
Though Miami’s muggy air is prohibitive to producing an actual parhelion, Khan’s pavilion, composed of some million and a half Swarovski crystals in all, does a fine job of simulating the experience. Above the piece, a hole in the tent’s ceiling bathes the structure in sunlight, illuminating it to varied effect throughout the day. But for the designer, who was responsible for Coca-Cola’s head-turning pavilion at the London Olympics, this latest endeavor is just a proof of concept. Since his years as a student, he explained, he’s been interested in this sort of work, "a kind of architecture harnessing natural phenomena."
"This project is a really important stepping stone for me," he says. "Having an architectural background, I want to use these opportunities I have as research and development for a new type of architecture which is more immersive and can have a positive impact on your experience of a city." The Swarovski project, he says, is a "prototype for a hybrid of those things—architecture and light and nature," which he hopes soon to explore on a much bigger scale. Now he just needs to figure out where to find a few million more crystals.