On the received aesthetic of the urban commons, and transcending it

Edmund Sumner's lovely picture of Ryue Nishizawa's Moriyama House

Edmund Sumner’s lovely picture of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House: What the commons could look like, but generally does not

A few days back, my friend and colleague John Bingham-Hall gave a great talk at the Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, as part of a series on the urban commons organized by the wonderful Torange Khonsari. John’s talk was called “Common(s) Materials,” and it took up a question that’s central to many of my own concerns: is there some necessary relationship between the social or political qualities of a space claimed for the commons, and the materials used in articulating and furnishing that space?

What I want to do here is expand on some of John’s thoughts, and perhaps develop them further. What follows is more of a free association than anything else, and certainly not a well-formed argument; while I apologize if it’s not particularly structured, hopefully you’ll find some utility in it regardless.

What do you mean when you talk about “the commons”?

Let me first clarify what I mean by “the commons,” which, for present purposes, we can simply define as territory not governed by either the market or the state, and that is in principle available and accessible to all. (I’ve previously written about why I prefer the gerund form commoning, but we can set that to the side for now.)

Sites organized as commons have been in short supply in conurbations of the developed world ever since the so-called “urban renaissance,” or rediscovery and revalorization of the central city by the middle class, which started gathering steam around 1990. This reversal in the outward flow of population that had characterized the previous few decades sent land value in urban cores worldwide to vertiginous heights, and guaranteed that the worth of such parcels would henceforth be determined by their speculative exchange value, rather than any utility they might have as a dwelling-place for human beings. At the culmination of this process, a clear consensus regarding “the highest and best use” for land emerged worldwide, in the form of luxury condominiums whose units are traded as “sky bullion” among the members of a fairly shady global investor class consisting of oligarchs, autocrats, hedge-fund traders, private-equity managers and their children.

Under such circumstances, the only sites that were by and large left to popular control were waste and interstitial spaces, sacrifice zones too steep, difficult or prone to subsidence to develop profitably, or tracts where the projects of finance capital had failed, gone into receivership or otherwise been abandoned.

In the global South, for the most part, any such site is impossible to distinguish from the broader and thoroughly informal built fabric that may constitute the absolute majority of a city’s developed land area. It’s only in the metropolitan core of the developed world that sites occupied and maintained as commons tend to stand apart, not simply in terms of their political organizing principles but of their visual identity as well.

Is there any such thing as a “commons aesthetic”?

So can we establish that there is a coherent aesthetic associated with such spaces?

As I’ve noted here before, there is a distinct mode in which urban sites claimed for the commons present themselves to their users and the world. It’s present in most of the participatory spaces I’ve been so interested in over the past decade: you can see it deployed at Grand Voisins in Paris, el Campo de Cebada in Madrid, perhaps to a lesser extent at Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin, and it’s all over the projects of collective practices like Campo designer-builders Zuloark or the intriguing spatial provocateurs raumlabor Berlin. These spaces are characterized by the use of ultra-low-cost, widely accessible commodity materials readily manipulable by the untrained: shipping pallets and the wood reclaimed from them, CMUs of various types, construction tarps and rebar.

Cheap, lightweight components of this sort emphasize the mobile, participatory and rapidly reconfigurable qualities of common space — though perhaps at the cost of inadvertently underlining just how contingent such space generally is in the global North, just how vulnerable it is to clearance by the state and recuperation by the market. As John pointed out, there is a certain invitational character to them as well. You don’t require much in the way of training or prior experience to build surprisingly durable structures with these materials, which is the same reason you’ll find them at the heart of various self-build schemes of the past half-century. (Ken Isaacs’ visionary 1974 How To Build Your Own Living Structures is exemplary in this regard, though Walter Segal’s method has to be singled out for the longevity of its influence on actually-existing lifeways.)

Together, these elements comprise what I think of as the Received Commons Aesthetic, and as the name implies, it’s fair to say that it has by now become something of a mannerism. Further, its achievement on a given site may require outlays of capital or labor that the community claiming it for the commons cannot well tolerate. For example, raumlabor Berlin’s rather clever chairs, albeit using salvaged wood, are nevertheless purpose-built and labor-intensive. (Despite my own long-nurtured hopes for an eventual alignment of the informational commons with the spatial commons, at present I think it’s clear that the use of digitally-fabricated furniture in this context, like the designs licensed by Opendesk, can only be understood as hopelessly fetishistic, and the same thing probably goes for most appearances of open hardware.)

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of actual squats and social centers I’ve ever spent time in were furnished in an eclectic style that could best be described as “adaptive reuse,” with much of the interior furnishing either inherited from the building’s former occupants, or trashpicked and therefore freegan. In my experience, anyway, such avowedly anarchist spaces tend to be cozy with rugs, spavined La-Z-Boys and thick, insulating wall-hangings, if not outright gemütlich; the idea that their inhabitants would dedicate any effort at all to the design and construction of new furniture, especially amid the profound global surplus of manufactured objects available more or less for the taking, strikes me as, uh, questionable. (John ended his talk with the provocation that the most appropriate seating for spaces of participatory democracy would be the £5 folding chair from Ikea, rather than anything intended to function as a visual signifier of the commons; the equivalent, for most of the emerging world, would of course be the ubiquitous knockoff Monobloc.)

Why does any of this matter?

In his comments, John raised the question of performative transparency, as epitomized by Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome. At the Reichstag, glass is both denotative and connotative. You can literally see through it, of course, from the observer galleries to the workings of the chamber below, and it’s therefore supposed not merely to signify but actually enact the idea that democracy is something that takes place in public: the implication is that in present-day Germany, the deliberative process itself is as accessible, available and accountable as its image.

We can certainly wonder whether this is now the case, or ever has been. But as John pointed out, these performative qualities of glass do raise the question of what is implied when we choose to use other materials in our constructions of democratic space. In particular, he asked, “Does wood symbolically trap politics in the realm of the intimate?” In other words, does the very humility of the materials that together comprise the Received Commons Aesthetic consign the active practice of democracy to the strictly local, or suggest that there are no larger scales at which participatory praxis is appropriate?

In my own flavor of politics (which, as you may have noticed here and elsewhere, I’m increasingly comfortable characterizing as “neo-Bookchinian”), this may not matter so much. My feeling is that participatory deliberative processes work best in assemblies of about the Dunbar number — not at all coincidentally, the size of a New England-style town meeting — and that effective governance in both municipalities and larger territories can be achieved by networked federations thereof. Nevertheless, it’s a question worth taking seriously.

But there’s a more troubling implication raised by the Received Commons Aesthetic, which is that is so easily recognizable, so straightforwardly characterizable and so readily replicable that it can not merely stand for participatory politics but replace it entirely. If we see the RCA in admittedly interesting hybrid spaces like the Institut for (x) in Aarhus or the R-Urban project just northwest of Paris, there is however no suggestion that these sites are owned and managed collectively, for the benefit of all. And needless to say, anything so readily reducible to pastiche can also be encountered in watered-down form, at commercial sites like Seoul’s Ssamziegil — the latter places that do not remotely constitute a commons in any way, but clearly wish to convey the sense of openness, adaptivity, porosity and invitationality we associate with liberated spaces. What such sites imply is that the presence of architecture based on pallets, CMUs, tarps and other mobile elements may perform radical inclusion and participation where they do happen to be present, but also suggest them where they are not.

Indeed, at places like Boxpark and the truly vile Artworks, the aesthetic isn’t merely emptied of meaning but actually inverted: Boxpark is nothing more than a way of turning an otherwise marginal interstitial site into a buzz- and revenue-generating minimall, while the similar Artworks is deployed where the Heygate Estate housing complex once stood, camouflaging developer Lend Lease’s deep complicity in the council’s own program of social cleansing. (Apartments at the new Elephant Park were marketed, and evidently sold, exclusively to overseas investors, while the developers failed to actually provide any of the notionally affordable units they’d committed to.)

What all this says to me is that there is great value in establishing radically participatory spatial situations that do not greatly resemble the Received Commons Aesthetic, or at the very least pushing outward our notions of what common space can look like. Here my model has always been the microurbanism of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, a gorgeously-conceived and carefully detailed cluster of dwelling units surrounding shared service, conviviality and circulation spaces. As private property owned by a single individual, the thicket of buildings that constitutes Moriyama House is clearly in no way a commons as we’ve defined it. But in edging away from the atomized nature of life in discrete apart-ments, it points toward what it might mean to dwell in common, and perhaps suggests something about the ways in which space can help individual tenants modulate public and private as need be.

Like raumlabor’s chairs, such proposals certainly run afoul of that tendency Kurt Vonnegut once perceptively identified as one of the primary flaws in the human character: that “everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” There’s no doubt a great deal of justice in the idea that by the metric of sustainability, at least, the most radical thing one could possibly do is to reclaim existing spaces, leverage the material-energetic investments already sunk in them, and perhaps retrain them if necessary. By this ethic, the grandeur comes to live with the otherwise unglamorous practices of maintenance and long-term stewardship.

But there’s also something to be said for the idea that beauty, craft and rigor in design ought to be reclaimed from the market — that spaces by, of and for the people need not read as or be ad-hoc, that they might instead be marked by certain aesthetics we more often associate with luxury and the commercial high end. Dating back at least as far as Ruskin, Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, this is not, of course, a novel suggestion. It acquires new relevance, though, in a period of increasingly democratic and high-resolution control over the distribution of matter.

Organized as housing cooperatives or community land trusts or their equivalents, there’s no reason emergent spaces in common need to partake of the Received Commons Aesthetic — especially if it is more than occasionally dishonest in what it implies about the nature of the sites marked by it. With new digital design and construction techniques becoming relatively accessible, and powerful ways of building and dwelling together becoming available to learn from, it would be disappointing if the participatory and collectively managed spaces of the future failed to transcend the visual language of those few examples that exist at present.

I personally enjoy the Received Commons Aesthetic, just as I kinda dig the funky Ken Isaacs/early Whole Earth Catalog vibe of the various, deeply clever mobile assemblies Zuloark and their collaborators have built at el Campo. But what I enjoy more is the sense I have whenever I’m lucky enough to be on that parcel of land, which at that is not so different from what I remember about Kunsthaus Tacheles, or the various squats in which I’ve ever laid my head for the night: that here is freedom, and what’s more, freedom of a kind the market cannot offer at any rate or price. And because freedom is only another word for privilege unless it’s truly shared by all, it feels necessary, now, to begin peeling away that experience of freedom from the material undercarriage that implies but only occasionally actually supports its becoming.

My sense is that the Aesthetic, and the use of the materials it’s based on to construct and articulate spaces in common, will persist for some time yet to come, for all the reasons of low cost, accessibility and invitationality we’ve discussed. I hope, though, that we can imagine a time when such spaces aren’t limited to those that can be established on the scraps from late capitalism’s table, using offcuts from its voracious machinery. We should be thinking about what the urban commons might look like in triumph, when it can truly leverage all of the organizing, funding and building capabilities this moment in history offers us — when we dare to demand something reaching beyond a minimum viable utopia, and settle for nothing less than the entire city held in common, for the use and enjoyment of all who dwell in it and bring it to life.

My thanks to John Bingham-Hall, to his co-panelists Adam Kaasa and Nicolas Fonty for their insightful presentations, and to Torange Khonsari for her generosity in putting it all together.

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  1. Theatrum Mundi - 30 April 2018

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