New London Architecture

Five Minutes with…Leni Popovici, founding director and partner, KAP Studios

Monday 13 September 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Hello, Leni, how are you? 
 
Leni Popovici  
Very good, David, nice to talk to you. 
 
David Taylor  
I thought for our readers that firstly it would be good if you could just explain the relationship that your practice, KAP Studios, has with your - I think - sister practice, Ben Adams Architects, and also provide an essence of what you're about? 
 
Leni Popovici  
Yes, absolutely, good question! So, many years ago - for me about six years ago, and for Michael (Wilson Katsibas) even longer - we both started working at Ben Adams Architects with Ben. And over the many years we worked together developed a really good working relationship and started seeing the world compatibly similarly – and differently. We were always quite fascinated with the Californian dream. I think Ben had been there as a teenager and saw that there was an opportunity for us to export some of our knowledge about building in London, and densifying and building within constraints to LA, which is a place that is starting to need to densify a lot more these days than it used to. 
It was quite funny when we would go to client meetings, and they might be on the 10th floor or something like that and have a nice view over the city and the client would say: ‘look, there's no space, we can't build anything anywhere. It’s all full’. And then we would all point to surface level parking lots and say, ‘What about this spot?’, and you go to the boardwalk, and you have hundreds and hundreds of cars that are taking up what would be incredibly prime real estate. So there's just this mentality of thinking about densifying and urbanizing that we developed in London, and working with existing buildings even from time to time, that we thought we could bring to the LA market.
 
David Taylor  
So, in a sense, you’re exporting London expertise and know-how, information, and ways to do densifying, to LA. Is that right? And is that most exemplified in your Wade Street residential scheme?
 
Leni Popovici  
It started off that way. You always have to know your USP when you embark on this journey, but inevitably, it changes and morphs along the way. Wade Street is a really good example of that. At BAA, the majority of our portfolio is office buildings, whereas in LA for KAP, we do a lot of residential projects, which we didn't expect. But you're right about Wade Street and exporting that knowledge or even openness towards densifying. So, in this part of Culver City, where our project is, it is very common to have a piece of land on which you build one house, a nice solo or a bungalow, or you know, whatever kind of market the client is aiming towards. But in our case, we looked at putting four houses on the site, which is not a very common approach. So densifying, area wise, eight-fold, compared to what would normally be built on a site like this. That brings lots of interesting questions about how you can create quality, single family living within a denser urban-style environment. And I think that's where we learn in London from LA - we kind of export back into this direction. Over there, you have such a fantastic climate that really allows you to take advantage of outdoor space, and create privacy and quality living through careful placement of windows and interior courtyards, and things like that, that we don't do very frequently in London.
David Taylor  
So how has that gone down with the prospective buyers?
 
Leni Popovici  
All four houses sold before they were built. So it's gone down really well. I think it's because you can have a dense urban plot of land built, but if your quality of your spaces is good, like you might introduce double height living spaces or really carefully think about light and exterior space, and terraces in places where you're not overlooked, it doesn't really matter that it's a little bit denser and you haven't got as big a garden as you might normally have. Places like LA and many of our cities are kind of densifying all over the world. So it's about creating quality living, really, regardless of whether it's an apartment building, whether it's affordable housing, or whether it's a private villa for a very fortunate client.
 
David Taylor  
And they weren't all European buyers, I presume? (laughs)
 
Leni Popovici  
No. (laughs)
 
David Taylor  
I'd also like to talk to you just briefly about another project you're doing in Griro in Bucharest, which is to do with making use of old railway buildings, I think. It's a pretty big, city-scale project. Is there anything that you can put your finger on in terms of being either an export of learning or import of learning in that circumstance?
 
Leni Popovici  
Yes. 
So in in London, much more than LA or any other place we've worked from before, you get a lot of reuse of existing buildings. I'm originally from Romania. I grew up in Bucharest, and am quite familiar with the urban approach to development, which is tear everything down and start again. Whereas Griro is kind of similar in scale, and location, to the Argent, Kings Cross development. Similarly, it's old railway land, and it's landlocked on many sides. It’s got these beautiful, incredibly dramatic existing structures for warehouses that were added to over time. And normally, a Romanian client would say, ‘Okay, well, just tear everything down and build rectangles.’ But we're very lucky to be able to have a really good client brief that says come with your London eye and expertise in reusing existing structures, and make the most of the historic value that's already there, while adding all the pieces that would make for a more modern urban environment and more modern neighbourhoods. It's that knowledge of densifying, reusing, and also ‘where do you provide new space?’ that is more tailored to modern living that we that we did as an approach for this project.
 
David Taylor  
Great. And does it feel good to be working on, as it as it were, home ground?
 
Leni Popovici  
It really, really does. We had submitted, and got shortlisted at the Festival of Place for the future place category, on Griro. And I was really proud and excited, because placemaking is not a very common conversation in Romania at the moment. But it's starting to be, more and more. So it felt very gratifying to be able to say, actually, we're doing this over there.
 
David Taylor  
Is it called that over there or is there translated word? 
 
Leni Popovici  
Placemaking? No, I don't think it's called that over there. 
 
David Taylor  
Do they have another word for it?
 
Leni Popovici  
I'm not even aware that there is a specific word. I think placemaking became, you know, a new kind of word in itself… 
 
David Taylor  
Oh really?
 
Leni Popovici
In England, I think, right?
 
David Taylor
Like they use ‘Le Weekend’, then, in France… 
 
Leni Popovici
Exactly!
David Taylor
Wow. Okay, well, is there anything else you'd like to say about these two learnings? I mean, it's two-way, right? You're exporting and importing lessons in from one country to another, from one city to another. Is that your essence?
 
Leni Popovici  
That's where we've discovered a lot of, not only the value that we can provide as a practice from our unique perspectives, but also the pleasure in the type of work that we do. We've got some projects in Russia, for example; you learn a totally different kind of urban experience over there that you might get in a conversation with the Los Angeles client; discuss and do something there that's different. And I think this sort of global understanding of the way that we live in buildings and cities is really valuable, and very interesting. So, we're learning a lot as we go, which is a pretty wonderful way to experience your profession!
 
David Taylor  
Well, if you're mixing Russian principles and American principles, you're very skilful, I'd suggest, on a geopolitical basis (laughs)
 
Leni Popovici  
Not everything translates! (laughs) Especially, not in minus 20 degrees, and 2 metres of snow! 
 
David Taylor  
Well, I wish you best of luck with both projects. And thank you very much for talking.
 
Leni Popovici  
Thanks so much for your time, David.
 
David Taylor  
Cheers! Thanks a lot, Leni.  Bye!

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


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