Accommodating the Commons: Social-Spatial Practices in Bogotá

Accommodating the Commons:
Social-Spatial Practices in Bogotá


The Graduation Studio “Positions in Practice” (2015-2017) of the Chair of Methods and Analysis at Delft University of Technology focused on the urban context of Bogotá, as a laboratory for the definition of architectural positions. The studio was part of the larger investigation “Constructing the Commons,”1 which takes as point of departure the idea that the city should be understood as the ultimate common socio-spatial resource: a collective cultural construct that is composed by and for its inhabitants. Around the notion of ‘the commons’, a challenging field of thinking has emerged in the fields of economy, political and social sciences, suggesting radically different ways to organize our societies. In her seminal publication Governing the Commons (1990), Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom put forward the idea of the commons as collective action that challenges standing perspectives on economy and policy. More recently, Silke Helfrich and David Bollier, in The Weath of Commons (2012) have coined the commons as a model to think about the many domains of our everyday life beyond the dominant discourse of the market economy and state intervention. In these theories, however, there is little notion of the value of urban spaces as the main tangible forms in which the commons exist in society and organize social-spatial practices.
Contemporary logics of urban transformation and urban development allow us to understand the city as the realm where private initiatives and domains juxtapose. Squares, streets and galleries are increasingly becoming privatized and often sanitized by authorities. The possibilities of citizen participation in the development and experience of the urban common realm is decreasing, at the extent that there are little spaces in the city where citizens can cooperate to produce the city and its resources. This studio aimed to develop experiments of analysis and intervention in urban areas, anchored within the strong theoretical discourse on ‘the commons’. In this studio, the commons are not only understood as concrete architectural and urban figures, which represent an idea of commonality, such as squares, passages etc., but also as the rituals, and politics of co-operation that articulate an architectural project. In this view, an architectural project is not a single-authored venture, but rather a complex and layered process that depend upon multiple agencies that establish a commonality. Through research and design, the studio explored this idea of an architectural project as a ‘common enterprise.’

Impression of open space in the project. Room for appropriation. Milda Kulviciute

Pressing Issues in Bogotá

As most Latin American capitals, Bogotá has suffered an exponential population growth throughout the 20th century, rising from 700.000 inhabitants in 1951, to more than 8.000.000 in 2013.
This growth has been the result of simultaneous and interrelated processes of attraction (the city as a source of opportunity, prosperity and safety) and repulsion from unproductive and violent rural peripheries. As it grows, Bogotá has absorbed a series of originally small, rural municipalities, generating tense negotiations between the original Spanish Colonial urban model and a series of modernizations proposed as counter-hypotheses to the gridiron plan. Rather than dealing with sub-urbanization, Bogotá poses the question of absorption into a dense urban tissue of its periphery.
Accommodating successive and continuous waves of rural immigration within this formal tension has for decades been a challenge for the city, both in political but also in spatial terms. Issues of identity are manifest in diverse communities and their particular spatial practices.
Equally pressing is the dramatic economic segregation of the city, with higher income groups occupying the North-Eastern part of the city, while the lower income populations sprawl towards the south and west. This clear-cut division poses serious political challenges, implies severe strains on transportation infrastructure, and is manifest in extremely different ways of occupying the territory. The percentage and quality of public, common, green and institutional space available to communities in different areas of the city, according to this segregation, reveal a dramatic inequality in the right to urban life. To confront the socio-economical unbalance, subsequent administrations of Bogotá, particularly under the mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa have utilized the public and the communal as a political notions/tools; by assuming architectural, infrastructural and elemental interventions as motors of transformation. The studio has taken this process of urban transformation of Bogota during the decade 1995-2005 as a starting point and case study. Recognized as a valuable contribution to the urban reflection by the Jury of the 10th International Architecture Exhibition at the 2006 Venice Biennale2, the spatial transformation program led by several, successive administrations, has been analyzed and further confronted with a prevalent informal reality.

The studio investigated this social unbalance in the city from a spatial viewpoint. Milda Kulciviute decided to intervene in a central area of Bogotá where social-economical problems are omnipresent. Located on a stones’ throw distance from the central Plaza Bolivar, the Los Martires neighbourhood has been characterized by urban decay and social problems for the past decades. In the verge of radical urban transformations proposed by the municipality to overcome these pressing issues, Milda Kulciviute proposed an alternative urban strategy, which provides spatial clarity while accommodating the informal economical practices that characterize the area. Milda Kulciviute transcribed the insights of John Habraken and other “Open Building” theorists of the 1960’s to the contemporary urban challenges of the Latin-American metropolis. Her large urban structure re-organizes part of the dense urban tissue and provides various layers of public, private and collective space. The ground layer is kept open and provides space for a market and other economical activities; an elevated layer provides common facilities for dwellers while a series of towers offers new residential and office spaces.

Accommodating Common Practices

When looking at the commons in a city like Bogotá, we could argue that the city should be understood as the ultimate common: a collective social, cultural and material construct that is composed by and for its inhabitants. However, in the contemporary logics of urban transformation and urban development the city is progressively understood as the juxtaposition of private initiatives and domains. Squares, streets and galleries are increasingly becoming privatized and where the State intervenes they often become sanitized. Citizens have limited possibilities of participation in the development and experience of the urban common realm, and there are little spaces in the city where citizens can cooperate to produce the city and its resources.
This observation has challenged the students to find ways to connect different social groups. The project of Valentina Bencic and Yoana Yordanova aimed to look into “common practices” of inhabitants and to accommodate everyday practices that cannot easily be confined to conventional building types. Bencic and Yordanova took the historical city centre and specifically the squares Bolivar and Santander as gravitating point for their urban analysis. Making notes, sketches, videos, interviews, sound recordings, maps, and drawings showing fragments of different temporalities, they collected a substantial set of data showing how the historical centre is still a rich locus of daily urban practices. The everyday street practices of shoe shiners, garbage collectors, street artists, vendors and other characters that populate the streets of the historical became the anonymous clients for their urban interventions. Instead of a new building, Bencic and Yordanova designed a set of small interventions, which operate both on an urban scale and on the very detailed scale of product design for public space. Indeed, this project understands of the commons related to the notion of cooperation: it recognizes the value of different everyday practices as common resources, and the small but precise interventions offer people the possibility to co-create their urban common realm.
The research and design project of Silvio Pennesi, conducted in 2016-’17, focused on a problematic neighbourhood adjacent to the city centre of Bogotá, ”la Perseverancia”. Once built as a residential neighbourhood for the labourers of the nearby brewery, the area grew into a place with severe social-economic problems and criminality. Pennesi investigated the formal, material and social characteristics of this deprived 
neighbourhood, with the aim to identify potential for improvement while avoiding the risks of gentrification. 

One of the urban interventions accommodating street practices in Bogotá, Valentina Bencic and Yoana Yordanova

His transformation strategy unlocked social and spatial potential of the area itself. These lines of inquiry converge in an intervention that specifically taps into one of the latent resources identified on the site (the micro-brewing of ”chicha”, a fermented corn drink with a long tradition), as a source of economic and political empowerment for the entire community.
Drawing on the local tradition of brewing this local drink ”Chicha” he conceived of the neighbourhood as a site for production and distribution of the product, mixed with the already existing residential use. Three lines of inquiry offer a different interpretation. A careful morpho-typological reading of the area discovers potential in an underlying modularity of this built environment; the study of the productive history of the area reveals important latent resources; and the study of light building techniques taps into manual labour – a readily available resource in the area. Self-construction, and self-governance are encouraged by a negotiated use of the existing urban tissue, towards a co-operative productive activity based on the acknowledgment of existing values.

With these projects, the Graduation Studio hoped to contribute to the on-going debates in a variety of fields that aim to rethink the commons, as a reaction to the challenges that many contemporary cities are facing. Further, with its focus on the commons, it hopes to spark new ideas for urban interventions for urban questions at large. Taking the thorough investigation of the social dimension of the city as a starting point for spatial interventions, we hope to reach towards more socially inclusive architecture.

Bollier, David, and Silke Helfrich. The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State. Amherst (Mass.): Levellers Press, 2012

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990

1 Part of this project was the guest professorship of Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kajima of Atelier Bow Wow in Dleft in Autumn 2016, and the international conference “Constructing the Commons”, held at TUDelft in March 2016 – http://constructingthecommons.com.
2 http://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/history/10.html?back=true, retrieved on 12/04/2015.

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