In the past few weeks, I have been interested in the commons, co-housing, and combating loneliness (as well as researching for our nomoregas campaign). The interest spiked after we started a little experiment I want to write about here.
I live with my family in a shared ownership flat, in a newish building close to the Regent's Canal. The building, designed by Davy Smith Architects, is a combination of a one-storey parterre (a low block that hosts all the commercial units and the entrances to the building) and three 4-or-5-storey elements sitting on it, about 15 metres from one another. The building's shape leaves two elevated gardens (the roofs of the parterre) between the three blocks of flats. As residents, we have access to one of these gardens, that were intended as common spaces. Problem is, no one ever uses the gardens. The landscape is well kept, and there is a soft wood decking, so the design issues are not entirely apparent. My first interpretation explanation was that the massing and layout of the building itself didn’t work. Firstly, four flats have their main doors facing the gardens, so by using the garden you are getting very close to someone's home; at least this is the feeling we get from the higher storeys: the space between the blocks is a sacred distance, custodian of a minimum degree of privacy. In reality, when you actually use the garden, this feeling disappears. The second point, there are about twenty flats facing the garden, so you really feel very much like on a theatre stage. But, this is also an advantage, like Jane Jacobs said and millions of Mediterranean mothers can testify. So, what was lacking, in reality?
Several years ago, I lived for a few months in Copenhagen, in a flat within a cooperative housing block. My landlady owned one of the largest flats, which had two bedrooms and two bathrooms, its own kitchen and living room. (Other flats shared some more fundamental services, like showers, in Denmark..). The building was a large 1900’s courtyard block with several entrances. The tenants shared a beautiful, enormous courtyard and most of the spaces on the ground floor: bicycles stores, offices with printers and screens, and most importantly kitchens and dining areas. They also shared the work required to maintain the grounds and the common areas. In the summer, most tenants or owners would eat in the courtyard on large wooden tables that were set out there for them. They would meet other tenants and mix as they like depending on whom they wanted to dine with.
So, back at our London shared garden, we decided to buy a table. Eventually we settled for cheap, extendable, IKEA wooden table that I bought for less than 150 pounds. I like that it's a standard object.
Even though we've been living in the building for more than three years now, we only know about fifteen or eight neighbours and have significant conversations with five or six. Virtually no one from the block opposite ours, with which we share the common garden. We decided to test the table theory by initiating a common dinner. We sent very last-minute text messages on a Friday afternoon with the invitation to share a dinner that evening in the garden, on the new table. Everyone would bring something to eat or drink (I cooked pasta with vongole). Everyone would bring their own chairs (we haven't yet bought any chairs).
Now the theatrical setting plays to our advantage: the windows facing onto the garden mean control from the flats to the gardens, but also vice versa. Young parents can leave their children asleep in the flats under the scrutiny of various kinds of monitors. This meant for some they could have an adult dinner for the first time in a while (definitely, something many of us are not used to anymore). Open air dinner without arranging nannies or concerns about the children getting bored, tired, not looked after; no need to arrange travelling. It was a great success. Eight or nine people showed up, and we met for the first time with three of our neighbours we really liked.
Those who couldn’t make it knew that the table was for everyone to use. And during the dinner we discussed potential uses: we imagined people working from home, sharing a meal at lunch break and several more casual dinner encounters. We never gave instructions to anyone, though. And then left for the Easter holidays to Italy. While in Italy, we were invited to a party by another neighbour! The table started attracting some form of interest. And it also started moving around. Upon our return, we found two more chairs. Then those were gone..
During our holiday, I read a bit more about cohousing, sharing and other forms of co-living. In brief, the central point of the co-living experience is the dining table. Shared dining areas are usually heated rooms with large kitchens, often connected to other shared facilities. The practice of the shared dinner rotates around one or more fixed days when people know they will find others helping with the set-up and cleaning.
We don’t have a way of creating a shared dining room (yet), but perhaps for a few weeks, we can take advantage of the so-called British summer. We also wanted to test the efficacy of the fixed day, so we decided to propose a weekly dinner evening.
We’ll send the Tuesday for the Wednesday and Thursday – first-day flexibility. We will poll the fixed day, and start sharing responsibilities: for example sourcing chairs.
The aim of the social experiment is firstly to disguise the desire for food, company and wine as a social experiment. The second is to test the power of objects with an agency. Something we are reading about and we will investigate further in a future post.