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Staged Urbanism, Urban Space for Art, Culture, …

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #15&16 Autumn 2010 Winter  2011

Mona El Khafif

Mona El Khafif, was born and educated in Germany yet feels strong affiliation with Egypt and the Middle East through her father’s Egyptian origin. She has worked in Lebanon and Egypt and has been involved with multiple academic cooperation’ with Middle Eastern universities, in schools of architecture in Tehran, Yazd, Istanbul and Jerusalem.

El Khafif practiced 10 years as an architect in Germany and in Vienna before settling to the US where her work concentrates on research design projects operating at multiple scales, examining the interdisciplinary aspects of urban regeneration strategies and urban ecologies. At CCA El Khafif coordinates the department’s URBANlab, leads the urban design curriculum and teaches urban research seminars, large-scale urban and architectural design studios, and international programs.

Her current work is located within the CCA URBANlab, which operates as an institutional vehicle between the urban curriculum and external partnerships and research projects. Her recent projects completed through the URBANlab include the research and design projects (and forthcoming publications): Transformative Land, Jerusalem: Divided City/Common Ground, Agropolis and Ruhr2010: Topographies of a Region. El Khafif recently curated two exhibitions: 10×10 Cities: Green Facts Challenges, Futures in cooperation with the AIASF and CitySpaceShare for the 2010 ZERO1 San Jose Biennial.

Staged Urbanism, Urban Space for Art, Culture, …

Staged Urbanism

The understanding of urban space as an inhabitable, social landscape is a primary concern for urban designers and landscape architects. With this cities – and specifically public spaces – in themselves are one of the most complete materializations of social and cultural life.

Based on the theories of French philosopher Lefebvre (1)   and German sociologist Löw (2) , the terminology of this space has to be understood as an interdisciplinary construction. Social space unfolds in a material reality that has an effect on behavior and inhabitation; consequently, material space is an expression of embedded cultural codes and hierarchies. Following the theories of German Urbanist  eldtkeller (3) , public spaces are in greater need of criteria such as density, programmatic mix and social networks that identify territories of shared spaces which support the initiation of local urbanisms. The production of space – or as Sulvia Mollina (4)  states the “espacio intermedio” – is a permanent  edimentation of these conditions, which is inseparable from time and transformative processes.

Public space – the urban void – is understood through these theories as a construction that evolves out of social and material relationships embedded in multiple layers. Staged Urbanism, Urban Space for Art, Culture, and Consumption in the Age of the Event Society (5) , which has been published in 2009, articulates an expanded reading of urban space by interpreting built space, programmatic use, the spaces of organization and communication through urban hardware, software, orgware, and brandware, respectively. In different case studies, focusing on museums and cultural sites, an analytical framework was developed that supports the idea of a multi-layered space, illuminating the relationship between different layers, as well as complex second order spatial productions. At  the center of this theoretical discourse are the effects of the economization of culture, as well as those produced by the acculturation of the economy on the public space at these cultural sites, as influenced by 20th century event society.


  1. Henri Lefèbvre, The Production of Space, (Oxford UK: Blackwell & Cambridge USA 1991), Translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith 
  2. Martina Löw, Raumsoziologie, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001)
  3. Andreas Feldtkeller, Die zweckentfremdete Stadt, wider der Zerstörung des öffentlichen Raumes, (Frankfurt am Main, Campus Verlag, 1994)
  4. Mollina Sulvia “Espacio <i> intermedio”, in „The metapolis dictionary of advanced architecture. City, technololgy and society in the information age“, Ingoprint SA, Actar Publisher, Barcelona  2003, S. 297
  5. Mona El Khafif, Inszenierter Urbanismus. Stadtraum für Kunst, Kultur und Konsum im Zeitalter der Erlebnisgesellschaft“, (Stuttgart, VDM Verlag, 2009)
    The work is divided into three parts.  First, the theoretical research deals with the definition of space at the disciplinary intersections of urban design and sociology, as well as those of cultural theory and the mechanisms of production and marketing.  Second, the work advances 5 analytical case studies: the Museum’s Quarter in Vienna, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Museum’s Quarter in Utrecht, the Museum Square in Amsterdam, and the Museum’s Island in Berlin.  These case studies reveal the different forms of cultural urbanism that emerge as a complex production of the relationships between the layers of hardware, software, orgware and brandware that constitute the multilayered space. The final part of the thesis attempts to capture the specific combinations of these layers and their strategic choreographies employed in the generation of the urban script that defines each of these cultural sites, and the ways in which these scripts are critical instruments for urban regeneration and place branding.


The investigation of space, culture, marketing and the analysis of cultural sites through hardware, software, orgware and brandware, thematize the initiation of cultural urbanisms and the idea of public space as a stage of social interaction. The strategies analyzed are interpreted as staging for the event society, bringing with it the threat of the instrumentalization of public space, as well as opportunities provided by reinventing the void as an urban attractor.

The design of time-related, multilayered spaces cannot be manifested with the traditional tools of urban design. Hardware, software, orgware and brandware strategies are layered or synthesized to produce a complex, active public construct. These navigate top-down and bottom-up strategies, combining the best of both abandon scenarios that are rigid, generic, or ad hoc. The dynamic “masterplan” describes these strategies as urban scripts – choreographic notations that show syntheses and interactions between the layers, and their evolution over time allowing a monitoring of the spatial production.

The following essay introduces two urban projects that reflect the theories of Staged Urbanism. The Place Branding Strategy for the Museums Quarter in Vienna is a case study of the author’s underlying research.  CitySpaceShare, a design build research pilot project at CCA URBANlab applies a theoretical framework to small-scale performative architecture that operates as a social catalyst for the rehabilitation of empty storefronts. Both projects combine urban hardware, software, orgware and brandware strategies to initiate urban regeneration.

MQ Urbanism: from Public to Private [L]

Museumsquartier, Vienna (Ortner/Ortner), 2001:

A Multi-layered Common Space

The Museums Quarter in Vienna can be understood as a piece of the city: a material collage of 250 years of history utilizing the existing fabric of Fisher von Erlach Baroque architecture and its subsequent architectural implementations. A public, three dimensional, common space connects all buildings in the district. The structural concept is based on a theory of the city developed by Ortner & Ortner that is identified as the “amnesty for the real”. Within this trajectory, the urban society is defined as a diverse field of interconnected powers,

interests, technical evolutions and cultural expressions that define a system of forces. Urban strategies must build on the understanding of these forces in order to reinforce or manipulate existing field conditions through architectural interventions.

Much as hardware strategies articulate a landscape of historical fragments, the program of the quarter (software) reflects an urban understanding of diverse cultures. Today, the MQ hosts 60 cultural institutions, ranging from subculture, everyday culture, high culture, fashion, and design to kids programs.

The urban strategies meant to initiate a cultural urbanism, unfortunately did not unfold after the opening  in 2001. Specifically, the outdoor areas described as “Vienna Vacui” suffered from a lack of public occupation. However, five years later the MQ was transformed into a vibrant urban space, now known as the Viennese Public Living Room: an all ages destination for tourists and locals.

The multidisciplinary strategy used to activate public occupation is based on the connections between the four layers: built space (hardware), programming (software), site organization (orgware) and place branding (brandware). The regeneration process started with a branding campaign that developed the Brand MQ from an unknown label to a highly identifiable urban space. The campaign communicated a diverse idea of culture to a broad number of target groups representing an urban life style.

The strategy joined the branding campaign (brandware) with organized events (software) that produced a positive spatial experience and with this created a new mental map of the place that informed its new identity. The initiated seasons MQ Summer (outdoor lectures, boule, kids programs, performances and restaurants) and MQ Winter (Christmas market, ice sliding, etc) were organized around an organizational platform (orgware) that allowed the public to participate in the event cycle. The network of participants spread from local institutions, to external partners and neighboring communities; the ongoing activities acted as a catalyst, – showing people they could organize their own events in the MQ.

The analysis of the event cycle through the year 2005 shows, that the strategies were successful because of the diverse activities, their different scales and differing time related

rhythms. They were endogenous, hosted multiple groups, and incorporated void space that the public could occupy for heir own use. The events of the branding campaign operated as a social catalyst and idea factory: planned events activated spontaneous activities: the result was a vibrant public space, inhabited by a diverse group of people.

A key element of success was the design of a flexible outdoor architecture (xs hardware) that can be manipulated to support different scenarios. The ENZIES – designed by PPAG Architects – are an emotional touchstone for the public. The color changes with the seasons and is selected by the users through internet votes. The modular architecture can transform from a fashion show catwalk to pavilions for the winter season. It adapts its physical form to accommodate different activities, which gives the individual a sense of agency in the urban fabric. These structures, and a public private partnership that allows a temporary privatizations of the public space, engage people to occupy the MQ day and night.

The production of public space in the MQ is supported by a multilayered design strategy that is shared by various disciplines: architects, artists, marketing experts, neighborhood organizations, and cultural institutions. The Urban Script of the MQ Urbanism shows the synthesis of all four layers and their time related choreography. The Urban Script, a multilayered construct, navigates top down (place branding) and bottom up approaches (user generation) allowing the public to be, not just a passive audience, but an active partner in the designed environment


City SpaceShare: from Private to Public [S]

Designed to respond to the 40% of storefront vacancies in the South of First Street Area in San Jose and the ZERO1 Biennial theme of economic meltdown, the CCA Architecture URBANlab pilot research project CitySpaceShare uses a ZipCar strategy to address the changing spatial needs of our urban lifestyles while expanding our current understanding of space in flux. By making private space available in smaller, more affordable increments, CitySpaceShare confronts the harsh economic state of the real estate market by sharing space and infrastructure among, allowing the local economy to adapt to the needs and abilities of the neighborhood. The community can interact with, and inhabit, the public interface, which democratizes the ability to create and participate in the urban community, combining urban regeneration and architectural performance with creative entrepreneurship by activating local networks, partnerships and participants. The urban strategy consists of a flexible and temporary architectural installation (hardware) that is embedded in existing storefronts and outdoor areas. Its architectural performance, supports different programs, activities and events (software). An online community outreach tool (orgware) allows public access and offers a mix of anchor programs as well as open voids in the schedule to structure the curation of different programs generating synergies for the neighborhood. The branding campaign (brandware) articulates the strategy to the public and synthesizes the project´s hardware, orgware and software.

The developed design proposal for CitySpaceShare 2010 employs a methodology of open source urbanism to support the social and economic revitalization of the SoFA district. The physical installation of (OP)space, which stands for OPportunities, OPen and OPerable, embodies the objectives of the 01Biennale, „Build Your Own World and Citizen Science“ by giving the public an inhabitable topography which is composed of hexagonal sections that operate as a kit of parts for different configurations. The folded, interior planes determine occupation; the architecture supports and initiates the various programmatic needs. Each hexagon is defined by three sections which operate like the leaves of an expandable table. By opening the sections, surface orientation changes, thus a wall becomes a table, a chair becomes a shelf.

The modules can migrate to different outdoor and indoor sites, adapting to local conditions through aggregation to support different clients and events. The program brand of (OP)space identifies 5 local program categories: (OP)taste, (OP)scene, (OP)exhibit, (OP)lab and (OP)shop, each of which hosts a series of occupations.

During the Biennial, (OP)space will balance top-down events and bottom-up initiatives. Top-down uses are curated through the (OP)space team, organizing cultural events for the community as anchor programs collaborating with local partners and networks. Bottom-up uses are generated by the community in response to their own needs or desires for the neighborhood.

Staged Urbanism as applied to (OP)space allows an organized spatial access and the ability to shape ones own community through a choreography of top down and bottom up programming in support of a vibrant local urbanism. Social space unfolds within the multilayered strategy that supports user occupation through a performative scape allowing the urban space to be in flux.

Credit Line (OP)space:

Urban Strategy: Dr. Mona El Khafif, Associate Prof. CCA Architecture, Project Coordinator URBANlab

Studio / Design Build Instructors: Dr. Mona El Khafif, Associate Prof., MArch Kory Bieg Adjunct Prof.

Project Design Students in the CCA Architecture BArch and MArch programs:

Matt Adams, Hiram Boujaoude, Josh Campos, Alexa Getting, Brittany Glover, Richard Lyttle, Pia Manalis, Carlos Martinez, Jeronimo Roldan, Lauren Tichy, Fabiola Vargas, Mike Vargas, Rachael Yu, Maryam Zahedi. The fabrication is supported by CCA alumne Justin Mason (OverLayGroup)

The project is realized through the partnership between CCA/URBANlab and Very Public Arts. CCA/ URBANlab was founded 2008 by the director of CCA Architecture Dr. Ila Berman


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