Co-building Architecture: engaging with space and process

Co-building Architecture: engaging with space and process

The city as a Commons is a city that is produced via collaboration between different institutions and decision-making nucleus supporting the active presence of citizens. This idea touches upon different fields of urban development, being Architecture one of them. Historically, Architecture always had a purpose linked to a given historical context, being guided by a specific artistic style or by a way of building. Architecture can convey messages of power or disruption; be it the modernist architecture emerging in the 20th century that claimed the rupture with both neoclassical and beaux-art styles typical of the 19th century to prove the advancement of technology on buildings made of concrete, glass, and metal, or be it the Brutalist architecture of the 50’s-70’s that in countries like Brazil set an architectural style giving less emphasis to the building itself and more attention to its ability to enable social opportunities.

To understand the influence of architecture it is important to contextualize how it can impact the physical and social fabric of cities. That said, as an example, modernist architecture has created less livable cities for establishing buildings that are more spread in a disconnected urban environment counting with the possibility of the private vehicle to overcome bigger distances, thus celebrating the independence of people and their disassociation both with each other and with the city space. A good example of what did not work out in modernist architecture is Brasília, Brazil’s capital built between1956-1960. Brasília is well known both for the beautiful and curvy architectural style of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and for the difficulty of mobility and little incidence of street life which shows too much emphasis was given to architectural and urban aesthetics and little attention to its impact on the city’s social opportunities. Brutalist architecture, on the other hand, had opposite principles. It intended to convey a message of social empowerment through buildings with big voids supporting social exchanges. In Brazil, this style of architecture was diffused during the political dictatorship of the 60’s, which threatened people’s freedom. In 1968 Lina Bo Bardi, Italo-Brazilian architect, presented the city of São Paulo with her well-known MASP (Museum of Art of São Paulo), which is still today a civic landmark and a place where people gather to initiate important collective resistance movements.

Architecture has its own history and so has its impact on society. The point I would like to raise is: what is the purpose of Architecture in the ongoing global transition to cities being governed as a common good, and how can architects understand their social responsibility in a context of resources and social services’ commodification crisis?

British architect Alaistar Parvin believes that the great design challenge of the 21st century lies in the democratization of the production. On his talk ‘Architecture for the people by the people’ [1] he emphasizes that “We are moving into this future where the factory is everywhere and the design team is everyone”. As a recently graduated architect in 2008 and with the UK going through an economic crisis he had a crucial insight: designed architecture is a privilege of only 1% of the world population. This means that the impact of architects on society is still very marginal, but would there be a way to scale up architecture’s beneficiaries from 1% to 100%, thus generating a more positive impact of architecture on society? Can cities be conceived not from little people with a lot but from many people with little? With these questions in mind, Parvin came to develop WikiHouse [2]. WikiHouse is an open-source construction system that anyone can access online and download to build private houses – or to be more precise, to assemble them. Its different elements can be shaped by CNC and laser cutting machines using plywood sheets thus making it easy and accessible for anyone with or without building techniques expertise to build a sustainable house in a day, while also adapting it to personal needs. This all means that “technologies are lowering the threshold of time, cost, and skills” [1], and that all of us are becoming entitled to control the means of production – what somehow goes back to the idea of vernacular architecture where communities build for themselves under commons principles (in this case, under the Creative Commons license). The central pillars of WikiHouse are:

  1. “To put the design solutions for building low-cost, low-energy, high-performance homes into the hands of every citizen and business on earth.”
  2. “To use digitization to make it easier for existing industries to design, invest-in, manufacture and assemble better, more sustainable, more affordable homes for more people.
  3. “ To grow a new, distributed housing industry, comprising many citizens, communities and small businesses developing homes and neighborhoods for themselves, reducing our dependence on top-down, debt-heavy mass housing systems.” [2]









Wikihouse. Image source:

There are other approaches for the democratization of production that do not necessarily count on technological advancement but with hands-on collective efforts. In fact, there is a new generation of young architects that acknowledge the value of collaboration and invite communities to co-design, co-build, and co-manage different architectures that support local development. This collaborative approach generates a different value to architecture, vesting it with a sense of community pride, achievement, and belonging. Moreover, collective processes allow co-involved people to learn techniques of construction and communication that strengthen local resilience and social capital, consequently fostering other processes aiding community development. An example of an architectural practice with this collaborative approach to architecture is Workshop [3], founded in 2012 as a student initiative by architects Alexander Eriksson Furunes, Clementine Blakemore, and Ivar Tutturen. Their portfolio includes projects such as schools and community centers in the Philippines and in India, built with the community and supported by public and private institutions. Workshop has been showing how architects can act as mediators of collective processes by coordinating different people and expertise needed to build both the building and the community itself (when a sense of community is not yet established). Another practice with a collaborative approach and aimed at addressing holistic sustainability (social, environmental, and economic) is aaa (atelier d’architecture autogérée) [4] founded by Doina Petrescu and Constantin Petcou, and working on the design of networks of urban commons’ projects to establish closed-loop activities, with their most disseminated project being R-Urban [5], in France. Moreover, aaa co-developed an online tool, EcoDA [6] to help people coordinate collective management of different projects.

Workshop Architecture. Project in India. Image source:

A more extreme example of citizen-led development is that of architecture without architects, or more precisely, of communities acting as leading architects. The ‘Condomínio Esperança’ (meaning Hope Housing Complex) located in a peripheral neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was built in four years by a group of women with no previous building techniques expertise whatsoever and who belong to a co-operative housing group with the same name ‘Hope’. The housing complex was financed by a municipal institution called ‘Minha Casa Minha Vida Entidades’, which is a branch of a previous institution that did not count with the active participation of its future inhabitants (‘Minha Casa Minha Vida’). The decision to create this new participatory institution seems to have emerged from the awareness of the value of collaboration in the making of better cities. An issue that collaborative processes can clearly overcome is that of government housing institutions placing beneficiaries in areas where social capital must be ignited from scratch to create a sense of belonging and connection between its inhabitants – a process that is not straightforward and requires time. All women involved in the creation of Condomínio Esperança, namely Maria do Carmo Martins, Maria Ribamar Figueiredo Freitas and Vanilsa Queiroz Motta [7], between others who built their homes brick by brick during weekends and free time (although being full-time workers) did so by acknowledging that the value of co-building relies in the possibility of continuous interaction for building both the material and psychic structures that make a community. Not only architecture should be designed by interaction to support better cities but also architecture can design interactions for the same matter. Architecting interaction is the motto of AKKA Architects, an Amsterdam-based architecture firm founded by Stephanie Hughes [8]. For Hughes, the users of a building are the most knowledgeable designers since they offer the insights on how space can be organized to serve its civic purpose. AKKA’s work is thus based on leaving architecture unfinished to some extent so that social appropriation can occur and hint at how architecture can plant the seeds for a better future by supporting wider interaction amongst its different users [9]. Again it becomes clear that architecture can stimulate social exchanges and mutual collaboration in cities, and those can be stimulated both through processes (such as collaborative legal frameworks and community will) and through design.

Condomínio Esperança. Co-construction process. Image Source:

All of the described examples strongly relate to the right to build (both buildings and social space) and the ‘right to the city’, a concept ignited by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre and further developed by British geographer David Harvey. In Harvey’s words: The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. [10]

With these words in mind we must rethink the role of architectural practice in society today and for the future, rethink architects as enablers and mediators of collective processes that enhance the chance that whatever is built is inclusive and contributes to making better cities…architects as professionals concerned with possibilities for communities to thrive and for individual and collective empowerment. What would the switching of attention from shape to process cause to architectural practice, and how would it influence the resilience of cities? Considering that 2/3 of the world population will be living in cities by the year 2050 [11], this reflection seems more timely than ever.


La discussione della responsabilità civica dell’Architettura è uno dei tema che nascono con l’idea della città come bene comune. Come possiamo ripensare il ruolo degli architetti in una situazione globale in cui soltanto 1% di cosa è costruito nelle città è basato in un progetto architettonico, mentre gli altri 99% sono costruiti per necessita e grande parte in situazioni di deprivazione sociale? Come pensare il ruolo dell’architetto in un mondo che in 2050 avrà 2/3 della popolazione vivendo in ambienti urbani? Collaborazione in tutti i livelli urbani diventa un tema ogni volta più critico e necessario per pensare città più resilienti.












10. [Harvey, David(September–October 2008). “The right to the city”New Left Review. New Left Review. II(53): 23–40.]