Book Review: New Forms of Collective Housing in Europe

New Forms of Collective Housing in Europe edited by arc en rêve centre d'architecture, published by Birkhäuser, 2009. Hardcover, 296 pages. (Amazon)

Following previous exhibitions at the arc en rêve centre d'architecture in Bordeaux, France -- most notably Rem Koolhaas's Mutations and Voisins - Voisines, which focused on new forms of individual dwellings -- their Collective Housing exhibition and accompanying book collects notable projects but also asks difficult questions. This is not just eye candy. Perhaps in response to their exhibition on single-family houses, the museum asks if sustainable development today equals a resurgence of collective housing in urban locales. Naturally they ask about the form these projects take, but they also inquire into the relationship between the individual and the collective.
The book tackles these questions in a myriad of ways. Photos by Marco Bohr, Aurore Valade, Marja Pirilä, and others at the book's beginning reveal what is missing from most architectural photography (the projects in this book included), people. These provoke questions of the individual's place within places of collectivity, but naturally they cannot provide answers. Essays by philosophers, geographers, sociologists, and even scientists continue their inquiry, though their diversity of messages makes it clear that answers are not what are needed; it is more questions. The 45 projects that follow can be seen as 45 answers, or they can be seen as questions. In other words, not only is each project particular to its own conditions -- negating the possibility of universal solutions -- each design is just one solution of many that could occur in response to the same conditions. Or to further clarify, each project provokes more questions via its existence.
One example is this week's dose, the e_3 project in Berlin by Kaden + Klingbeil. It takes an infill site and manages to make corner units of its full-floor dwellings. In the process it activates the space of movement from street to apartment, potentially making sites of communal interaction that other design responses might not afford. If successful, should this design become a template for other sites where communal interaction is desired? Or should a more ambitious project like Markus Pernthaler's Rondo in Graz be a more appropriate model for communal life, a building where all aspects of shared life take place in one building? Of course, there is not one answer to any question concerning the design of collective housing. But inquiries at the level of philosophy, photography, criticism, and architecture are helpful in developing considered and suitable responses. Like the cities they occupy, new forms of collective housing is an ongoing project that unfolds and informs over time.
The 45 projects included in the exhibition and book were completed between 2003 and 2008. Their documentation in this large-format book is through black-and-white photographs and drawings for each building. With color photographs and essays bookending the projects (critical essays and color plates for the 45 projects end the book), the room left for the projects is not enough. Most buildings receive only two pages for photos and drawings, with two pages for title and text; these last could have been combined to make more room for imagery. Regardless, this is a well-done and beautiful collection of notable and lesser-known buildings by a range of architects in a range of European countries.