What is Commons Architecture?
Hulya Ertas, Burak Pak
hulya.ertas@kuleuven.be | burak.pak@kuleuven.be
KU Leuven Department of Architecture Campus Sint-Lucas Brussels, 1030 Belgium

In this paper we introduce a manifesto of commons architecture as provocation to rethink architecture and its practitioners. We frame commons architecture as the critical practice of social (re)production of space.  We propose three ends and two means for an operative framework for commons architecture, and move on to elaborate on the concepts and practices of the common good, the critical spatial practice and post-capitalism as ends and the agency of hacking and feminism the relevant means . These are neither complete nor exhaustive collections of possibilities. In this context, the manifesto is a call for the co-ideation of the “commons architecture” as a knowledge commons which needs to be criticized, further developed and hacked into via an open-source debate, and spatial practice.

Keywords: the commons, critical spatial practice, common good, post-capitalism, hacking, feminism

“The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.” Frank Herbert, Dune

This paper is a manifesto of commons architecture. It serves as a provocation to rethink architecture and its practitioners, more specifically the architects’ position in and in relation with the society. The commons is taken as defined by Kostakis & Drechsler (2018), as “a social system that refers to resources managed and shared according to the rules and the norms defined by the productive community.” As such, the commons architecture is the practice of social (re)production of space.  

“Means should look like ends: one cannot fantasize that the struggle for an egalitarian society of sharing may win by adopting forms of inequality and enclosure.” Following this conceptualization of “means and ends” by Stavrides (2016, p. 172), we propose three ends (key objectives) and two means (essential tools) for the operative framework of commons architecture. While the common good, critical spatial practice and post-capitalism are the ends, hacking and feminism are the means to reach them. 

Ends #1: The Common Good 

Commons architecture is practiced for the common good. The traditional trilogy of the commons (resources, people and protocols) in itself does not imply the direction and nature of sharing practices. In this trilogy, the commons appear as a neutral tool that makes possible the transfer of material or immaterial values in between these three components, which, through a helical process, opens up to new commoning practices (De Angelis, 2017, p.34). Introducing the common good as the first feature of commons architecture gives the direction that is otherwise missing in this helical process. The common good, though it may sound ancient and out-of-fashion, is still relevant as a transversal understanding that arches over the fundamental crises of our time.  In his book Theory of Justice, John Rawls defines it as “certain general conditions that are in an appropriate sense equally to everyone’s advantage” (1999, p. 39). Moreover, the common good is a very useful tool to solve the multi-layered and complex crises of our times, which are listed humorously in the article published at the literary platform McSweeneys (2018) as such: Things like pervasive social structural injustice, economic disparity, stagnant job markets, the prohibitive cost of healthcare, sexism, Nazism, global warming, shuttering libraries, disappearing bees, diminished attention spans, endemic loneliness, the opioid crisis, the misogyny of the president, recklessly armed citizens, the Kardashians, Oreo Thins, pre-teens eating Tide Pods etc.” (O’Reilly, 2018)

For categorising these crises -or general conditions as Rawls calls them- Nancy Fraser’s theory of justice is highly helpful as redistribution, recognition, representation and meta-level (in)justices become easy to spot. We are highly aware, especially with the detailed financial analysis of Thomas Piketty (2014) that the existing economic model, based on inequality, is not even good for the 1%, let alone for the common good. We are aware that women are being harassed and, raped, even when they are in power positions, as was seen in the case of Harvey Weinstein (Nicholson, 2018) and the subsequent #metoo movement. We are aware that elections in many countries around the world are rigged through the interventions of digital platform monopolies, as seen in the case of Cambridge Analytica (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018), and that our democracy is in crisis under the practices of neoliberalism (Brown, 2015, p. 36). We are also aware that the time for sustainability is long gone.  The planet is, in fact, in a situation that does not need to be ecologically sustained, but regenerated. This urgent need to stop exploiting the nature within the treadmill of production (Foster, 1995), is the only way for the survival of "everyone" on Earth.

So, how can architecture contribute in generating these general conditions and how can architecture of the common good be practiced? The existing framework of architecture is fairly described by Michael Sorkin (2014) as: “In the main, architecture only abets the transparency of capital’s inequities.” (p. 217). Contrary to this approach, commons architecture acts as a catalyst for the equal redistribution of the commonwealth, while fighting the capital’s request for generating inequities. This does not only manifest itself in the end product, but also in the process, where materials are chosen in an ethically and ecologically conscious manner, without labour exploitation, barriers put up, both visibly and invisibly, against certain classes. The inclusion of marginal groups, providing a safe place for voicing needs and desires of all by all who are involved in the design, the implementation and in-use processes, and the finding of innovative tools for these are musts. Forms that are not representatives of the existing unjust power structures, but are representatives of a new society of empowered citizens and spaces that allow for open interaction, are among the main priorities. Last but not least, commons architecture is based on the principles of ecological design. According to these principles, not only recycling, upcycling, renovation, rehabilitation and using environmentally friendly materials are favored, but the unnecessary use of materials or trying to solve every problem through creating new spaces (as the problem lies somewhere else, so is the solution) are avoided in order to protect the Earth’s resources. This defines a new aesthetic conception that is contrary to glossy finishings and monumental expressions, which is what we know architecture to be today. We embrace and expand this new aesthetic conception rather than try to adapt to the mainstream aesthetics of the status quo

Ends #2: Critical Spatial Practice

Emanating from Tafuri’s (1979) ideas on the relationship between architecture and capitalism, to Hays’s (1984) definition of critical architecture, later adapted as critical spatial practice by Jane Rendell (2003), this concept covers a broad ecosystem for discussing a modality at the intersection of architecture, art, activism, philosophy, and literature. 

Rendell’s (2003, p. 222) ideation of critical spatial practice incorporates a wide range of spatial theoreticians such as M. de Certeau, W. Benjamin, H. Cixous, L. Irigaray and R. Braidott. She stretches and plays out the traditional concepts of ‘art’ and ‘architecture’, and extends them to everyday activities and creative practices which seek to resist the dominant social order of global corporate capitalism. Even though all these definitions make it perfectly clear that critical spatial practice is an anti-capitalist approach, it is rarely explicitly mentioned as such. Instead, the focus is on everyday life and how to alter it. 

According to Dunne and Raby (n.d.), critical design is the production of speculative design proposals to “challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life”. According to the authors, it is an attitude or a position but not a method, and it contrasts with affirmative design practices that reinforce the status quo.

Petrescu (2007, p. 3) describes parallel practices referred to as alterities”, inspired by Deleuze’s conception of altering practices. These practices are becomings in other words active, dynamic processes of thinking and transformation, and an affirmation of “difference” as a positive quality. Critical spatial practice, in this context, is a critique of the current state of affairs through design practices that explore alternative values which question and disrupt the status quo.

From a different angle, Hirsch and Miessen (2012) frame the Occupy movements around the world as a critical spatial practice; a response to the crisis of the global financial system and a call for an understanding of archi­tecture as a res public, an alternate mode of public organization. Occupy movements in this context are a critical act of commoning (Pak, 2017), a spatial practice reacting to the increasing exploitation of the commons and specifically the public spaces in our cities by market forces. Occupy cases around the world such as Occupy Gezi were attempts at the bottom-up creation of temporary commons, collective ownership and management of resources which extend beyond the public spaces on the basis of open source, sharing and solidarity. These demonstrate and open up new possibilities for co-creation of the commons as a bottom-up critical spatial practice.  

Discussing commons architecture under the umbrella of critical spatial practice not only provides a working framework for the former, but also widens the perspectives of the latter in its subversive nature. These new perspectives aim to introduce the commons as a realpolitik for critical spatial practices, as apparent in the Hardt & Negri’s (2017, p. 244) advice: “… every subversive action and every social struggle must be immersed in the biopolitical terrain, the terrain of social life, and oriented toward the common.”

Ends #3: Post-capitalism

The enclosure movement, putting an end to the common use of land and resources, has caused capitalism to replace feudalism (Marx, 1996). If commons existed before capitalism, we can dream of the commons as a post-capitalist project as well, but of course in a projective rather than a reversible manner. "Although commons exist in the here and now, their further development and interlacing would also enable us to respond to the inevitable crisis of capital and climate disaster in ways that amplify the commons autonomy vis-à-vis capital and the top-down logic of states.” (De Angelis, 2017, p. 13). Operative regardless of the boundaries of market and state, the commons is fragile for co-option, as previously seen in the open-source software movements, etc. So here we consider the commons in its anti-capitalist characteristic as George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici (2014, p. i100) did, as only through this feature, the commons has the capacity to “transform our social relations and create an alternative to capitalism.” Revoking commons thinking is not a call for revivalism of the feudalist order, but for a transition to post-capitalism. Architecture as much as any other discipline can find ways to activate, trigger and provoke this call, especially after years of being in service of capital in practice, but pretending to be against capitalism in theory.

It is true that in this endeavour one of the main obstacles is the trap of folk politics. It is described as “a collective and historically constructed political common sense that has become out of joint with the actual mechanisms of power. ” (Srnicek & Williams, 2015, p. 21). In general, Srnicek and Williams argue that the existing mechanisms of neoliberalism are so abstract and global that the most “immediate” reactions against it fall short in the battle as they remain materialistic and local, and do not have long-term effects. The best way to interpret their understanding of contemporary architectural resistance might be through the small-scale urban interventions, the guerrilla tactics or tactical urbanism projects where the citizens are mobilized for a certain project in the urban space. In this kind of practice, the ephemerality of the project is praised as a contradiction to architecture’s need to last forever and this ephemerality is considered as an opposition to the capitalist mode of production. However, this opposing position itself does not always guarantee a paradigm shift or transformative politics, but might even function as a band-aid for the short-comings of social policies of the post-welfare state. (Boer & Minkjan, 2016)

Post-capitalist projections vary from left accelerationists to degrowth advocates, but as Walsh & Ng (2017) discusses, post-capitalism seems generally characterized by a reemergence of the commons. Following this potential, commons architecture functions as the material reality of our daily life practices in the transformation to a post-capitalist society. So how is this architecture shaped? 

Here we can extend the discussion towards anti-neoliberal practices based on solidarity,  shared ownership, sustainable production and consumption and fair distribution (van den Berk-Clarck and Pyles, 2012) as well autonomy, self-determination and self-organization. In a post-capitalist context, architectural design is not a for-profit, top-down business. It is rather a bottom-up solidarity spatial practice which critiques neoliberalism and imagines possibilities for alternative modes of shared living based on anti-capitalist values. Here it is crucial 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 interdependence of diverse subjectivities, skills, and motivations.   

Means #1: Hacking

The Elinor Ostrom (1990) school of the commons thinking relies heavily on managing the natural commons, which in turn brings together the problem of scarcity. Different from natural resources, artificial resources, such as knowledge and culture, are impossible to exploit through commoning practices. Consequently, Hardin’s (1968) widely discussed and wrongly adapted vision of tragedy of the commons” is not be relevant in the case of non-natural commoning practices. Commons architecture of our times relies on the non-natural commoning practices and therefore traces back to similar movements which takes us to FLOSS - free libre open source software, and hacking as the most prominent practice of FLOSS. 

Open source is a concept which exceeds beyond the world of Information and Communication Technologies. It is a social movement which advocates for the co-creation of products that are not proprietary, based on shared ownership which offers customizability by promoting adoption and improvement. This is a call for affordable and resilient outcomes, which are produced by innovators working together to make sure that the software still works in case of a market failure. In this context, open source movement advocates for solidarity, practices not motivated with potential monetary gains, practices through which the true sharing economy benefits the whole co-creation community.