Catalonia has a long cooperative tradition that encompasses many areas of society, and cooperative housing is no exception. The cooperative housing model played a particularly prominent role during the 1960s and 1970s when a younger generation in search of affordable housing explored cooperative schemes extensively.1 This followed a well-established tradition of consumer and credit cooperatives that had already existed before the Civil War (1936–1939), but it was in 1957 that the first legal framework for the sector was created—the National Union of Housing Cooperatives.
What has changed since then? In the 1980s, the Western world embarked on a neoliberal economic trajectory spearheaded by President Ronald Reagan in the United States and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. At this time Spain was just emerging from decades of dictatorship after the death of General Franco in 1975. The establishment of a democratic state and the approval of a new constitution in 1978 triggered a period of economic growth which culminated in the late 1990s, under the government of Jose María Aznar, in an extensive wave of deregulation and privatization legislation. This opened the way for a major construction boom led by private developers and the promotion of home ownership over rental housing by the public administration. As if we were living in a constant state of horror vacui, practically every single square meter of land was parceled out to be built on, turning the country into what seemed like one massive edifice. This was the economic and political landscape when the worldwide economic recession hit Spain in 2008 and the real estate bubble burst. While the crisis engulfed the financial sector in general, the housing sector was one of the worst hit. Following more than a decade of development during which housing prices increased rapidly, many families had taken on growing levels of debt in order to finance their homes and indeed debt became the new norm. When the crisis struck, many defaulted on their mortgages and were forcibly evicted, resulting in a severe housing crisis. It is difficult to know exactly how many buildings currently stand empty in Spain (some unfinished, others built for seasonal use only), but it has been estimated that in 2014 there were more than 20,000 skeletons of unfinished buildings, the same year that the number of evictions rose to 70,078, according to the National Institute of Statistics, INE.2
These events created fertile ground for citizens to call into question many generally accepted notions of identity, of collectivity, and of social and cultural needs. It is therefore hardly surprising that we have witnessed a constant quest for strategies with which to respond to real changes in the built environment. Some of these responses are based on recovering the traditions of cooperative housing and housing associations, while at the same time adapting and updating those traditions to fit a new context. The energy released in reaction to the bursting of the real estate bubble and the financial crisis clearly manifested itself in the growth around 2011 of movements like #15M or the group Platform for Mortgage Victims (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, known as La PAH), who worked to stop or transform the foreclosure processes and housing evictions and to bring about changes in the legal framework.
An important experiment inspired by all these movements seeking new forms of access to housing is the cooperative housing project La Borda. The project is the product of local and grassroots initiatives to recover an abandoned industrial complex in Sants, a working-class neighborhood of Barcelona with a long cooperative tradition. The idea of a housing cooperative was a community-driven effort to recover the social urban fabric of the neighborhood.
We had the opportunity to interview two members of the cooperative, Cristina Gamboa Masdevall and Pol Massoni Mangues, who are at the same time members of the architecture cooperative Lacol, which is responsible for designing the La Borda housing cooperative. They explained that “the project as a whole started in 2012 as a result of some informal meetings between various actors who were already working in the neighborhood, including four members of Lacol, two members of the labor cooperative La Ciutat Invisible, members of the association Sostre Cívic,3 and around eight people from different association movements in the area. Following these informal encounters, the next action was to take formal steps to try to reach a wider audience, with the aim of gathering a critical mass of supporters to start working seriously on an effective proposal of a caliber suitable for presentation to the City Council. After this initial effort, a group of fifty-five people joined the group and divided into different working committees to discuss the diverse topics that are part of any housing scheme: architecture, cohabitation, economic model, legal policies, communication, and internal management. “These committees formed the basis for a decision-making assembly.” The outcome of the initial effort was positive. “Two years later, following countless meetings, discussions and research, the Housing Cooperative La Borda was officially launched in 2014.” In November 2015, an agreement was finally reached for Barcelona City Council to lease to La Borda a plot located in the neighborhood of Sants, a scheme classified as State-Subsidized Housing (Habitatge Proteccio Oficial / HPO).
This is the first cooperative housing experiment with this kind of leasehold in Spain. The project is conceived as “a self-managed project based on the notion of collective ownership, which avoids the possibility of speculation.” It is clearly influenced by some well-known models in cooperative housing, such as the Andel model4 in Denmark or the FUCVAM5 cooperative housing projects in Uruguay, where the system of granting a right of use has been established since early efforts in 1966. Briefly stated, under this system the property always remains collectively owned, while use is personal. Like the models on which it is based, the main idea behind the La Borda cooperative housing model is to involve all the actors who have—or will have—a role in the project (including the future residents, the architects, the building contractor, the legal advisors, and so on) for the entire duration of the process. The design methodology was thus the product of weekly meetings where the spatial program was discussed in a participatory process before the architectural design was finished and construction started. One of the main issues that needed to be resolved in a country that had been badly hit by the government’s austerity policy in the wake of the financial crisis was how to enable residents to invest at a time when many people had little money. With the intention of subverting the traditional economic model of housing projects, La Borda decided to work in partnerships with other organizations that shared the same values, such as the cooperative bank Coop57.6 By leasing the plot from the City Council and obtaining micro-credits from associated banks, which included grants, housing loans, a participatory loan, collaborating contributions, and the inhabitants’ shares, La Borda’s goal was to raise the funds to meet the total budget of 2.7 million euros. Future residents will have to pay a share of 15,000 euros per family to become a member of the cooperative, which is an affordable investment under the current circumstances. In their own words, it is a project “neither for rent nor for purchase. We rely on a model of non-speculative holding that focuses on its inhabitants.” This highlights the difference between value and cost, and between investing in a community, in this case the cooperative, rather than in a product.
“We can’t deny that these kinds of projects are very political in a way: they want to move beyond the capitalist system and the individualism that is inherent to it. You cannot sell the house, because the building is owned by the cooperative, but if you don’t want to live in the house any more it is easy to leave the coop: you simply retrieve the money you invested—which is your share—and find another person to replace you. To be able to use the house, this person simply pays in their share, and that’s all,” explain Cristina and Pol. Nonetheless, the process has involved many confrontations and discussions. Changing the rules of the system or challenging notions we take for granted is not always easy, and this is one of the chief architectural and urban design challenges that La Borda had to face in order to obtain building permission. For example, the cooperative had to decide between following the legislation in Barcelona, which makes an underground carpark mandatory when you exceed a certain number of housing units, or to invest time and energy trying to convince the municipality—with all the bureaucracy involved in such a process—to allow the project to substitute parking for cars with parking space for bicycles, a solution that they describe as “absolutely coherent with the project’s environmental, spatial, and economic approach.” The collective decided to follow the latter approach and, after nine months of meetings and negotiations in consultation with the cooperative’s legal advisors, it finally reached an agreement with the public administration.
We are living at a time when the architectural profession has begun to reinterpret itself and understand that the future will consist not only of working for society but also within society. “An architectural design is simply one part of a wider and complex process. It is a little difficult to be a member of the cooperative and an architect of the project at the same time, because you tend to mix up the different roles; but once you learn to separate them and to locate yourself in that intermediate space of negotiations, the result is much better,” the architects explain. In response to the new forms of occupancy espoused by La Borda, based on self-development and collective management of the open building infrastructure, the architects have run a series of workshops to propose, discuss, and research ways to design public and private spaces, environmental strategies, shared facilities, and adaptable space. Negotiations can be difficult sometimes, especially if the concepts under discussion are related to what is public and what is private in the domestic realm. This is one of the motivations to explore the potential of the in-between spaces, those spaces that often serve as a transition from one point to another, which here form an active part of the project. There are no empty halls or corridors, but a series of intertwined dynamic and fluid spaces. To improve community life and make the best possible use of space, each apartment has its own private areas while at the same time maximizing the shared facilities, which include a communal kitchen, a laundry room, and a large dining room. The architectural design includes twenty-eight apartments of three different types for fifty inhabitants. Construction started in February 2017 with completion planned by 2018. The municipality of Barcelona explains that this is a first pilot project, and the plan is to develop similar projects on another seven plots in various neighborhoods.
There are still many doubts and questions about the direction that this kind of housing model will follow in the long term, especially in a country where people are used to owning their houses. Some other cities and communities have shown an interest in replicating La Borda as a model that can work in multiple contexts, but until the building is finished and the residents have moved in and begun cohabitating—with all the conflicts and negotiations that this will inevitably involve—we will not be able to test, learn from, or evaluate the living conditions. As Alfred Jarry wrote in Ubu Roi, “To keep up a worthwhile tradition means reviving the idea behind it which must necessarily be in a constant state of evolution: it is mad to try to express new feelings in a ‘mummified’ form.”7 Time will tell whether this is the type of evolution that the Catalan tradition of cooperative housing needs to engage with—not so much as an end, but as a means to encourage new ways of living.
This text was first published on Together! The New Architecture of the Collective (Vitra Design Museum and Ruby Press), the catalog of the 2017 exhibition Together! The New Architecture of the Collective at the Vitra Design Museum.
Ethel Baraona Pohl, “Cooperative Housing as a Means More Than an End”, Together! The New Architecture of the Collective. Weil am Rhein, Vitra Design Museum, 2017, 344–348.