- Words by Dr Jan Kattein
Architects do not support others and each other enough. I set up Jan Kattein Architects about 16 years ago and have been a member of the LSA Practice Network since the school started – something I’m proud of. I’m also a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture.
As a practice, we consider our work as making a spatial and civic contribution. Really significant for us from the very beginning is this quote from Jane Jacobs: ‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody’; Cities are for everybody and provide for everybody, and clearly, as architects, we are responsible to everybody as well as our clients.
We must recognise that the work we do inadvertently impacts everybody who lives, works or shops nearby — indeed everyone also who feels connected psychologically to a place. Our firm belief is that as an architect, you must consider all of these people as clients in one way or another. One place where our approach finds particular resonance is the High Street. That’s where we started as a practice and became interested in working with communities, establishing processes and procedures for bottom-up regeneration projects.
Why are High Streets important? London has 600 of them, and in the UK as a whole, there are 5,410 High Streets; 3,811 ‘Station Roads’ and 2,702 ‘Main Streets’. That’s well over 10,000 of these key civic spaces. And the High Streets have a psychological meaning as well as being a physical place. Whenever we talk about the wellbeing of the nation, the High Street must surely feature
High Streets are no longer primarily about shopping; actually, they’ve never really been so. They’re key civic spaces, with a wide-ranging social, economic and cultural function. Retailers nowadays make up only a small portion of High Streets. These are places where it is important for people to feel at home, to feel a belonging, and which provide opportunities that are cultural, social and economic. A significant number of jobs in London are immediately linked to High Streets, and out of London, more than half of all jobs are linked to High Streets.
In 2010 we started on a project known as High Road Leyton with Waltham Forest Council — a client who made the then courageous move to invest despite being in the depths of a recession. They realised they had to invest in the High Street because thousands of people in the borough depend on it.
You may have seen these pictures (above) but what many don’t know is the reality behind them. These are our clients when working on a high street project. Many have built their whole economic existence from scratch; their family depends on the businesses they run and sometimes these are places where generations have passed on a business from person to person. As a result, there’s a lot of meaning in the work patterns and the relationships they have built.
In the High Road in Leyton, we worked on 43 properties with over 100 stakeholders: business owners, building owners, their brothers, uncles, grandmothers, nephews — anybody who potentially has a say in these spaces. Since Leyton, we’ve completed another 28 High Street regeneration projects and every one of them turned out quite differently. Each time we’ve carefully studied the context to come up with a strategy that responded specifically to the needs and aspirations of those communities.
When working on High Streets or doing very visible, publicly funded projects, you immediately become accountable as an architect. You’re putting yourself out there. With a project in Croydon, we were questioned in ward forums by stakeholders, residents, neighbours, anybody working there. They asked: ‘Why spend money here and not there? What’s the impact going to be?’ The primary mind shift my team and I made when starting this High Street work was realising every decision we made has to have a good reason people will understand, because there’s never enough money to fix all the problems. We must respond and report back to anybody querying where we’re spending their tax money. This is what these drawings (above) were about. They prioritised and scored every single business on a major High Street in Croydon to ascertain where our investment, or public investment, could have the greatest benefit for everybody on the High Street.
Then there are the much smaller stories. This project, in Nunhead, South London, was funded by the GLA and has a touching father and son story. The father has had a motorcycle shop on the High Street for decades and his son started a business in dog grooming. His dad didn’t think that that was a proper profession, but conceded and gave his son half his shop. Some very unusual branding resulted and the dad was quite suspicious about it, with his space being painted pink. But the son liked it and felt that it would appeal to his customers. We went ahead with and when I came back to site about six months after completion for a defects inspection — the old man was painting the counter pink. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked him. ‘You weren’t sure about pink at all,’ and he replied: ‘No, but you know what? My son is being really successful in business and I’m thinking of moving in with him and scrapping the Motor Spares shop’. The picture (above) illustrate that story and show that there is a depth behind the facades we work on in these High Street projects.
In September 2012 we teamed up with Project Centre to deliver Sutton Council’s ambitious GLA-funded regeneration programme to the North Cheam and Worcester Park town centres. The project was mainly about the night-time economy in Worcester Park, and all the money we got from the GLA went into neon lighting. How locals reacted was really quite sweet; talking about this corner as a little Times Square. Suddenly businesses that had been struggling were able to properly advertise that they were open at night.
Another project, in Morden (South London), involved working with a key gateway into the town centre, somewhere subject to a massive regeneration project shortly forthcoming. Heritage is an important part of place’s identity. This project refurbished a wonderful 1930s building to return some lost glory to the suburbs. Going deeper, part of this project was thinking about how to bring new users and audiences to the High Street. We took over old, vacated bank chambers and turned them into a creative event and exhibition space and attracted different sorts of audiences to the High Street.
Pictured (above) is Aberfeldy Street. Important here is that since the pandemic the High Street has taken on a very different significance for local people. It has become a sort of public living room because you can’t meet inside anymore, so you rely on local support and supply networks that are right on your doorstep. To begin with, Aberfeldy Street had many closed down shops, and looked sadly rather drab in places. People felt unsafe at night. We proceeded with a three-tiered approach: firstly, getting new businesses into some of the empty shops; secondly, working with local people to reconnect them to their urban environment (people donated fabric scraps, samples and patterns that we then processed and applied to the facades); and thirdly, establishing the High Street as a sort of ‘event space’. We ran a series of events promoting the High Street and Aberfeldy Street is now a very different place from only about a year ago.
Another project, Sayer Street, was a very unusual commission. Lendlease had built one side of a High Street and realised that the other side would be a building site for the next few years. The initial businesses, which have been very carefully curated and invited to set up shop there, couldn’t be successful facing a hoarding opposite them. So, the developer asked us to design and build one side of a High Street, which is what this is. There are some business units, but it’s much more about promoting the High Street as a space of discovery, of events, of immersive experiences and of local identity and specificity — where design plays a really important role in facilitating all that.
We are increasingly involved in workspace design. Workspaces are critical to make areas diverse. providing opportunities for small businesses to establish themselves and grow into greater significance in the urban environment. One such project is Blue House Yard, in Wood Green, North London. It was a council car park just behind a town hall — not the most glamorous — and the initial commission was just to provide workspace in the blue building and on the yard in the background. But we felt there was an opportunity here to do much more than that. We could create a key civic space in the centre of Wood Green to provide opportunities, not just for any businesses, but for special businesses that were doing something innovative and unusual.
For example, one makes bags using only UK sourced and reclaimed materials. And as part of moving into Blue House Yard and benefiting from lower rents, this business owner has been able to establish his business with quite an unusual and novel business plan.
The building process was unique, too. Instead of finishing a project and announcing its presence. this was about using the building and design processes as a means of engagement and learning. [Also see: Anna Heringer: Investing in people]. The project was largely built by volunteers, who worked through a contracting organisation we set up ourselves. Working with volunteers, we gave people insight into building processes and transferred meaningful skills to them too. The deal was: work with us for a weekend day, get given lunch and get placed into a small team with craftspeople. They’ve got skills that you can learn, plus there are our apprentices on-site — we had eight from the local construction college — who did practical training with us.
Another workspace project is Switchboard Studios, significant for its wider regeneration ambitions. The idea for the industrial estate was to bring in businesses we wanted to grow, to uplift the rest of the industrial estate and inspire other businesses to rethink their own practices and future business plans.
The final workspace project is Ebury Edge, in Westminster, part of an estate regeneration project where residents voted for the redevelopment of their estate. But the condition agreed by everybody was that some benefits the redevelopment would bring would be delivered in advance of its execution. Westminster Council agreed to provide a community space and business spaces, to be built before site demolition. This produced a retail parade to keep the street alive, subsidised workspaces, a community hall and a cafe. The latter is run by a charity training rough sleepers in catering skills to find permanent jobs afterwards.
Different types of public space
Obviously, public spaces are very important to the city, and we’ve increasingly become involved in unconventional sorts of public spaces. The Skip Garden in Kings Cross (in the gallery above) is a good example. This was an educational project for which architecture students teamed up with a local charity working with communities. Traditionally, architectural education is about individual excellence, yet here was an opportunity to convey the idea that, for an architect to realise a project, it is necessary to be part of a team. This happened here, with people being on site and students learning from volunteer professionals. In this diagram (below), you can see the relationships that one of my Bartlett students had to establish to realise her-larger-than-life project.
This process is essentially what the LSA teaches: establishing these relationships so that students aren’t just delivering projects on their own but realising that part of being an architect is working as a team. The original Skip Garden is now demolished, but with all its iterations, it has been in Kings Cross for 10 or 11 years now. And with each iteration, there is a new opportunity for people to get involved in its recreation. The idea was to develop what we call a ‘common plan’, a stage development framework that Global Generation, the charity we worked with on the project, could take forward bit by bit. This involved different people giving their creativity and time and using it as a learning opportunity.
In the beginning, we delivered rather little. But that sometimes is enough to unlock opportunities for others. We delivered a kitchen and a warm workspace, a little office, a toilet block, a potting shed and a little workshop. Central St Martins used this as a digital workshop for students to become established in the real world outside its campus. Our biggest contribution in the end was a milk float, that allowed the charity to provide outreach work in Somers Town, one of the most deprived areas in central London.
One side provides cooking facilities, and the other side has been converted into a shed for gardening tools, used when gardening and planting happens in Somers Town estates. Notably, our project only really got going when we left site and the basic infrastructure we had put in place began to be used. The site has since been used for a summer school and community allotments — all set up by volunteers. A condition set by Global Generation was that is if, as a resident, you wanted an allotment, shortage of space means sharing. If teamed up with two neighbours, the charity will give you one. This has been a very successful, particularly in offsetting problems such as loneliness that are increasingly prevalent among elderly people.
Another project in Thamesmead, builds on this idea of the common plan. Here Peabody wrote a very innovative brief, which wasn’t overly prescriptive but outlined budget and site. The sole condition was that whatever we did with site and budget was developed with the community. We started the project with a tea party. We hadn’t drawn anything, and instead, put a mat on the table, provided some toilets and tea and biscuits. We talked to people returning from school about their aspirations for their neighbourhood. We also ran workshops, some digital and using virtual reality, and others involving model making — which got all sorts of people involved. Ultimately, what came from all this, was a school garden; a series of creative exercise and play benches that are scattered throughout the site; and an ecological adventure walk in the forest.
What residents really wanted, however, was a closer relationship with their neighbours. In Thamesmead, a lot of rear gardens have solid, closed fences. To address this, we installed gates in them and provided planters. People now meet at the back of their property and engage in gardening with their neighbours.
The final project is a food bus we worked on with two charities: Feeding Britain and Being Enriched, whose remit is to run food banks. They understood the stigma often attached to going to a food bank, which isn’t perceived positively by a lot of people, but rather as a last resort. How could we make asking for help, a positive and convivial experience that people feel empowers rather than demeans them?
The idea of the food bus emerged and we initially worked with Feeding Britain to put together a successful funding application to the GLA. The bus has recently taken to the roads of South London in areas where people don’t have easy access to fresh produce, in particular, the mobility-impaired who can’t get to a supermarket. They might go to a corner shop, but those don’t always provide the fresh produce needed to stay healthy. The food bus, however, does just that. It brings fresh food at reduced cost, surplus from supermarkets, direct to people’s doorstep. It turns the whole experience of getting food help into something that’s also about spending time together and social exchange. A kitchen and community chef serve up simple meals. Upstairs is a seating area, also to be used for teaching about health, wellbeing and cookery. Beneath is a supermarket area with solar-powered refrigeration cabinets. All food is about 70 percent of market costs. And the great thing is that it’s a prototype and there are already plans to roll this out across the nation.
All in all, I want to advance the idea that for architects, sometimes it’s as important to do less rather than more; but also to do the right things, leaving space for others to take ownership and to take forward what you’ve set into motion.
This text comes from a CPD which Dr Kattein delivered for the LSA’s ‘Collective Peer Development’ programme. You can find the talk in full, along with a 30-minute discussion, in the video below.