Session at the European Architectural History Network Sixth International Meeting

Already in Governing the Commons (1990), Elinor Ostrom identified specific urban spaces and infrastructures as ‘common resources’, fostered by groups of citizens as a way of resisting top-down governance and commodification. Today, the notion of the ‘urban commons’ appears as an index for historians to examine a number of collective actors and operations that have gone beyond the dominant agencies of the state and the market to develop new urban spaces, no longer graspable through the dichotomy of public versus private territories. By side-stepping the intrinsic constraints of largescale state and commercial parties, these initiatives genuinely innovated the design of ‘common goods’ as exemplified in architectural projects for co-housing, co-working spaces and communal urban gardens.

And yet, the closer examination of such collective interventions reveals a number of inner contradictions. Many have been carried out by a progressive bourgeoisie, for whom the exploration of social and political alternatives was ultimately elective. Their entanglement with existing social and cultural capital often propagated social inequality and reinforced hegemonic structures, rather than substantially challenging them. Another critique, of particular relevance to architects, highlights the insubstantial, improvised and transitory nature of many collective operations (squats, common gardens, political protests etc.). For those concerned with the city as a physical, lasting artefact, the urban commons only seldomly acquired a requisite materiality.

This session calls for exemplary case studies of collective operations (neighbourhood associations, co-housing initiatives, Baugruppen, etc.) that had a palpable impact on the material fabric of the city. These may operate outside the duality of state and market or, more realistically, as hybrids that make use of conventional mechanisms as levers to empower their own agency. What innovative urban figures have emerged as a result? How do they differ from equivalent configurations determined by centralised or speculative development? How is collective ownership encoded into the spatial and morphological structures? Additionally, we are interested in the role of architects and other enablers in mediating between the socio-political agendas of collective actors and existing codes, regulations and power structures.

In a historical range from the 19th century to today, we will prioritise examples that document genuinely grassroots collective actors, from the lower tier of social hierarchies, or initiatives that cut across social strata. Similarly, we particularly welcome case studies extraneous to the developed capitalist economies of the Global North.

Irina Davidovici, ETH Zurich
Tom Avermaete, ETH Zurich

Contact : Irina Davidovici, Email : [email protected]