History Of Communal Architecture

Communal living sounds like a throwback to the 70s, when hippies cohabited in communes in protest of traditional capitalist values and championing a new way of life. But hippies were hardly the first to create the concept of communal living, and communal architecture has recently had a resurgence, potentially becoming the new normal for millennials and their families.

Ancient communal living

communal living architecture neolithic hunter gatherer

Hunter-gatherer societies were the first example of communal living. Image source

Communal living can be traced back to the earliest days of human cohabitation, historians Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that hunter-gatherer societies were traditionally based on egalitarian social relations and common ownership. And while there was little architecture to speak of, communal living - the act of the tribe sharing resources equally - is something that predates even the written word.

Communal living in the Middle Ages

Cramped communal living conditions in the Middle Ages

Cramped communal living conditions in the Middle Ages. Image source

During the Middle Ages, communal living remained the typical household structure across most of Europe.

Homes were essentially gathering places for small groups of revolving residents, representing a conceptual midpoint between hunter-gatherers’ living arrangements and those common today.

Historian John Gillis claims that medieval homes consisted of a mix of friends and extended family, and that single-family households were uncommon in most of the world. It wasn’t until the 12th century that households became organised around monogamous couples and their children in Western Europe. However, they were far from the nuclear family, with various townspeople, poor married couples, other children, orphans, widows, elderly people, and tenants often living alongside them in communal housing.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that divisions were drawn between who would live with whom, and towards the end of the 19th century the so-called “godly family” started to take shape, that of single families living in individual homes. Industrialization made extended communities less necessary and communal living was mostly lost.

Communal living in the ‘70s

Despite what you might think about the summer of love and the hippie movement driving communal living in the 1970s, the modern cohousing movement actually began in Denmark where there are currently over 700 “living communities”.

Designed through a collaboration between a Danish architect and a psychologist, the first cohousing community was built in 1972 close to Copenhagen, and housed 27 families, drawing influence from Bodil Graae’s 1967 article, “Every child should have 100 parents”. To this day, approximately 1% of the Danish population still live in cohousing communities, which totals around 50,000 people. Communal architecture has evolved over time through a fair amount of trial-and-error, now favoring smaller individual spaces with larger common areas.

The cohousing concept spread to several other countries, and countries like Sweden adopted it with full force, even introducing a number of state-owned cohousing buildings with hundreds of residents.

Shared outdoor space as communal architecture

Shared spaces have consistently added value to property, particularly in the UK. This concept in communal architecture is nothing new, with Georgian squares and Victorian parks comfortably weathering economic downturns and cultural shifts over the decades. Urban parks and squares have been called civic ‘breathing spaces’ in some of the most densely populated areas, boosting both local property values as well as community spirit (which is somewhat less measurable).

communal architecture bedford square georgian square london

Bedford Square in London gives residents access to a communal square and park. Image source

Less formal urban spaces are the modern-day equivalent of these squares and park, allowing a closer relationship between the home and the public realm. A prime example of this type of communal architecture is the Accordia development in Cambridge, England. Instead of more traditional homes with rear gardens, Accordia opts for densely-packed terraced and courtyard housing with open access to a large open green rather than smaller private back gardens.

communal architecture accordia cambridge england open public green area

Designed by Alison Brooks Architects (ABA) the "Brass" building in the Accordia development in Cambridge, England has access to communal open green areas. Image source

The open green area accounts for more than 40% of the total development area, creating a flood-resistant and biodiverse landscape for homeowners to enjoy. It also creates greater opportunity for residents to dwell in a communal setting, allowing them to spend time with neighbors, for children to play and make friends, and for chance encounters with a wider public.

Millennial communal architecture

As with many great concepts, communal living and communal architecture began to resurface within millennial culture. Blame digital living, housing prices, or the unwillingness to settle, but millennial values lend themselves increasingly well to communal architecture. Typical millennial characteristics are that they are tech-savvy, desire a good work-life balance that is more relaxed in nature, they look for authentic experiences while at the same time crave instant access to things.

Recent trends have shown that millennials are willing to give up a portion of their personal space in return for more communal areas and cutting-edge amenities, meaning that architectural styles need to adjust dramatically in order to cater for the world’s future homeowners.

Is communal architecture the future, and is it always important to include a communal aspect to new structures? Take part in one of our open architecture competitions to have your say.

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