Is there any public left in public housing anymore? Are we kidding ourselves? Has there ever been a public in public housing?
Architects and institutions in charge of public housing typically begin by expending their energy on the housing and then, when the project is thoroughly designed, add a gesture toward establishing community such as a school (that winds up closing once the original residents' children graduate) or a half-hearted shopping center (too removed from the housing and from the rest of the city to survive) or a community center (that never manages to create community but rather remains empty except for the occasional card game). Common Ground sets out to do something different, to build housing around a community from the start. The drawings that we produced for this project are meant to be evocative, to tell a story and generate a reaction. They are not directly meant to be built as such and indeed the proposal for Common Ground could take place at Vasby with a minimum of architecture, perhaps even none.
Historically, there has never been a community that developed organically around housing. During the day working-age adults go off to work while most children go to school. Even the elderly who are left behind like to get out of their homes. At night, people sleep. For two-thirds of the day then, housing projects are black holes, storage for everyone’s junk while they are away.
Building housing is really a matter of building a town. As historian Fernand Braudel wrote, “[E]very town, wherever it may be, must primarily be a market. Without a market, a town is inconceivable.” Communities develop around commerce and trade. But we live in a time in which one’s job, and even career, is more fluid than where one lives. Compounding this, the different people who reside under one roof will tend to work in different places. As a result, no matter how much we may hope to overcome this division, work and residence are almost inevitably separate. So adding offices would hardly help. Neither would housing on top of a shopping mall, the knee-jerk reaction to this problem that architects frequently dream of. Instead, it would exacerbate the nature of non-place for both housing and mall. In contrast to our hyper-capitalized world, we propose to create Common Ground, a space that exists on the basis of trade, but also sharing, on the basis of making money, but outside of capital.
Our project starts out with the hope that the generation that has lived in Väsby from its construction and the generation that is moving there can benefit from each other. Defying typical stereotypes about age, we find that its the elders who are the radicals at Väsby, coming of age amidst the faith in socialism, the green ideals, and the social experimentation of the late 1960s and 1970s. In turn, if the young who will move to Väsby are more twenty-first century consumers, they are also increasingly identifying with network culture, floating between the net and in the physical world around them.
To build a bridge between these generations, we propose the Cloud, a physical commons. In our drawings we have depicted the Cloud as a steel framework between two new housing blocks. This steel framework gives physical form to the Cloud and will, over time, be filled with prefabricated, shipping container sized modules. These will address a characteristic problem of contemporary life: owning too much junk. Individuals living in Väsby will store the things they don't need on a regular basis in these storage areas.
Typically public storage units are excuses to accumulate, dead spaces simply waiting to be filled with things that we don't care enough to keep in our living spaces but can't get rid of because they might be useful one day. The Cloud is not that. Rather, it forms a new kind of economic structure. A small staff (drawn from residents at Vasby) will run the Cloud. As residents store things in the cloud, they register these things with the Cloud staff and together, derive a fee schedule for renting out these objects as well as a replacement value for insurance should they be damaged. Claus and Thomas own a folding table that they use on Wednesday for a card game, Stefan and Sara use a digital video camera eight days a year to record the visits of her grandchildren, Elizabeth and Bjorn keep a small boat that they use every August vacation but otherwise don't touch during the year. All of these are rented out to other residents. Thus, instead of focusing on the housing, we choose to focus on a social structure that will allow residents at Väsby to use the things that they own to become closer, not further apart.
Transactions are all done in Väsby Cloud-Krona, a currency limited to Vasby that the Cloud staff manages and that makes the community come closer together. Like the successful Ithaca Hours currency, which has been operating for some twenty years in Ithaca New York, each Vasby Cloud-Krona (VCK) represents a hypothetical hour of labor by an adult. VCK can be converted to Swedish Krona, but at least initially, at a reduced transaction rate for cashing out. Thus, individuals are encouraged to spend the VCK they earn in Vasby.
But the storage-rental scheme that the Cloud delivers becomes only one aspect of the economy. Everyone is encouraged to use VCK for transactions at Vasby. Older children can babysit for VCK which they can spend at the nearby mall (tenants can pay for their rent at the mall in VCK). Residents who have excess produce from their allotment gardens sell their produce at a Farmers' Market located in gaps throughout the Cloud. An older gentleman who enjoys knitting makes smart phone cozies and mittens that he sells with VCK. A couple that has trouble paying their bills under their current employment earn VCK by cleaning apartments in their spare time and use it to pay their rent and their food. A videotape collector rents out his collection from his own apartment for 1/4 VCK a night per tape.
Since the high taxation rate in the Swedish Welfare State often leaves individuals with little money beyond that which they need to repay necessities, we believe the VCK can act as a model for improving individual well-being without furthering the exploitation inherent in capitalism. There is already a precedent in Lund Sweden with the Djing Note. Each Djing is worth 10 grams of locally-produced honey. There are 760 Djing in circulation used to pay for services such as babysitting and bicycle repair. The honey ensures a boundary to the currency, encouraging its local use and reducing inflation.
Storage units are distributed at the edges of the structure, near the apartments that need them. Thus the middle of the structure becomes superfluous. We leave it hollow, leaving large gaps that accommodate common facilities such as the farmer's market, a playground, or a place to gather on midsummer night's eve. If we were rebuilding Väsby, we would reduce circulation within the apartment blocks, loading it onto a series of ramps and pathways on the framework, thus bringing the community directly into the Cloud. As the framework has no roof—although roofs can be built, tarps can be hung, and walkways and ramps serve as shelter, it is possible to accommodate different kinds of activities within the Cloud as needed by the community.
But, like much contemporary architecture, only more strategically, the architecture of the Cloud is merely an attempt to generate controversy and get attention. And just like any work of starchitecture, the large-scale physical form of the Cloud is just an excuse, a manifestation of economic forces, eminently disposable. Instead, public secret of our project is that the Cloud is entirely realizable as a social structure with a minimum of physical space. Take one or two shipping containers and an office and you have the Cloud and with it, just possibly, the idea of housing not as set of boxes but as a town.