People profile: Central Eastern Europe Director Jon Hale talks about his experience of watching the CEE region develop

Tell us about your background

I grew up in the New Forest in Hampshire, and a lot of my childhood was spent by the sea – sailing, windsurfing and fishing around the Isle of Wight. After sixth form college, I went on to study Architecture at Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University). My first contact with the Czech Republic, or Czechoslovakia as it was at the time, was via my diploma tutor, Katerina Ruedi. She had emigrated with her mother from Czechoslovakia after the Russian invasion in 1968. In 1989 after the Velvet Revolution saw the collapse of Communism throughout central and eastern Europe, she established contacts with the schools of architecture in Brno and Prague and organised an exchange programme for Czech and British students. As a result of this I had the opportunity to meet some of the Czech students just after submitting my diploma project in June 1990.

How did you come to live in Prague?

I finished my studies right in the middle of a major UK recession, and this prompted me to start looking abroad for work opportunities. Learning of my efforts to get a job in architecture, one of the Czech students I had met earlier in London, now my wife, arranged a temporary placement for me in Prague and I jumped at the chance. This three-month posting with the renowned atelier SIAL eventually turned into a full-time job, and I decided to extend my stay and see how things worked out.

Within six months of starting, the workload really started to increase and, after a series of international competitions and our first small scale commercial projects for American and European clients, the Prague studio broke away from SIAL to form the new practice ADNS Architekti. I worked there for three years. During my first year in Prague, I also studied the first year of a two-year postgraduate diploma course at the Academy of Fine Arts. This was a huge privilege, and provided a fascinating introduction to Czech architecture and culture and to the Czech people and language.

What was the post-Communist environment there like?

When I first arrived in Prague, it was something of of an alien experience for westerners like me – few people spoke English, with Russian and German being the main second languages for anyone over about 30. Shopping was a bit of a lottery – and it was very difficult to come by certain products which we now take completely for granted. There is a Czech word, ‘Nemáme‘, meaning “We don’t have it”, which I got used to hearing a lot in shops in those first years. The best way to find sought-after goods was to join the longest queue – even if you had no idea what it was for! The country has a fascinating history, and I spent a lot of time exploring the centre of Prague, which was full of beautiful, but very grey, buildings, many in a terrible state of repair.

During the mid-to-late 1990s, there was a large influx of western companies and retailers, and the environment changed in a relatively short space of time. Many of the buildings in the old town were bought by foreigners and were refurbished and painted, finally bringing some much needed colour to the city. The pace of change is still quite fast, but the economy is only slowly converging with western neighbours, and just when you think things are catching up, you take a trip to London, Hamburg, or Copenhagen and you see that there is still a long way to go. Nothing stands still, anywhere.

Why did you join Chapman Taylor?

After ADNS, I joined the Prague office of Jestico + Whiles for three years. In 1996, I heard that Chapman Taylor was looking at opportunities in the Czech Republic. I got in touch with (former Main Board Director) Geoff Moir and, a few months later, I was offered a job based in London. Having lived completely immersed in Czech culture and architecture for six years, joining Chapman Taylor was a fantastic opportunity for me to reconnect with the UK and to get a foot on the economic ladder. I moved to London in February 1997 and worked on a number of UK projects until the Czech work started to properly roll in.

You moved back to Prague after six years – why?

Initially, I was on a plane every fortnight between London and Prague to help progress our first major project, a large shopping centre in the north of Prague for Tesco. We soon secured a second key project in Zlín, in the east of the country, and we set up the Prague office in the summer of 1998. We hired a great office manager, and a London colleague moved over full-time to run the Tesco project. The workload then really began to grow, with new projects throughout the CEE (central and eastern Europe) and SEE (south-eastern Europe) regions, demanding more commitment to manage the expanding team.

The amount of travelling became untenable. My wife and baby son were in London, and it was increasingly difficult to maintain a proper family life, so we made the decision to move back to Prague in the summer of 2003 and my daughter was born soon after that.

What were the challenges in creating and maintaining the Prague studio?

The initial challenge was building a team of like-minded and capable people who were interested in working with us to provide a great service for our clients on these large commercial projects. In the early days, the market was partly dominated by a number of larger firms arising from the privatisation of the state-run design offices, offering low pay, but a stable job. The younger generation of Czech architects, however, were more intent on setting up their own independent studios, working on a smaller-scale projects, or family houses. There emerged, over time, a number of very strong local practices with great design skills and with very good local and international networks.

We find that we are competing for work with other international practices, but increasingly with very capable local designers throughout the CEE and SEE regions. Chapman Taylor’s global experience, and the ability to in-source work within the group, are some of the main strengths that we have to offer, helping us to maintain our competitive edge.

Obtaining construction permits in the Czech Republic can be very complex and frustrating – it’s our job to understand that process and to communicate it to our clients. The regulations and procedures can even change during the design and permitting periods, leading to last-minute changes, re-submissions and delays. This fact has become a big deterrent for certain investors considering entering the market.

The Czech Republic also hosts a huge number of valuable historic buildings, and the centre of Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage area, making tight controls necessary. We have become highly attuned to the complexities of working in this environment and we always factor this into our designs and programming.

Tell us about your role as CEE Director

This role has evolved logically from a need to work in a more connected way throughout the CEE and SEE regions. The Prague and Warsaw offices now work in many locations and we share some of the same clients. The objectives are to pool our knowledge, share skills and resources and to use our networks to maximise new opportunities. It also allows us to benefit from the experiences of our teams, and part of my role is to strengthen the management structures to ensure the ongoing success of the business.

There is a lot of diversity within the CEE and SEE regions, culturally and economically. On the whole, things are currently looking positive, but this hasn’t always been the case, with many countries being hit very hard by the banking crisis of 2007/8. While Poland managed to weather that storm remarkably well and sustained growth, the situations in Romania and Bulgaria, for example, were considerably worse. Geopolitical events such as the annexation of Crimea mean that the business environment in Ukraine has faced some major challenges in the last few years.

We are continuously looking beyond our current borders, and right now we are pursuing a project in Slovenia, for example. I make sure to keep in touch with colleagues throughout the group. At one point the Prague, Milan and Dusseldorf offices were all working on projects in Serbia, so we have to liaise on these regularly to manage the overlap and to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

Is there a project or role which stands out for you from your time with Chapman Taylor?

Several projects stand out during my time at Chapman Taylor, but one in particular deserves a mention. The “Corner House” project on Wenceslas Square has been a focus of our efforts for a number of years, mainly because of its prominence and the complex issues involved in bringing it to fruition. Back in the mid-1990s, I had worked for the same client (Flow East) on the refurbishment of the building formerly standing on the site, buying it another 20 years of useful life. Then, in 2009, after several competitions and some false starts with big-name architects, we were given a chance to look at the site again. Inspired by some amazing sketches by my colleague Jan Pokorný, we developed a powerful concept that really captured our client’s imagination.

It took us over a year of intensive negotiations with heritage bodies, historians, conservation groups and urbanism specialists to achieve a consensus that allowed the designs to be signed off by the experts’ panel of the city council’s heritage department.

Since then, it has taken another seven years to secure planning and demolition permits for the development, during which time the existing building was even submitted to the Ministry of Culture for listing as an historical monument.

The below-ground works are now progressing on site, and we look forward to seeing the building take shape in the next two years. It’s certainly a project I won’t forget!

Jon Hale (BA (Hons) Dip Arch ARB ČKA)

Group Board Director, Prague

Jon heads up Chapman Taylor's business in the Central Eastern Europe (CEE) region, leading on the design and implementation of projects in the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Serbia.

Based in Prague since 1991, Jon joined Chapman Taylor in London in 1997 and was invited to the Group Board in 2020. His knowledge of the CEE markets and his leadership have helped our Prague studio become one of the foremost architects of commercial buildings in the region. The Prague team is dedicated to delivering high-quality architecture to clients in the CEE region with a strong emphasis on delivering sustainable and commercially successful projects that people enjoy.

Areas of expertise:

Mixed-use / Workplace / Residential / Retail

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