When Housing Faces Property

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Space, Life and Survival of Belgian Counter-Cultural Experiments Since 1958

  • Philippe De Clerck
  • Judith le Maire

In the face of socio-economical, ecological and political challenges faced by our cities and societies, militant movements and thinkers alike point to the commons as a both a critical and operational tool. The bottom line of this notion is to re-instill use value as a frontal opposition to the monolithism of property law, in order to both break it down into more complex bundles of rights and to subordinate exchange to use. New solutions are being experimented, which reactivate the imaginary of alternatives and its rich past. However several endeavors commonly referred to as “alternative”, such as cohousing in the case of housing, only superficially question the property-based foundations of city-making, if questioned at all. This leads to a reading of this phenomenon as an economical recuperation of utopian ideals.

There is however a much broader and richer inheritance of counter-culture to be explored, comprising much more radical attempts at commonality in use and production of architecture. The difficulty to find appropriate tools to document and describe these initiatives leads to a lack of factual and analytical information on the subject, even more so on the limited Belgian territory. Much is yet to gain from these experiences to question and explore new possibilities for architecture production in the Belgian context. Such is the attempt of this research.

Based on a historic and contemporary panorama of intentional communities in Belgium, the research will focus on experiences that attempted, each in their own way, to transcend the limits of individual housing in a radical process of sharing; experiences that emerged in the aftermath of Expo 58 and May 68 and still exist today in a similar or different form. As these microcosms of societies looked for a way to put use above property, they developed an attitude towards the production, form, and management of (their own) space.

This analysis addresses the question whether and in what way the choice for a radically different form of collective organization lead to a different production of space. By extension, we will look into these utopian experiments to find relationships to space that can influence the design discipline, as an increasing number of actors wonder whether it would be time for an inversion where practice can influence law and norm.