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AJ 40 under 40 star Jas Bhalla shares his thoughts with us on how our living and working arrangements might change in the future with a shift in focus towards local living and local working as well as his focus on designing for a more equal society.

If you haven't yet heard of Jas, it won't be too long before you do. Founder of Jas Bhalla Architects, Jas is an inspiration that doesn't hold back when it comes to voicing his thoughts, opinions and solutions for designing for a more inclusive and equal society with a mission to 'instigate positive social change'. His hard work has seen him secure the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship at Yale University and hold positions with renowned practices including KPF, Adjaye Associates, and Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners before founding Jas Bhalla Architects. Since, Jas' exceptional design solutions and unwavering dedication to improving the quality of social housing has led to recognition with the 2019 William Sutton Prize for Placemaking & Affordable Housing Design as well as more recently, winning the Brick by Brick & Stephen Lawrence Trust's Croydon Housing Contest

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FAT Q&A WITH

JAS BHALLA

HOW DO YOU THINK THE PANDEMIC WILL SHAPE ARCHITECTURAL PRACTICE?

I hope to a degree that practices will be more open to flexible working. A year ago, a staggering number of practices would have completely dismissed home working as an option. I have worked in some great places, but all of them very much required you to be at your desk form 9-6 and sometimes longer. As a discipline, we are very inflexible when it comes to different work patterns, different lifestyles or making the profession more family friendly for working mothers and working fathers. I just think we have been very inflexible and the pandemic has demonstrated that you can make it work. I don’t want to suggest for a second that we should all be working from home 100% of the time as that doesn’t work either, that is not sustainable for a number of reasons, but I think and hope that in the future, if people want to work 60:40, 80:20 flexible hours, that would be beneficial. Hopefully the larger more corporate practices should be able to facilitate and demonstrate that you can retain productivity, retain staff and keep people happier, which leads to a more sustainable workforce.

DO YOU HAVE AN OVERRIDING ETHOS THAT GUIDES YOUR DESIGN APPROACH/NARRATIVE FOR EACH PROJECT?

The short answer is no, in the sense that we try and look at every project within its own context. If there was an overarching thesis or approach it would be a healthy respect for context. Context can mean all sorts of things, a client’s growing family and their garden, a certain suburb in London, a country or a changing economic or social issue. What we try to do in our work is engage with the challenges that reality gives rise to.

 

We try to look at ordinary people living ordinary lives and how everyday architecture or, a more democratic architecture, can help improve and bring a little bit of delight to everyone’s lives. We have had a lot of inquires due to the pandemic from smaller homeowners wanting to do a loft extension or convert a garage, or build a garden shed. It is also very much an active discussion reflected in some of the housing projects we are looking at. Questions such as how we can create co-working spaces at ground floor or integrated into larger housing developments. Then, it is very much a live discussion on some of the major masterplanning competitions that we are involved in. We made the very epic long list competition on the Thames Mead waterfront project and on that project, it has involved a lot of discussion about what this location is going to be, who is going to live and work there and what changes the pandemic has instigated.

WHICH PROJECT HAVE YOU PERSONALLY WORKED ON THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF AND WHY?

That is a really difficult question. I was really pleased with our Parade Living competition, an open competition set up by Brick-by-Brick, Croydon’s housing arm, and the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust entry last year, which we won. The project itself was about exploring the living conditions of minority ethnic groups who live above and behind retail parades which are often haphazardly converted. Often, you have to go through service or refuge yards to get to your front door - they have no amenity spaces and they are the types of places where you would not have the opportunity of home working. That is why I am a bit sceptical of too much celebration of home working as ultimately, at the moment, it is very much a middle-class pursuit.

The reason that I was quite pleased with what we were able to put together and the reception it received is because for us, it brought together lots of research and ideas that were on our table. It was a very coherent way of talking, in quite vivid terms, about a problem in housing and the private rental sector, incremental development and in some cases, illegal development and how that all impacts how cities work in neighbourhoods and places like Croydon and suburbs throughout every UK city.

 

It highlights a lot of the living conditions that certain communities live in and it is something that is not really talked about very much. The Parade Living Project spoke of many different things we were interested in from intensification, planning and viability issues to realising the potential for some of these sites and reinvigorating high streets, communities and social mixes of cities. We learned a lot through this process. I guess one of the biggest learning curves has been understanding why some of these sites are not put forward and the need for public sector engagement.

This didn’t happen just on this competition but also on various feasibility studies and planning applications with private developers. As a further example, one might think that we have got a row of two or three storey terraced houses with shops at ground floor and they are five minutes walking distance from the station and we can easily get five or six storeys if we can get the plots to assemble. You might even think to yourself, why has nobody done this? But when you start exploring, a lot of these locations are incredibly over occupied and the rental landlords and rental yields are extraordinarily high. In many respects they are illegal, so bringing people like that to the table and demonstrating that there is a different way or approach is a challenge.

Why would they want to swap ten thirty square metre flats for the same footprint and the same number of flats just spread over a larger footprint? It is very much a role for the local authority, not only in terms of enforcement but also in terms of a central government to better control the private rental sector. The local authorities should also sponsor land and plot assembly and bring some of these sites forward for development. Some of them are extremely complex, there is a lot of risk involved, planning risk, you are spending a lot of consultant fees and design fees just to get to planning. A lot of it is too much to take on for small landowners, some of whom may actually be engaged in the process, we just need a more progressive model at both local and national level to unlock some of these sites and issues.

WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR INSPIRATION IN YOUR WORK AND YOUR PROJECTS?

I think the key thing for us is spending time with clients and stakeholders and understanding what is important to them. One of the things I kind of dislike, is when architects or designers come out with an ideal about what something is supposed to be, look like, and perform. When you progress through a project, concepts become reality and realities have tender prices attached to them which means, you need everyone to be bought into an idea. Whatever that idea is, whatever it is resolving, celebrating or articulating, it has to be something that all you, the clients, stakeholders and community are all engaged and signed up to. So, we try to approach things first and foremost by seeing things through the eyes of the people we are working with and try and reinterpret what they want. It’s a delicate balance, you are not just doing what you are told.

 

To give a more visceral example, often we have homeowners on smaller projects, and they come to us and say we want X,Y,Z . We are not as interested in the fact that you want X room or want to extend in Y direction, we are more interested in what your objectives are. It could be that the client doesn’t like the way the living room flows or the relationship between the house and the garden. It is our job to take those cues and come up with ideas about what we think the most appropriate response might be.

WHEN YOU FIRST READ THE COMPETITION PROPOSAL, WHAT WERE YOUR THOUGHTS?

I think it’s a really interesting proposition at a really good time. One of the things that lock-down has given us is a bit of time to think and reflect, especially since many of us have so much free time on our hands. It could be a good time to experiment with different ideas and differing ways of representing what we are all going through. One might watch the news and get updates on how bad the situation is, as such we are very aware of the macro or the big picture, but what we don’t get is a bit of reflection or better still, introspection about how it is affecting people’s day-to-day lives on the micro-level and their various struggles. This competition might be an opportunity to reflect on people’s personal state.

 

It seems a lot of us have turned to art during the pandemic, even I myself back in April last year, which seems like a decade ago, started painting again. This is something which I hadn’t done in ten years or so. There is something about the fact that we now have space and time for these kinds of creative endeavours and there may be an interesting doubling up of people taking forgotten hobbies and interests and reappropriating them into reflecting on their current situation.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO SEE FROM ENTRIES TO THE REIMAGINED LIVING AND WORKING SPACE COMPETITION?

I guess some honesty in terms of what people are going through. It is always affirming, at least I find that it is affirming, to know that we are not alone, that others are going through similar things. I guess it will be interesting to see how people are reflecting on that. The other thing that I will probably be looking for is some optimism, I think we could all do with a bit of that. If there was a way that it wasn’t only doom and gloom and instead, the possibilities and opportunities that might come out of what has been a very difficult 11-12 months for us all, would be nice.

WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON HOW OUR LIVING AND WORKING ARRANGEMENTS MIGHT CHANGE AS A RESULT OF THIS PERIOD?

So many really. We have had so many interesting discussions about what the pandemic has done to challenge orthodoxies in the way we use cities and the way we use neighbourhoods and how things are a bit mixed up. For the last 20 years, mega cities like London have been made up of very creative intense centres, and then the suburbs, which tend to be dormitories, a place where people commute to and from. In many ways these places lack cultural or social capital. You live in one place but it is very much a dormitory to which you then commute to somewhere else.

 

What I hope the pandemic will give rise to is more emphasis on local living and local working. London is a global city and a place we all love and which has so much energy. We all still need that but it needs to be supplemented with more things you can access on your doorstep or within a 15 minute walk or cycle. You  shouldn’t have to go to the centre to satisfy all your cultural or economic needs.

WHAT ROLE DO YOU FEEL THAT ART PLAYS IN ARCHITECTURE TODAY?

That is a big question and one which is hard to answer in two or three minutes. I think that architecture and art have always been intertwined and architects often take their inspiration from the wider world. Architecture is a strange discipline in that you are simultaneously working for a client on a building but also probably trying to subvert or lever some critique or make some sort of statement. You are given the opportunity through the theatre of the public realm in which to express and convey whatever message you are trying to communicate.

I think good architecture always strives to do something that is beyond satisfying the needs of the client or a particular site. It is about reflecting on our current situation, be it through form, the interplay of materials, or some sort of narrative -  therefore good architecture should always try and do something more. Whether you call that art or critique I don’t know. There are probably certain commissions that lend themselves to that sort of lateral thinking more than others. Furthermore, what we do now is more commercial or tightly governed, especially if you are working in the residential sector as we are. So much of it is satisfying certain standards and making sure that these spaces perform really well from a commercial view yet under that context, there is less room for experimentation. Returning to the pandemic and the things it has brought up, it has really led to a radical shake up as to how we think.

IF YOU COULD RECOMMEND ONE BOOK, EXHIBITION, PIECE OF ART, ARCHITECTURAL OR OTHERWISE, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?

I am going to recommend a book which I have most recently enjoyed. It is called the Edifice Complex by Deyan Sudjic. It is a really interesting read on the systems of power, finance and economies that very much govern what architects do. Because of my background in town planning, I am naturally predispositioned to understanding wider systems of context or things within which we operate. I like the idea of meta-narratives and bigger structures in which architecture and other disciplines work within. It is a very interesting exploration of the different power dynamics and why we do not operate in silos. It is good reading since it grounds what we do and it is quite a humbling read for a lot of people that think architects have a lot of power. Sometimes it is important to know we are tools in other people’s exercise of power.

IF YOU WERE TO GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELF ONE PIECE OF ADVICE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

I have always had the problem that I want to achieve a goal. Whether it was getting to university or pushing towards where I wanted to be in my career and then transitioning from planning to architecture, wanting to get onto a course, get qualified, get a job - I was always very goal oriented. I think my advice would be to enjoy the journey more and concentrate less on where you want to be in 6 months or 6 years. Enjoy what is going on in the present. I have been really lucky, met so many great people and worked with so many talented designers and architects and you learn so much from them. So much of it is enjoying the here and now and not worrying about pressure you put on yourself to achieve certain things.

WHAT ONE THING DO YOU THINK ARCHITECTURE COULD ACHIEVE IN THE NEXT 10 YEARS FOR THE GREATER GOOD?

I am going to use a bit of creative license for this question and interpret architecture to mean the make-up of cities. The big question I am personally far more interested in, is the spatial and economic inequality that sits across the UK. The pandemic has changed many things but the one thing it hasn’t changed is this fact, arguably, it is has even exacerbated it. We have by and large, a very wealthy and productive South East and that is often at the expense of other regions of the UK. We are seeing this manifest in a hundred different ways. There was even talk over the weekend over the break-up of the country and dissatisfaction in local government with austerity really exacerbating what say the local communities have in how things are run. I guess what I am really interested in is thinking more critically and more spatially.

 

I am really interested in thinking more critically and spatially about cities and city regions and economies, and how from a spatial more plan-led perspective we can tackle this whole levelling-up agenda for want of a better word. I don’t generally like the phrase levelling-up as it makes it sound very easy. We have seen for the last forty years increasing inequality in spatial terms and I think a lot of that is from design. It is about where we concentrate infrastructure and where we concentrate growth. Since we have designed in one way, we should be able to design in another way, a more equitable way, one that allows other places to prosper. That for me is the big question of the next 10-20 years and how we can operate a more equal and sustainable country.

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