Learning, curiosity and the future with Hanif Kara

By Ellie Stathaki

Hanif Kara

“It’s all about making the toolbox bigger to stay relevant.”

Hanif Kara has led a boundary-breaking career. The London-based engineer describes himself as “curious, fearless and ambitious. It goes way beyond technical competence, to my personal background. If you come from nothing you don’t fear going back to it.”

He’s speaking in reference to his envelope-pushing work and impressive portfolio, which includes collaborations with no fewer than four Stirling Prize winners. “But the goal was never to be famous,” Kara continues. “The goal was to do well by designing a practice that makes an impact. Which is why wider peer recognition and awards like this one specifically, matter. I am so grateful to the jury.”

That award – the 2023 London Design Medal – is the newest feather in his cap. It follows a slew of accolades amassed over the years. There’s an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for services to architecture, engineering and education, and a Fazlur R Khan Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (Kara being the first ever British engineer to be awarded), both in 2022. An ambassadorship for the UK Design Council. An honorary fellowship from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and another from the Royal Academy of Engineering (among others). Kara has long established himself as a proponent of “design-led” engineering practice, promoting ‘coherent collaboration that is real not imaginary’, with architects and the numerous creatives, consultants and clients necessary to create buildings that better lives. In a world where “most people struggle with interdisciplinary interaction”, he has been a vigorous advocate for it, speaking out for teamwork, “resistance to homogenisation through specialisation”, and dialogue.

Kara was born in Bombo, Uganda. Inspired by his father’s work in a construction company, he developed an affinity to building, and the desire to improve quality of life through the built environment. Moving to the UK in the 1970s as a refugee, he worked at a car manufacturer and as a draughtsman before landing a place at the University of Salford to study engineering, sponsored by his then-employer, Joseph Parks & Son steel fabricators in Cheshire. He entered his profession through heavy engineering schemes – such as North Sea oil rigs and power stations – and, after that, rollercoasters.

It was an assignment on a proposal for Battersea Power Station in 1990 (at one time slated to become a fairground and shopping centre, with giant rollercoaster rides by Alton Towers), that moved his focus towards architectural work. At the end of 1995, he left his employment at the office of famed structural engineer Anthony Hunt to set up AKT (Adams Kara Taylor), together with partners Albert Williamson-Taylor and Robin Adams.

At the same time, Kara started teaching at the Architectural Association’s Design Research Lab (AADRL). Between his experience on architectural projects, and teaching, he started questioning his profession. “Why are the built environment disciplines not better united and so distant from the actual making of buildings?” he asked. He wanted to challenge that notion.

“I wanted to help architects realise their dream, which would make my own dream come true,” he says. “I had an eye for design, I understand architecture, and I also understood the bigger impact of my work on the industry, communities, education and redefining the role of design.”

This community-focused approach, sprinkled with Kara’s fiercely can-do attitude, underpins everything he does – even though, by his own admission, he doesn’t think about it in those words. Yet it transpires in many aspects of his life and work. His engagements involve participation at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture since 2000 (the first structural engineer to be appointed on its Master Jury and Steering Committee), as well as international work with some of the most celebrated architects of our time. These include Zaha Hadid, whose 2005 Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg he worked on – a landmark project, which went on to win several awards.

His accomplishments not only set him apart as a pioneering engineer, but have also given him a strong global perspective and grasp of the power that great buildings have over people’s wellbeing. “It helped me understand the much deeper role of architecture and its impact on community, ecology and economy,” he says.

He is a candid speaker and educator within his professional community too, flourishing in taking part in the ongoing dialogue among field experts, as well as the wider public. And he sees AKT II as his own community, which he still builds and nurtures, by “putting together the best minds, team players. People who are curious, like me.” Even after a career spanning nearly four decades and myriad achievements, Kara never stands still. “We always need to learn more,” he says. “It’s all about making the toolbox bigger to stay relevant.”