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.]


The Civic Economy: An Economy of Resilience

The Civic Economy: An Economy of Resilience


Image Source:

The privatization of resources has led to a concentrated market economy where access to services and the degree of its quality highly depends on individual’s purchasing power. Today, the management and distribution of the majority of resources and services, such as energy, water, food, education, and health, is controlled by a few large corporations who exploit it for their own profit. Besides creating a division between providers and consumers this concentration of power contributes to an unsustainable economy that drives overexploitation of resources.

Currently, a new economy is arising along with adaptations on the governance structure of different cities (such as Bologna, Amsterdam, NY, Barcelona, and Milan, to mention a few) where polycentric governance is being established and citizens gradually become directly involved in community and urban development; some define it as the civic economy, others call it the social economy. This new economy is essentially concerned with social development and addresses economic issues through a holistic approach, mindful of both the scarcity of resources and the complexity of social issues.

The civic economy is collaborative and aligned with social innovation. It invites sharing to replace competition and supports communities in becoming co-investors and co-producers instead of just consumers, meaning active communities collectively addressing local and globally interconnected issues. This supports individuals and communities in becoming more resilient and less vulnerable to economic fluctuations, depending less on the open market and on the welfare state. “Though locally driven, their initiatives are deeply rooted in global social, cultural and technological trends that originated well before the recent economic shocks.” [1]

The civic economy identifies and enhances the potential of local resources for development – resources not always obvious at first and that can be as varied as waste, places, skills, and social exchanges. It emerges in different ways and through different structures (with social entrepreneurs, co-operatives or companies aiming for social innovation), resisting the power of large corporations through sustainable and context-tailored provision. That said, the civic economy aims for a closed-loop system, with resources being reused for holistic development and sustainable provision of services. It also triggers social capital through reinvented social exchanges that play a key role in supporting management and ownership of given resources.

A successful example of a civic economy structure driven by a co-operative legal framework is the project Food-Coop, a food store started in 1973 in Park Slope, Brooklyn (New York City) to provide healthy products at an affordable price. Those who shop at Food-Coop are mutually its co-investors and commit to around 4 hours/month of work to maintain the co-operative, performing tasks that vary from cashier to food-packaging, cleaning, organizing shelves, dealing with food providers, etc. There are currently 17 thousand co-investors who perform 75% of the management roles. This structure allows diminishing the management costs and creates ownership and engagement possibilities that, in turn, build a community of shoppers that enhances social capital in the neighborhood. [2] The success of this food store model influenced its replication in Paris, under the name of La Louve, and in Belgium as Bees Coop, with one more soon to be inaugurated in Bologna. [3]

Another example of how co-operatives can support sustainability and access to quality services is FL Solar United Neighbours (SUN) [4]. SUN is a USA based network of co-operatives supporting wider implementation of solar energy systems in communities, allowing buyers to save up to 20% of the supposed investment through bulk-buying. “This cooperative network targets homeowners, helping them increase the cost-saving tied to installing solar panels” [5]. Affordability of sustainable energy strongly influences community resilience.

The civic economy can also emerge through processes not reliant on the co-operative model. An example is Baisikeli, a Copenhagen based social innovation enterprise that legally collects old bicycles scrapped on streets to give them new meaning. Part of these bicycles is repaired at Baisikeli workshop to be sold or rented and provides a funding source. The other part of the bicycles is sent to Africa and is repaired and adapted by African Baisikeli workers who are given training by Danish Baisikeli workers, who spend a few months of the year in Africa sharing their skills.

To influence the betterment of the transport system in the Africa a micro-finance scheme was set to allow locals to purchase the restructured bikes, with small installments coming out of their paychecks. “As well as low-cost mobility, Baisikeli also provides an even more important long-term benefit: the transfer of knowledge and skills in fields such as bike mechanics, logistics, and administration.” [6] The final goal of the project is to spark the bicycle industry in Africa for potential exportation and local economic development. Baisikeli thus sets a closed-loop system influencing holistic development (social, environmental, and economic) by sparking dormant resources and establishing global skill-exchange networks. [7]

These three case studies show how the civic economy can drive community and globally networked development. It is important to emphasize that the civic it does not place wealth as the foremost element of its structure; namely, it seizes holistic development that the market economy and the welfare estate cannot deliver alone. Mindful of the relationship between systems, the civic economy establishes closed-loop processes that support regeneration and resilience in the long-term.

The publication A Compendium for the Civic Economy features numerous case studies of how the civic economy can look like, including edible public spaces, peer-to-peer initiatives and social entrepreneurship, defining it as “a trend that goes beyond traditional divides between the public, private and third sectors; an attitude that questions all aspects of supply chains and makes them more equitable; an approach that enables citizens to be co-producers and investors instead of just consumers; and an opportunity to unlock and share the resources we have more effectively.” [1]

Image source:

As long as social innovation keeps evolving, the civic economy will reinvent itself over and over again, finding creative means to drive closed-loop and resilient development. Identifying resources, in people or places, and reorganizing systems and social exchanges is crucial for its development, proven that collaboration certainly leads to enriching possibilities.


Recentemente si sta realizzando una nuova economia, tramite adattamenti nella struttura di governance di diverse città (come Bologna, Amsterdam, New York, Barcelona, e Milano, tramite altre) dove la governance policentrica si stabilisce e i cittadini diventano direttamente coinvolti con lo sviluppo delle loro comunità e della città; alcuni la definiscono economia civica, altri la chiamano economia sociale. Questa nuova economia riguarda soprattutto lo sviluppo sociale e affronta le questioni di matrice economica da una prospettiva olistica, tenendo presente la scarsità di risorse e la complessità di questioni sociali.

L’economia civica è collaborativa e in linea con l’innovazione sociale. Invita alla condivisione in luogo della competizione e stimola le comunità a diventare co-investitori e co-produttori piuttosto che essere esclusivamente consumatori, influenzando comunità attive collettivamente affrontando questioni locali e globalmente interconnesse.



[1] Architecture 00 (2011) Compendium for the Civic Economy. (p.9) Available at:





[6] Architecture 00 (2011) Compendium for the Civic Economy. (p.25) Available at:



Public Space, Collective Governance and the Urban Commons

Public Space, Collective Governance and the Urban Commons

The striking amount of underused public spaces in cities worldwide shows the extent to which the value of public space is underestimated. On the other extreme, a variety of public spaces are gradually being privatised and thus public life, to some extent, threatened. Amidst these two opposite trends, underuse and privatisation, public space and public life are now found in a delicate and marginal situation in cities.

Despite a lack of attention to how public spaces are being tackled, it is possible to see their potential to be transformed into a resource for community development in what is recognised as grassroot initiatives. Grassroot initiatives are based on citizens getting together and taking action to address issues affecting their communities that are left unresolved by municipalities. They usually take place in underused public spaces and thus show an alternative destiny to the overlooked public spaces in cities. Examples include R-Urban, in Colombes, France (, a resilient network of projects embracing development of housing, economy, culture and urban agriculture, and other projects such as Cantiere Barca, in Turin, Italy (, where public space, social dynamics and community facilities have been regenerated collectively with objects made on local carpentry workshops. Another example is Build a Better Block, USA (, intended to stimulate communities to get together to regenerate the public spaces of the area where they live, usually by using tactical interventions (

Grassroot initiatives can be compared to the urban commons because they rely on collective management of public space supported by collective action. Through a personal research analysing the structure of different grassroot initiatives, I have concluded that grassroot initiatives and the urban commons are usually composed of four underlying elements: repurposed public spaces, collective governance, hands-on action, and resulting benefits that support community and urban development ( Benefits of the urban commons emerge from the action of collectively repurposing underused public spaces as a resource for community development, and result in social, economic and environmental benefits.

The urban commons indicate an open and spontaneous, but structured, collective appropriation and repurposing of public space. Still, the structuring of collaborative governance and community engagement is a big challenge and a project in itself, requiring time and adaptability. Moreover, there is no formula for community engagement and collaborative action and governance, since every community and its associated development targets widely vary.

The urban commons is not only about sharing “the products of commoning” but also about shaping citizens as “subjects of sharing…who accept their incompleteness, subjects who accept that they can be transformed through sharing and subjects who recognize in sharing the power of opening to potential worlds, the power of encountering ever-new horizons of commoning…Collective subjects are thus being formed and transformed without everybody being reduced to fit perpetuated role taxonomies (…) ”. 1(Stavrides, S. 2016 – p.273)

Thus, as emphasized, the structure of the urban commons is ever fluid and collectively adaptable. Urban commons’ structural responsiveness supports and is supported by individuals contributing
to shaping the commoning group and its collective aims while being shaped back. This responsiveness and openness is a characteristic that cannot be grasped entirely due to the uniqueness of every urban commons.

Moreover, the urban commons can inform collaborative development both at the local (community) and city scale (policy making), since the activities nurtured within it are imbued with an awareness of the city as networked spaces, people and resources that mutually impact each other. Thus, the urban commons can support active community empowerment and tackle issues on different levels – from the community to city scale, from the individual to the collective, and from social to spatial. The ability of the urban commons to address urban issues thoroughly is due to its spatial structural element (public space) and social structural elements (collective governance, hands-on activities, and emerging benefits) and hence commoning processes can tackle space while restoring social cohesion.

Because cities are getting more complex to control through centralized planning models the urban commons gradually gains more strength to develop since it relies on the sharing of power through collective governance and planning frameworks based on shared responsibility between government and citizens. The urban commons development model implies in alternative service provision where citizens have an active responsibility in shaping a wide array of services such as water management, health provision, food production, social economy, etc. Communities thus adapt from being purely consumers to becoming consumers and producers.

Nonetheless, on emerging collaborative planning models, the interface between government and citizens on the sharing of power is still very unclear. Both “appear stuck, asking each other to do more and more to fill the growing gaps between service provision.“2 (Britton,T., 2015p.22) Regarding citizens, “what is expected of him or her in ‘the new model’: a role as a volunteer, or as an employee, or employer in…say, a cooperative? Does the burden of caring for those dependent on care also lie with ‘active’ citizens – with a job – or only with ‘available’ citizens – without a job? Furthermore, there is confusion about the type of service and production that would qualify for the new model.”3 (Moore, T., 2013 – p.25)

That said, awareness of responsibilities, capabilities and limitations regarding each party involved in the collaborative planning process is crucial to advance the discussion and practice of collaborative urban development.

Moreover, the lack of awareness of the value of public space, both as a source and a resource for urban development, prevents its appropriation as urban commons. It also contributes to public spaces’ underuse, lack of management, and privatization. Thus, it is important to consider public space in a positive light linked to collaborative planning models, seen it is a valuable source and resource for urban development.

The urban commons development model adopted on a city scale would imply in government’s support for communities
to co-produce goods and services on public spaces, which would directly impact on the supply chain system and enhance holistic sustainability – social, economic, and environmental. Governmental support for the common use of public space would drive a new public life and provision model, alternative to the “unsustainable model in which all necessities of urban survival are distanced from consumers by markets, corporations and public bodies.”4 (Bingham-Hall, J., Kaasa, A., 2016 – p.3)

Despite its benefits, adoption of the urban commons development model on the community and city scale has its challenges, the most critical being: lack of clarity on the interface between government and citizens on collaborative planning models; lack of clarity on how to structure community engagement; provision of legal frameworks for citizens to appropriate public space through alternative uses; and clarification of the urban commons structure.

LabGov is playing an important role in addressing these challenges.


La grande quantità di spazzi pubblici inutilizzati in diverse città si appresenta come un’opportunità per creare gli urban commons tramite la sua rigenerazione, utilizzando di ‘collective governance’ e ‘hands on action’.

Innumeri progetti riconosciuti come ‘grassroot initiatives’ esemplificano come spazzi pubblici inutilizzati possono essere trasformarti in risorsi per sviluppo comunitario.



  1. Stavrides, S. (2016), Commons space: the city as commons. London. ZED Books
  2. Britton,T. (2015), Designed to Scale. [online] Available at: scale_v.1
  3. Moore, T. (2013) Homo Cooperans. Universiteit Utrecht. Available at: 2013-150
  4. Bingham-Hall, J., Kaasa, A. (2016). Future of Cities. Available at: of-cities-urban-commons-and-public-spaces