Zarinah Agnew
Jan 16, 2017 · 5 min read

“The public gathers in two kinds of spaces. The first is a space that is public, a place where the public gathers because it has a right to the place; the second is a space that is made public, a place where the public gathers precisely because it doesn’t have the right — a place made public by force” -Vito Acconci, 1990

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries witnessed the development of unsustainable modes of meeting needs. With industrial development came increased expectations concerning quality of life. Houses got bigger, families increasingly expected to possess their own plot of land, and the resultant growing need for transportation yielded autonomous and mechanically-powered cars. In the twenty-first century, ecological and economic constraints on this expansion became necessary. How can we preserve (or even advance) the quality of life while reducing the footprint and cost of our enjoyment?

Ironically, the things that were meant to make us happy (our own homes, our own cars, private gardens etc) by giving us generous amounts of space have left us isolated and alone, raising the barriers to fulfilling social existence. By living together in groups, we arguably come close to solving many of these issues around atomisation and social isolation. In fact, for many of us, living in high density and nomadicity, tends to overcrowd our social lives, and we must face the fact that we need different ways of operating, in order to preserve elements of the private sphere that we need, whilst not prioritizing less useful aspects of privacy.

Our communes provide us with access to unique types of spaces, which in contrast to the homogeneity that results from the mass-production of our built environment, and in turn gives us access to vast degrees of different types of common space. With this veritable surplus of space, we can explore the ways in which the way we structure home modulates our ways of existing together.

Is the single-family home, the last vestige of a space that we can define as ‘private-private?’

Communities within the Embassy Network are interested in the explorations of this kind, and at the Embassy SF and Red Victorian, these kinds of explorations have been underway over the last year. One of the things that happens when you live in social abundance, is that you quickly realise the value of private time. As we have all adapted to ways of living together we have also discovered new ways of using space. We have actively been experimenting with the dissolution of private space, and returning much of what we tend to think of as private property, to the commons.

Houses within the embassy network are specifically interested in exploring how the use of space changes our behavior, and how our behavior changes the way we use space. Here we describe some of the ways that we have done this.

1. Private and common space

Making private space common

In our early days as a community, we at the Embassy SF together read Ursula le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’. Inspired by the ways that the novel describes the allotment of private space according to needs, rather than according to principles of ownership, we decided to try and be conscious of when we use possessional language. The longest standing example of this, is that we gave resident rooms names, and referred to rooms by name, rather than by ownership. For clarity, we encouraged people to say ‘the room which X person most often uses’. We took all the door locks off the doors, and encouraged people to leave their doors open during the day. Unused rooms are made available for use by others when there is no one in there, for reading, for phone calls, for hanging out, and for sleeping or taking partners (a couple of residents live in shared rooms).

Rendering private space common

Similarly, we have thought about what it would look like to keep personal items in common space — communal wardrobe as an example of how we can create new norms around sharing through space. Our communal wardrobe is not a freebies box, the items in there are much loved items, that people wish to retain access to, and have maintained. So this is certainly a test of our trust, especially in light of the fact that our houses have regular guests coming though. However, so far so good.

In both of our spaces, we have been able to experiment with the creation of unexpected private spaces in common areas. At the red victorian, public utility spaces have been converted into private nooks, for reading or for intimate conversation, that are shared by all. These sit in easily accessible locations throughout the building, and yet are hidden from obvious sight, meaning that whilst all have access, it is unlikely that one using them will be disturbed.

2. Private and common time exploration

As communal living starts to solve many of our most pressing issues around social isolation, we instead find ourselves facing different issues. For us, one of these has been, how to protect private time, without depending on retreating to private space?

“Public-public spaces are not ‘spaces with no rules.’ In fact, public-public spaces are often designed to have their inhabitants move, act, and hang out in a very specific way. Some of this is reinforced through the physical architecture of the space, and sometimes through social codes.”

Our home is often used as a commons; we host discussions open to the public that welcome aspects of the ‘public sphere’ in to what would normally be considered private space. The result is that our commons is busy. At any one time there is a diverse set of people present, some of whom are present to delve into discourse, some of whom are retreating into quite hours of their day. How to navigate in these new and complex social waters?

One approach that we have tried is to set norms about how to engage with other people during certain hours. Between 6 and 8pm in one part out home, we delineate as quiet time; the norm is ‘feel free to join but please don’t speak to me’. Another approach spearheaded by a fellow space is to use visual markers to indicate that whilst one might be inhabiting common space, they are interested in preserving their private time. We have attempted to use this also by providing a set of ear defenders that serve as indicators that, when worn, say ‘please don’t interrupt me’.

Perhaps there are other, more comfortable or less invasive ways — perhaps just setting the norm of checking in during conversation, that someone wishes to continue.

Our explorations continue..

Embassy Network

Communities experimenting with culture and commoning

Zarinah Agnew

Written by

got to get it out somewhere

Embassy Network

Communities experimenting with culture and commoning

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