Urban Commons

PD-r/ADO, found Space BXL


In Collaboration with
Hanne van Reusel (Commons Josaphat) BRAL vzw
Toestand vzw

Research Integration
This dissertation studio is integrated with the PhD research project of Hülya Ertas “Building a Knowledge Commons of The Commons Architecture” at KU Leuven Department of Architecture, Campus Sint-Lucas Brussels, co-advised by Prof. Dr. Lieven de Cauter and advised by Prof. Dr. Burak Pak

The Commons as a Response to Neoliberalism

The last four decades have witnessed a worldwide adoption of neoliberal policies which prescribe laissez-faire economics, deregulation, privatization and liberalization (Kaminer et al., 2011). Urban spaces in our cities were mobilized as a leverage for market-oriented economic growth and opened up to the consumption of the elite (Sager, 2011, p.149). Common resources -and specifically the public spaces in our cities- started to be increasingly exploited by market forces (Helfrich, 2011). As a result, architecture and urban design practices transformed into production modes through which global capitalism and political regimes exercise and express their power (Newton and Pak, 2015, p.101). These promoted urban design and development practices which are disconnected from the needs of the people (Harvey, 2013) (Boyer, 2011, p.5).

Following these developments, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the austerity measures adopted by the governments have moved alternative approaches for making urban spaces to the center stage. Since then, there has been a resurgence in the number of do-it-yourself (DIY) cooperatives initiated by citizens, activists, artists and designers. Ordinary people all around the world have started to claim a shaping power over the processes of urbanization; over the ways in which our cities are made and remade (Harvey, 2013, p.5). In literature, these have been given a variety of names such as: “DIY urbanism”, “make-shift urbanism”, “austerity urbanism” (Tonkiss, 2013). The international Occupy movements against social and economic inequality produced several relevant examples. In most cases, the citizens went beyond protesting and attempted to establish different forms of the temporary commons (Pak, 2017). For instance the occupation of the Taksim Square and the Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013 or the Movimiento 15M in Madrid and Barcelona from 2011 to 2015 were clear bottom-up initiatives for appropriating, reclaiming and redefining public spaces as a reaction to neoliberal planning policies (Pak. 2017).


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Aims and Research Questions

This studio aims at enabling urban commons through architecture. The student will explore architecture’s capacity for triggering social transformation based on solidarity, shared ownership, sustainable production and consumption and fair distribution, as well autonomy, self-determination and self- organization. To boost this capacity, the contemporary discussions on urban commons provides a wide and generous experimental ground for space-making. In a post-capitalist context, the students will rethink architectural design as a bottom-up solidary spatial practice which critiques neoliberalism and imagine possibilities for alternative modes of shared living based on anti-capitalist values.

A dream of a world without property (either material or immaterial) rights. An architecture of unlocked doors, permeable walls, temporarily occupied and shared smart -in terms of ecology and economy, as well as technology- habitats; the co-creation of collective living, decision-making, care-taking based on interdependence of diverse subjectivities, skills, and motivations.

 + How can the urban commons be an inspiration for developing novel critical spatial approaches?

+ How can the concepts of the common good, critical spatial practice and post-capitalism, the agency of hacking help us to create the commons architecture?

+ What are the alternative strategies and tactics to enable collective visioning and co-creation of the architecture of the urban commons?


Key Concepts


The Common Good

The 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, opening up to new commoning practices (De Angelis, 2017, p.34) . The common good -as well it might sound ancient and out-of-fashion- is still relevant as a transversal understanding that arches over fundamental crises of our time.

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 such: “In the main, architecture only abets the transparency of capital’s inequities.” (p. 217). Contrary to this approach, the commons architecture acts as a catalyst for the equal redistribution of the commonwealth and fights capital’s request for generating inequities.

The inclusion of marginal groups, providing a safe place for voicing needs and desires of everyone by everyone in the design, implementation and in-use processes, and also finding 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, the 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 also the unnecessary use of materials or trying to solve every problem through creating new spaces are avoided in order to protect the Earth’s resources.


Critical Spatial Practice

Emanating from Tafuri’s (1979) ideas on the relationship between architecture and capitalism, to Hays’s (1984) definition of critical architecture, and 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. According to Rendell’s (2003, p. 222)(2018) ideation, critical spatial practice 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.

According to Dunne and Raby (2018), critical design is the production of speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role design 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 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 archi- tecture as a res public, as 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.

Discussing the commons architecture under the umbrella of critical spatial practice not only provides a working framework for the first 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, following Hardt & Negri (2017, p. 244): “… every subversive action and every social struggle must be immersed in the biopolitical terrain, the terrain of social life, and oriented toward the common.”



Operating regardless of the boundaries of market and state, here we consider the commons in its anti- capitalist characteristic. The commons has the capacity to “transform our social relations and create an alternative to capitalism.” (Caffentzis and Federici, 2014, p. 100). 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 it in theory.

Post-capitalist projections vary from left accelerationists to degrowth advocates, but as Walsh & Ng (2017) discusses, “post-capitalism seems generally characterised by a reemergence of the commons”. Following this potential, the 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.


Open Source and Hacking

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 customisability 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.

The practice of free and open-source development can be expanded to the practice of hacking for a wider philosophical and ethical concept. According to McKenzie Wark (2004, [004])

Hackers create the possibility of new things entering the world. Not always great things, or even good things, but new things… While we create these new worlds, we do not possess them. That which we create is mortgaged to others, and to the interests of others, to states and corporations who monopolize the means for making worlds we alone discover. We do not own what we produce—it owns us.”

“Hacking new out of the old” gives a fresh perspective to architectural discussions on restoration, renovation and rehabilitation. Considering these practices not only within the cultural heritage, memory of the space and temporality discourses, and expanding these to the territory of hacking is one of the main tools of the commons architecture. This refers to existing misused or empty structures as potentials for commoning practices. Second, the non-ownership of the material or immaterial property opens up a very expansive playground for collective intelligence and collaborative work. Not claiming the architectural design as a finished and closed property, further hacking of these knowledge-production is made possible. Like open- source software, the commons architecture is based on structures allowing further development, learning from the others, sharing knowledge for the common good. Sharing the architectural concepts and drawings, application details, stakeholders’ participation models, etc. with a wider audience develops a peer to peer (re)appropriation which in the long-term -if the system remains open and accumulative- benefits the person who released them in the first place. The main idea is to be owned by the work done, being immersed in the world of the commons.


The Study Area: The Urban Commons of Brussels

Brussels Capital Region is an extremely fertile ground for activist movements. Being the de-facto capital of Europe, its citizens have experienced the negative repercussions of top-down planning, globalization and neoliberal policies to their highest extent; which is widely known as “Brusselization” in the literature.

As a reaction to these, different forms of urban cultures and actions have emerged in the form of collectives composed of diverse individual practices coming in and out of the architecture and urban design disciplines (Doucet, 2010). Similar to developments above, Urban Commons are flourishing in the BCR. A large number of locals are taking part in self-organized self-initiated “loose” organizations. Quintessential examples of these are the Commons Josaphat and Parckfarm in Tour and Taxis.

These are managed in a collective manner, aiming at equitable access and use, which are the necessary conditions for the emergence of Commons (Bollier and Helfrich, 2014; Commons Josaphat, de Cauter 2015). The importance of these come from their success in their self-organized temporal interventions which in long- term manage to transform the urban spaces as well as the public opinion from the bottom-up. The recent Francophone Festival Temps Common (2015) and Selfcity study by BRAL (Van Reusel et al., 2015) have fostered multiple actions claiming the concept of the Urban Commons. These are a new impetus for collective action, a shared resource management, and cooperative spirit for making our cities (IEB, 2015).


A Bottom-up Dissertation Studio Based on the Commons

 The existing frameworks for design learning in the design studio fail to address and facilitate bottom-up practices. This also includes relations between the teachers and the students. The traditional studio in its basic form does not necessarily consider the potential users as a part of the design process (Webster, 2006) and it is predominantly teacher centered (Newton and Pak, 2015). An important goal of this studio is to develop and test an experimental learning environment in the spirit of the commons.

The studio will be run based on the commons thinking where a hybrid non-hierarchical structure will be set altogether with all the participants (tutors, students, neighborhood inhabitants). A variety of sites in Brussels will be collectively selected, visited and analyzed in the first two weeks of the studio. The existence of and potentials for commoning practices and the existence of neoliberal conflicts will be the basic criteria for selection. All of these processes will be documented in real-time for enabling inclusion of different parties during the studio. As a result the students will be free to choose a site which they find the most relevant. They will be motivated to develop and follow their own authentic approach and method.

In this frame, the studio coordinator is not a teacher but a participatory enabler setting a flexible frame for:

  • Establishing a Common Ground between the students’ desires and thesis expectations
  • Encouraging diverse approaches to the topic
  • Empowering the students to pursue individual specific tracks
  • Supporting to develop and Master their own design passions and interests
  • Critical questioning and negotiation of the limits
  • Promoting participatory learning and design engaging the locals and NGOs



Method of evaluation

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Criteria of evaluation

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Learning outcomes

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Indicators of behavior

  • 4A1 The student is able to act methodologically throughout the designing process in an independent way: the student demonstrates the development of own methods and regularly refers to these during the desk crits and presentations in the design studio
  • 3A1 The student is able to develop a critical argumentation on the position of his/her design project within the international architectural debate: the student shows that he/she critically reflects upon the method en results of the architectural project and builds up a proper argument and own discourse that relates to current theories and practces in architecture, especially related to productive streetscapes
  • 4A3 The student is able to establish his/her own research or project strategy: the student shows that he/she can unfold a coherent strategy for research and design and explicitates this during the working sessions and Reading relevant articles or books, visiting and studing reference projects, as well as conducting interviews or discussions with experts or stakeholders is considered essential.
  • 3C1 The student is able to critically frame and place a complex architectural design: the student develops and presents the project and reflection paper in a way that the team of academic promotors and experts can detect a broad but precise framework that shows the integrity and profound expertise of the student, who shows at all moments to be able to simultaneously deal with spatial qualities at different levels, multiple programmes and uses, as well as the needed theoretical and conceptual references and technical aspects of the
  • 3C2 The student is able to reflect on contemporary and innovative architectural-theoretical perspectives: the student shows the ability to write or graphically represent a broad critical reflection upon the project and refers to this in all discussions and presentations
  • 5A2 The student is able to develop a research based design project: the student shows a coherent link between research and design and does not consider research as a strictly preliminary theoretical phase that is disconnected from the actual The student shows the ability to explore multiple options alter which decisions are made on a referential and critical basis and personal interest and expertise.
  • 4B2 The student is able to develop a relevant design, taking into account quality of comfort and sustainability: the students shows ability and special interest in sustainability and resilient strategies while developing the project and the final project is coherent with it (including building technology, sequence of spaces and their intended or possible uses).

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Output demands

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more details to be announced during semester 4

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