How do we want to live together?

As the commons - with increasing bottom-up initiatives and co-working spaces - regain the interest of citizens and institutions worldwide, it is no surprise that architects are also joining the venture. On show at the Vitra Design Museum (Weil am Rhein, Germany) until September 10th 2017, the exhibition Together! tries to recount at least one part of their story - that of the collective architecture movement.


Pointing at a burning issue that was already raised by French designer Matali Crasset at the Design Biennale of Saint Etienne back in 2006 [1] and by architect Patrick Bouchain at the Venice Biennale in the same year [2], curators Ilka & Andreas Ruby - of Ruby Press - and Mathias Müller & Daniel Niggli - of EM2N Architects - ask: “How do we want to live together?”.

At The Offbeats we had a tour of the show to witness how an established design institution deals with this intriguing question.

“Deliberately playful, informal and provoking” [3], the four sections of the exhibition feature past and present examples that shall prove the positive impact of collective architecture on modern cities and their inhabitants.


Bringing cobblestones and protest banners to the forefront, the first space analyses the origins of the movement, linking it with the riots that took place in Western cities between the 1960s and the 1980s in reaction to the housing crisis of the time.


From modernist social housing initiatives - such as Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille or the more chic The Ansonia in New York - to communal grassroots ventures - like the Freetown of Christiania in Copenhagen - the space also features a non exhaustive overview of architectural projects that constitute the major inspirations of today’s practices. By focusing on Western, urbanised and individualist realities, however, this section leaves aside vernacular solutions and examples from other regions of the planet that would have enriched its discourse.

Welcoming the visitors in the second space is a 1:24 model imagined by EM2N architects that shows what a “collective city” might look like. With its large avenues and cars, the mockup “merges” a series of already built co-projects and proposes a counter solution to the “happy ghettos of communality” which punctuate today’s cities “like isolated islands”[4].


Yet, despite being informative and practical in terms of scenography, the model lacks of the “radical spirit” introduced in the first section of the exhibition. By ignoring collectives that encourage space appropriation and participatory design - such as Raumlabor Berlin, Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée or Pico Colectivo - it in fact fails to represent practices that are currently questioning the role of architecture at a deeper level. As Patrick Bouchain wrote - in his book Construire Autrement. Comment Faire? - “[...] by considering the “small”, the “micro”, the individual, [...] we can understand and act on the ensemble, the “macro”, the collectivity” [2]. Not integrating these new radical approaches results in a somehow artificial collage without soul, where streets are the usual anonymous and transitory spaces, nature is barely present and architects are still seen as the only saviours and solution-bearers.

Switching from public to private space, the exhibition continues in the third room with a 1:1 reconstruction of a “new housing typology” - the cluster apartment. As they enter the reconstituted environment, visitors get a glimpse of what it might be like to live with others in a shared home. Providing a collective solution that does not compromise on the individual’s own intimacy, the concept is described as "a very large apartment with a living area of between 250 and 400 squares meters [and] consists of a number of small studios [...], each with a bedroom and a small kitchen and pantry, which are organised around a generously proportioned shared living area with a large kitchen.” [6]


Painted in total-white, however, the living room and the kitchen - which is reduced to a single table, some stools and a kitchen counter - appear dull and barely engaging. Surely not the chaotic and cosy atmosphere one would expect to find in a shared home. As a confirmation, the curators underline how efforts were put in designing the interiors of the private studios - the comfortable and personalised spaces where inhabitants can find relief from the in-common life of the cluster apartment - suggesting that collective spaces must remain rather impersonal and transitory.


But one could argue that, after all, collective living is not only about sharing a kitchen. Indeed, and the large open space of the exhibition’s fourth and last section goes along with this affirmation by providing answers to some of the questions and doubts visitors might have come up with during their visit.

Scattered across a co-working-like space are about ten desks on which visitors get to learn in-depth details about selected case studies through images and technical sheets. From the economical feasibility of a project to its in-common facilities - swimming pools, co-working areas and rooftop vegetable gardens - the exhibition provides here vast insights about the possibilities that collective architectures can offer. A moment of study and confrontation that well concludes the exposition’s path.



So, if on the one hand Together! has the merit of bringing the subject of collective architecture to the attention of the general public - at a very appropriate moment - on the other hand it fails to engage with its deeper social aspects. Moreover its lack of an overview about more off-the-grid and subversive architectural methods/actions - that are currently marking the design discourse, - result in a somehow not groundbreaking or forward thinking exhibition. Especially as these methods have already proven to be successful in terms of community building and social activation within urban landscapes.


Installation views of the exhibition Together! The New Architecture of the Collective, Vitra Design Museum, 2017, photos by: Mark Niedermann and Hannes Henz, Courtesy of Vitra Design Museum;

[1] Cohabitations, exhibition curated by Matali Crasset, Biennale Internationale du Design de Saint Etienne, 2006; [2]“I have been invited to be the architect of the French pavilion for the 2006 Venice Biennale. Through this building, I want to show all that by occupying the field, like on all my construction sites; I want to inhabit the pavilion with my friends to welcome like at home, in joy and conviviality, all those who want to visit us. “Metacity/Metavilla – our Venetian installation – attempts to undertake this collective movement. Architectural exhibition needs to implement an idea by action. This is the opportunity to experiment an architectural conception, but mostly to measure a life ideal, not as an utopist hypothesis, but rather like a gesture to undertake. The untypical occupation as well as the opening to the public of this national pavilion is an architectural action. It is probably the only one that we can undertake in these times of securitarian tension and of subjacent war. To welcome the alien, the indomitable otherness, is more than ever something we should do. Fortunately the joyful village which unfolds itself in this pavilion exists, here and elsewhere. By introducing another time, the one of welcoming and hospitality, respect, encounters and transmission, by giving ourselves an important part of freedom, our presence translates itself in successions of experiences/experiments which illustrate the diversity of what is possible.” words of Bouchain Patrick in Construire Autrement. Comment Faire? Actes Sud, Arles, 2006. (translation: L. Lambert); [3] Vitra Design Museum’s co-director Mateo Kries; [4] words by curator Andreas Ruby; [5] Bouchain Patrick, Construire Autrement. Comment Faire?, Actes Sud, Arles, 2006. (translation French to English L. Lambert); [6] Exhibition catalogue Together! The New Architecture of the collective, Ruby Press, 2017, p.38; [7] Words by Michael Lafond member of the Spreedfeld Cooperative, in Together! The New Architecture of the collective, Ruby Press, 2017, p.338;

Published: 14 June 2017

#VDMtogether #ExhibitionReview #Architecture #Urbanism #SpaceAppropriation #CollectiveArchitecture

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