There's Uber for rides, Airbnb for hotels, Zipcar for cars—sharing economy companies have come to dominate the startup scene over the past five years. The idea of sharing goods and spaces isn't necessarily new, though. It stretches back decades, from Israel's kibbutzes to Copenhagen's Freetown Christiana. Today, coliving is en vogue again as a number of startups try (and in at least one case, fail) to create sustainable businesses out of communal housing.
Catering to the needs and desires of the urban millennial in expensive cities like New York and San Francisco, startups like Common, Open Door, Purehouse, and even the popular coworking community WeWork—which recently opened a coliving space in Manhattan—advertise a community of people who do more than live together; they experience life together. It sounds cheesy, especially for a housing situation that most closely resembles a dorm than anything else. Common offers weekly cleaning, 24/7 laundry, shared kitchen supplies, "superfast Wi-Fi," private bedrooms that come fully furnished (complete with a Casper mattress, obviously), and flexibility: You can move to any other Common space with just 24 hours notice. For a young person trying to make a home in a big new city, it seems like a great deal—or so these startups hope.
Entrepreneurs aren't the only ones tapping into an old communal ideal to create a new kind of housing. The architect, designer, and MIT professor Carlo Ratti imagines taking the idea of coliving and applying it to an entire suburban community, creating a new kind of 21st century commune on a former American military complex in Heidelberg, Germany. He calls it an "experiment with (sub)urban hacking."
"In the last decade, thanks to digital social networks, it has become extremely easy for anybody to find like-minded peers anywhere in the world," Ratti says. "Meanwhile, sharing economy services are bringing people together, turning digital connections between peers into real meetings and new ways of living together."
Ratti's proposal was created for the Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA), an international architecture initiative that promotes avant-garde ideas in the discipline. The IBA has long been known for its support of avant-garde architecture, selecting certain parts of cities to become conceptual playgrounds for architects. For its 1957 exhibition in Berlin, 53 architects including Oscar Niemeyer, Arne Jacobsen, Alvar Aalto, and Walter Gropius created buildings for the "City of Tomorrow," an experiment in modern urban architecture. Many of the buildings are still standing. Today, the IBA is hosting long-term exhibitions in Basel, ParkStad, and Thuringen. Another IBA, in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, kicked off in 2012 and will last until 2022. The project brings together designers, planners, and architects from all over the world to address how to design the cities of the future, with the small town of Heidelberg as a laboratory.
Ratti's proposal focuses on an American military complex outside of Heidelberg called the Patrick Henry Village. Built by the U.S. Army, it opened after World War II and once housed thousands of Americans, but the village was closed by the U.S. government a few years ago.
Ratti proposes reusing as many of the existing buildings as possible, designing sharing right into his reimagining of the village as a creative hub. Residents will live in smaller, private rooms, while most of the village's spaces will be devoted to coworking environments, meeting rooms, and shared kitchens. Because individual car ownership will be discouraged, the complex's existing garages will become fabrication labs. The community will even have a Maker Palace (inspired by Cedric Price's "Fun Palace") equipped with movable partitions and overhead cranes, allowing residents to adapt the space to fit their needs. The idea is that a self-selecting community of people could potentially increase their creative and intellectual output, but in a much smaller-scale, suburban setting than, say, Berlin.
Beyond physical infrastructure, Ratti imagines a digital network that lets residents share resources and services. "Essentially, people would exchange any kinds of assets in a digital marketplace," Ratti says. "We imagine one could use an ad-hoc developed app—or an ecosystem of apps—to incorporate features from the likes of AirBnB, Uber, Eventbrite, and other similar services."
Would child-care hours be traded for someone's expertise with a 3D printer in a kind of bartering system? Or would money still exchange hands, meaning the town's equivalent of Uber drivers would still be paid in cash? It's unclear, and right now, besides the point. The project is at a conceptual stage, and will likely be further developed before the IBA's board of trustees promote it from a "candidate" to a "project" that could actually be built.
Thusfar, coliving startups have focused on single buildings, but Ratti imagines applying the same model to a community with a much broader scope. He hopes that the project could be a test-bed for how the sharing economy could shape human life within a single devoted community, without legislative restraints. However, this community would necessarily be built on trust, rather than rule of law—a proposition that could quickly go sour. "The sharing economy entails a profound disruption of current modes of production; it could destroy small-scale retail enterprises and it could diminish, rather than enrich, our culture," Ratti and the sociologist Richard Sennett wrote in a recent article in the Guardian. "In other words, we need to learn how to share 'well.'"
The Patrick Henry Commune would be, at its heart, an experiment testing if sharing "well" can function as a moral code in a small community. For now, Ratti's commune is a thought experiment for the age of Airbnb, WeWork, and Uber.
[All Images: courtesy Carlo Ratti Associati]