New London Architecture

Five minutes with… Hala El Akl, director, PLP Architecture

Wednesday 15 July 2020

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor: Hi! How are you?

Hala El Akl: Hi! I’m okay. I’m in a very, I think, weird and interesting mood, navigating what’s happening at the moment. Lots of questions and reflections that sometimes struggle to be focused because of what’s happening around.

DT: Are you guys all back in the office?

HEA: No, some of us are. I was in the office yesterday; I will be in the office tomorrow. There are things that are difficult for us as architects and urban designers to do remotely so we try to safely meet and go through that. We’ve been working on this beautiful model for a project and it had to ship and we had to look at everything before finalising some of the decisions. So it was nice to be there with the team and have a creative conversation. But what we can do from home, we do from home.

DT: Yeah. So you are doing three days at home, two days in the office a week? Is that roughly it?

HEA: It's not as fixed but, yeah, I would say that.

DT: Now: I was sent a little resumé about what you're up to at the moment and there were a number of things that popped out; of interest to me. First of all, your interest in culture in development; secondly this collaboration you're doing with Gehl and the Connected Places Catapult to explore how to make cities fair. On the first point, on the culture I think you authored a guide about it, didn't you, last year, but what are you doing on that front at the moment, and how do you see the cultural landscape of London at the moment? Big question!

HEA: Yes, very big question! 

I chair a group called the Urban Art Forum as part of the Urban Land Institute and that group came together about two years ago to explore the intersection between culture and development. When you think of culture and development it brings together a number of stakeholders that often don't speak the same language. A local authority to a developer. A local community to creative industries, artists, institutions, investors, design professionals, communication, branding – it's quite a large group. And what became very clear at the beginning of the conversations we were having is that what is not obvious to everyone is how to get the most from the cultural engagement of a project at different stages, and how to do it right. 

And so we decided to embark on the production of a guide that sought to simplify the interactions; it's organised around six steps. So, from the beginning to facilitate conversations, to agree a vision of success, then establishing benchmarks and measurements very early on to be able to track and change strategy if needed. Then selecting the type of cultural engagement. You know, is it something that is permanent? Is it something that is temporary? Is it a pop-up? Is it more of a long-term programme? Is it an event? 

Depending on what one is trying to achieve on a site, understanding the resources and creating an inventory for that. And then once when all of this is done, create the strategic opportunity, define it and engage with a cultural professional. And it's only then that a brief can start to appear.

We see a lot of cultural successes and cultural experiences or projects and sometimes you hear someone say: ‘I want exactly that’. But very often you cannot copy/paste because there's so much that goes behind that success. And so we tried to disentangle that process, to help people navigate the integration of culture in development.

DT: Now, obviously culture has been very badly affected, especially in London, by the pandemic, social distancing rules and so on. Where do you see this sector going?

HEA: I think it is a critical moment of accelerated evolution because some of the trends that have been exacerbated by the pandemic had already started taking place. It is a sector that is highly at risk at the moment and a number of institutions have had to reinvent themselves. But what I also think has been made very visible is precisely the importance of that sector, which people are craving. When you talk about isolation, about being at home, about not being able to connect with people, it is these spaces that we realise that we miss the most. Culture, and public realm and open space and being at home and not being able to engage in to enrich yourself…it's really about simple engagement. I guess I'm saying the pandemic has put the cultural sector even more at risk, but has also raised awareness about its importance in terms of mental health.

DT: So tell me about your work in how to make cities fair, with Gehl and Connected Places.  What's that all about?

HEA: That’s an initiative that was launched last year and it's a platform, a partnership between PLP Labs, Gehl Architects and the Connected Places catapult. What it seeks to do is to create a space for conversations on themes addressing social inequality, responses to climate change, providing access to quality housing and opportunities, recent urban governance in the digital age and understanding really what it is that adds value in cities. 

And so, while addressing these themes, keeping in mind a number of things – we call it fairness; some people look at it as social value, or social impact, or social justice. But it is really about understanding how we are making some of these transitions and responding to some of these challenges. For example, addressing climate change – we are not all equal when it comes to some of the responses. How can we make sure that, as we respond to climate change, we address social inequality? 

One of the things we’ve seen is that the pandemic has shown that not all geographies and neighbourhoods have been hit equally, and there are reasons for that. We're not all affected by pollution in the same way, so how can we respond while keeping fairness in mind? 

DT: What's emerged so far? Has there been anything that has surprised you from the research?

HEA: Two things, I would say. The first one is the desire of people to engage in that conversation and the acknowledgement that we do not have all the answers. We've received a lot of interest and a number of schemes are being put on the table for further exploration, and I must say that I've been also very positively surprised by the group; the diversity of the group of people who have reached out with interest, and the diversity of the sectors that they come from. We will have our next roundtable in the autumn on race and space (also, we don’t believe in the concept of race) It will focus on the relationship between ethnicity, inequality and the built environment.

DT: Wow! What do you expect to turn up from that?

HEA: I don't know what I expect. (laughs) I try to go with an open mind… 

What I really like about this initiative is that it is acknowledging that we don't have all the answers, but creating the space for the conversations to be had and learning - like really being like a sponge. When we launched the first event it was really interesting to hear the conversations and the debates and the challenges, because on a number of these questions the jury is out there. Okay, yes, ‘responding to climate change’. Great, but how do you do it? (laughs). The same thing happened with Architects Declare – okay, it's nice, we have signed it, but we are engaged in an effort now to try to see how each one of these points from that declaration we can achieve. And the answers are not always obvious. We also don't have, as architects, all the powers. There’s a lot to be convincing others in the industry to jump on board as well.

But it certainly seems like it is a moment where there's more openness and receptiveness. 

DT: Brilliant. Thank you very much for that, and for your time, Hala.

HEA: Thank you. It was nice to chat, and have a good day.

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


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