Ever since the Renaissance, when engineering and architecture split into separate disciplines, the relationship between the two has been plagued by competition and antagonism. And the digital age has made professional boundaries harder to distinguish.
Hanif Kara, a design engineer and principal of London-based Adams Kara Taylor (AKT), has become a leader in his field by successfully navigating this tenuous divide. He regularly works with some of the world's best-known architects, including Norman Foster, David Chipperfield, Foreign Office Architects, and Zaha Hadid. "Design engineering, from our point of view, is about becoming an expert, not about becoming a second-rate architect," says Kara, acknowledging the line between the professions. "The trend of engineers becoming architects is a bad one."
It's the design in design engineering that is fundamental to AKT's practice. Structural engineers, notes Kara, "do things in a contained, technically competent way: they make buildings stand up. As a design engineer, you have to relax a bit more. And you can't be afraid to use the word 'beauty.' "
This disposition hasn't always been the case. The mathematically inclined, East Africa–born Kara, who immigrated with his family to London in 1973, initially pursued a career in "pure" structural engineering: "I was interested in power stations and roller coasters," he comments. After graduating from the University of Manchester in 1982, Kara went to work at YRM Anthony Hunt Associates, a multidisciplinary firm in London.
Then his interests shifted. "I've grown an empathy for architecture and space," Kara says. "When an architect feels pain about a color or something, I should be able to feel that pain, too."
He also had something of an organizational epiphany. "During the last recession, 13 years ago, I saw the writing on the wall that the industry would move away from large, multidisciplinary firms," Kara explains. So, in 1996 he left YRM and founded AKT with partners Robin Adams and Albert Taylor to focus on design-led structural and civil engineering.
Since then, the trio has stayed busy working on numerous projects at a wide range of scales. Among the better-known structures AKT was involved with is Zaha Hadid's acclaimed Phaeno Science Center, in Wolfsburg, Germany, completed in 2005. AKT designed the 135,000-square-foot building's triangular structure from a single piece of concrete without movement joints. "In terms of concrete technologies," Kara notes, "we pushed forward what [Italian engineer Pier Luigi] Nervi left behind 30–40 years ago."
Hadid agrees. "We like structurally ambitious projects with slightly longer spans and cantilevers," the architect says, "and I think Hanif Kara's work is very much capable and geared up to what we are doing. He is always looking for the chance to innovate."
AKT operates with equal fluency at smaller scales. In 2006, for example, Kara assisted London's Architectural Association—where he has taught for the past 15 years—in creating a student-designed temporary pavilion that made use of fibreC, a glass-fiber-reinforced concrete panel manufactured by Rieder. AKT helped the students by developing a method for quickly performing structural analyses on proposed geometrical forms. For the pavilion that was ultimately built, according to a scheme by Alan Dempsey and Alvin Huang, the firm provided an efficient model of linking digital design to digital fabrication.
The Harvard Graduate School of Design recently named Kara professor of creative engineering, a position in which he will interrogate the role of engineers in the process of design. "A connection with education has been an important part in shaping the practice," says Kara. "In the past, with engineering, many teachers have stayed in academics, and many practitioners have stayed in practice. We have done both."
With a solid European reputation firmly in place, AKT is now eyeing the American market. "Lawsuits make the nature of U.S. markets challenging," Kara says. "We've been carefully studying the American system of architectural and engineering collaborations, and the seams, borders, and divisions are so clear. These gaps are where the lawyers work." It also happens to be the zone where AKT thrives.