At Home with the Collective

August 29, 2022

Excerpts from a conversation between MAS Context and Alexander Eisenschmidt on a research project that he calls “At Home with the Collective” along with a selection of work from a seminar and studio at UIC.


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Housing Urbanism, Collective Map. Courtesy of Alexander Eisenschmidt.

The material that you see here is part of a two-semester research project (a seminar and a studio) on the topic of collective housing, led by Alexander Eisenschmidt (professor at UIC) under the umbrella of the Visionary Cities Project. As he tells us, “Our current research is devoted to housing in the American context as we are trying to find out if the US’s love affair with single family homes, private ownership, and heteronormative family structures can be challenged.” In Fall of 2021, Eisenschmidt ran a graduate seminar that investigated historical precedents of what he calls “collective housing” and, during the following semester, taught a fourth-year undergraduate studio. “The seminar gave us a chance to survey the globe for alternative ways of housing, and the term ‘collective’ was introduced as a mechanism to shift attention from house to housing, from private to communal living, from mono-functional to shared spaces. We all know that simply building more homes will not alleviate the housing crisis that has been long in the making and that accelerated through the pandemic. Therefore, finding alternative models appears to me as the only valuable option.” The students in the seminar collected and cataloged hundreds of examples and then redrew and analyzed several of these. “We looked at these examples at three different scales: the unit, the block, and the neighborhood; and asked if the internal organization of the apartments, the composition of the urban block, and the makeup of the larger urban context contributed to a sense of the collective and possibly even of solidarity.” The studio learned from these studies and began where the seminar left off. “The catalog of examples that the seminar generated became a field guide to housing and a tool to activate the research that the studio was able to test in the city of Chicago—a city with a particularly grim public housing history. Cabrini Green’s former residents, for instance, still wrestle with the loss of their homes and forced relocation to the city’s outskirts and beyond. And it’s a city where 74% of low-income households pay more than 50% of income on rent, far exceeding the already dismal US average.” The students analyzed different sites across the city, engaged local community organizations, and proposed projects in these neighborhoods. For Eisenschmidt, the scale of the projects seemed to be important. “According to our research, only projects that reach a certain size are able to have an urban impact, can incorporate facilities that actively contribute to the life of the collective, and are composed of units that are relatively small but that residents can transform and that encourage them to take over parts of the communal spaces.” When we asked him if these kinds of buildings are possible in the US, he replied: “We have to try. Of course, the neoliberal economy has stimulated desires and implemented financial incentives for home ownership, it has enacted restrictive regulations that center on individual homes and the nuclear family, and it has undermined the reputation of ‘social housing,’ in addition to fixing basic requirements (i.e., parking) and norms (i.e., apartment layouts) that today no longer conform to current needs and family structures. But we can also point at successful examples that pioneered alternatives to conventional housing. We can look at Marina City, possibly the last successful large housing project in Chicago, where architectural vision and labor union investment joined forces to rethink the way housing was designed, built, and financed. The research and studio are our attempt at finding openings (and sometimes creating them) for housing to exist beyond the market, and to rethink established forms of living and the politics and economies that surround it.”


Cluster Housing (Alaina Griffin)*
Courtyard Housing (Liam Hoy)
Network Housing (Colin Jecha)
Capsule Housing (Emily Kellogg)*
Field Housing (Mark Melvin)
Circular Housing (Destine Meza)
Linear Housing (Ashley Parker)
Low Housing (Rizna Rafi Maalouf)
Meander Housing (David Ramis)
Cross Housing (Kevin Rucker)

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Housing Urbanism: At Home with the Collective catalog. © Alexander Eisenschmidt.

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Housing Urbanism: At Home with the Collective catalog. © Alexander Eisenschmidt.

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Housing Urbanism: At Home with the Collective catalog. © Alexander Eisenschmidt.

Cluster Housing: Suburb in the Sky
Alaina Griffin

Cluster housing is expressed through its individual units, a suburban schema turned urban by sheer proximity, density, and mass. While cluster housing blocks are identifiable via an overarching image, there is no unifying exterior surface to which the units adhere. Instead, it is the smallest possible unit of the whole—the individual apartment—that is multiplied, divided, mirrored, and rotated until it becomes a larger expression of the geometric rules. Pieces and parts take the place of holistic superstructure. Despite such individualistic priorities in form, the units attempt to work together to connect tenants not in an overtly public space, but in an unlikely building element: the facade. Whether this approach is urban, anti-urban, suburban, or something in between, there is a liability to collectivize in social housing. Kenzo Tange, in his “Plan for Tokyo” that would rehouse millions in an extreme metropolis, attributes connection to being the primary reason for urbanity: “...but even more alone is the man who is separated from this network. It is in order to connect themselves with this network that people gather in the cities.”1

The Casablanca Housing Estate by ATBAT-Afrique draws on traditional African domestic design, with exterior terraces that provide the dining room, kitchen, and enclosed bathroom for each unit. This terrace takes the place of the common utility space that would typically be shared by a few homes arranged around a courtyard, but the balconies in this apartment block are individualized, taking up a third of the total square footage of each apartment, and are not shared amongst tenants. The terraces conform to a grid geometry of solids and voids that make up a deep, inhabitable facade; the solids are composed of five-foot walls that surround the exterior space. At that height, visibility into the terrace is almost impossible, and the alternating geometric system that arranges the balconies does not allow for much interpersonal interaction, despite their proximity to one another. The interior private space is reserved for the quieter, less dynamic activities of a household—a living room and bedroom—which externalizes the effort and pleasure of cooking and eating together. The public courtyard, privatized and lifted off the ground, hybridizes modernist principles of regularity and repetition with the communal lifestyle already existing in the culture of those who would inhabit it, but falls flat in practice when prioritizing such strict rules over practical means of interaction. The geometric principles that dictate the position of the outdoor space, which doubles as the facade, make the typically communal activities that take place on the terrace almost completely isolated.

The units of Habitat 67 are highly standardized, and interlock such that each unit is provided outdoor space by the roof of the unit below. The number of bedrooms in each apartment varies, but the footprint always conforms to the same dimensions to allow a rotated stacking. This interlocking nature theoretically blurs the otherwise highly individualistic composition of the cluster style housing to create a block where each apartment is entirely codependent upon the unit below. A nearly suburban ethos (individual homes with yards) is made urban by pure proximity—the closeness of the units and their dependence on the geometry and location of other units in order to form the whole is an attempt to urbanize them. This relationship may or may not inspire interpersonal interaction, but it does create a reliance between neighbors, even if that reliance is not internalized by the tenants. The site of Habitat 67 exacerbates this dependence between neighbors for green space—the building is lined on either side with highway or river. With few options for community green space in the surrounding area, the individual lots of outdoor access become even more important. Thus, form and function are collapsed in the mechanism of the inhabitable facade. The form of the building, a cluster, is composed only of its primary function, housing units, without any infrastructure to mediate between the two. Instead of a superstructure with plug-in units that conform to an overarching system, the units are the system. This means the system has the potential to expand infinitely, but only at the will of the individual, in bits and pieces that eventually make up a whole.

In Walden 7, individualization of the collective creates insular circulation that prioritizes each unit rather than an expansive, connective network. The walkways trace around the individual units, and bleed into the balconies and entrances that belong to the specific apartments they are leading to. By following the form of singular apartments so closely, the pathways not only provide the private balconies and landings for each unit, but also open up the dense interior of the building, allowing for light to pass into the building and form an interior exterior—some of the balconies are actually inward facing, into the depths of the block instead of outward to the street. Analogous to sidewalks in a suburb that would lead to a specific address, these walkways are formed around void rather than streets. The circulation is very clearly not a part of a larger network or organization, it refers only to the geometry of the units. This insular configuration means that units’ balconies are often right next to each other or face each other, and that the block is almost sealed off from the outside world. Wedged on a triangular site between three major streets, Walden 7 does not connect to a greater network of the city, nor does it engage the neighborhood spatially. It is an object rather than a node, using the density of the units as its entry into the urban fabric. The binding nature of the site could be exploited or ignored, but building private outdoor space into the units predisposes the design to the latter. Thus, there is little that connects any of these examples to the surrounding urban tissue or provides the tenants with any supportive infrastructure like parking or washing, but it does create a logic for expansion and universal application.

The cluster housing examples here have an ethos of privatization, isolation, and singularity even within the complex whole. There is little that unifies the tenants spatially, but their proximity to one another provides the potential for interaction. The inhabitable facades also provide opportunity for optical interaction from the street—the outdoor space that is prioritized in the examples occurs on the exterior of the building, creating a common spectacle. For such hyper-individualized designs, the units themselves are highly standardized and uniform, but their formal massing creates a perception of impenetrable depth, surprisingly populated by inhabitants dotting the facades. This configuration is a vertical suburb: one made up of individual homes, where those in close proximity might happen to run into a neighbor on their “lawn,” but without any sense of collective space that could be occupied by anyone at any time. It is an approach to urbanity that relies on an aggregate of quantifiable parameters, proximity, density, and mass, rather than on an ethos of community or cooperation.

Mas observation at home with the collective casa blanca housing estate

ATBAT-Afrique, Casablanca Housing Estate, Casablanca, 1953. © Alaina Griffin.

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Moshe Safdie, Habitat 67, Montreal, 1967. © Alaina Griffin.

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Giancarlo De Carlo, University Centre Housing, Urbino, 1973-83. © Alaina Griffin.

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Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura, Walden 7, Sant Just Desvern, 1975. © Alaina Griffin.

Collectivity in the Capsule: Self Sustaining Pods versus Plug-Ins
Emily Kellogg

Within an AA files article included in issue 68, Arata Isozaki has a conversation with Thomas Daniell and claims that: “A single tower can’t be called a city, but the vertical towers, conceived as infrastructure, combined with horizontal bridges might be able to unify urban activities in the air and on the ground.”2 In a rejection of Western modernism, it is this coherence between the existing and new city that Isozaki is concerned with. In his project from 1962, Clusters in the Air, Isozaki realizes this vision of a city in the air, expandable through capsule units which become interlocked within the larger overall system. The project is explained biomorphically in nature, where the cylindrical vertical cores become the “trunks,” cantilevered bridges connecting cores become “branches,” and housing capsules resting on the branches are the “leaves.” This analogy of the tree suggests the way one would live in this system, always in relation to larger mechanisms of infrastructure or circulation. One is always moving through a hierarchical system of publicness, where vertical cores “trunks” are not only the largest circulatory mechanisms volumetrically, but also the most collective spaces within the city. As one travels closer to the unit, there becomes fewer opportunities for socialization. In this construction, the capsule becomes a zone of solidarity from the collective.

Later in 1972, Kisho Kurokawa designed and built the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. This housing tower takes the individuality of the capsule to the extreme. Designed specifically for traveling businessmen, each capsule is large enough for only one person. There is an intense binary between the vertical core and capsule, or further between the collective and the individual. There are two cores that contain circulation accesses of stairs and elevators, and in a bridge space between the cores there is undefined shared space. Only four screws are required to connect the living capsules to these cores, making their addition and subtraction theoretically simple and cost effective. This ease of expansion allows the tower the opportunity to adapt to its needs of occupancy over time, which varies the amount of collectivity that could occur from floor to floor. The capsule units themselves are almost completely identical, depending on their orientations to the tower. Each are self-sustaining, regardless of their connection to the central core, and contain built-in furniture, a single bed, bathroom, A/C unit and color TV. The transient nature of this capsule project is not only a leading example of Metabolist architecture, but also of a dichotomous architecture, where in which the boundaries between public and private could not be more clearly defined in relation to the individual body versus the collective.

Capsule housing grew in popularity from the Metabolists, contextually due to cultural shifts such as war, feelings of impermanence, and acceptance of architectural dissolution, but other geographically varied examples exist as well. Charlotte Perriand, a French designer, was influenced through both her work under Le Corbusier as well as her time spent in Japan where she found the “standard” module of the tatami mat largely influential. Her 1938 project, Le Refuge Tonneau, is designed as a flexible living capsule meant to exist in the snowy mountains. One could theoretically disassemble this prefabricated, barrel-shaped structure and carry it on their backs along a journey. Its insulated aluminum and plywood materiality, as well as its lift off of the earth through adjustable legs, makes it suitable for extreme weather climates. The living unit exists in solitude; it is not inserted, screwed in, or plugged into any megastructure or vertical core. Instead of being connected to a larger collective system of publicness, this project inverts the notion of capsule as private, individual living space. The project has two floors, the bottom containing plenty of stackable furniture pieces, as well as swing down benches and a central fireplace. Here is where Perriand’s theory of “equipment”3 is iterated, through functional objects which are in constant flexible relation to the body from within. Options of folding and stacking are exacerbated to perform in multiple ways, despite the sheer smallness of the capsules themselves. One can climb a ladder to the second floor sleeping space, which has the ability to house up to eight people. The project is small, but is able to maximize its living space by (assumedly) foregoing amenities such as a kitchen or bathroom, which can be constructed as needed outside of the capsule in the mountain range surrounding. Here, the project is able to house necessary functions given minimal square footage, but still manages to assume collectivity within. Perriand prioritizes the social aspect of housing over more functional aspects such as plumbing or an immobile site.

Another conceptual example, Wolfgang Doring’s Stepelhaus from 1967, seems to hold a multiplicity of capsule scenarios. The project features a steel megastructure, and quite spacious inserted living zones. Unit “insets” are placed into the megastructure, and there seems to be a clear binary on every floor between one living inset and one public inset. Each living unit can sleep about six people, and is about 1,150 square feet. This sort of volume is quite unusual for a capsule, which often attempts to minimize living to the bare necessities. Living insets contain multiple large bedrooms, a communal living space and kitchen, with ample room for flexible programming. Accessed by a central vertical core, the living unit is adjoined with a complimentary public unit on the same level, opposite the vertical core. This collective zone is equal in square footage, and seems to suggest space for working and gathering. The space is sprinkled with many individual desks and large tables floating in an open, potentially Bürolandschaft-like accord. These prefabricated, family duplex living cells were one of the first non-Japanese capsule projects that would inspire Peter Cook to write that “the idea of the simple prefabricated capsule [is] a near reality.”4

In synthesizing the history of capsule housing through the lens of these four projects, one can start to understand two outlying conditions of inhabitation: One in which the capsule fosters individuality and specificity to the body, plugging into a larger infrastructure of circulation and collectivity, and another where the unit literally encapsulates collectivity as a primal necessity, allowing its geographical location to exist in solitude from a larger whole. In the former, there is a clear hierarchy of conditions within the overall block. One can travel further into the system, with volume gradually condensing as one gets closer to the capsule unit. In the latter, inhabitants have less privacy in terms of sleeping and living, but a greater overall flexibility in geographical location and an inherent social connection from within. While Isozaki might be correct in his claim that “a single tower can’t be called a city,” it is clear that capsule housing has the ability to question, if not dissolve, the city altogether when it swallows both the individual and the collective. Proposals such as Le Refuge Tonneau are able to host an isolated collective in the most minimal of ways, suggesting a future without the need for centrality, potentially without the need for a metropolis at all.

Mas observation at home with the collective clusters in the air

Arata Isozaki, Clusters in the Air, Shibuya (unbuilt), 1962. © Emily Kellogg.

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Kisho Kurokawa Architect & Associates, Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo, 1972. © Emily Kellogg.

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Charlotte Perriand, Le Refuge Tonneau, (no site), 1938. © Emily Kellogg.

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Wolfgang Döring, Stapelhaus, unbuilt, 1967. © Emily Kellogg.


Miguel Serna

West Englewood is a neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago with a population of 20,000 residents. Ranking fifth out of 77 neighborhoods in Chicago in terms of economic hardship, it is also known as a “food desert.” 51% of residents have been convicted (making it hard for them to find jobs) and 59% of families have reported food insecurities (with 6 out of 10 children living in impoverished conditions). This project, therefore, aims to offer housing as well as jobs for individuals and families in need. It occupies fourteen vacant blocks and is composed of a raised farm, with a public market and community programs below, and two different sets of apartments above. While all units are small, they spatially interlock across two floors, where the bottom floor makes space for a shared corridor between two neighbors, which in turn leads to the main corridor. Each renter is also given a strip of farmland that can be cultivated for consumption or, with the help of local organizations (such as I Grow Chicago and Growing Home), can be sold at the market below.

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Overall Noli plan. © Miguel Serna.

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Overall housing plan. © Miguel Serna.

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Axonometric. © Miguel Serna.

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Exploded axonometric. © Miguel Serna.

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Vignette. © Miguel Serna.

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Vignette. © Miguel Serna.

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Vignette. © Miguel Serna.

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Circulation plan. © Miguel Serna.

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Circulation, first floor. © Miguel Serna.

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Circulation, second floor. © Miguel Serna.

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Vignette. © Miguel Serna.

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Vignette. © Miguel Serna.

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Vignette. © Miguel Serna.

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Vignette. © Miguel Serna.

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Vignette. © Miguel Serna.

Sara Serrano

Little Village is one of the densest neighborhoods in Chicago. It has an estimated population of 73,826 people with 17,000 living per square mile. The population is mostly made up of minority groups who co-live with relatives in increasingly dense conditions. Therefore, the proposal envisions collective multigenerational housing that gives each generation an apartment but also encourages interaction between the younger and elderly generation. By organizing their units across from each another and implementing large entrance doors that can swing open to connect to the opposite unit, an interface is created that at least facilitate social exchange and, at best, cross-generational solidarity. Each individual unit is conceived as a single space with alcoves for secondary rooms to sleep, cook, and bath. When the doors to the secondary rooms are closed, a single open space appears while opening the swing doors from one side of the unit transforms the apartment into an enfilade.

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Overall Nolli plan. © Sara Serrano.

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Overall plan. © Sara Serrano.

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Axonometric. © Sara Serrano.

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Block Section. © Sara Serrano.

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Elderly couple unit. © Sara Serrano.

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Young family unit. © Sara Serrano.

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Mural perspective. © Sara Serrano.

Tim Wood

In the blocks surrounding Douglass Park, over 80% of households are led by single mothers. In addition to performing paid labor to financially support their families, these mothers also perform thirty hours of unpaid domestic labor for their families per week, leaving little time for rest or play or personal development. The proposal is a monolithic housing collective that spans three city blocks, sitting on the viaduct of an unused rail line. Domestic labor is outsourced to dedicated programs that stretch into the surrounding neighborhood. Collective meals are hosted in the shared kitchen and dining facility, and an on-site cafe is open to both residents and the public. A laundry service takes dirty clothes and returns them washed and folded. Children are cared for at different ages in different facilities, with a nursery and daycare for young children, an after school program for the nearby elementary and middle school, and a recreation center for older children. By freeing overburdened mothers from this domestic labor, they are able to rest, play, and nurture themselves and their children.

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Overall Nolli plan. © Tim Wood.

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Overall plan. © Tim Wood.

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Diagram. © Tim Wood.

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Exploded axonometric. © Tim Wood.

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Plan. © Tim Wood.

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Vignette. © Tim Wood.

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Vignette. © Tim Wood.

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Vignette. © Tim Wood.

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Vignette. © Tim Wood.

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Model photo. © Tim Wood.


Seminar students: Alaina Griffin, Liam Hoy, Colin Jecha, Emily Kellogg, Mark Melvin, Destine Meza, Ashley Parker, Rizna Rafi Maalouf, David Ramis, and Kevin Rucker
Studio students:
Aisyah Anjani, Dasianelle Burton, Kenneth Castillo, Samantha Jimenez, Luis Romero, Miguels Serna, Sara Serrano, Tim Wood, Jia Zhen
Faculty: Alexander Eisenschmidt
University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Architecture

1 Kenzo Tange, “A Plan for Tokyo, 1960: Towards a Structural Reorganization,” in Architecture Culture 1943-1968, ed. J. Ockman (1960, New York: Rizzoli, 1993), 328.
2 Thomas Daniell and Arata Isozaki, “Arata Isozaki in Conversation with Thomas Daniell,” AA Files 68 (2014): 22–42.
3 Shoichiro Sendai, “The Conception of ‘Equipment’ by Charlotte Perriand: Cross-over Between Le Corbusier and Japan,” Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 18, no. 5 (2019): 430–438.
4 Peter Šenk, “The Concept of Capsule Architecture as Experiment: Origins and Manifestations with Selected Examples from Slovenia and Croatia,” Prostor. Accessed October 4, 2021.