What does a collective process in architecture entail and how does it influence the process of conception of space? Although the hierarchically organised office with its claim to individual authorship is still the dominant form of architecture firm today, more and more horizontally organised collectives with alternative approaches to the architectural practice are emerging. This essay focuses on the role of collectives in re-thinking the architecture discipline - in its conceptual approach, sphere of influence and output - as a subversive counterarchitecture, grounded in the commons. The text also offers a glimpse of the collective’s working methods, organisational forms and general ambitions. Indeed, this emerging generation of architects and non-, thanks to its public focus, social agenda and ecological preoccupations, suggests alternative ways to critically read the built environment and envision the un-built, while making visible their network.
In recent years the European architectural panorama has seen the emergence, increasingly marked, of a series of collective processes - initially isolated cases, which now, multiplying, seem to attract the general attention. Even if the well-established, conventional, hierarchical office remains the predominant organisational structure of today’s architectural scape, these horizontal movements propose themselves as an alternative or as a form of resistance to the classical existing structure. Some call themselves collectives, others groups, others networks, others collaborative work-structures, while others choose not to define themselves at all. However, what initially seems an overused term is the starting point of this research: the pretext to investigate this rather inclusive fluid-something, which might not necessarily be an encompassed form.
Some call themselves collectives, others groups, others networks, others collaborative work-structures, while others choose not to define themselves at all. What initially seems an overused term is the starting point of this research.
This research developed from a series of physical and online discussions around the theme of the collective1 - its beginnings, values, references, structures, development and architecture - during the end of 2019 and throughout 2020. It encompasses several collective practices acting in the European architectural context, and dwells on their working ethos to understand its impact on the architectural output. The emphasis is mainly on collectives that have emerged during the last decade, as these are far more sensitive to their surrounding evolving environment than longer-established ones. Their work compared to two generations of collectives is key to understanding how these realities might have already evolved over a ten-year period. The collective practices studied, and born in the 2000s in Europe are baukuh, raumlabor and Zuloark, that can be considered some of the early examples. Instead, the collectives formed since 2010 are: A-A Collective, (ab)Normal, Assemble, CNCRT, Collectif Etc, Colectivo Warehouse, constructLab, false mirror office, Fosbury Architecture, la–clique, Lacol, n’UNDO, orizzontale, and X=(T=E=N). This list does not pretend to be exhaustive, however it aspires to draw a general framework, as far as possible, of the contemporary European situation, thus sampling different realities according to their general activity, specific mission, and geographical distribution.Indeed, this study ultimately aims to record the complex working dynamics of the different collectives through a series of fragments, which make apparent a contemporary evolving scenario and its future possible development. The wish is to illustrate this rich panorama through a series of representative interventions, singular approaches, and different ways of working; and its relation to the fast-changing European situation, marked by the digital revolution, the change in economic structure and the gradual social transformation - from a centralised, hierarchical system to a decentralised, horizontal one.
The collective aims to become a mini version of society, in which participants come together to exchange ideas, to interact and design.
It is within this context that the collective aims to become a mini version of society, in which participants come together to exchange ideas, to interact and design. They act under the same veil and are not bound to one another, rather they are enveloped. The collective might not have a defining form, but it understands the need of restraining rules and common intentions. It is envisioned as a network of people trying to escape the archaic and hierarchical office structure, an in-between embracing both academic and professional ideologies. The collective is about sharing: it appears as anonymous from the outside, but inside each personality finds its own space within the work group. This does require an extreme amount of care from the collective, as well as attention for the psychological well-being of each member; the group has the risk of becoming a burden, which instead of coming from the top, as in a traditional office, comes from the inside.
these new working dynamics not only express the desire of questioning the structures currently in place, but also reveal the need of placing collaboration and equity at the centre of today’s research for action.
The collective’s space of action is an expansive field of opportunities, where architects and other experts operate on the same level towards the same goal. Indeed, these new working dynamics not only express the desire of questioning the structures currently in place, but also reveal the need of placing collaboration and equity at the centre of today’s research for action.
"I would like to return back to your question of why do we practice architecture in this new innovative collective form. It is very difficult to answer, however it is a very important question because it indicates a certain way of thinking: why are we doing this? And this puts into question the profession as a whole. Some of you were discussing before the question of gender, which is, in my opinion, key, however it does belong to a more complex and general system: the profession as a whole, which is currently changing as the architecture labour is."1
The collective- together with the nowadays’ general thrust towards collaboration, and the consequent possibilities and difficulties that derive from it - paves the way to re-thinking the architectural discipline, its approach, role institutions and declinations, as a profession no longer just providing functionality and aesthetics, but rather an act of activism. This emerging generation of architects and non-, thanks to its public focus, social agenda, and ecological preoccupations, suggests alternative ways to critically read the built environment or imagine the un-built, while making visible their network. Their very project is, indeed, to develop an open and accessible model able to act on a public and political level, which offers an expertise, while proposing a counterarchitecture, faithful to its founding values.
"The possibility of a counterarchitecture, or an architecture outside the system or an alternative to the system, was very much part of raumlabor’s beginnings. […] Now twenty years later, the question is still valid: to what extent can we, inside the capitalist reproductive system, offer any kind of countersystem?"2
This emerging generation of architects and non-, thanks to its public focus, social agenda, and ecological preoccupations, suggests alternative ways to critically read the built environment or imagine the un-built, while making visible their network.
Nowadays it seems necessary to dwell upon such an inquiry - the possibility of a counterarchitecture - in order to respond to the needs of the community by assuring new social commons able to guarantee accessibility and equality. This is playing out as an increasingly diverse and effective mobilisation against discrimination and disparity in distributions of wealth, power, and resources, and its translation into space. By consequence, the architecture produced by entities such as the collective is also tending to the public realm.
"Of course, it is about gradients. Our position, at the moment, is to allow for this counterarchitecture, to create situations of making otherwise and invite people in. This is probably why many of the situations in which we work are temporary, because we never found a way to make them last more or to accumulate more momentum. Indeed, we understand them as a window of opportunity into another potential reality."3
This general shift is still marginally reflected in the established architectural industry as well as in architectural education. It appears that while society has become increasingly well connected and technology has provided platforms for visibility and exchange, architecture and its supporting institutions have become increasingly insular. The gradual specialisation of the profession as a service provider for the property sector has increased its retreat from visible positions on the public good. This comes at a time of high public demand for leadership in addressing the increasingly diverse and complex conditions of building in a rapidly changing environment. The centralised and hierarchical way in which architects currently work, or are still being trained for, seem incapable of responding.
It appears that while society has become increasingly well connected and technology has provided platforms for visibility and exchange, architecture and its supporting institutions have become increasingly insular.
These challenges demand new angles of inquiry and new registers of knowledge that reach beyond simply consolidating the cultural legacy of architecture.While Michel Bauwens has already sketched out possible definitions of post-capitalist practice relevant to the field,4 Tom Holert suggests that the profession should enrich purposeful de-stabilisation of its social and aesthetic contracts.5 The Architecture Lobby’s recent manifesto sets out a broad call for the valorisation of architectural labour, while Architects for Future demand a design-led transformation of the building industry.6 Meanwhile, a general reprioritisation of the commons and a revival of the themes of co-habitation are being established as baselines for a new generation of architects and critical practices; the foundations of which are established through thinking creatively and impartially with the confidence to create both tangible and intangible value. Such value is formulated through the design process, by challenging limits, connecting larger narratives, and creating coherent visions, which reach for potentials beyond contractual engagement and optimisation of commodity value.
A general reprioritisation of the commons and a revival of the themes of co-habitation are being established as baselines for a new generation of architects and critical practices.
This approach has, throughout history, been used to test the limits of the practice through radical political engagement, and opposition to the social habits and dispositions of the everyday. Groups such as Superstudio, Archizoom, UFO, Ant Farm, and NATO formulated through their work and actions, alternative polemics on the practice of architecture. Today, we are far away from the revolutionary positions of the ’70s and ’80s, which, despite the rhetoric, remained mainly suggestive in their intellectual and creative transgressions. As such, the fate of these collectives followed that of their peers, either gradual abandonment once the transformative promise of collaboration fell short, or their iconographic imagery distracted the message. The reactionary collective was ultimately subsumed by more immediate social and economic imperatives. Thecrop of collectives mentioned, however, seems to draw motivation from this and are marked by a particular non-radical - one could say humble - acceptance of an alternative yet symbiotic position within a functioning system. As opposed to building a reactionary counterpoint to society, they are post-idealistic with a drive to create robust, prototypical and functioning alternatives. They seem at ease with the unavoidable contradictions that shape the everyday and seek reasonable independence from serving short-term private interests. As suggested by Gui Bonsiepe, they aim rather to cultivate a critical practice aimed less at the solution of problems and more toward the critical handling and thematisation of social relations.7 This act of “designing in dialogue” embeds architecture into its broader contexts, whereby the constant negotiation forces it to identify and expand on its unique societal proposition. The design act becomes one of facilitation and learning from multiplicity and inclusion, an act that is commended in open, progressive societies yet marginalised in traditional institutions and private enterprise.
As opposed to building a reactionary counterpoint to society, these collectives are post-idealistic with a drive to create robust, prototypical and functioning alternatives.
This study captures a moment of change in the profession by emphasising the latent creative potentials suppressed by traditional hierarchical office. However, given the complexity of human relations as well as the time-consuming and often difficult decision-making processes, how can collectives remain competitive or relevant today? How can collective practices sustain themselves in a post-capitalistic setting without the power of the myth of collaboration? Or better, how can collective practices thrive and how can they inform the contemporary architectural model? Given the complexity of these questions, it seems necessary to point out that there is no univocal response to it, but rather a constellation of possibilities valid in their individuality, totality or in multiple combinations; a rhizomatic map relevant for the collectives of tomorrow.
Today collectives can, indeed, remain competitive, relevant, sustainable and inform contemporary and future architecture model by: overturning the myth that individual authorship is contradictory to the collective; by developing a culture of dialogue to explore the boundaries of individual knowledge and draw on collective intelligence; by transforming the inefficiencies of coordination into the strengths of multiplicity; by defining and agreeing on set of values and codes published in a statute; by constantly learning from different working structures that could inform the discipline and create new business models. In fact, each collective - architectural and not - has very different ways of working together and organising groups; by allowing for active governance not regulated government. A collective requires a lot of organisation, clear mandates and systems of participation. Like all social organisations, they must defend against the inevitable tyranny of consolidated power and ensure that individuals are incentivised to participate. This can be achieved by building organisational structures on principles of subsidiarity, where decisions are made at the local level – a trend happening across all levels of governance and planning; by promoting creative destruction. The collective evolves its structure in order to overcome its internal problematics. This may mean forking the organisation or pivoting from original visions; by allowing for freedom of thought and equal representation through fair decision-making processes. This is relevant within the collective and outside of it; by broadening a preoccupation with style and aesthetics with an architecture of opportunity, finding and rearrangement, considering relevant ecological and social imperatives, by subversively adapting to the system in force, to be able to propose a counterpositions.
Today collectives can, indeed, remain competitive, relevant, sustainable and inform contemporary and future architecture model.
These points reveal the ambition to create architecture outside Architecture, and to develop new knowledge built from open collaboration with other disciplines and non-disciplines. This could be understood as a field of exploration, moderated by the collective making of architecture. This reciprocated dialogue allows the collective to simplify the system in which it acts by reverting to fairer dialogues, in-house processes, and direct relationships. It also allows for the rediscovery of the simple joy of building yet with an understanding of the unique facets that various protagonists, specialists, and the community bring to the process. Indeed, for some, the collective model is the only one capable of offering opportunities for equality, agency and solidarity. In this way, it can be said that contemporary collectives still aim to rethink the most basic assumptions on the agenda of architecture. They use collaborative actions to both explore and make a type of working commons built through constant, open, and creative negotiation. This shared journey through the unknown is the transformative promise of collective architecture.
Excerpted and adapted from Natalie Donat-Cattin Collective Processes, Counterpractices in European Architecture (Birkhäuser, 2022).
Note of the author
The word collective is used within the publication to define all those architectural practices that are based on a horizontal organisational system, and whose founding members are greater than four. Some of the practices mentioned in this book do not actively call themselves collectives.
Natalie Donat-Cattin is an architect and researcher. She studied at the University of Bath and subsequently at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, where she then worked as a scientific collaborator and teaching assistant from 2019 to 2021. Her work at the EPFL focused on contemporary forms of horizontal organisations in architecture, such as the collective, which led to the publication of the Collective Processes, Counterpractices in European Architecture (Birkhäuser, 2022). The practices in which she has previously worked include Herzog & de Meuron, Sou Fujimoto and AMAA. She is currently working at MADE IN, an architecture and urbanism office based in Geneva, and at the ETH Zurich as teaching assistant and researcher for VOLUPTAS.
1 Marson Korbi from CNCRT during the Zoom discussion How do we practice and why do we practice? on May 6, 2020.
4 Michel Bauwens, “Are We Shifting to a New Post-Capitalist Value Regime?,” interview by The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Streamed live on YouTube, May 24, 2016, [link]
5 Tom Holert, Knowledge Beside Itself : Contemporary Art's Epistemic Politics (New York: Sternberg Press, 2020).
6 “The Architecture Lobby Manifesto,” The Architecture Lobby, accessed May 29, 2021, [link]
7 Gui Bonsiepe, The Disobedience of Design (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).