Published in 1/2020 - Shared


Editorial 1/20: On Common Land

Mika Savela

Public’s remarks related to panel no. 28 in the “Helsinki General Plan 1970” -exhibition. Are today’s thoughts about the shared environment that much different? Photo: Simo Rista SER 1970 / Helsinki City Museum

Polarisation into divergent social and political camps is a hot topic in today’s discussion climate. After decades of joint efforts for the construction and reconstruction of the welfare state, it may seem as if the shared visions had dissipated. On the other hand, there is emerging interest in a new kind of togetherness and sharing. A common master plan is, however, missing. Do we still need one? This topic is also current in design and research of the built environment. If we can no longer envision living together, how are we supposed to know how to design or foster a shared environment for all?

In architecture, the idea of togetherness is not easily defined. Communities and participation are featured in discussions more than definitions of the shared objectives of architecture. Still, many of the questions involving the future of architecture revolve around the need for community. Buildings and areas are designed for the future, even though we base our perceptions and ideas on their use in the present. We assume that future users are going to share our current values concerning, for instance, what is considered beautiful, appropriate for an intended use or reasonable in terms of costs, or functional or sustainable.

Living together is also the theme of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. According to the curator, Lebanese architect Hashim Sarkis, architecture is in need of a new spatial contract. He calls upon architects, artists, builders and other players to imagine new places and spaces for coping – and thriving – together. The message is both idealistic and based on realities. After all, we do all need to coexist on the same planet, at least, if not in the same household, building, city or country.

If we can no longer envision living together, how are we supposed to know how to design or foster a shared environment for all?

Being able to live together requires faith in the possibility of a kind of utopian future. In concrete terms, this entails that we have to be able to share physical and mental space with others where we live, work and spend leisure time. In recent years, British sociologist and researcher Keith Kahn-Harris has written about the wider problem involving private and public space and discussions, as regards the rise of antisemitism and racism, among other issues. According to Kahn-Harris, we need to redefine the ways of tolerating each other when it comes to, for instance, polarising matters related to identity and politics. The challenge when facing a shared goal is getting everyone to be flexible with their own views without discriminating against each other in the process.

For an architect, a role as someone who assumes a social, wide-angle point of view is, in a way, familiar. Designing and setting standards for construction is always an endeavour to meet a type of average perception of the common good. Still, not everyone likes the same things or wants to lead a similar life. Architecture alone cannot write the shared rules of the game, but it does create places and facilities for a multitude of common and shared activities and phenomena. At the very least, architecture is a vision or reflection of how we would like to live together. That is why it is important to ask how architecture could be involved in building a humane and polite society. In fact, what’s taking the new utopias so long? ↙