In 2006, architect and urban planner Mona El Khafif traded Vienna's wiener schnitzel for beignets in the Big Easy to teach at Tulane University's URBANbuild program. Now an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the California College of the Arts, El Khafif leads the school's URBANlab design-build program. "It's really important for students to be exposed to the outside world," she says. Here, she talks with associate editor Miyoko Ohtake about working at design-build programs and URBANlab's current project: designing a Pavement to Parks site in San Francisco.
What prompted you to move from Vienna to New Orleans to teach at Tulane University?
My family asked me the same question. TU had a long-time cooperation with Tulane, like an exchange program, so I had been teaching Tulane students before I ever moved to New Orleans. When Katrina hit, I was really struck by the idea that as an urban designer, it was a great opportunity to teach students how important urban design is and what they can do as critical architects. If you're a doctor and there's a person in a crisis, you help them. For me, it was the same scenario.
And then you moved to San Francisco to lead the California College of the Arts URBANlab. Are Tulane's URBANbuild program and CCA's URBANlab related?
No, they're not related. Ila Berman founded MEDIAlab, URBANlab, and ECOlab here at CCA. The labs operate as a connection between the internal curriculum of the school and the outside world. Last year in URBANlab we worked with the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco Chapter to create the 10x10 Cities exhibition. The students helped design the exhibition space, communicate with the AIASF and its members, and build the installations.
Now you're working with the Pavement to Parks program with a new group of students?
Yes. Last summer I went to some of the meetings Rebar was hosting and suggested to co-founder John Bela that we bring the project into the classroom. I'm really interested in the potential green sites that we're not seeing at the moment. No one says the space in front of a fire hydrant has to be pavement; it could be environmentally active, catch and filter water, and so on. Showplace Square is one of those unused places.
Is that where you hope to create a temporary park?
We first did an analysis of the current Pavement to Parks locations to see what was working, what wasn't, and how the neighborhood was reacting. Now we are analyzing the space in Showplace Square and selecting the best spot to suggest a park to the city. After spring break we'll create a design and then hopefully implement it as another seminar course.
Why are design-build programs important?
My goal is to prepare the students as well as possible for working at a practice. For me, it's really important for students to be exposed to the outside world, work with professionals to develop new design strategies, and deal with the most contemporary issues that they'll face when they leave the academic environment. Plus, it's a clear advantage for students to have a built project in their portfolios.