Social architecture is a driving force for Jan Kattein, whose schemes to revive and regenerate bring a burst of human colour to some lost and gloomy sites. His practice is commended in the MacEwen Awards 2024 for a lifetime of architecture for the common good
Jan Kattein had worn his red trainers to the photoshoot at Angel Yard for this profile. They provided the perfect match to the reclaimed London bus that’s used as a meeting space at the entrepreneur hub. When we got to the site a man was busy spraying one of the walls – left white by Kattein’s team to save costs – with a multi-coloured graphical artwork that matched his scarf too. It was an overcast day in early January, but the photographical opportunities with Kattein, poker-faced with his grey coat and colourful shoes, verged on the surreal and fantastical – like scenes filmed in a studio for Wes Anderson. Except that Angel Yard is in prosaic Tottenham, with 1960s residential blocks looming over the low-rise redevelopment of former garages.
Kattein was one of my unit tutors at the Bartlett 15 years ago. Those were his early days of tutoring. The unit was based around an imagined place called Slowtown, which had burgeoned into a city called East. Already Kattein was leaving a trail of students with their own approaches, particularly to colour, light-heartedness and flexibility. Architecture then was only tentatively becoming less static, more temporal. Look inside the workplace units at Angel Yard and, like Kattein at the centre of the frame, it is the people who occupy the building – the bubble tea shop, gift card illustrator, lashes salon, hairdresser and another architectural practice – that make it zing. The same goes for Kattein’s previous scheme, Blue House Yard in nearby Wood Green – only in Tottenham the creatives are mixed in with start-up solicitor and accounting firms, among others. Everyone is under the age of 30 when they sign up. Kattein describes this approach as ‘leaving room to let stuff happen’, whether that’s in the design process or the final result. Under the timber and polycarbonate-covered courtyard there, people have started to put out picnic benches and decorate outside their doors.
Kattein describes his approach as ‘leaving room to let stuff happen’ – in the design process or the final result
Kattein’s work is convivial with a modest, humble heart. His eponymous 10-strong practice, based in a former off-licence in Islington, is a prolific producer of this work. RIBAJ could seemingly publish a project from Jan Kattein Architects (JKA) every few months. It’s not often we commend a practice rather than a project in our MacEwen Awards. Peter Barber Architects is previously the only one in nine years. JKA, for even more social architecture, is the second.
The close association with Barber does, in fact, have roots. In the late 1990s, Kattein was a student in Barber and Ben Stringer’s unit at the Bartlett. After graduating (via a first year at Southbank University), Kattein joined Barber in practice as the second employee, then returned after his master’s (Jonathan Hill, 1957-2023, and Elizabeth Dow were two of his tutors during that). At Peter Barber, Kattein worked on projects for St Mungo’s homeless charity, housing next to Barking Station and Hackney Council on the Haggerston Estate West – his ‘first experience of public consultation’ where he encountered genuine concerns about regeneration and the role of architects.
Kattein has lived in London since he was a student, boldly deciding to ‘discover the world’ after having spent a year aged 16 on an exchange in Putney, Vermont. However, he grew up in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany and the seat of government after 1990. He is curious and creative, completely serious yet quirky and inventive, and seemingly unobstructed by conceptions of convention in whether things should happen. ‘Why not submit your starter home design for planning?’ he encouraged me in my second year. One of his prototypes during his PhD experimented with using donkey dung to power Blackpool’s famous lights. Eventually, Kattein went part-time at Barber’s to be a workshop technician at the Bartlett and ‘make stuff again’, then quit both to become a stage designer for the Prinzregententheater in Munich. This shift makes sense when you consider JKA’s output, which is a lot about making strategic interventions with minimal resources that can become a performance platform. Kattein did around 20 stage sets for opera and classics all over Germany, with design elements including air-conditioning scented with rosewater, bespoke wallpaper, and blurring boundaries between stage, audience and foyer.
It’s not surprising, then, to discover that Kattein has always enjoyed tinkering, scavenging, building, making and solving. These are not unusual in architecture, except he always scooped along friends and family for the fun with him – perhaps that’s why his communal-mindedness makes his work so different. Bonn was an incredibly international and cosmopolitan city when he was growing up.
Then there’s the question of whether a project needs an architect or building. We need to unpick existing systems
Yet the direction of his practice appears greatly influenced as a counter-position to what could have been when Kattein arrived in London in 1996. ‘New Labour was coming into power,’ he says. ‘There was a sense of departure and hope. You could still see the scars of different times. Things changed quite rapidly; the health system, child provision, public spaces improved. It was the amazing time soon after the Urban Task Force was set up and Richard Rogers started to speak about public space. There were new ways of thinking about the city as a place for people. There was immense opportunity – squatted buildings, empty sites, illegal rubbish dumps, raves in abandoned buildings. It was exciting because things were changing but… you could still get your hands on property for affordable price and live relatively well, relatively cheaply.
‘Gradually the flipside of Tony Blair’s premiership became visible, which was that a lot of control over public things went to the private sector. Many of those opportunities got hoovered up by investors and developers, and people who were in it for the money and not for the culture or the greater good.’
JKA’s work is almost exclusively in the public sector and realm – even though, he admits, ‘the work was premature in speaking about social stuff; social projects were not a bestseller at the time’. Early on it led to intense high street work, starting significantly with Leyton around the London Olympic Games 2012. That project ballooned into three phases totalling £1 million. Now the studio has done 30.
‘There isn’t a recipe or formula,’ he insists. At a point JKA looked a bit stuck, until it realised it could reframe the work into a portfolio demonstrating the many sectors involved – a nursery, interiors, night-time economy, public realm – and expand that way, including into libraries like Thornhill. Nearly all projects since Blue House Yard have a volunteer build component too, which the practice has instigated and oversees (see The Paper Garden, shortlisted for the MacEwen Award 2024).
If Kattein found himself on discussions around social architecture early, what is next?
‘We’re trying to be really serious about air quality and carbon. People recognise the built environment as a culprit. At Angel Yard 60% of fabric, including foundations, is retained. Then there’s the question of whether a project needs an architect or building. Existing building systems are designed to eliminate uncertainty, for example building control. That doesn’t work in a circular economy. We need to unpick the existing systems for alternative approaches.'
Changes to Greater London Authority funding have seen JKA widen its work outside the capital – a library in Wrexham and a campus for sustainable marine companies in Ramsgate. The latter is a newbuild; he has qualms about the carbon investment. Meanwhile, he has a book being published in April about Londoners making London, bringing visibility to people who have done amazing work in their communities, mostly not architects. It demonstrates what activists, regeneration professionals and architects can do, reinventing places and buildings for the common good – not forgetting the equivalent flavour of red trainers or a multicoloured scarf shot through.
Main image: Jan Kattein at Angel Yard, Edmonton. Credit: Ivan Jones