Saturday, November 25, 2006

Communist housing

I attended the Argyle Street Coop's housing conference today - and it was really exciting. Lots to think about, learn and simply get confused by.

The coop's back gardenThe conference had essentially come out of discussions in Argyle St. (which is 25 years old this year) about possibly building a new housing coop from scratch somewhere in Cambridge. Which is bloody ambitious but also extremely inspiring, and the more I think about it the more inspiring it becomes.

We heard how others have done it in Redditch, Brighton and Hove (actually) and Manchester. We also heard from architects, our local MP, David Howarth, and people from other forms of co-housing on how to make new buildings that are environmentally sound, nice to live in and cheap (as these things go).

There were lots of debates throughout the day - far too much to go into in one post - so I'll focus on the thing that really got my spine tingling. Designing your own community. The Redditch people designed the homes they were going to live in themselves, and its difficult to think of a better way of really owning and controlling your environment.

To live in a community without landlords, where you decide, collectively, your own rents, policies, new directions and plans is a demonstration in actual fact of the way that we can live without profit and improve our standard of living at the same time. We don't even have to wait for a revolution to be able to make this small part of our lives our own.

THAT is a very phallic pile of shit - excuse my frenchThe (faint) possibility of helping to design and build the very place I may live is... well, it appeals to me, and has got me thinking about what a perfect building would look like.

For me I want fresh light, and lots of it. Community spaces, where you naturally meet and hang out with your neighbours. I want buildings with beautiful curves not straight line boxes, placed in the town - part of the wider community. In short somewhere that fosters living together as a community.

It's not like I want something that looks like its made out of twigs and humous just to appear ethical. I want something that looks modern with space, trees and above all with people that I know and I don't want to see any landlords cluttering up the place.

Some people may be surprised at this knowing my naturally misanthropic and solitary inclinations. Well so am I frankly - but whilst I don't want to live in a commune I really do want to live in a community - and that sense of alientation and atomisation that pervades the estates just doesn't cut the mustard for me.

So, whilst I'm thinking about what makes a community, I'd like to ask you to sink yourself down into the warm bath of your imagination, listen to the water ripple and splash against the sides, smell the decadent aroma of candles and close your eyes for a moment to see the perfect home, it's people and how you'd live there.


Renegade Eye said...

I think you'll like the architecture of artist Carlos Paez Vilaro of Uruguay. He built his home without a plan on paper.

See: Carlos Paez Vilaro

Disillusioned kid said...

If you're strapped for cash, there's always the option of squatting, which seems to be becoming increasingly popular here in Nottingham.

Ed said...

I recognise a lot of what you're saying. I like my own space and would hate to be surrounded by other people all the time, but I also hate the idea of being absolutely solitary.

My ideal community, then, would have to be a social one, with lots of social places (maybe a communal tv room, leisure room etc) but I'd have to have my own couple of rooms (bedroom and maybe some kind of living room) just for myself where I could go when feeling tired or grumpy.

I like natural light, too, so the building would have to have lots of windows and sky lights. I like trees and lawns, too, so it would have to be in green surroundings.

Oh, and I'd like to live very near to an off-licence. Perhaps a booze co-op.

Anonymous said...

The BBC has some interesting stuff on housing at the moment:
and I'm also quite impresssed with what I read about the Coin Street Community Builders in Southwark:
I'm going along to the AGM of Car Free UK this Saturday, to find out more about car free housing developments:

At planning committee on Thursday (in Lewisham) we had an application for 50 flats on a disused garage site, which was eco-homes excellent standard (green roofs, grey-water recycling etc etc), the building footprint was only smthg like 41%, allowing space for communal garden, limited car parking spaces as it was close to public transport etc. An application I was happy to support, for a change!

Jim Jay said...

RE: thanks for the link - interesting

DK: whilst I approve of it ideologically, squatting has never appealed to me personally - I quite like security - which incidently is one of the things about coops in that unless you have to be evicted you'll be there as long as you like.

ED: also communal spaces can be outside... I went to Essex university which, on the whole, is an articectural monstrosity, but it deos have is very well planned squares which everyone has to go through which really creates a community atmosphere (as your always bumping into people you know)

SL: car free is really interesting. We talked about how to discourage car use, essentially by making all other forms of transport as accesible and easy to use as possible - I like the idea of car free town centres for example... but "banning" has to be accompanied with lots of positive measures too (I think)

Douglas Coker said...

Here is another link which some might find interesting The Threshold Centre is at Cole Street Farm in North Dorset. In an attempt to decide on "the future" (geographical location, eco-dwelling, people/politics) I went along on a weekend course early this year. It's an interesting example/model with impressively well organised people who are also "therapeutically informed". This related site indicates proposals for a much larger scale co-housing venture.

There is no reason why such ventures should not be explored in urban areas. A combination of proximity and privacy is a very good basis for sustainable, social living.

Douglas Coker

Matt Burge said...

You've got me thinking again Jim regards co-ops. Thank you. And I agree with your needs for community AND private space, hence never being seriously attracted to the idea of communes either. I shall look into this further. Coin St really is fascinating and the buildings are stunning, set in the most urban of environments.

Matt Burge said...


The BBC link didn't work for some reason. (?)

Dave Riley said...

And finally!!! Daily Maybe posts on my NewsReader don't fall away to miniscule text!Donb';t lnwo what you did Jim Jay but I can now read em....all the way to the end.

Jim Jay said...

Matt: That BBC link again here seems to work ok for me.

Dave: I went through everything looking for problems (unclosed tags etc) but couldn't find anything - I suspect the 'offending' post has rolled off the front page and so no longer effects the rest. I'm at a loss as to what was happening there.

Matt Burge said...

Jim, thank you, that works, although I see nothing on co-ops!

Anonymous said...


Surfed over to your site from and found this interesting post about your community project in Cambridge.

So. I was involved in a cohousing project, late 1990s, lots of meetings, lots of organizing, lots of nice people, no money and no site in a ferocious construction boom. Learned a lot, never got housed.

Move to another country, got involved in activism in the local neighbourhood to try and promote sustainable redevelopment in (another) ferocious construction boom. Lots of meetings, lots of politicians spouting sustainability bullshit and doing sod all about it. Got burned out and pissed off.

Third time round, now, we're building our own place in a small village an hour from the city. Planted 500 trees and started work on an earth/wood house. Very hard work, dependent on weather, meeting great people and (slowly) building a wonderful house for almost no money.

I used to daydream about my perfect community. Now I'm out there doing it with my own hands. Believe me, it's a hundred times better.

So, here's a few suggestions from bittersweet experience:

- You need to be prepared for the whole process to take an astonishingly long time. Plant a tree and for the first couple of years it looks like a fairly pathetic weed. Community is like that.

- Sitting around in meetings is extremely disempowering. Doing physical things with other people to affect your environment is extremely empowering. Try and do as much of the latter and as little of the former as possible.

- Practically everybody who expresses interest in your project will be looking for more or less the same thing - a secure, cheap, warm place to live with friends/neighbours they get on with, plants and public space that works. Most people don't really know and aren't really bothered what colour the public benches are going to be. Try not to get bogged down with the details.

- Professionals and governments, mostly, survive by getting in between people and their vital needs. Try and short this circuit whenever you can.

Good luck with building your place!

Jim Jay said...

Hi, thanks for this - good advice!

I'll pass this on to some of the others