Design, Research, Impact: URBANlab at CCA

UrbanLab at CCA
Project presentation by Alexa Getting and Lauren Tichy, CitySpaceShare studio, URBANlab. [Photo by Jaime Austin]

As part of our occasional series on university-based design centers, we are pleased to feature the work of URBANlab at the California College of the Arts. Bridging multiple programs and formats, URBANlab is dedicated to connecting the intellectual and disciplinary resources of the academy with the practical spheres of public planning and municipal institutions in order “to investigate the challenges and potentials of the urban environment in the 21st century.” Given the extraordinary pressure on city and state budgets, the need for creative and sustained collaboration between universities and cities has never been greater.

URBANlab was founded in 2008 by Ila Berman, director of architecture at CCA, and Mona El Khafif, associate professor and project coordinator of the center. With the benefit of experience at URBANbuild — a design center at Tulane University started by Berman to confront the extreme challenges of post-Katrina New Orleans — Berman and El Khafif are shaping a diverse program that comprises interdisciplinary design studios and seminars and design-based research as well as lectures, workshops and exhibitions.

As part of our profile of URBANlab, which features a detailed slideshow of recent projects, Places editor Nancy Levinson interviewed Ila Berman and Mona El Khafif.

Nancy Levinson: What spurred the creation of URBANlab? What gaps has the center set out to fill? Were there certain types of projects, or design frameworks, that you wanted to introduce or strengthen?

Ila Berman: URBANlab is one of three research and design labs — focusing on urbanism, ecology, and advanced digital and interactive technologies — that I initiated in 2008 when I arrived as director of architecture at the California College of the Arts. The labs offer specialized areas of investigation for faculty and students and form a critical interface that enables us to apply the intellectual resources of the academy to real-world problems. Academic institutions have a mandate to contribute to public knowledge, but the structures that support the transfer and dissemination of research, and the application of research within urban design practice, are often weak. There is a widening gap between what happens within the academy and what happens on the ground in cities — often a retrograde, generic and ad hoc agglomeration of politically or financially motivated initiatives.

URBANlab engages urban, infrastructural and environmental issues in partnership with public organizations, professional firms and government agencies (as well as other academic institutions) through collaborative project-based initiatives. We offer our capacity for innovative problem solving to cities that lack the resources or the creative impulse to move urban concerns to the forefront. We investigate critical issues facing the future of our cities — the dichotomous trends of shrinking cities and rapid urbanization, the sprawl of the megalopolis and the need for urban densification, spatial recycling strategies in central city and exurban areas, the increasing complexity of urban infrastructure and the demand for multi-modal restructuring, the rehabilitation of transit systems, the need for urban bioremediation and integrated city-scaled energy-harvesting strategies. And we don’t stop at investigation. We want to participate in the transformative design of cities.

At Tulane University I started a program, URBANbuild, which developed design strategies to rehabilitate culturally significant neighborhoods in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The name signified a compression of the spectrum from urban design to design-build. We sought to develop long-range planning initiatives and more immediately to seed neighborhoods with built housing models. URBANlab at CCA advances a much broader mission, but the philosophy is the same. Cities are highly resource-intensive, dynamic and complex cultural artifacts, whose growth and development (beyond rebuilding within a post-disaster context) requires a collective and strategic civic envisioning that integrates professional expertise — rather than the incremental ad hoc-ism that has been the public response to the past failures of master planning initiatives. I believe it’s time for an approach to urban design that is fundamentally projective, not reactive and regulatory.

UrbanLab at CCA
Construction of OPspace prototypes for reactivation of empty storefronts. [Photo by Pia Malinis]

NL: How are you working to activate URBANlab’s mission? What are your current projects?

IB: Every semester we run at least one advanced urban/landscape studio and one to two research seminars in the architecture program at CCA. We use these courses to establish specific conceptual trajectories of interest to the lab, to match researchers with professional and civic networks, and to produce publications, exhibitions, symposia and workshops through which we communicate this work to a larger public and professional constituency. The coursework becomes a vehicle for the lab, and conversely the lab defines specific research initiatives for the architecture program.

Mona El Khafif: One of our recent studio initiatives was Made for China: Rapid Urban Prototyping, a collaboration between URBANlab, UC Berkeley and the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute in Tianjin, China. The studio focused on cultural and economic forces contributing to rapid urbanization in China, with the understanding that China’s context is creating a generation of post-millennial urban precedents. One of many issues we’ve been investigating is the integration of environmentally active programs, water catchments, recycling systems and green spaces within the remodeled urban context.

Last year’s projects were organized within a larger framework we’ve termed City 1:1. These included City Space Share: (OP)space, in partnership with Very Public Arts, a design-build architectural installation that acts as a catalyst for the reactivation of empty storefronts. We are now pursuing opportunities with the city of San Jose to use this installation as a working prototype for empty storefronts on Market Street in the city’s Central Business District. Last year we also worked with the San Francisco Planning Department to redevelop a site through Pavement to Parks, a civic program that reclaims underutilized streets and right-of-ways (which now represent 25 percent of urban streets) and transforms these into pocket parks and new forms of usable public space.

At a larger urban scale, we have initiated three R&D studio projects in the Bay Area dealing with urban remediation and transformation. Transformative Land: Envisioning Bay Link Pier 70, a collaboration with Build Inc. and the Port of San Francisco, focused on the redevelopment of industrial lands on the bayside waterfront and generated specific proposals for the redesign of Pier 70. The second project, Agropolis: Sustainable Systems M-XL linked the URBANlab with our environmentally-focused lab in researching urban ecologies for the production, harvesting and recycling of water, energy and food, via the concept of the self-sufficient block. We investigated ecological zoning in relation to distinct block typologies.

IB: The third studio project, DECOM 1, generated urban design and landscape scenarios for the Alameda Naval Air Station, one of 350 United States military bases that have been closed in the last two decades. The Bay Area has more decommissioned military sites than any other North American coastal region, and these large, contaminated and highly contested territories offer vital substrates for urban landscape investigations.

In each of these projects, we engaged professional and public constituencies in workshops, including city officials, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a.k.a. SPUR, architectural and landscape firms, environmental experts and cultural arts advocacy groups.

Ultimately, we are trying to articulate a new form of project-based design research that furthers academic knowledge and has a direct effect on the realities it investigates. Design firms are learning how to do research (and developing sub-offices for this), while academic institutions are creating centers and labs in order to have a larger stake in directing real practice. How can we work together? I have always liked the concept of the teaching hospital, which enables advanced research to influence health care and vice versa. I think it’s time to look at new models for architecture and urbanism that operate in a similar way.

NL: How does the traditional pedagogy of design schools — the studio — work in relation to urban design research?

IB: Projects in our urban studios begin with intensive research on the history, demographics, networks, ecologies, topographies, spatial patterns, regulatory systems and distribution of programs that impinge upon any given territory. Design research at the urban scale involves social and theoretical research and the study of critical precedents; it also necessitates collecting, analyzing and transcoding information, and visualizing the conditions of the site through mappings, diagrams, datascapes and other representations of historical layers of data. Our work on the Mississippi River, for example, included mapping 887 hurricanes and diagramming the changing geomorphology of the river’s edge, which made it clear that the region was subject to continuous geological transformation and flooding — something that was necessary to address in the urban restructuring and recoding of the city.

UrbanLab at CCA
Divided City Common Ground studio workshop on Jerusalem with Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat of SAYA Architecture. [Photo by Noah Greer]

NL: It seems that the traditional model of the community design center, as it emerged in the late ‘60s, is giving way to other approaches. How do you see the academic design center evolving?

IB: Community design centers in the ‘60s were part of a larger social project, rejuvenated in the last decade as universities recommit to service learning initiatives and community engagement. Urban design centers like URBANlab are evolving to take on new roles, not only partnering with community organizations and providing pro bono expertise to underserved communities, but also analyzing problems, determining needs and advocating for resources. Through collective networks, these labs provide analytical tools and generate design proposals for solving urban issues that often lie beyond the mission of traditional community design centers. This includes contributing to research and design in relation to global problems, rather than being defined solely by the needs of a single community and location.

NL: Where do you see the greatest potential for the relationship between urban design research centers and city and regional planning frameworks?

ME: When I taught in Vienna, I witnessed a tremendous culture of cooperation between the city and its universities. In The Short Night of Urban Regeneration 2004, for example, the city financed a cooperative network of 10 academic institutions, which developed a series of classes rethinking existing urban, architectural, environmental, economic and social strategies. On one night at the end of the semester, the studio projects were presented to the public through panels, exhibitions and live performances, and the city then edited and published the results. This partnership was so inspiring that it became an ongoing project; it is being repeated for the third time this year. We could do something like that in San Francisco.

More broadly, as a laboratory for research and experimentation, URBANlab has the potential to develop and test new urban strategies that might not normally be taken on by city agencies because the projects are speculative and require political support that can be difficult to achieve given the daily demands of running a large city.

IB: We also see the entire network of urban and architectural professionals as potential partners. Many European cities have procedures for open competitions for major urban projects, juried by experts in the field in partnership with the mayor and planning department. These competitions are publicized, they are open to broad participation from academics and professionals, the designs are exhibited, and the projects are often funded and intended to be realized. Urban design centers can work with cities to develop these types of competitions that tap a wider range of expertise and have a broader educational value to the public than current practices.

NL: What do you see as the biggest challenges in setting up and running a design center?

IB: There are four immediate challenges: (1) ensuring that the center is financially stable and sustainable; (2) maintaining internal organizational structures that can respond to the academic calendar and curriculum as well as to the specific scales and temporalities of projects, calibrating the faculty, students and professionals working within the center to the needs and demands of the projects; (3) ensuring that collaborative networks are working productively, that there is real and ongoing communication among partners and a structure to support it; and (4) working toward the goal that what is collectively achieved embodies both research and practice.

Beyond that, the larger challenge is navigating the various culture gaps — in particular the gap between the urban design disciplines, on the one hand, and the various political, economic and cultural entities responsible for decisions that affect our cities, on the other. There are many structural forces that have produced a collective inertia when it comes to dealing with our most critical urban problems. URBANlab’s goal is to bridge these gaps by establishing collective ownership of transformative initiatives. Within the current context, perhaps the largest challenge is the reality that architects, urban designers, planners and landscape architects are seldom brought to the negotiating table. Educating those outside our disciplines about what good urban design can do is a critical part of this process.

Given that the strength of an urban design center depends upon its ability to operate as the core of a larger network, it is critical that it be “plugged in” to both internal academic networks and external professional, public and civic organizational systems. If the lab’s academic research is too far removed from these external constituencies, it will be immediately discarded as irrelevant. Conversely, if it falls into the trap of simply providing a community “service,” it fails to fulfill the critical role of academics in contributing to the future of cultural discourse and moving forward the urban discipline and its practices.

Bridging this divide is also necessary for financial and organizational stability and longevity. In our case, the embedding of the URBANlab within CCA ensures that projects are integrated with and supported by advanced research seminars and design studios, which enables the core funding to come from existing academic — tuition-based — budgets. We obtain additional funding for ongoing research and specific projects, including publications, symposia and exhibitions, through research grants, professional and industry sponsorship, collaborative partnerships and other initiatives, such as our skill-based urban workshops. Thus, in many ways, the financial structure reflects the spheres of influence of the center itself.

The final necessity — one that we are still working on — is having both physical and virtual spaces that centralize the activities, participants and intellectual products of the lab itself.

Project Slideshow

Editors' Note

For more on university design centers, see also Venture Design, a profile of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, and UPSTATE: Design, Research, Real Estate, a profile of UPSTATE at the Syracuse University School of Architecture.


The slideshow features projects by CCA faculty, students and collaborators, including Ila Berman, Mona El Khafif, Jennifer Devlin, Kit Ratcliff, Lisa Boquiren, Catherine Haas, Byron Kuth, Catherine Nueva Espana, Margie O´Driscoll, Cathy Simon, Grace Yi, Michael Stanton, Rachael Yu, Igor Siddiqui, Annelise Aldrich, Jessica Gibson, Leah Hickey, Mariah Hodges, Ariane Mates, Yegvenia Torres, Lucinda Waysack, Darlene Kong, Christin Chi, Matthew Enering, Alvin Kong, Kory Bieg, Josh Campos, Alexa Getting, Brittany Glover, Richard Lyttle, Carlos Martinez, Jeronimo Roldan, Lauren Tichy, Fabiola Vargas, Mike Vargas, Carmen Smith, Pia-Jacqlin Malinis, Matt Adams, Hiram Boujaoude, Maryam Zahedi, Justin Mason, Erin Avera, Audrey Galo, Olga Kozachek, David Fletcher, Kyle Blecher, Dylan Barlow, Geoff Gregory, Antje Steinmuller, Souzan Kachabi, Salar Safaei, Pranay Mowji, Cesar Arellano, Nataly Gattegno, Aaron Taylor, Harvey Ryan Kocourek, Stan Field, Elizabeth Rose Jackson, Wei Huang, Sinan Tanridag, Jessica Wolkoff, Jeremy Bamberger and Alex Spautz; with sponsors and partners HOK Group, AIA San Francisco, California College of the Arts Department of Architecture, and Matarozzi and Pelsinger Builders.

Ila Berman & Mona El Khafif, “Design, Research, Impact: URBANlab at CCA,” Places Journal, January 2012. Accessed 24 Sep 2021.

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