Archis 2001 #4

City of experiences

In this process, cities are increasingly changing from a community facility to an enterprise. Culture is becoming the key factor in the utility strategies of an economy of attention.

Shopping malls, theme parks and urban entertainment centres mark a cultural trend that is accompanied by the disappearance of the boundaries that used to exist between culture, politics, society and economy. Cities and regions are promoted by means of spectacular historical and cultural scenarios, and inner cities are being turned into ‘places of event’ focusing on shopping and entertainment. The motives behind changes of this kind are often different from the principles on which public planning is based: the commercialization of the city goes hand in hand with the loss of public space, increased surveillance, and a growing exclusion of poverty and misery.

The cities have become an arena where the prize is cultural representation. In ‘Event City’ the power relations are an indication of the social structure of the post-industrial city when it comes to the expression of different cultures. The culture of the city of the 21st century turns out to be a field of contradictory meanings and practices, an explosive mixture of juxtaposed inequalities and non-simultaneous events. This anything but transparent situation makes it increasingly difficult for architects and urban planners to assume their responsibility for designing public space.

The practice of creating culture

With the disappearance of the associative chain of geography, identity, culture and traditional social ties, with the increase in mobility and the growing pluriformity of lifestyles, the question arises as to how people make and maintain social contacts in modern industrialized society. Brands, TV series and music styles supply the cultural material from which post-traditional communities construct their group identity. Wanting to belong to a group or not is a matter of voluntary choice. Shared preferences in the field of leisure and consumption are the cultural symbols of group scenarios. These are temporary communities that have nothing to do with social classes. It is becoming increasingly difficult to programme urban spaces socially and aesthetically against the backcloth of this heterogeneous landscape. Before user profiles can be drawn up to serve as a basis for design strategies, it is first necessary to analyse the heterogeneous sampling processes by which people try to determine their place in the post-industrial city.

Special importance should be attached to the image as the major social and communicative element. Images are increasingly involved in social interactions. Identities are formed with the help of (and by) images, and they are involved in the formation of imaginary communities. Everyday reality is experienced through the images that accompany it. At the same time, however, there is a tension between this reality and visionary dreams of the good life. Various socio-spatial patterns of action form subjective territories in the form of series of perceptions, in which places for working, living and relaxing are enmeshed and a new cityscape arises based on a mobilized perspective of perception. That perspective is in turn influenced by the way in which spaces are represented in different media, such as cinema and TV films or advertising. The development of storyboards from the perspective of the different spatial practices provides important information for the development of new spaces that stimulate the appropriation of one’s own spatial production. The experimental, pioneering design of atmospheres leads to new situations that can only develop within the interplay of actions and the material environment. In all this a critical scrutiny is the basis for the development of strategies of visualization that go further than a holistic representation of urban life.

Urban strategy

The architectural and urban planning design process cannot derive sufficient information from the traditional study of typology and programme. Urban development strategies have to take proper account of contemporary spatial practices by including in the urban space the intensified visual communication with its higher density in the field of experience and nostalgia. In this way architecture and urban planning can enter into dialogue with the users of the city.

Defining user profiles makes it much easier to take account of the spatial activities of the users of the city during the design process. This leads to a better insight into the traditional context. Over and above the influences and forces of the infrastructure and the location, global and local social and cultural needs and relations must develop into a generative element in the design. The programme, that has always been the determining element to date, can no longer get by with stepping up urban intensity by means of an unconventional mix (cross programming). It must create a balance between the economic forces of the city and it needs a structuring force – the so-called theming or thematic scenarios. As a design instrument, this thematic scenario (or ‘scripted space’, as Norman M. Klein called it) can thematically integrate the spatial practices and hybrid, individualized identities of users as well as providing the material for forming the cultural identity of new communities. The visually oriented formation of imaginary communities acquires a spatial character through the theming. The storyboard opens up the possibility of designing sequentially and developing these scripted spaces. The different time-based utility functions of the space can thus be opened up to the design process. The result is an urban network that consists of intensive and multiple spatial sequences, one that works not just through form but also through enhanced atmospheres. Instead of providing a setting of illusionary experiences, these atmospheres offer every individual separate access to a spatial experience.


The radical transformation of the spatial organization of the postmodern city is also expressed in the growing fragmentation and differentiation of the social space. This calls for interdisciplinary research and design strategies that face up to the complexity of the situation. The Bauhaus Kolleg combines different disciplines in an experimental mix. Interdisciplinary research by those working in the social sciences and cultural studies can yield important insights into the design process and make it possible to incorporate them in the design. Architects and planners can expand their repertoire of design strategies with scientific and artistic methods, while artists and designers contribute their visual skills to the planning. It is a way of working that forces all those involved to cast a critical eye over their own methods and to be receptive to different perspectives and interpretations. Ideally this can lead to a cross-fertilization of the work process and facilitate new forms of cultural production.

Regina Bittner, Wilfried Hackenbroich and Kai Vöckler developed the programme ‘Event City’ for Bauhaus Kolleg II, September 2000 – September 2001, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation.

Regina Bittner, cultural studies, Dessau (
Wilfried Hackenbroich, architect, Berlin/Dessau (
Kai Vöckler, artist/publicist, Berlin/Dessau (

1. Atmospheric story as intermediate stage in the development of an urban development proposal. (Bauhaus Kolleg II, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation)
2. Thematic scenarios of identity and place. The user sampled the range of spatial experiences to create an individual experience and meaning of the space. (Bauhaus Kollet II, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation)