theoretical framework

The commons in between theory and practice

One of the most cited articles on the commons was published in 1968 by the American ecologist Garret Hardin. While trying to prove there cannot be enough food to feed the population of people and other species with a Neomalthusian (Malthusianism, n.d.) approach, Hardin claimed that commonly managed meadows would be over-grazed and hence the management of the commons would end up in a tragedy. His idea resonated especially among natural science disciplines for years, and at the same time, it has received various criticism. His theory of the Tragedy of the Commons has been proven wrong by many scholars such as Elinor Ostrom and David Harvey. Their reasoning lies in the author’s mistaking the commons for open access (Harvey, 2011) and his limited imagination on people’s capacities toward collectivism (Ostrom, 2008). While Hardin considers the commons just as a solution for resource management, we agree with Massimo De Angelis’s (2017) definition of the commons as “social systems in which a plurality, a ‘community’, by standing in particular relation to the ‘things’, the ‘goods’, also reproduces the social relations among the people”. 

In 1990 Elinor Ostrom published Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Her work aims to prove that natural resources are more sustainably governed (i.e., not overused, well-maintained) with a long-term vision by the communities, rather than by the state or the market. Even though her main motivation is to demonstrate the economic advantages of the commons, Ostrom focuses on collectivity, and governance of the shared resources. The joint consensus on the tripodal characteristics of the commons (the shared resources, the community which collectively shares and manages these resources, and the protocols of use and share) is rooted in her work. The specificity of this research’s focus on the natural commons and her motivation to prove the financial advantages of the commons make her work hardly translatable to the field of architecture or to the discourse of the urban commons where the economic gains are not prioritised. With Charlotte Hess, Ostrom, later on, published Understanding Knowledge as a Commons in 2007 where the focus is shifted from natural resources to cultural resources, such as academia and libraries. In 2009 Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics with her scholarly contributions. At that time political and social spheres were very much under the influence of the recent situation after the 2008 financial crisis, which brought with it the questioning of the existing financial mechanisms and their malfunction. 

During the same period urban struggles and occupy movements were in action across the globe. Whether protesting the austerity measures of the government following the financial crush (Spain, Brasil), fighting against the loss of public spaces (Turkey) or demanding more freedom (Arab Spring) these square movements evoke the imagination of people towards a more egalitarian and inclusive application of democracy and its representation in the city. The forums were organised to discuss the horizontal organisational structure and the ways to keep the struggle going on. The commons thinking offered an operative concept during these discussions. In an interview, Begüm Özden Fırat (2019) mentions that during the struggle against the demolition of the Emek Movie Theatre in Istanbul, they were looking for a solution for this privately-owned theatre which was part of the city’s public life and urban collective memory. She continues by arguing that commons provide a conceptual set to understand the mechanisms of enclosures, to generate a space of action and offer a revolutionary strategy.  

In a similar vein, following their critique on the existing world order with their two seminal books, Empire (2001) and Multitude (2004), the Italian Autonomist philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri published Commonwealth in 2009 as a sequel to the aforementioned two books. In Commonwealth they focus on “the common” and provide a historical reading and contemporary critique of the common, concluding the potentialities of the common for revolution. This work is followed by Assembly in 2017 in which they propose guidelines for collective action. It is theory translated into practice with case studies where the theory is fed from the practice as well.

Many of the ideas that are shared by the proponents of the commons movement have already been the protest slogans since 1968. Yet they render a generous diversity from the armed resistance of Zapatistas to the festival area of Burning Man as a temporary autonomous zone, from the Alterglobalism movement during the 90s to the square movements of the 21st century. It is a productive mechanism to propose new situations. Following the urban struggle, the immediate response to a spatial happening the commons becomes both the means of the struggle in its horizontal organisational framework and the ends of it in proposing a space in common. Through sociological research in Athens and Barcelona during and after the protests, the relation between the square movements and commoning practices are demonstrated clearly. The relation occurs through directional (transplantation, breeding and ideation), and indirectional mechanisms in which the protestors as subjectivities transform themselves.  (Varvarousis, Asara & Akbulut, 2020). 

Like all movements, commons is also composed of differences. According to the relation between the commons and the market Vangelis Papadimitropoulos (2017) describes three approaches: liberal, reformist, and anti-capitalist. While the liberal approach aims to fix capitalism and sustain it in its updated format, the reformist approach proposes a transition in the existing system with commoning practices. On the other hand, the anti-capitalist approach places commons as a field of action and movement with the aim of overthrowing capitalism via social revolution. Acknowledging the devastating effects of capitalism in its extractive practices towards nature and humans we position ourselves within the anti-capitalist approach. 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. 

Architectural (dis)positions 

The contemporary cityscape is one filled with buildings of varying sizes. A Google image search of the word “cityscape” results in bird-eye view photographs of cities where the focus is on the line of skyscrapers in different heights and shapes. This architectural patchwork is composed of singular buildings with no visible visual connection to the neighbouring buildings. Among them are the iconic buildings, forms realised to become an icon of its content, whether a corporate office, hotel or residential tower. For Pier Vittorio Aureli (2011) iconic buildings are “stripped bare of any meaning other than the celebration of corporate economic performance.” The emphasis on the economic benefits that a building renders or is expected to render in today’s world can be best understood by looking at the contemporary economic, social and political superstructure: neoliberalism. While explaining neoliberal rationality, Wendy Brown (2015) refers to competition replacing exchange and becoming a norm in the market economy. According to her, this shift implies that “all market actors are rendered as little capitals … competing with, rather than exchanging with each other”. The city is not a collective form in which all the shaping actors work together but is rather a contestation arena in which all actors work to compete. The exchange in-between buildings, the urban life happening on the street level are not the focus in this competitive environment. Neoliberalism is not only an economic system but “a form of our existence” (Dardot & Laval, 2013) and produces specific subjectivities for its existence. Just like Wendy Brown’s Dardot & Laval’s the neoliberal rationality produces competitive subjectivities. The architect as a neoliberal subject -just like every other actor in the space production mechanisms- works to compete, to create the one singular building that is better, higher, shinier. 

Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, Fukuyama’s announcement of “end of the history”, the neoliberal policies becoming the norm in the governance of states and cities indicated a new era of post-politics. The post-political turn in architecture during the 1990s is visible in the emergence of the starchitect system, where iconic buildings designed by celebrity architects branded cities. Especially after the Bilbao effect, “a phenomenon whereby cultural investment plus showy architecture is supposed to equal economic uplift for cities down on their luck” (Moore, R., 2017), the economic gains an iconic building can bring to a city was widely discussed, often reducing the value of architecture to its contribution to the economy. According to Moore the spectacle offered by iconic architecture and its economic success also functioned to veil poor regeneration plans by the public authorities or the stretching out of planning regulations by private companies. Architecture becomes a tool for economic growth and branding the cities and the corporations the architecture is designed for. 

To understand this era, several terms have been utilised; post-political, pragmatic, post-critical and projective can be listed as the most common adjectives for the mainstream architectural practices. The pragmatic function of architecture was represented at large by Koolhaas who pointed that “architects, instead of struggling against or resisting the forces of capitalism, should instead seize and exploit them.” (Mallgrave and Goodman, 2011) The role of the architect and the agency of the practice are mobilised to play with the rules of the free market and to realise their projects.

Following the austerity politics after the 2008 financial crisis, citizens started gathering together not only to protest the social and economic policies but also to test new forms of publicness. Revitalizing already existing public spaces, claiming vacant private spaces, making collective decisions about their neighbourhoods, people started to transform into active citizens. Challenging the limits of representative democracy and demanding their voices to be heard and their right to the city, citizen initiatives, whether in the form of neighbourhood organizations or solidarity groups, have started to reshape the urban environment. In literature, these have been given a variety of names such as DIY urbanism, make-shift urbanism, pop-up architecture, guerrilla urbanism, etc. 

These developments brought up novel discussions on urban and public space as a shared resource, as a commons. Scholars like David Harvey (2012) have expanded Henri Lefebvre’s (1968) conception of the right to the city to understand and give meaning to the global Square Movements. In line with Ostrom’s understanding of the natural resources that are by existence meant to be commonly shared, here, the city itself is considered a priori as a commons, thus the term urban commons emerges, a space that is neither state controlled nor privately owned is theorized, practised and tested. The idea of commons has transformed from its starting point as a way to manage natural resources into a wider discourse around spatial dynamics, especially urban areas. Stavrides (2016) describes common space as “a set of spatial relations produced by commoning practices.” In this sense, it can be considered as a paradigm for urban self-planning and resource management. 

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 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. 

The research attempts 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) 

With all these concepts in mind, we ran architecture master design studios in two consecutive academic years of 2018-2019 and 2019-2020.  This experience taught us how commons architecture can be a subject in an academic environment and motivated us to question the tools (student) architects need to co-design their projects. We deliberately focused on Brussels as our immediate environment to expand the commoners of the studio towards people we are designing for and with, and NGOs that have been working on the same sites and subjects as well to keep visiting and examining the site to develop a meaningful understanding especially in terms of urban social life. Also, especially during the first year (pre-pandemic condition) we tried to transform the studio environment into a commons in which the students rotationally organised our meetings and self-organised for practical matters such as printing. We together with one of the master architects in the studio wrote a conference paper in which we concluded the main challenges as the status quo in general and in academia and their hierarchical relations, developing new tools and methodologies to equip the students with diverse knowledge sets necessary to design commons architecture and scalability. (Ertas, Charlot & Pak, 2019) 

From architecture magazines to online platforms

The first issue of Architectural Review was published in 1896 (The Architectural Review, n.d.) in Great Britain, and “in Russia, the first architectural journal, Arkhitekturnyi Vestnik, came out in 1859 (Architectural Journals, n.d.) in St. Petersburg”. With its history of more than a hundred years, architectural magazines have been significant hubs for architectural criticism. Steve Parnell (2013) describes architectural magazines as “a principal battleground” and criticism as “a significant weapon in this battle”. He argues it is the architectural criticism that translates the mere act of building into architecture and thus transforms it into the culture. 

Alexandre Lange (2012) defines four main approaches in architectural criticism via her research on the writings through the second half of the 20th century. The “formal” approach explores the building in its object form, the “experiential” approach is about the description of the feelings a building evokes, the “historical” approach situates the building in the context of the site’s background or the oeuvre of the architect, and finally, the “activist" approach seeks the fundamental societal relations a new design brings in or takes away from the public. Even though these four approaches allow us to understand the criticism of the last century and provide operational frameworks to understand the contemporary critical texts, they fall short in describing the state of architectural criticism today. 

Following the post-critical approach in architecture and the profession’s direction towards finding meaning in its economic function, the architectural criticism also transformed. This is visible in a series of articles that seek whether or not architecture criticism is dead (Kamin, 2015; Quirk, 2012). The discussions around the state of architectural criticism revolve around three main shifts: lack of resources, questioning the authority of the critic and web 2.0. 

In the traditional way of news making, printing and selling the hardcopy newspapers and magazines to readers, and the advertisement gains provided the income for the media outlet, which in turn could be allocated to contributing writers and photographers. This financial operation was challenged by the emergence of the Internet and the free content available via websites and personal blogs. The lack of resources meant not only being unable to hire critics to comment on architecture but also budget cuts where the trustworthiness of the critic came under suspicion. This discussion had a heated moment in 2019 when Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin questioned the trustworthiness of the critics whose flight tickets and accommodations were paid by the Chicago Architecture Biennale, implying they would refrain from writing negatively about the event. The press tours have also been a PR campaign for most of the big architecture offices. I recall visiting the Heydar Aliyev Centre during its opening via an invitation by Zaha Hadid Architects in 2013, while I was working for XXI. The flights, accommodation, lunches and dinners during the trip were all covered by Zaha Hadid Architects, which makes it not only impossible to write a negative review but even not write anything at all. There is the unwritten, intangible and implicit rule: If you accept the architecture office to cover all your costs, you are supposed to write about their project, hopefully in a positive manner. 

Parallel to the emergence of the Internet and distributed platforms giving voice to people the authority of “the” architecture critique started to become questionable. With the lack of financial resources mentioned above, a new type of reactionary critique bloomed on social media, especially on Twitter. Yet, the high hopes induced in the sentence “everyone is a critic now” could not happen. Today the people whose voices are blunter and higher on social media are still the ones with a support mechanism. These are either academics, authors of certain magazines and newspapers or researchers. Still, the wider -unsupported- audience can raise questions and contribute to the “collective criticism” as Mimi Zeiger (2013) calls it. According to her, an acclaimed critic, collective criticism “operates on, across and between platforms. It is made up of individuals, but takes its power from responsive dialogue, not autonomous authorship… Like crowdsourcing, it draws on both expert and amateur resources.” Yet, it is uncertain who benefits more from this collective work and whether the amateur resources are ever remunerated via reputation building mechanisms while the experts become more visible during this “dialogue”. It is also important to note here the precarity hanging over the younger generation of architects; the forever anxious architect not knowing whether he will be able to find work the next month is short on time to contribute to the architecture culture and to invest in this type of reputation building via joining an (online) architectural discussion. In brief, the conditions of democratisation of architectural criticism via online media are not in place. 

The possible interactions between the critic and the reader have multiplied with the development of Web 2.0. Setting up a dialogue for collective criticism, commenting directly and easily on the critique and having a say on the future content via online polls became possible. Yet, the bigger success story happened somewhere else, not in the architectural criticism but in the online platforms publishing the most recent architecture projects. In 2008, Archdaily, “the world's most visited architecture website” was founded as a platform of press releases of architecture offices. Mostly referred to as press release journalism, this approach floods the reader with architectural office’ PR bulletins. It solves the problem of lack of resources in two ways: Firstly, by encouraging the architects’ themselves to submit their own projects as content and secondly, by getting more advertisement income since the accelerated content creation brings more page views, transforming the architectural content into clickbait. Thus, architects are not only in control of their constructed designs but also their preferred representations of their works via the photographs taken by photographers commissioned by the architecture office, drawings drawn by the architecture office and texts written by the architecture office. This crowdsourced press release journalism became so dominant in its modus operandi of “mechanical reproduction” that architectural criticism can hardly keep pace.