Representing the commons: La Borda, Prinzessinnengarten and R-Urban

keywords: commons architecture, representation, critique


In this paper, we will explore how commons architecture is represented in publications. Our main aim is to put forward the most commonly used themes in commons architecture, and to understand the performative characteristics of practice, or in other words to see if a new possible future is being built with this representation in addition to the physical materiality of commons architecture. 

For this we will follow two parallel tracks. In the first one we will unpack and elaborate on commons architecture and introduce its five key pillars: common good, critical spatial practice, postcapitalism, hacking, feminism. As abstract ideas, these pillars were defined in a previous article at an early stage of this research. In this article we will review the key pillars and explain how these concepts play a role in shaping commons architecture. 

These pillars will be contextualized in three commons architecture cases: La Borda in Barcelona, Prinzessinengarten in Berlin, and R-urban in various locations in France. Our discussion of commons architecture will be deepened through a thematic analysis of these three commons architecture projects. With a thematic analysis based on the publications in which the three projects were featured, we will define the repeated patterns, meaning the key themes of commons architecture. 

We will then generate a matrix of five key pillars and themes in which themes correspond with the pillars. With this matrix we will unfold the pillars into themes that are generated from representation of commons architecture projects. As a result we will explain how the five key pillars of common good, criticality, postcapitalism, hacking and feminism are translated into space with recurring themes such as solidarity, in-becoming, self-governance, appropriation and care. 


For this paper we applied three main methodologies: proof of concept, case study and thematic analysis. 

Proof of concept was useful in critically approaching a former article to understand if the literature review was matching with the representation of commons architecture. ‘Very generally, proof of concept research presents a discovery about our knowledge of the world and the structure of existence. The concept in ‘‘proof of concept’’ appears to refer to any idea that may apply to a class of phenomena. The proof seems to be a possibility proof that is shown to obtain in experimental practice.’  

Commons Architecture

The relationship between the commons and architecture became a hot topic in the agenda of the architecture field after the economical crisis of 2008, and the following protest movements. With the lack of job opportunities and bankruptcy of real estate firms as well as architecture offices, architects, especially the young generation of architects, had to innovate the profession itself. This innovation led to unsolicited projects realised mostly in public space. Temporary use, guerilla urbanism, activist architecture, tactical urbanism were some of the names given to these practices. Massimilio de Angelis considers commons as systems under which all the dispersed struggles against extractive processes of capitalism (i.e. poverty, climate change, gender inequality) would come together for a unified front. Similar to this approach we propose to bring together the architectural efforts for a change against the destruction of livelihoods, exploitation of natural resources, enclosure of public spaces, displacement of the marginalised or low-income groups and against becoming a service for the 1% under the umbrella of commons architecture. 

Different from common space or spaces of commoning, commons architecture implies the intentional (co-)design of the space concurrently. The architecture at the same time becomes the scene and the tool of the commoning process. The commons is supported by the architecture while it supports back architecture for the space to adapt to changing needs and desires of the commoners. This is also why we prefer not to use the architecture of the commons or commons’ architecture where commons is linguistically possessed by architecture. When translated into the tripodal ingredients of the commons (the commoners, the shared resource, and protocols) architecture is at the same time the resource and the co-determinant of the protocols, which is open to appropriations by the commoners. Therefore, this intentional (co-)design has an inherent quality of being open to constant transformation or of enduring the permanent phase of being in becoming (Petrescu, 2007). In this respect, the architectural work becomes entangled with community, care work and agency as well as with conflicts. 

Commons architecture is not architecture as a commons. Even some practices of commons architecture can involve the process of architectural knowledge becoming a commons, it implies a broader scope. Commons architecture involves the co-production of spatial interventions with the commoners using commoning protocols, opening up the design process as a commons. And the design product of commons architecture is also a commons governed by the commoners. Here the prefigurative aspect of the commons is recognizable since the in-the-making (the co-design and co-implementation processes) and the in-use (the spatial product[ion] that allows commoning practices) phases function towards the same horizon. “Divergent social strata and currents clash here, but all the same they have their gaze fixed on the same horizon, one where society is organized in such a way that equality and solidarity are balanced with liberty.” (Gielen, 2018). These two phases of in-the-making and in-use are inseparable not only because of the divergent prefigurative approach but also because of the constant in-becoming characteristics of commons architecture that we have discussed above. 

Previously we attempted to define the pillars of commons architecture, the conceptual foundations that imply its means and ends: common good, postcapitalism, critical spatial practice, hacking, and feminism (Ertas & Pak, 2018) This set of concepts are derived from contemporary readings on the commons, focusing on building a new system of social relations, especially when they take spatial forms. Briefly we will try to explain the relevance of these pillars to commons. 

Common good is useful in reminding us of the main direction for commoning practices. With its embedded inclusive characteristics the commons aim to generate situations that is in the better interests for all. Especially when the notion of sharing of interests is expanded towards the more than humans, the commons gains a posthumanistic perspective that offers new strings of ideas in dealing with the climate change. Postcapitalism draws the motivation beyond the commons architecture in radically imagining the life after capitalism. It is about rethinking the property relationships, labour arrangements in the design and construction processes, social and economic effects of urban and architectural decisions. Critical (spatial) practice recalls the melting boundaries between theory and practice in which thinking and making keep feeding each other. As mentioned above, the in-becoming quality of the commons allows it to reproduce the social relations it generates and this is crucial for the sustainability of the commons. Hacking as a tool to generate commons architecture offers new perspectives in open design, shared authorship, and tactical fields of action. With innovative reuse of existing materials, modularisation and sharing knowledge across different commoners hacking allows the commons architecture to grow and spread. As the last pillar, feminism is considered crucial especially in the governance of the commons and intersectional perspectives on inclusion. It can support defining protocols of sharing in an equal and inclusive manner while ethics of care ensures the commoners don’t feel excluded or unheard in decision making. 

After this introduction to commons architecture and the five pillars that define them now we are going to look into the cases of commons architecture to understand the widely used terms and concepts that define their spatial qualities. The three projects will help us to understand the commons architecture via written texts by the design architects, critiques and academicians, and visual material, such as photos, architectural drawings. The cases will be useful in making an in-depth analysis of the most commonly used concepts and terms and how they are interpreted in the field of (commons) architecture. 


We will make a thematic analysis of La Borda in Barcelona designed by Lacol, Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin, which also houses Die Laube designed by Quest ((Christian Burkhard and Florian Köhl) and R-Urban in Colombes designed by Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée (aaa). The selection of the cases relies on four main parameters to make a comprehensive but at the same time focused analysis. We chose the cases which claim themselves as commons that share similar democratic backgrounds, have a diverse program and high visibility. Lastly, we prioritised the projects we know better, the first-author of this article Hülya has previously conducted interviews with the designers, and visited two of three projects. 

For a coherent discourse analysis and not to extend the paper into another field of research into whether the cases are commons architecture or not, we chose the projects that express themselves as commons. This expression can be either textually and verbally by the architectural design team or by their communities or by them accepting to be recognised as commons by accepting to be covered in special publications on commons. 

All the cases are located in Europe, and this geographical proximity allowed the first author to access the cases to personally experience them. and to meet and interview the architects. However, we consider a similar democratic background is as crucial as the geographical proximity in discussing commons. Since practices of commoning are exceptional situations within the existing mainstream spatial production mechanisms, their emergence, existence and sustainability are highly dependent on the implications of democracy and how public opinion is taken into consideration. We are not claiming here Spain, Germany and France are the pioneers in democracy but rather they are similar as well the way commoners mobilise and design their governance. For example, this has limited us in not including cases from a post-communist country in which the memories of forced collectivisation are still fresh

We opted for projects that incorporate different programs so that we do not limit ourselves to a vocabulary of a certain type of program. La Borda is a housing project, Prinzessinnengarten is an urban garden while R-Urban is a networked community centre with various functions such as an urban garden and recycling lab. This diversity of functions in the cases allowed us to scan a wider range of concepts and terminology. The same aim of being able to scan a wider range urged us to chose projects that have high visibility. Thus, we could scan a higher number of textual and visual material and come up with a more comprehensive analysis. 

With these three cases, we intended to understand the most commonly used concepts and terms while explaining commons architecture textually and also visually. Thus, this selection offers a framework in which the projects share similar contexts and offer diverse material for analysis. 

La Borda

La Borda is a housing project in Barcelona, located in the Sants neighbourhood. The idea of setting up a housing cooperative emerged during the assemblies of the community centre Can Batlló, a former industrial complex reclaimed back by the neighbourhood in 2011, during the heated days of the 15-M Movement in Spain. The use contract between the neighbourhood community and the municipality for Can Batlló included only public functions. And during general committee meetings of Can Batlló, the housing shortage -one of the most pressing urban issues of Barcelona- was discussed and it was decided to seek alternatives. This initiative, including the architects of Lacol which was already involved in architectural projects and other forms of mobilisation for the neighbourhood community, started the negotiations for a site in Sants and finally rented the site from the municipality for 75 years. The housing cooperative was formed via an inclusive process that ensured the selection of a diverse group of people in terms of family structure and age. And the design phase started with workshops for active participation of the housing cooperative, while the financial and legal issues were also being solved.