Private life vs shared space: Communal living and the housing co-op

A historical survey looks how the switch from central planning to grassroots development has changed ideas about communal housing

A History of Collective Living: Forms of shared housing, ed Susanne Schmid, Dietmar Eberle and Margrit Hugentobler (Birkhauser Basel, 2019)

Housing is becoming an ever more crucial issue in the UK, one that is complicated by emotional ties and competing economic interests.

Homeowners whose future fortunes are tied up in bricks and mortar have one eye trained on house prices, hoping they will keep rising; while younger workers stuck in the private rental market are wondering if they can ever afford a place of their own. Complicating the issue further is the castle-and-keep ethos of British home ownership, which grew stronger in the late 19th century and culminated in the Thatcherite social housing sell-offs of the 1980s.

This individualistic culture presents a barrier to alternative residential models – not just social housing but also co-op and community models, where shared and communal living is at odds with a desire for personal space.

There are successful experiments to establish such alternatives – for instance, two examples in Leeds covered in this month’s Co-op News – but co-op and community housing represents just 0.5% of the market. Discussion of ways to grow the sector tends to revolve around providing financial and organisational support. But perhaps the the co-op sector also needs a wider cultural change to boost popular appetites for collective activity.

When it comes to housing, this cultural change is an intimate one, because it affects our personal space – and this collection offers some useful case studies and historical lessons as to how this might pan out. It looks at the various developments in communal living in central Europe, where “collective living spaces are being designed and used in new and versatile ways”.

This a fascinating, richly detailed and scholarly look at the past 150 years of collective living, through key historical shifts – such as the industrialisation and urbanisation of the 19th century which saw wage labour move outside workers’ living quarters, and excluded non-relatives, or distant relations, from the household. This gave people “space for intimacy or autonomy from society”: a new form of domesticity which created a tension between public and private spaces. This, the book argues, has been a shifting presence in modern life ever since – and it has made collective living a complex affair.

Over that 150 years, collective living in central Europe took on many forms, often driven by utopian socialist reformers and the architects they inspired. These range from the large housing complexes developed for the new urban workforce of the mid 19th century to the Central Kitchen House, a model developed in Germany in the late 19th century as part of the burgeoning women’s movement. This was an attempt to reshape society itself, pooling domestic work to make the household “’a large scale enterprise”.

Related: Co-op answers to the high cost of city housing for workers

The book follows these developments to their culmination in the collective housing experiments of Russia in the early years of the revolution – which, the book argues, “can be seen as a rational fantasy of order, seeking to mathematically shape life through a precisely timed and predetermined regime” and saw attempts to dissolve the nuclear family.

Such ideas have perhaps left lingering doubts about collective living, as has the divisive nature of the brutalist apartment blocks they inspired architects like Le Corbusier to create, all around the world. And so, although shared living experiments continued in the 20th century, notably with the Garden City movement, it was not until the 1970s that housing co-ops began to experiment with shared spaces once more. This revival, the authors argue, was eased by the social changes of the 1960s, which brought “a questioning of traditional hierarchies and role models” that changed attitudes to private space.

This co-op housing movement was a definitive break from previous efforts in that it was not driven by centralised, top-down reformers but involved residents in planning, construction and operation of housing developments. “With political change and the women’s liberation movement, a new understanding of living as a shared, neighbourly way of life was born”. There were radical ideas here, with “the nuclear family … not fundamentally questioned per se, but rather regarded as being socially bankrupt” and the movement “marked the definitive end of paternalistically organised collective living”.

The co-op housing projects of the period features such as open-use areas directly connected to apartments which created “an explicit spatial connection” and sliding doors which “led to more flexible connections between living and working spaces”. And the participatory nature of the design of the housing co-ops brought in new voices, including sociologists and female planners.

As with its discussion of other housing models, the discussion of the housing co-ops comes with detailed case studies, including photos, floor plans and statistics, of leading examples, including the Overnecht-Noord Settlement, built in Utrecht in 1971 and home to 650 people, and the Steilshoop Living Model, built in Hamburg in 1973 for 220 residents.

Thereafter, the emphasis in shared housing shifts away from housing families to participatory social models, offering multi-generational living or homes for young people in transition from living with their family to living on their own. The authors note a growing interest in creating a sense of community as a response to decades of dissolving social ties. This takes us through to the Co-Living movement, which they frame as a response to the economic disruption that followed the 2008 crash.

“As a counter-movement to the much-cited neo-liberalism, the Occupy Movement emerged, an expression of dissatisfaction with the unfair distribution of burden and wealth. Generation Z, digital natives, were socialised during this time and are now pressuring the housing market.

“The motivation behind sharing living space is rooted in a sense of togetherness and belonging to a community”.