Saturday, June 05, 2010


Chapter from: People Without Borders


The Full Service House (Kolektivhus)

By John Taylor; 2010 June 05, Azamat 18, 167 BE

Because they are integrated, universal and standard, there will be many advantages of hillside developments over free-standing buildings. However, the benefits we have so far described are mostly for neighbourhoods, the environment and the world. The question remains, what will attract people there? Why would anybody, especially the wealthy, want to move there? What is it about the hillside lifestyle that makes it substantively better than that of other dwellings? Many North Americans moving into a hillside complex would find that there is less storage space and smaller personal rooms at their disposal than they are used to. Why would they want to live in a hillside development? One word: kollektivhus.

A resident of a hillside -- rich or poor -- will enjoy a full complement of services at their command. Meals are served on time and in a convivial dining atmosphere -- we have already discussed at length the agriculture, kitchen and food delivery system. Similarly, clothing need only be thrown in a hamper, after which it will be regularly laundered, folded, delivered and packed away in the dresser and closet of each resident. The ROO and bedroom are cleaned and ordered while the resident is away. Services such as child care, personal training, nursing, medicine, hairdressing, home repair and maintenance, manicures and massages, all come by way of house calls.

These and other services are part of what in Scandinavia is called a kollektivhus, or full service house. These are semi-private apartments in a building specially designed for full service facilities. Deliveries are quick and efficient thanks to built-in facilities, such as dumb waiters for food delivery and laundry chutes for soiled clothing. A product of decades of development, a Kollektivhus is often owned by the residents themselves; services are run either by volunteers or paid sub-contractors.

Since hillside housing consciously tries to continue, extend and improve upon the full service house, let us look briefly at how this type of housing has evolved so far.

Kolektivhus history

The full service house builds upon various traditions, including the personal servant, the egalitarian rural commune or kibutz and the cooperatively-owned enterprise. Originally designed by Danish and other Scandinavian architects and planners, entire housing blocks were erected with all the benefits of living in a large Victorian household run by a bevy of cooks, maids and butlers, but without residents having to hire or fire separately.

In his history of housing, Norbert Schoenauer described how this dwelling began in what was called the Kollektivhus,

"One of the first postwar Danish collective houses, Hoje Soborg (1951) designed by architects P. E. Hoff and B. Windinge, was built in a Copenhagen suburb, Gladaxe. The 120 dwellings of this five-story elevator serviced building ranged in size from one to four rooms. Apart from a doorman, collective services included a common dining room with central kitchen catering, housekeeping services, a children's center serving all age groups, two guest rooms for tenant's visitors, and, at the roof level, common party and meeting rooms with access to a terrace garden." (6000 years of housing, by Norbert Schoenauer, WW Norton & Co., New York, 2000, p. 460)

The evolution of collective or communal housing continued. By the late 1970's an improved version was designed, now called a "service house." One in development in Stockholm was so popular that it had a waiting list of 13,000 names. Schoenauer writes,

"Collective habitation is an attractive proposition to many families and households. A young working couple would find it very convenient to move into an apartment building where food catering and housecleaning is available on request. Similarly, a new family, transferred from their hometown to an unfamiliar city, would find security in a collective house. Working single parents with preschool children would benefit greatly from using the in-house day-care and kindergarten. Elderly couples and retired people too can benefit from collective services offered in these buildings. In particular, single people: whether young, middle-aged, or elderly, divorced, or widowed: are all potential collective house residents who want to live in comfort without sacrificing their privacy." (Id.)

Because of the high demand, many of these Scandinavian projects were built too large and tall. They were also criticized for being overly institutionalized. It proved difficult to maintain a homey, informal atmosphere in a high-rise.

The historian of housing, Schoenauer, continues,

"If Otto Fick were alive today, and he visited an American family living in a luxury apartment complex like Chicago's River city, a building with 24 hour doorman service and amenities such as swimming pool, sauna, exercise room, rooftop party room, and roof gardens as well as food delivery from an in-house restaurant, he would insist the River city is a Kollektivhus, although in reality it is a mixed-use development. In fact, most American luxury apartment buildings offer services to the residents that are similar to those of collective habitation. But Fick's original intention of making similar services accessible to moderate or lower income groups remains just a dream." (Ib., 460-462)

So, in North America de facto full-service houses have been built for a small number of very rich clients, but they remain exclusive, private enterprises; there is no effort to see that in-home services reaches the mainstream. Paradoxically, American egalitarian leanings keep most Americans away from full and equal access to the service industry.

The constant need to do menial chores remains a major factor in the weakening of the family. The question as to who does this work is the most frequently raised bone of contention between the sexes. Household chores inevitably ends up being done by women.

The availability of servants and cooperative services for all would remove this problem once and for all. It would raise the lot of female homemakers. If the full service house is expensive and difficult to implement at first, it should be marked down to reparations. As Flora Tristan pointed out in 1843, women are due some kind of compensation payment for centuries of subjugation. In my opinion, no investment of this money would be more effective than building full service and mixed-use facilities into every hillside housing development on earth.

An important lesson learned from the full service house experience in Scandenavia is that the average person will have to be far better trained in the difficult skills required by grassroots democratic activism. For one of the most attractive yet challenging features of these communal housing projects is the fact that future residents often have a say in the design of the building long before they are built.

This adds on a whole new level of local interaction to democracy.

If the entire design -- not just superficial modifications -- is decided by actual users and residents, this enables a protean flexibility combined with continuity between past and future that is unheard of in other forms of architecture.

"Since most of these communities were planned and designed with the participation of their future residents, tenure, size, an organization of the community varies in a project approach.  However, the complement of private homes and communal facilities are shared by all. Most early communal dwelling clusters were privately owned developments: later nonprofit cooperatives and cooperatives with index linked mortgages as well as rental units were introduced but the most frequent tenure type is still based on private ownership." (Schoenauer, 460)

The hillside housing complex gets around this problem of freeze-in with its flexible, dynamically adaptable design. As residents grow in sophistication, they can dynamically modify the look and arrangement of their households, blocks and neighbourhoods.

Again, the big wrench in the works of communal housing has proven to be politics. While everybody likes full participatory democracy as an ideal, in practice consulting about mundane issues is slow drudgery. It consumes time and energy and -- let us face it -- it is extremely tedious for most people most of the time. Participants who try to reduce their boredom by spicing up the deliberations only stir up more contention, which tears at the roots of the tree. Yet the potential benefits of communal living are too great to ignore.
In practice, the more widely the backgrounds, opinions and outlooks of participants vary, the harder it is to come to a consensus on decisions that affect their common interest. The few communal projects that endure today do so by ejecting dissenters. This sacrifices variety and diversity among members. Schoenauer points out:

"Communal housing groups seem to function best, and with less friction, if their members share similar values and have similar backgrounds. This is one of the reasons they are so successful in Denmark, a country with a culturally homogeneous population. It is tempting to compare the members of communal housing to a large extended family or a clan, but there are two basic distinctions: (1) membership is voluntary, and (2) there is no patriarch or leader and all important decisions are made democratically." (Ibid., 466)

As mentioned, the hillside development follows a principle of unity alternating with diversity, meaning that some households and neighbourhoods will in fact be homogeneous while others will be mixed. There will also be a faster turnover in some, and more emphasis on tradition in others. Ethnicity, trade specialization and a thousand other factors will be tried for a while and persist as they prove useful.

As Schoenauer points out, the most important thing is that living together should prove to be a learning experience. In summing up the educational advantages of one experiment in communal housing called Bofaellesskaber, he points out that such contacts can be edifying, forcing upon all participants the discipline that day-to-day contact with democracy demands. Here,

"First, individuals have the option at all times either to enjoy the privacy of their own homes or to engage in social activities the community's common areas. Second, these residential communities foster voluntary social interaction as well as social and environmental responsibility; most communities practice composting and recycling. Last, but not least, they foster first-hand experience in harmonious communal living: not unlike members of band-type food gathering societies, they learn to compromise after realizing that what is good for the individual may not always be in the best interests of the community." (Ib., 466)

Other problems that have turned up in service house developments are less edifying. The drawbacks tend to be the same as in a commune: how do you maintain both unity of thought and economic viability? How to reconcile volunteer services with commercial, for-profit enterprises? How do you maintain informal, consensual management among large numbers of tenants? Schoenauer writes,

"Experience shows that a moderate sized collective house, with 60 to 100 dwellings and collective services limited exclusively to residents, may be desirable from a social point of view but unrealistic economically. Moderate sized collective habitation is only viable if the residents are willing to operate it communally, as is the case in low-rise communal houses such as Bofaellesskaber, in Denmark, or in a mixed-use apartment building where collective services are provided by in-house commercial outlets." (Ib., 460)

What this describes is a what I call a block neighbourhood, a crucial element of hillside housing and an entire new level of governance. I expect the exact number of individuals in households and of households in neighbourhoods will differ from this, since workplaces are intimately mixed in among housing units, to a much higher degree than anything previously attempted. However the goal is the same, to offer cooperative, full service houses that are attractive to both rich and poor, to replace unsustainable, environmentally destructive, sprawling types of housing within a generation, and to train future generations in the selfless consultative work that democracy requires.


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