How Anarchist Architecture Could Help Us Build Back Better After COVID

Architecture and anarchy may not seem like the most obvious couple. But since anarchism appeared as a distinct kind of politics in the second half of the 19th century, it inspired countless alternative communities.

Christiania to Copenhagen, Slab City in the California desert, The ZAD in the French countrysideand Grow Heathrow in London all present forms of self-organized construction. On the one hand, this includes the remodeling of existing structures, usually abandoned buildings. On the other hand, it can mean constructing entirely new spaces to accommodate individual freedom and a radical change in social organization.

In his heart, anarchism is a policy of thought and action. And it reflects the original meaning of the ancient Greek word anarkhi meaning “the absence of government”. All forms of anarchism are based on self-organization or government from below. Often stemming from a place of radical skepticism of irresponsible authorities, anarchism favors bottom-up self-organization over hierarchy. It is not about disorder, but rather about a different order – based on the principles of autonomy, voluntary association, self-organization, mutual aid and direct democracy.

For example, in Christiania, an intentional community and commune of approximately 850–1,000 people, which was established in 1971, residents first squatted abandoned military buildings and converted them into communal houses. Over time, others built their own homes in an extraordinary diversity of styles and materials that survive to this day. Even temporary anarchist projects, like the protest camps of the 1980s through Greenham Common in Berkshireand the most recent Extinction Rebellion occupations in Londonrequire the construction of makeshift shelters and basic infrastructure.

Salvation Mountain in Slab City, California.
Shutterstock/Kevin key

Seeds that can grow

In my new book, Architecture and anarchism: building without authority, I watch how anarchist construction projects are often targeted by the authorities because they are deemed illegal. And how as a result of this there is a ripple effect that makes self-builders somehow “exceptional” – driven by desires that are simply alien to the rest of us .

But that, I think, misses the point of the anarchist politics that underlies such projects. Nor does it recognize that these principles are based on values ​​that are shared much more widely.

People standing in a self-built space
Community space at Grow Heathrow.

For example, the late British anarchist Colin Ward always maintained that the values ​​behind anarchism in action were rooted in the things we all do. He was particularly interested in how people seem to have an innate desire to share time and space without expecting financial reward. In the course of his work, he often tackled everyday topics such as community gardens, children’s playgrounds, summer camps and housing cooperatives.

He had a strong and optimistic belief in anarchism as an ever-present but often latent force in social life that simply needed nurturing to thrive. Ward argued for a way of building that was focused on changing the role of citizens from recipients to participants “so that they too have an active part to play” in the construction of cities.

House and water.
Self-built house in Christiania, Copenhagen.
Mykola Komarovskyy/Shutterstock

Some recent architectural practices – for example, Assemble in UK, Recetas Urbanas in Spainand Raumlaborberlin in Germany – have in fact developed modes of operation almost entirely centered on such a model of participation. Indeed, in September 2019, Raumlaborberlin built a “Utopia Stationin Milton Keynes, UK. It was a structure that combined steel scaffolding, metal stairs, striped awnings, and salvaged windows to create a three-story space.

Inside, visitors were invited to provide their own suggestions for future urban development, which were then turned into models and displayed. Such a playful – and joyous – approach to citizen participation stands in stark contrast to the often austere and depressing ways we are typically asked to comment on buildings being planned.

Community spaces

Last year, the UK government published its post-COVID-19 recovery plan for “build back better”. By focusing on ensuring economic growth, the report completely fails to address the catastrophic environmental consequences of such an approach.

A different approach would involve a radical overhaul of the values ​​that underpin our politics. Here, anarchism has much to contribute. Its core values ​​of self-help, self-organization, and voluntary association offer a much more holistic notion of what constitutes progress.

Community garden.
Community spaces for gathering and growth.
Shutterstock/Karin Bredenberg

Personally, I have found in urban housing estates places where the contours of such a daily revolution are taking shape. These are areas of land set aside by local authorities for residents to grow food in exchange for nominal annual rent.

Although I’ve never met anyone on my own housing estate who identifies as an anarchist, the “seeds” are there to see nonetheless. Housing estates are, in essence, common spaces within cities. Sites voluntarily kept away from the market and populated by more or less temporary structures, such as ready-made or self-built sheds or greenhouses.

Although you are not allowed to build a dwelling on a housing estate (at least in the UK), it is not difficult to transfer the underlying principles to other sites in towns. As I look out my bedroom window at the plots just behind my house, I often wonder why it is not possible to reserve land for other types of communal activities. Even for housing?

It is in places like housing estates that we see the otherwise radical nature of alternative possibilities. This is the hope of building an emancipatory, inclusive, ecological and egalitarian future. It’s better to rebuild.

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