THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Innovation and enterprise blog

23 January 2019

A week in the life of... Dr Jan Kattein, founding director of Jan Kattein Architects

Dr Jan Kattein is founding director of Jan Kattein Architects, a design studio that advocates socially engaged working methods. The practice embraces design as an opportunity for dialogue and exchange. Their work strives to make a civic contribution, using design as a means to support economic, cultural, educational and social prosperity. Jan took part in the British Library's Business & IP Centre’s Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups programme in 2018 and is now working with Global Generation to design a community garden to support the Library's outreach programme.

Monday... I was hoping for a slow start in January, but there are already a raft of emails in the inbox, annual staff reviews need to be scheduled, a tender is due later this week, a new member of staff is joining the team and a number of new projects are starting.

The week starts with a meeting with Westminster Council's regeneration team. Westminster have firmly committed to consultation and dialogue with their communities around regeneration projects and have set up a series of local regeneration bases in several areas of the borough. Regeneration has attained a somewhat tainted reputation in recent years because it is often associated with displacement of communities and gentrification of neighbourhoods. Whilst I understand the root of these concerns, I can also see the very tangible benefits that an inclusive approach to regeneration can bring for local people. When embracing the Mayor's principles of 'Good Growth', regeneration is principally about creating opportunities for all sections of society. And this is mainly what our work is about at Jan Kattein Architects. Working together with local authorities, the private sector and the third sector, we can unlock educational, economic or cultural potential in projects and find a way of using the design process as a means to bringing greater community coherence. I often think that as a profession we need to become much better at accepting accountability for our work. In the knowledge that an inclusive city is a more prosperous city, the smart players in the private sector are doing that already and local authorities are increasingly taking the view that an integrated and transparent way of working brings real tangible benefits. Architects have traditionally had the role of synthesizing a range of different parameters that allow the built environment to function and are well placed to act as mediators between the various interests that inevitably collide when working in urban regeneration.

Morden High Street Regeneration
Morden High Street regeneration

Back at the office, I need to put the finishing touches to a tender submission. Tower Hamlets Council have invited us to submit a bid for a small high street regeneration project in Roman Road. High streets are such an important part of civic life and London would not be London without its 600 high streets, the jobs they provide, the contribution they make to public life and the cultural diversity they bring. I have now been involved in delivering some 30 or so high street regeneration projects in London. In high street regeneration our engaged way of working finds particular bearing. The aim of our work is never just about physical change, it's about shifting people's perception of their environment, about sewing a seed for a mindset change and instil confidence in a struggling but vital sector of our economy. There are challenging years ahead for the high street and if we really want to protect this important civic asset, we have to come up with some inventive new uses that service communities and the experience economy. We also need to carefully consider our spending habits and the tax regime that currently creates an uneven playing field which is heavily skewed to benefit multi-nationals.

Tuesday Today starts with a talk at the Cass School of Art and Design. I still lecture and teach at intervals. I am pleased to give a share of my time to a new generation of designers and thinkers making their way through university, but am also aware of the contribution that this interaction makes to rehearsing and disseminating our message. I have found that the communication of our work relies on a thoughtful and nuanced message which is best brought in person, with patience and the opportunity for critical discussion.

Church Street Regeneration
Church Street regeneration public consultation

In the afternoon an internal resourcing meeting. We introduced these weekly meetings to better manage workloads and to predict capacity. The challenge with our work is that things are rarely predictable. What we do is subject to public scrutiny, brief changes, political whim and an evolving social or economic context. Whilst these are challenges that are tricky to manage when running a business, it makes our work profoundly human too and that's why I am happy to tolerate uncertainty and why everyone at Jan Kattein Architects needs to become a master at improvisation.

Wednesday Staff reviews today. Our office is open plan and designed to encourage social interaction. The arrangement of our workspace is a direct representation of the horizontal management structure that we are striving to achieve. A supportive environment where people talk to each other and lend a hand or provide advice informally is critical to everyone giving their best. The downside of our office space is that there is very little privacy; so that a private conversation has to take place at the local pizzeria. This year, that's exactly where we are doing staff reviews, over lunch. It's been beneficial so far, getting out and away from the desk has brought about some friendly but frank conversations. We clearly have to review how we support our team. I suppose the crux with horizontal management is that the level of responsibility taken on by staff needs to be matched by just as much support, empathy and engagement. I always thought we were doing quite well in this field, but I suppose one can always do better.

Jan Kattein Architects office
Jan Kattein Architects office in Islington

Thursday Good news this morning. Camden Council have emailed the planning permission letter for our designs of the Story Garden, a new temporary community garden for Somers Town residents behind the British Library. The project was conceived in a partnership between educational charity Global Generation, the British Library, Stanhope and Central St. Martin's College (CSM) to create an ecological outdoor education space on a disused site just north of the Library. Enabled by the Library and Stanhope and through Camden Giving and the Mayor's Greenspace Fund, the garden will host workshops and events, provide growing space for local people and a maker space for CSM students until the end of 2020. A community-built straw bale roundhouse will provide a field classroom, a public kitchen, a sheltered outdoor dining space and small office are the communal hub of the garden. CSM are bringing a digital workshop onto site and a commercial greenhouse will provide all-season growing space for food and to propagate shrub and tree seedlings ultimately to be planted in estates, parks and squares throughout Somers Town. The space will also be used by the British Library to work on community learning, business and engagement projects.

Story Garden
Story Garden at the British Library

Friday Spanish Architecture Magazine A+T have published a six page spread about our Skip Garden project in King's Cross. It's a real joy to read how others perceive one's work.

In the afternoon meeting at Lendlease's office in Elephant & Castle to present the designs for a temporary place making installation that will form part of a large-scale regeneration project. Interesting discussions about what makes a good street and a good public space, how to foster cultural activity in a new neighbourhood and how to respond flexibly to people's changing needs in the urban environment.

Blue House Yard
Blue House Yard meanwhile village in Wood Green, London

I really enjoy working on meanwhile projects because they are a great platform for design innovation and because they provide an opportunity to engage with communities and start a dialogue about the sort of place where we all want to live without quite committing to a permanent and finite solution. After all, some of the world's famous landmarks like Gustave Eiffel's tower in Paris and the London Eye started their life as temporary projects - and I wonder whether they'd ever have received planning permission in the first place if they had been conceived as permanent structures from the outset. Temporary projects have made a really valuable contribution to the way we think about architecture and urbanism during the last decade.

Back in the office, an internal review of our exhibition design for the forthcoming Spare Parts exhibition at the Science Gallery at King's College. We have made the decision to manufacture the exhibition components ourselves. Just like most other architects, we work with contractors, specialist fabricators and makers to realise our designs. But ever so often, we build ourselves, sometimes as a team at Jan Kattein Architects, sometimes together with communities, apprentices or craftsmen. Building together engages the team, teaches new skills and provides room for experimentation and innovation - and as architects it makes us better at instructing others to build. If you are free, come to the Spare Parts exhibition opening on Thursday 28 February 2019!

I enjoy the heterogeneity of my work, the fact that what I do makes a difference to people's lives and the day to day interactions with my team, but now I am happy that it's Friday.