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The Nordic Pavilion Revives Discussion About Communal Living

The Nordic Pavilion Revives Discussion About Communal Living

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Nordic Pavilion Venice
Nordic Pavilion
“What We Share,” Venice Architecture Biennale. Photographed by Chiara Masiero Sgrinzatto. Courtesy of the National Museum of Norway and Helen & Hard.

In 1931 in the Swedish manifesto of modernist architecture “acceptera,” six visionary architect authors predicted that one-third of the Swedish population would be living in communal housing by the 1960s. They were incorrect, but certainly, the utopian ideals of communal forms of living have remained present in the Nordic public imagination. People living together is not a radical idea, especially not in cities. At the turn of the century, as agricultural societies dwindled and industry in cities grew most people moved into cramped quarters in areas often living with several families in one apartment. For them, cohabitating was necessary, and not always sanitary or comfortable. However, as public policy was developed to better Nordic cities ideologies surrounding communal living centered around pooling resources, environmentalism, and sharing labor – in short co-housing for better living – have ebbed and flowed.   

“What We Share. A model for cohousing,” presented at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale is an eco-conscious concept for a housing project designed by architects Siv Helene Stangeland and Reinhard Kropf of Norweigian firm Helen & Hard. Commissioned by the National Museum of Norway, the showcase is housed in the Nordic Pavilion at the Giardini. The walkable display invites visitors into the prototype of a communal living form in which residents own their private homes but share communal areas that each member has a stake in. Creators of their own utopian form of living, the architects Stangeland and Kropf live in a 40-unit cohousing project called Vindmøllebakken, located in Stavanger, Norway, which they completed in 2019.

“What We Share,” Venice Architecture Biennale. Photographed by Chiara Masiero Sgrinzatto. Courtesy of the National Museum of Norway and Helen & Hard.

To develop this new concept, they posed a question to their current neighbors: Which functions or social situations could they move out of their apartments and share with other residents? The result was shared kitchens, guestrooms and a library, as well as more flexible areas for work or leisure. This in addition to common areas for laundry that Vindmøllebakken, and quite frankly many other apartment buildings in Norway, already have.

The prototype is a 1:1 model constructed entirely from a system of solid spruce-wood panels connected by dowels made of beech, developed with Swiss engineer Herman Blumer. It is adaptable and environmentally friendly.

So, what does it feel like to visit the structure? Well, the prototype is organized in three layers of space: private, “a buffer zone,” and the common space. The buffer zone consists of flexible areas that are separated from the central common one, which can be used for small social or solo activities. Like much Scandinavian Modern design, the space is modifiable and dominated by wood. Residents can reassemble the spruce plank walls, dividers, counters, storage, and furniture as needed to transform the space. More important than the pavilion’s aesthetic is the functionality of its design: curbing loneliness, a multi-generational community that can care for its elders, and more environmentally sustainable living.

In the pavilion, a film by Anna Ihle spotlights the lives of residents of Vindmøllebakken. The different living spaces in the Nordic Pavilion are brought to life with furnishings and “scenographies” designed by film director Pål Jackman and scenographer Nina Bjerch-Andresen.

Ideologically-driven communal housing forms are based on both the needs of its communities and their desire to thrive. Take for instance many mid-century communal housing projects that helped women enter the workforce, whether it be by providing housing for single women, or communal childcare and sharing domestic responsibilities. In the 1970s, many communal living models were adopted in the Western world to eschew the nuclear family structure. Today, Silicon Valley’s “hacker homes” allow like-minded professionals to curb expenses in expensive areas while creating a community that facilitates their career development. And, lest we not forget, communal housing solutions are common in various forms for the elderly population.

For their own designs, Stangeland and Kropf looked to several cohousing projects for inspiration, including Sargfabrik in Austria, Lange Eng in Denmark, and Kraftwerk 2 in Switzerland, which cater to residents of all ages. The architecture duo has five similar buildings in the works and as housing prices continue to rise, the population ages and people become more environmentally conscious it is clear that they are attractive offerings.

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