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2022 | Book

Design Commons

Practices, Processes and Crossovers


About this book

This book directly links the notion of the commons with different design praxes, and explores their social, cultural, and ecological ramifications. It draws out material conditions in four areas of design interest: social design, commons and culture, ecology and transdisciplinary design. As a collection of positions, the diversity of arguments advances the understanding of the commons as both concepts and modes of thinking, and their material translation when contextualised in the domain of design questions. In other words, it moves abstract social science concepts towards concrete design debates. This text appeals to students, researchers and practitioners working on design in architecture, architecture theory, urbanism, and ecology.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. An Introduction to Design Commons
The reasons for a dedicated edition on “design and commoning” are twofold. First, the recent surge of renewed interest in the social conditions of design remains atheoretical. A deeper theoretical and philosophical foundation will help problematize the link between commoning and design, and in doing so define the operative theories, concepts and frameworks that influence design thinking across a series of design contexts and conditions. And secondly, design has become more ubiquitous, expanding both its domain of influence and conditions of praxis. With this expansion, design touches a variety of contested areas. Designers are continuously challenged by conflicts and edge conditions, having to mitigate between both scales of conflict and the vested interests of individuals. In the global climate of population increase and the prevalent reduction of financial resources the question and theorization of shared capacities will remain part and parcel of future of design thinking. The four thematic clusters contained here exploit the theoretical and philosophical themes related to the large commoning “problematique,” providing designers better grounding in the networked context of the twenty-first century. The explicit theorization of design and the commons will explore the implicit relations through each of the collected contributions to show how this philosophical construct can be explicated in the context of network collectives and transdisciplinary approaches that currently inform design practices.
Gerhard Bruyns, Stavros Kousoulas

Design, the Commons and the Social

Chapter 2. Commoning as a Material Engagement of Resistance: The Struggle to Save the Albanian National Theater
This article discusses the struggles of commoning as a material engagement in Tirana, the capital of Albania, as it transitions from a totalitarian state socialist regime to a currently consolidating neoliberal one. It reflects upon the field of relations generated during the collective resistance to save the National Theater, which was brutally demolished in May 2020. The story of the theater is essential in understanding the ongoing suffocation of collective emancipatory initiatives generated spontaneously in times of developmentalist pressure of a corrupt state-power-capital coalition which does not confine itself even to the material cultural heritage. The commoning process of the resistance challenges power relations while generating new extra-institutional practices of care for the spatial and material conditions of the space and the human bodies affectively related to it. It contributes to a new understanding of collectivity in Albanian society, an indispensable feature to achieve democracy. The theater building plays an active role in generating collective practices, carrying a political and emotional load, that affect perpetual bonding relations. The affective capacity of the material-human formation challenges the current material culture of demolition and construction in Tirana and the language around it. New architectural practices of resistance emerge as new ways of engaging in collective endeavors in city-making.
Dorina Pllumbi
Chapter 3. AutoCostruzione-SelbstBau: Design as a Practical Knowledge Translation Process
Two key concepts can open a theoretical investigation about the fields of design and commons: practice, understood as acting together, and knowledge, or the activity of communicating practical information. These terms are also referred to as praxis communis and practical knowledge. This chapter aims to develop a design thinking approach able to shift the concept of a design project from its traditional self-referential definition towards its interpretation as activity of collaboratively producing specific knowledge about the designed object’s physicality, use and production process and to translate it to a broader community of actors involved in the production process. The adopted methodology is to be considered as an in-the-making design thinking and building process, strictly connected to the experience gained through its application to the case-study, a small building for workshops and material storage, shared by a small Italian community of friends. The approach proposes three phases: self-production, as common knowledge producing, co-production, as common knowledge translating and re-production, as common knowledge growing. As a result, the study presents the opportunity to start both a theoretical investigation and a design process based on the possibility of producing, communicating and growing a common knowledge by defining: a common praxis of self-building a design typology; a collaborative co-designing process; and a resilient social system able to grow both a collective sense of identity and technical knowledge.
Maria Reitano, Nikolaus Gartner
Chapter 4. Scaling Out, Up and Deep Understanding the Sustainment and Resilience of Urban Commons
The inquiry of how to manage common resources has always been a central topic in the discussion of the commons. However, our understanding of what can be discerned as the sustainment and resilience of urban commons – urban spaces that are managed by citizen groups – is under-evaluated and simplified if we only ask whether they last long enough or are able to be expanded in size and duplicated in multiple locations. In this chapter, I introduce the urban commons and the importance of discussing their sustainment and resilience, wherein I refer to the notion of sustainability and resilience in design and ecology spheres. A review around existing literature on governing the commons and expanding urban commons then provides the basis for the further explication of the sustainment of urban commons from three scaling perspectives: scaling out, scaling up and scaling deep. Lastly, I discuss the co-existence and correlations of these three scaling dimensions and open up the question of what the role of design is in promoting the scaling processes.
Chun Zheng
Chapter 5. Alignments of Architecture and Commoning in Tai O Village Architecture Critique and Fields of Adversity
This chapter examines alignment between commoning and architecture’s disciplinary limits. The first section discusses Tai O Village, a settlement in Hong Kong where changing development patterns require contested negotiation. In Tai O’s context, the chapter asks how commoning relates to architecture’s disciplinary foundations. What consequences come of alignment between their conceptual fields? To investigate this, the second section genealogically analyzes the commons’ and commoning’s expansion in scope from Elinor Ostrom to later literature, defining the terms’ conceptual inclusions as prerequisite for alignment. The section thereafter reviews a prevalent structure in architecture critique: each text examined constructs politics and ethics for architecture, privileging certain agencies that direct resources via technology. We contend that this critical writing structure is foundational to architecture, through historical permutations vary. When authors of later texts include architectural processes as critique objects, previously partial alignments to commoning solidify. These distinctions in architecture’s assessment priorities have, we argue, significant consequences for architecture’s foundations. With this, critical architectural scholarship differentiates from contingent practice through a commoning framework. If we self-assess our architectural research in Tai O to make decisions, then the foundational structure above remains, including permissions for examining architectural processes as objects and privileging agency equity as a disciplinary concern. The ethics and politics of our casework prioritize the agencies they include, and the access technology they afford. This changes how we appraise architectural products: their ability to structure engagement and generate knowledge make them relevant to commoning, while architecture’s foundational critique structure acquires characterizing differences.
Daniel Elkin, Chi-Yuen Leung, Xiao Lu Wang

Design, the Commons and Culture

Chapter 6. Persistent Modeling of the Built A Collective Experiment Merging Structural Preservation and Digital Design Between Academia and Industry
With an interest in the dynamics of structure and decay, this experiment challenges prevalent logics of building preservation by developing a hybrid strategy between digital geometrical data and physical manipulation. It informs an intervention to an exemplary construction, with the intention of adding structural redundancy and thereby converging model and building. In this regard, the chapter discusses the results of several on-site workshops with partners from business and industry, conducted at and on a derelict brick barn in Brandenburg, Germany. It merges 3D scanning data with industry practices for foundation injections and an external tensile structure, exemplifying an extension of prevalent strategies on building and the built, of what is finished and what may be persistent. Overlaying the obtained point cloud with an ideal model construed upon evidence from observed detailing and constructional history, it approaches the multiplicity of forces that over time have acted upon the brickwork. A translation of this deviation, traditionally conceived of as material and structural failure on a path towards collapse, functions as a qualitative representation of global deflection and allows for quantitative assessments of prospective strategies for intervention.
Frank Bauer, Lasse Sehested Skafte
Chapter 7. The Commons in African Spatial Production: A Critical Review of Geographies of Power
This chapter situates the South African policy discourse within global theoretical concerns regarding Surveillance Capitalism (Zuboff. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: PublicAffairs, Perseus Book, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, 2019) and contemporary manifestations of neo-liberalism. It posits that the commons be understood as part of indigenous systems of spatial production, viewed as an ongoing and relational process in a geography of external power dynamics, and that power/capital will seek divisive tactics that obscure its operations. Analyzing South African precedents it recommends working from a place of knowledge, inclusionary practices and the relationship between bottom-up organization, while critically testing these operations against the Weberian state. It calls for deep solidarity and practices that go beyond charity or a welfare-based approach in a “politics of compassion” which evoke the literal meaning of the word to suffer with. It casts suspicion on practices of representation and the consolidation of heterogeneous spatial rights and practices, and advocates for openness.
Gert van der Merwe
Chapter 8. Expressing Urban Commons: Architectural Ambiguity in the Construction of an Improvisational Future
Using ambiguity as both a conceptual framework for understanding architecture and as a social practice for living together in an increasingly urban world, I argue that by utilizing uncertainty to guide the stories we create from our lived environments, ambiguous architecture can turn our cities into transformative spaces. In light of growing inequality, continued exploitation, mass urbanization, and climate change, architecture can no longer remain a practice of ordering and disentangling urban life. Instead, architecture needs to support the fertility that exists within uncertainty and entanglement, enabling people to form new relationships, new practices, and new tools for addressing our collective challenges. This chapter engages in three investigative plateaus: (1) living with ambiguity, (2) composing ambiguity, and (3) encountering ambiguity; with the focus narrowing from the urban scale down to the architectural. At each plateau, ambiguity is used in different ways, describing modes of urban sociality, expressive structures, and communication through bodily experience, to argue that architecture can shape not only our actions, but the foundational attitudes that guide social dynamics and underlie urban commons. Throughout this exploration, I draw on emerging scholarship on decolonialization, urbanism, and design to propose an architectural philosophy that could lead us towards an enabling, improvisational future. Ultimately, this chapter offers ambiguity as an explorative tool for imagining the ethical responsibilities and roles of designers in our urban futures.
Nicholas Frayne

Design, the Commons and Ecology

Chapter 9. Intriguing Human-Waste Commons: Praxis of Anticipation in Urban Agroecological Transitions
In recent years, citizen designers have been working with urban communities on the ecological reuse of human waste. In this commoning effort, practitioners reclaim body-expelled resources for exploring the metabolically enabled household as a networked site of radical, co-productive transitions that harnesses nutrients and boosts local value chains. The commoning of human excrement is understood in the context of agroecological urbanization that seeks to empower urban dwellers to become contributing actors in the food-energy nexus by making the city more food-enabled for storing and proliferating feeds, fertilizer, and food. By introducing three cases of human-waste commons in Brussels, Hong Kong, and Berlin, this study approaches commoning design as a process grounded in the praxis of anticipation. In this way of life, consistent with the anticipatory nature of living systems, the transformative potential in people, their waste, and social arrangements stem from the dynamic continuum of mutual purpose, trust, and vigilance. Collective desire, resolutions, and statuses are a result of direct involvement, context, and relationships. The three examples show how citizen designers draw energy from anticipating regenerative, life-giving value chains around human waste that give momentum to overcome the given thresholds with perseverance and resourcefulness.
Markus Wernli
Chapter 10. The Secondary Use Group: Unlocking Waste as a Common Pool of Resources in the 1970s
Today, the evident need for more efficient conservation, management and redistribution of natural and human-made common resources have inspired thinkers, researchers, and designers to redefine the organization of our societies. For example, Silke Helfrich and David Bollier argue that the common-pool resources (CPR) defined by Elinor Ostrom require new “practices of commoning” that reconsider the conventional discourses of market economy and state intervention. Several contemporary architectural firms have introduced innovative design strategies concerning the collective collection and reuse of local materials, the commons and the circular economy.
However, already after the oil crisis in the early 1970s, practices like the Secondary Reuse Group (SUG) engaged with circular reuse of materials but did not correlate to discourses concerning the commons. This essay analyzes SUG’s projects during the 1970s using a lens calibrated on the contemporary debate of the commons, to unveil and highlight some relevant aspects of their work. This lens will refer to Michel Bauwens and Tom Avermaete who differentiate between material commons, that is, human-made and -handled reserves of materials from our environments and cities; immaterial commons, knowledge and craft skills existing in a particular place; and commoning processes, social practices of mutual collaboration. The first goal of this research is to describe the work of SUG concerning its material and immaterial commons. The second goal is to inform the contemporary debate regarding waste and materials as a CPR to be unlocked by architects and users through commoning processes of materials reuse.
Piero Medici
Chapter 11. Reclaiming the Habitat: Food, Fire and Affordance in Designing and Living the Urban
This essay is a critical and radical proposition to reclaim habitats of life, investigating ecological and pedagogical models of critical and spatial design practices. We examine these in relation to commons which we associate to urbanism and life. We do so via politics of food, fire, and affordance, which we explore as agents shaping the assemblage of sapiens life through design, and reposition as cues for methods of thinking, learning, designing, and constructing (conditions of life). The vilification of fire (when associated to fear) and food (when associated to desire) has a tremendous effect on how we think of and practice life, and presents ramifications to how we design, make, and consume objects and environments. We must affirm such phenomena as part of advanced capitalist networks and societies, and reconsider commoning and its affinity with social capital in practice. We attempt in response to propose ecologies and pedagogies of food and fire (as methods for urban commoning) in urban design practice, promoting larval affordances between bodies, buildings, and the commons as urban conflict. We approach conflict as affordance and the collective shaping agent allowing public sharing to form through dynamic and non-stagnant networks and patterns. As with urban commoning practices, these propositions may diverge from dominant institutions and can open up to opportunities that allow us to rethink life and live differently. The proposal will therefore offer a space for theorization, interrogating contemporary citizenship in learning to design for and by such experiences and events, and highlight pathologies of urban living.
Liana Psarologaki, Stamatis Zografos

Design, the Commons and Transdisciplinarity

Chapter 12. Design and Commons: A Lacanian Approach
This article presents a literature review of the field of social sciences in connection with design theory, more specifically on the issue of collaboration. What we perceive as design today has undergone major changes, mostly in the ways it is expressed by visual and material means. But in the definition of a design ontology, one can trace some common characteristics. Transformation, among the most important of those characteristics, has always acted as core signifier within the various definitions of design practice and theory. With design today being more ubiquitous than ever, we see its contemporary expression acting in tangible ways, traced prominently in the service design field. This has the capacity for various levels of collaboration, which makes the notion central within design studies. Collaboration is also a near tautology to the activity of sharing, a core process of the commons. The commons has been proposed by many scholars as an alternative to capitalism in order to sustain our planet and the human race in general. Can design be linked with the commons? On what grounds? Lacanian psychoanalysis is proposed as an answer to the human tragedy, a tragedy that characterizes human beings and will probably continue to do so. It offers an interpretive mechanism and (complex) ways of operation of our psychic reality within humanity. This article ultimately is a proposal to connect these three seemingly unconnected fields, in that the core of their activity comprises human beings and their distinct existence in the world.
Dora Karadima
Chapter 13. “Matters of Care” in Spaces of Commoning: Designing In, Against and Beyond Capitalism
This chapter explores the potentials and possibilities which a commons perspective offers to design practices by drawing on various threads of feminist and Marxist scholarship on commoning, care, and new materialism. As a basis for discussion, the first part of this chapter outlines an expanded definition of design as a transformative and research-based practice, which has emerged over the past years in response to ongoing ecological, economic, and societal upheavals. The second part examines the relationship between designing and commoning as an activity of care and creation of common space, followed by an engagement with, amongst others, María Puig de la Bellacasa’s notion of “matters of care” (Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017) as a speculative ethics to nourish new narratives which help reconfigure our relationships to the planet and all of its companions. These theoretical frameworks are then reflected through a “situated” practice research, the neighborhood project Common(s)Lab in Berlin-Neukölln, and three of its ongoing formats – a series of do-it-together (DIT) furniture building workshops, a seasonal gift market, and regular reading groups – in order to investigate the emancipatory potential of such spaces of commons as an “infrastructure for agency” (Petrescu. Being in Relation and Re-inventing the Commons. In Feminist Futures of Spatial Practice: Materialisms, Activisms, Dialogues, Pedagogies, Projections, ed. Meike Schalk, Thérèse Kristiansson and Ramia Mazé, 101–9. Baunach: AADR Art Architecture Design Research, 2017; Moebus and Harrison. Caring For the Common and Caring In Common: Towards an Expanded Architecture/Design Practice. 8th Biannual Nordic Design Research Society (Nordes) Conference, 2–4 June 2019, Aalto University, Helsinki, 2019). The chapter concludes with a critical reflection on design’s own political economy to emancipate itself from coercions set by the market – and liberate its potentials for transformative commoning practices – using J.K. Gibson-Graham’s diverse economies framework.
Katharina Moebus
Chapter 14. Design as Commoning: Drawing Together with Care
This chapter places the evolving discourse of the commons in architecture and urbanism in relation to broader cosmopolitical questions concerning the agency and response-ability of design. It contends that more than a socially held or produced resource, the commons must be reconceived in a twofold manner: from a discrete locus (the commons) to a process (commoning, or the politics of connection), and in turn, from concerning primarily human decisions to explicitly involving a more-than-human ensemble. In this shift to a systems-relational approach, commoning becomes a cipher for rethinking our relation to relation. The first section of the chapter addresses the polemics of commons discourse and its reflections in architecture and urbanism. It follows several historical threads leading to the more recent re-conceptualization of commoning as the politicization of livelihood relations. The second part situates these trajectories within the feminist material-semiotics of care, positing it as a lens to refract current discussions of commoning in design. Incorporating contemporary examples, the chapter concludes with two postulations for drawing as a material-semiotic practice of commoning, building from the Latourian provocation of “drawing together.” Drawing-together those who have nothing in common involves representing the manifold entities assembled in, and affected by, design. And drawing, together, common-enough worlds entangles these heterogeneous agencies in new constellations beyond received roles and hierarchies, recasting design as a collective production. Both examples begin a renegotiation of the ways in which the designer’s place in webs of life and matter matter, and how we might act care-fully with(in) them.
Lőrinc Vass, Roy Cloutier, Nicole Sylvia
Design Commons
Dr. Gerhard Bruyns
Dr. Stavros Kousoulas
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