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New European Bauhaus Prizes 2024

Regaining a sense of belonging

Concrete to Culture
Concrete to Culture: transforming an office complex into an active space for art and community
Concrete to Culture is a long-term initiative to turn an office complex into active community space through a collective design process that brings together locals, experts, and artists. The project creates mixed-use areas that are accessible to all and bridge social divides in a culturally deserted neighbourhood in the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria.
EU Member State, Western Balkans or Ukraine
Mainly urban
It refers to a physical transformation of the built environment (hard investment)
As a representative of an organisation

The Covid-19 pandemic transformed people’s relationship to office spaces across the globe. Urban areas that were previously reserved for work now have reduced functionality, as employees are spending less time in the office. At the same time residents of peripheral urban neighbourhoods often lack high-quality public spaces and cultural life compared to the central parts of their cities. Office complexes in those areas can address this need and be reborn as sites of community where people reconnect with the outdoors, the arts, and each other.
The initiative Concrete to Culture, launched in 2023, transformed an office complex adjacent to the residential Mladost neighbourhood at the outskirts of Sofia. The project brought together the workers commuting to the office and the local residents, using a combination of art and architecture, dissolving the boundary between these two community groups. The initiative demonstrated that they both could find a new sense of belonging in their surroundings. А participatory design process turned the office complex into a popular mixed-use public space for arts, recreation, and shared activities. Residents in the area of the Mladost district, lacking public and natural spaces, got to enjoy more accessible outdoor areas, while office workers benefited from having community, not just a commute.
The transformed space now functions as a local centre for culture and recreation in this peripheral neighbourhood. It gives new life to both the business complex and the residential district, fostering a shared community. Local residents, employees, executives, artists and architects unite to reimagine spaces that better serve people. The project’s cost-effective, participatory approach is applicable to office districts across Europe that can be reimagined in order to combat social isolation and foster inclusion and belonging in "cultural desert" neighbourhoods.
Concrete to Culture is founded on the principle of sustainable transformation. The project creates urban spaces that promote environmental stewardship, social well-being, and economic viability.
First, we practise resource efficiency. The initiative recycles and brings new life to 7 vacant commercial spaces, converting them into studios for local artists. The transformation extends to the 3,000 sq.m. rooftop of a parking facility, which was previously a space only for cars. These underused areas have been reimagined as new public spaces through the addition of modular structures, greenery, and a diverse artistic programme. In effect, lots of new mixed-use public space is created without any major construction. This conserves resources, reduces environmental impact, and exemplifies the principles of adaptive reuse for modern urban spaces.
The modular structures are designed with flexibility in mind, made predominantly out of FSC-certified timber, ensuring that they can be easily modified and reused. They are optimised to be reassembled each year based on community needs and wishes, with less need for new materials and resources.
Second, the initiative has promoted increased greenery and biodiversity in the office complex. The rooftop transformation has introduced native flora aligned with the local climate and ecological patterns to ensure sustainability and low maintenance.
The project has also contributed to more compact and decentralised urbanism. In the city of Sofia, like many others, culture has typically been concentrated downtown. Some boroughs – like Mladost, in which the project is located – also suffer from a lack of green spaces and parks. By adding these amenities locally and serving people’s needs for shared and green space right within the community, the project reduces the need for trips by metro or car and thus further adds to urban sustainability and neighbourhood resilience.
Concrete to Culture utilises the arts and design in order to transform underused spaces, open them to the public, and foster community.
Contrary to a standard top-down architectural approach, the project’s interventions were based on a co-creation process in which contemporary artists as well as designers, urbanists, and landscape architects joined community members (office employees and nearby residents) to decide together on the underused spaces’ future. The artists and design professionals worked side-by-side with locals to devise solutions that would meet people’s needs.
This collaboration ensured a high aesthetic and functional quality of the new spaces and created a shared identity and belonging for the community. For example, a popular desire for a public swimming pool, while impossible to meet in practice at this stage, was creatively realised via a giant mural covering the concrete rooftop in abstract blue patterns and creating the impression of water. This became the largest art piece in the city, and indeed one of Europe’s largest ground murals. It was realised by 3 local graffiti artists selected through an open competition. This way, a grassroots idea grew into an artwork that turned an empty area into a gathering space for art, leisure, and play.
The repurposing of seven vacant spaces into artist studios further catalysed a dynamic interaction between creativity and the community. Employees and residents of all ages got to participate in workshops in a variety of media, including painting, calligraphy, street art, and dance. With input from locals, the participating artists contributed to the office complex’s transformation, crafting site-specific works that animated open and indoor spaces. The project thus launched a creative hub in a remote part of the city, away from traditional creative districts.
Finally, diverse event programming, including cinema, music, theatre and art performances serves to bring life to an otherwise “cultural desert”.
The initiative stands as a testament to inclusive design. We found a way to combine community input and shared decision-making with guidance from experts in the fields of architecture and urbanism. The multi-level process included interviews with 26 community members chosen to represent key demographics, as well as a survey with over 480 respondents in order to gain a broad view of popular needs. The results of this research were addressed during a design workshop, when representatives of the two key target groups – residents and office employees – gathered together with experts and artists in order to turn the research findings into design solutions. The collaborative design process generated a plan that responds directly to the local needs: more outdoor spaces for work, recreation, socialising and culture. Recognising the spatial limitations at ground level, the decision to utilise the parking facility rooftop was a game-changer. This new public space is open to all free of charge and now houses a cultural stage, a children's playground, and versatile areas that cover all functions desired by the community. It actively invites local residents to enter the formerly closed office complex, to spend time and interact.
The project works on the neighbourhood level to enhance accessibility to much-needed open spaces and venues for culture. It actively promotes inclusion, introducing amenities like a playground to serve locals who were previously excluded from these places. The project places a key value on spaces which are accessible to different groups. It achieves this through researching local needs and a shared design process in which locals, experts, and artists work together to find functional and beautiful ways to balance those needs so everyone feels welcome. As a result, coworking spaces, sports facilities and art coexist side by side. The project shows that, with good design, inclusion and mixing lead to exciting spaces that are more appreciated by all.
Concrete to Culture demonstrates the effectiveness of community-driven design, where people affected by the project are consulted and actively included to make sure the results are optimal for them. The project uses a multi-level process combining broad consultation reaching a large number of people, hands-on participatory design, and input from experts to ensure high-quality results.
First, local needs were assessed using a widely disseminated survey as well as in-depth interviews, in order to uncover local needs and opportunities. Then, the results were presented at a design workshop where local residents and professionals worked together in small teams alongside artists and design experts. At this stage, the gathered information turned into solutions that balance the target groups’ preferences. As locals were included in the spaces’ design and transformation, they felt a greater sense of belonging and later on continued to these places. The opening events were attended by over 10,000 people. While some of these initial visitors came from other boroughs, use of the new public spaces remained steady in the three months afterwards, driven chiefly by locals.
Community members who took part in the design process included a representative of a retired citizens’ association and an urban gardening activist. Curators, artists, and artist collectives who took part in the design phase and the artist studios programme included the independent creative sector as a stakeholder in the process. Civic groups were further involved in the events programme launched to keep the new spaces active.The result was design and programming that the community recognised as welcoming, so that previously exclusive places were successfully transformed into active public space.
On the broader urban scale, the project demonstrates that remote districts away from the centre have the right to culture and public life, and that this is achievable by involving communities in spatial transformation.
The project was implemented in partnership with Business Park Sofia, the privately owned office complex. The owner, who is based in the US, offered an international perspective. They were receptive to innovative ideas about transforming business districts, including the New New York Action Plan, and were open to applying these ideas locally. The result was a demonstration of the value places for work have not only for business, but also for culture, community, and sustainability. The Concrete to Culture project showed that, in a post-Covid world, places of work can be transformed via alliances between business, creatives, and local communities to the benefit of all. Several businesses who are tenants of the Business Park also recognised this approach and became partners of the project, ensuring its financial sustainability and long-term perspective.
Local stakeholders included the government of the Mladost district, who partnered with the initiative as they saw in it a viable model for serving the public’s needs in an overbuilt area lacking public spaces. They are willing to support the project long-term so that it opens more places for culture via adaptive reuse. Sofia’s independent arts and culture communities contributed a lot – from the respected contemporary artists who engaged in the shared design process, to the graffiti painters who created the giant ground mural, to the performers in the ongoing events programme. Many of them embraced the cause of engaging the locals and bringing culture to places that need it most. The result was new public spaces that were well attended and fostered a sense of local identity and belonging.
On the European level, the project became one of the sites of demonstration of the New European Bauhaus on the Danube (NEBoD), an initiative of the NEB Lab. Successful practices and lessons learned are shared with the initiative partners and will be implemented in other NEBoD projects – including the multi-level engagement process.
The project utilised a multidisciplinary approach, uniting expertise from urban planning, environmental science, contemporary art, architecture, landscape architecture and engineering – in addition to sociological research, community engagement, and business. This diverse array of disciplines ensured that the high-quality design responded to local needs and was recognised by the community. The collaboration with business meant that the private sector also recognised the value of investing in quality public spaces and a sense of belonging. This opens up new possible funding streams to develop such initiatives in the future.
Collaborative workshops in the early phase of the project were instrumental in facilitating interaction among professionals from these varied fields. People with different backgrounds worked in small teams to devise solutions. For instance, artists’ creative vision could be seamlessly integrated into the physical spaces’ urban planning without later ad-hoc adjustments. The floor mural served as a unifying element for all of the design interventions on the 3,000- sq.m. rooftop. Artists working alongside community representatives also ensured that the cultural programme resonated with and was accessible to the local population.
Once the design was prepared, business partners offered input on the management and funding of the new spaces, proposing revenue models that allow the project to be scaled. At the same time, facilitators with a background in community organising devised outreach campaigns to get more locals involved. This collaboration led to broad support among both community members and partners.
Concrete to Culture presents a comprehensive process for transforming urban or suburban business districts into inclusive public spaces serving different community groups, by means of participatory design. A variety of stakeholders including local government, business, and artists also engage in the multi-level process. The project avoids the typical top-down manner in which privately owned property is developed. It is distinguished by its openness, allowing free access for all to a place previously closed to the public. This is achieved by smart functional distribution of spaces so that varied activities coexist peacefully.
Concrete to Culture manages to demonstrate to the business stakeholders the value both for their organisations and for the community of this kind of urban development, setting new criteria for shared well-being after the Covid-19. A combination of office spaces and mixed-use public environments is shown to enhance local quality of life for all.
The project stands apart from other post-Covid revitalisation initiatives in business districts not only by its shared decision-making, but also by employing cost-effective placemaking tactics. It goes beyond temporary pop-ups, while also avoiding major investment and construction work. We have developed a method of semi-permanent changes such as the giant ground mural, self-sustaining greenery, and modular structures used to reconfigure space. These interventions stay in place for at least several months with an outlook towards becoming permanent. The project achieves quick, dramatic change in spaces’ function with resource-efficient interventions. The transformation of the bare rooftop is an example of our innovative approach, showing a redefinition of what an office complex can be: expanding the availability of free, open spaces for the wider public. This is achieved with less than two months of on-site work and off-site fabrication, for a fraction of the budget of a full permanent transformation.
The project features a multi-phased approach designed to transform closed, single-use space into an inclusive mixed-use hub. Here is a detailed outline of the methodology:
Community Engagement:
- Surveys and interviews with over 480 stakeholders from the two main target groups: local residents and business employees.
-Design workshops that involved the community and stakeholders, along with urban planners, design experts, and artists.
-Artists are involved along with designers and planners throughout the process to ensure designs go beyond functionality.
Concept Development:
-Continuing to reference the data collected to make sure the evolving designs are meeting the identified needs for public space, culture, and nature.
-Facilitators guide workshop participants to focus on sustainability, aesthetics, and inclusion when developing their ideas.
Design and Planning:
-Architects, urban planners, and artists continue to work together to turn the concepts from the workshops into detailed plans for transforming underutilised spaces.
-Additional design workshops held with experts and local community members to refine the project’s design elements.
-Transforming empty storefronts and office spaces into artist studios.
-Redeveloping the rooftop of a parking facility into a multipurpose public space for work, recreation, and cultural events, accessible to all.
Cultural Programming:
-Establishing an ongoing cultural programme, including concerts, cinema and exhibitions, available 3 days a week without an entrance fee.
-Ensuring the program is designed to be inclusive and balance different needs.
Evaluation and Adaptation:
-Monitoring the use of space and gathering feedback regularly to ensure the project continues to meet community needs.
-Being open to adapting the use of spaces and programmes based on stakeholder feedback and evolving requirements.
Concrete to culture incorporates several replicable elements that can be adapted and applied to other contexts. These include:

Participatory Approach to Urban Development:
-The bottom-up methodology of engaging with diverse stakeholders through interviews, surveys, and hands-on workshops can be replicated to ensure community needs and desires are central to urban redevelopment projects, and that the community is not only voicing needs, but also leading the design of solutions.

Adaptive Reuse of Spaces:
-The cost-effective method of transforming underused spaces into cultural and community hubs via semi-permanent interventions can be adopted in various urban settings, revitalising neighbourhoods and fostering community engagement.
-Specifically, converting underutilised rooftops into public space is a concept that can be applied to many urban landscapes, addressing the need for more community spaces.

Integration of Art and Nature:
-Incorporating local artists' studios into business environments while the artists lead community engagement initiatives, as well as providing needs-based cultural programming creates a blueprint for building vibrant communities. This can be adapted to include local cultural specifics and artistic expressions relevant to different regions.

Sustainable Practices:
-The project exemplifies sustainable innovation by utilising modular and mobile elements and repurposing existing spaces, thereby reducing the requirement for new construction. This approach is in line with the circular economy in urban planning, offering a replicable model for similar initiatives that prioritise resource efficiency.
Collaborative Governance Models:

-The project's multi-level governance, involving collaboration between local businesses, artists, design experts, and the community, offers a model for managing public spaces that could be transferred to other places.
The project provides a possible solution to the current global challenge of underutilised office spaces and struggling business districts after Covid-19 made remote or hybrid work the norm. These spaces emerged from a modern philosophy of urban planning that created separate, single-use districts for living, work, and culture. On a global scale, the post-pandemic reality has left numerous office spaces vacant, prompting a need to re-envision their purpose to align with contemporary community needs. Social isolation, already exacerbated to some extent by modern planning, has become even more acute in certain districts. Communities thrive on connection, shared spaces, and cultural experiences — elements that are lacking in typical single-use areas. To address this challenge, the project offers an inclusive, quick, and cost-effective way to transform underused business districts into vibrant public space.
Concrete to Culture reframes the challenge on a local scale within an office complex nestled amidst a residential zone. By identifying the core issue — the scarcity of communal and cultural spaces — and leveraging the untapped potential of dormant office environments, the initiative transforms these deficits into a cohesive solution. This project not only presents a case study for repurposing commercial spaces, but also sparks a broader dialogue about the evolution of workspaces in harmony with community living, illustrating how merging work and cultural environments can revitalise both the community spirit and urban landscapes.
Concrete to Culture achieved a lasting transformation of a bare, underused 3,000 sq.m. concrete rooftop into active space for recreation, work, play, greenery, and culture. The project turned the entire office complex Business Park Sofia – one of the largest complexes in Eastern Europe – into open public space. Previously closed off to the public, BPS now welcomes diverse visitors and hosts varied activities promoting a sense of community. In the process, original designs and public artworks were created – notably the giant ground mural – that also redefined the entire peripheral borough of Mladost as a new urban cultural centre.
All this was achieved in less than 5 months of overall project duration from the initial concept to community engagement and execution. The actual on-site work lasted less than 2 months. This sets an inspiring example for other locations looking to foster community to combat the negative effects of single-function urban planning exacerbated by Covid-19. The quick project turnaround and dramatic visible transformation served to catalyse even wider participation, with over 10,000 visitors to the events marking the new spaces’ opening.
Design and cultural programming are geared towards local needs, especially families in the adjacent residential area. The project also serves the professionals working in the office complex who can enjoy cultural spaces close to their place of work.
The project provides opportunities for rising artists to practise their art on a larger scale. Local artists gained a platform enabling them to engage with new audiences and weave their artistry into the fabric of the community. It serves as a practical example for business executives struggling to engage their employees after Covid-19, urban planners aiming to decentralise culture that is concentrated downtown and does not reach most of the city’s boroughs, and other communities experiencing a lack of public space that would like to create a sense of belonging.