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


In this paper, we will introduce the concept of Commons Architecture, and discuss how it is different from the Architecture of the Commons. We will unpack and elaborate on commons architecture and introduce its five key pillars: common good, critical spatial practice, postcapitalism, hacking, feminism

These pillars will be contextualized in three commons architecture cases: La Borda in Barcelona, Prinzessinengarten in Berlin, and R-urban in Colombes. Building on this case study, our discussion of commons architecture will be deepened through a reframing of the Political Aesthetics of Ranciere from a fusion of art and everyday life to a fusion of architecture and commons. This frame covers three ways of becoming: life to commons architecture, commons architecture to life, interchanging commons architecture and life.

Using this framework we will make an intersectional analysis relating the three ways of becoming in the Political Aesthetics of Ranciere to the five pillars of commons architecture we introduced, cross-linking the findings from our case study. As a result, we will reveal key everyday practices for commons architecture such as solidarity, active participation, appropriation, care, and how these become commons architecture.


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. They had several h as guerilla urbanism, tactical urbanism, 

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 of neoliberalism and its effects on our daily lives, especially in constructing new subjectivities and struggles against neoliberalism’s hegemonic power, especially when they take spatial forms. An old term as common good can remind us of the main direction for commoning practices, especially when its common is expanded towards the more than humans in a non-anthropocentric angle. Postcapitalism draws the motivation beyond the commons architecture in radically imagining the life after capitalism while critical spatial practice recalls the melting boundaries between theory and practice in which thinking and making keep feeding each other. Hacking as a tool to generate commons architecture offers new perspectives in open design, shared authorship, and tactical fields of action while feminism is considered crucial especially in the governance of the commons and intersectional perspectives on inclusion. With all these 5 pillars in place, it becomes possible to dream of “a world without property (either material or immaterial) rights, which is one of the bases of enclosure movement and capitalism. An architecture of unlocked doors, permeable walls, temporarily occupied and shared smart -in terms of ecology and economy, as well as technology- habitats; the spatial co-creation of collective living, decision-making, care-taking based on the interdependence of diverse subjectivities, skills, and motivations.” (Ertas & Pak, 2018) 

Moreover, the prefigurative aspect of the commons allows us to radically imagine our future, makes us dream of postcapitalism. The commons is at the same time a practice in the here and now as an anti-capitalist struggle, and a radical imagination towards the future in which the commoning is no longer the struggles but a daily normative practice of the collective society. 


We are going to discuss three cases but before explaining the selection process of these three it is important to mention the function of the cases in the scope of this paper. The three cases help us to understand the discourse of commons architecture via written texts by the design architects, critiques and academicians, and visual material, such as photos, architectural drawings. The cases support the paper in finding a focus to make an in-depth analysis of the most commonly used concepts and terms and how they are interpreted in the field of (commons) architecture. Neither the cases are supposed to provide a general overview of what commons architecture is or can be, nor we as authors claim or deny that these cases are commons architecture examples, since this is not the intention of this paper. The main aim of this paper is to put forward the most commonly used concepts and terminology in commons architecture, and to attempt to understand the performative characteristics of practice, or in other words to see if a new possible future is being built with aesthetics (representation through words and visuals) in addition to the physical building on the site of commons architecture. 

In this paper we will make a discourse 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, and have a diverse program and high visibility. 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 they are 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. 

The plan is based on the courtyard typology and has a closed atrium that takes in light and regulates the thermal heating and cooling inside the building. The housing units are mostly one or two-bedroom apartments with their entrances via the hall surrounding the atrium. While the ground floor offers shared activity space, shared kitchen/dining room there is a shared terrace on the fifth floor. The idea behind the creation of these shared spaces is to compensate for the relatively small housing units by introducing various functions to the building’s socio-spatial program. The cross-laminated timber structure all along the interior atrium define the material qualities of the shared spaces. 



Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin has come to life via a group making a contract with the municipality when a publicly owned land was to be hired to the highest bidder in 2009. Started as a temporary occupation project that is still alive today in 2020, Prinzessinnengarten has always been a combination of capitalist entrepreneurship and urban gardening. The commercial activities of the bars and restaurants on-site (which are selling local and organic goods at a relatively high price) are generating the income for the urban garden to be maintained by a mixed group of employees and volunteers. This mixed formula allows for the people involved in the urban garden to keep testing and implementing some new techniques for natural recuperation in the city such as water collection etc. 

Even though the commons was not at the core of the Prinzessinnengarten at the beginning it has become a concept that is being raised in recent years. Spatially the site is composed of 3 parts: the gastronomical section, the garden and the wooden structure Die Laube. The gastronomical section has mobile food trucks and containers and a sitting area with tables and chairs. The angular setting of the small restaurants and bars, and the loose placement of tables and chairs give the impression of a makeshift process. The garden is dispersed, yet placed closer to the main entrance in a diagonal setting. With a grid plan, the raised beds are made of reused materials such as beverage cases and sacks. They provide the first encounter when entering the space together with die Laube in the background. Realised as an “extension of possibilities in the garden” die Laube generates spaces for various activities in Prinzessinnengarten. 


R-Urban is a network of structures that aims to introduce resilience into the city with productive functions. Initiated and designed by Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée (aaa) in Colombes, the R-Urban was funded
through the EU Life+ Program of Environmental Governance with the Colombes municipality as one of the partners. The main elements of R-Urban are AgroCité (urban farming unit with educational and cultural facilities), Recyclab (recycling atelier for sustainable construction), ECoHab (cooperative housing), AnimaLab (micro-farms for beekeeping and poultry). The motivation of the project is to generate a network of productive and solidarity spaces and make the urban communities more resilient to the climate crisis and financial instability. In Colombes from 2011 to 2017 except the ECoHab, the other three units were active and when the political situation changed they had to move the AgroCité to Gennevillers and also another AgroCité has been activated in Bagneaux. These two AgroCités are still in use in June 2021.