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Urbanisation

In this together

Do we need to reconsider the role that shared spaces play in residential developments, asks Debika Ray.

Debika Ray, Journalist
22 June 2018

In 2016, an exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany claimed we were witnessing a “silent revolution in contemporary architecture” in response to the scarcity of housing in many cities. Called “Together! The New Architecture of the Collective”, it demonstrated how the concept of collective living was again relevant, in a period of rapid urbanisation, ageing populations and the rise of the non-nuclear family. 

At a time of soaring property prices, and with loneliness high on the public health agenda, it’s not hard to see the value of shared space – gardens, rooms or other facilities where residents can socialise – in residential developments. Moreover, the idea that harmonious communities are created when people find literal common ground seems vital at a time when society is increasingly polarised.

Communal space

Of course, the notion of communal space isn’t new to anyone who has stayed in a house-share or student halls. Courtyard houses have long been common across much of Asia, enabling extended families to live together.

From garden squares to the courtyards of modernist schemes, architects have long recognised the importance of shared space. Unfortunately, in many cities, the drive to maximise sellable square metres has taken priority over these less quantifiable benefits as land prices have escalated.

In recent years, several architects have put communal space at the heart of their projects. Accordia, the 2008 Stirling Prize-winning scheme in Cambridge, was praised for its shared gardens and courtyards. In 2016, Pollard Thomas Edwards unveiled the UK’s first co-housing project for older people, comprising mews houses arranged around gardens and other shared facilities.

Others have experimented with the boundary between public and private. Japanese architect Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House in Tokyo (2005) is a famed example: six inhabitants share the building, with thin walls maximising the floorplan and expanses of glass allowing interior and exterior to bleed together. In 2014, fellow Tokyo firm Naka Architects’ Studio unveiled Apartments with a Small Restaurant, comprising five homes, workspaces and a restaurant staffed by residents, which facilitates interaction within the building and with neighbours.

In this revival of interest in communal space, some have spotted an opportunity. Since 2016, a host of “co-living” schemes have sprung up, offering private bedrooms and large shared areas for a flat monthly rent. Proponents claim that social interaction and public amenities make up for the small bedrooms, but this argument is far easier to make when it has a commercial logic – whether it’s the plush gardens of gated complexes or the bars and gyms in some luxury apartment blocks.

It’s also true that simply providing shared space is not enough to create a community; such amenities ultimately embody the values of their creators, users and managers. It’s why the most successful communal living schemes are underpinned by social and economic values, as well as simply providing room to breathe and co-exist.

Magic three: collective efforts

1 Golden Lane Estate, London, by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (1960s)

Hailed as a model of social housing, it included a public pool, gym, police office, nursery, pub and tennis courts.

2 Sargfabrik, Vienna, by BKK3 (1996)

Designed to be inclusive of older residents. Spawned the neighbouring Miss Sargfabrik scheme, aimed at younger people. 

3 R50, Berlin, by Heide & Von

Beckerath (2013) Designed by both residents and its architect. Includes 19 apartments, one studio, shared workspaces and a community space.

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