Meet Kathryn Firth, architect and urban designer at FPdesign. Kathryn has over 25 years’ international experience, including as Chief of Design at the London Legacy Development Corporation and teaching at The Bartlett, UCL and Harvard.
Can you share a little about your background?
“I’m an architect and urban designer, and I’ve been practicing for over 25 years. I’m originally from Canada, which is where I studied architecture, then I went to the States to Harvard to study urban design and came to this fair land in 1998, and, really, the UK has become my home. I’ve worked mostly in the private sector, but also in the public sector working for just over four years for the London Legacy Development Corporation as its chief of design. That position was to help transform the Olympic site after London 2012 into a piece of city. That was an interesting experience. I’ve always taught simultaneously to practice. I did that in Canada, in the US and continue to do that here at the Architectural Association; as an external examiner at Cambridge; both external examiner and teaching at The Bartlett, UCL; and I’m now teaching there and at Harvard. I am a partner in a small practice, FPdesign. I’m working for different development groups and architects and supplementing their team. That varies from having a light touch, in an advisory peer review role, to my role with Human Nature, where I’m rolling my sleeves up a bit more and getting into the thick of master planning and urban design.”
Tell us more about your involvement in the Phoenix Project.
“Jonathan [Smales, Human Nature founder and CEO] and I have crossed paths many times over the last few years, and I think we always shared a desire to work together. So, I was really delighted when he invited me to be part of the Phoenix Project. Although I’m a consultant, I’m part of the Human Nature core team, working on the masterplan, framework and then vetting and advising on the work that comes forward from the numerous architectural practices that are involved. I’m working primarily with Xavier and Emilie [at Human Nature] and the landscape and urbanism practice Periscope, led by Daniel Rae. Then, as things go forward, I may be contributing to the planning application and [supplying] technical knowledge that needs to feed into that for submission to the planning authorities.”
What drew you to the project?
“Jonathan Smales (Human Nature founder and CEO) has such passion for the project, it’s hard not to want to be part of it! I’m excited by both the process and the ambition. On the former, Human Nature takes a very different approach to many developers. You often see others get one master-planner onboard who may also work out the designs for the buildings – very much one hand working on everything. But Human Nature work in a truly collaborative way. I believe that, at this scale, this process will create something better in the end – both in the ethos of the place and aesthetically. Bringing in different practices will make this feel more like a neighbourhood that’s evolved over time.
“The most exciting aspect of the project is that Human Nature is really serious about making a place that’s truly sustainable and is looking at innovative ways to do that. Everyone’s talking the talk about sustainability these days, but not many are actually putting the principles into practice. In this project sustainability is at the heart of everything from construction methodology through to the masterplan – which is the part that really gets me excited – where you’re actually changing people’s behaviour in ways they may hardly notice.
“For example, in a sustainably designed place it becomes ridiculous to get in the car every day – why would I when I can walk or cycle to do what I need? Or if I can grow food outside my back door maybe I don’t need to go and buy packaged tomatoes. Things like that are seeing the light of day, and that’s truly exciting to me”.
How are you involved at the Phoenix Project Design Festival?
“I’ll be circulating through the exhibition, keeping my eyes and ears open so I can guide visitors to talk to the architects and the other specialists. I’ll also be doing a talk or two about the masterplan framework and the public realm, perhaps a double act with Daniel Rae.”
What do you like about Lewes?
“I confess, I really didn’t know it well before this project, but it’s been great to get to know the town more. It’s really quite quirky. I love the street patterns, the topography is amazing and you have absolutely stunning views – that’s something that we can capitalise on in the project. It’s a very textural place; it is a place full of interesting details. Reflecting this wonderful quality is a challenge for us – we’re not going to make a neo-Lewes or replicate Lewes, as that would always look forced. But, in the contemporary world, how do you create a place that has the right level of interest and a very human scale? I think that level of architectural and urban detail contributes to encouraging people to walk because the neighbourhood feels more interesting – we want to create a place that is constantly stimulating.”
What have you been inspired by recently?
”On my desk is a book called Ecological Urbanism – it’s a bit of a cheat answer, because it’s a compendium of many articles. It’s a big fat book with essays by architects, urbanists, ecologists, but also anthropologists and people who are very much into the digital world. They’re taking the word ‘ecology’ and really stretching it – looking at sustainable mobility, collaboration in the production of space, technology – and looking at cities from a very sensory perspective. It deals with climate change and adaptation and coastal resiliency. It’s one of those books where you can flip to any page and get an interesting essay and some interesting graphics. There’s a Norwegian TV series called ‘Occupied’ [on Netflix], which is about the fuel crisis. They have come up with some kind of – and I won’t pretend to understand! – thermal energy generation, but are the only country still with oil and gas, which they do not want to produce in the face of an environmental crisis. It’s always interesting to me when topical issues like climate change start to permeate popular culture.”