On Januari 29th, in the middle of a Covid-lockdown, Louis Volont (Department of Sociology & Culture Commons Quest Office, University of Antwerp) defended his doctoral thesis ‘Shapeshifting: The Cultural Production of Common Space’. City in the Making in general, and Pension Almonde specifically, was one of the three main cases Louis used as ‘witnesses for the defense’. The other two being The Public Land Grab (London) and Montana Verde (Antwerp). The full thesis can be read online, but here is a foretaste.
In his introduction Louis states his basic ‘empirical’ research question thus: “This enquiry puts the concept of common space to the test. My guiding question, is this one: how is common space’ produced within the current conditions of urban development? Put differently: through which tactics do urban activists give a spatial expression to the concept of the commons?”
The study main ‘guide’ is Lefebvre’s ‘triad’ (from ‘The Production of Space’ and ‘Critique of Everyday Life’); ‘lived’ space (representational space), conceived space (representations of space), and perceived space (spatial practice). But Louis renames/redefines this Lefebvrean triad because of: “Lefebvre’s ‘woolly’ formulation of the triad’s three spheres. Representations of space as well as spaces of representation seem to figure in the triad as things, namely as visual, verbal or written projections in the context of the former, and as spaces endowed with a sense of multiple meaning in the context of the latter. Spatial practice, then, emerges not as a ‘thing’, but as a ‘process’: a process of putting space to use, be it for survival, societal reproduction or capitalist growth.”
Instead, the triad is reformulated as “the expressions of representation (formerly known as representations of space), configuration (formerly known as spatial practice), and signification (formerly known as spaces of representation): altogether the three ‘force fields’ of the triad. These three force fields leave behind any distinction between ‘thing and process’ but imply merely ‘a mode of doing’.
This is a linguistic, pragmatic operation in order to be able to point, without much confusion, to each of the three elements under consideration. Hence: within the field of representation, I ask: how do commoners ‘think’ common space? Within the field of configuration, I ask: how do commoners ‘build’ common space? And in the field of signification, I ask: how do commoners ‘live’ common space?”
Besides that, Louis abstains from (or – as he puts it – keep temporarily in suspense) the ‘dispersion of actors’ that Lefebvre introduces in his work. His reasoning: “Even though this dispersion of actors throughout the triad constitutes a tremendously useful construct in order to interpret and critique the perils of capital-led urban development schemes, I continue to contend that this theoretical constellation, when investigating the production of common space, should be temporarily put in suspense. More specifically, this means that for the cases that are to be discussed in the remainder of the study, I do not presuppose that my interviewees would necessarily resort to one or the other force field.”
Having thus set the stage, the study continues with three embedded investigations of three separate practices/conditions of commoning; the Symbiotic and the Oppositional, derived from ‘general commons literature’, respectively by Elenor Ostrom (symbiotic theoretical) and people like De Angelis and Stavrides (radical theoretical). The third being a hybrid ‘Symbiotic-Oppositional’ practice or position.
The Public Land Grab (London) is presented in the study as the ‘Oppositional case’. Montana Verde (by the Seville-based collective Recetas Urbanas yet unfolded in Antwerp) as the ‘Symbiotic case’. This leaves Stad in de Maak / Pension Almonde as the hybrid ‘Oppositional/Symbiotic’ case.
For his study, Louis visited Rotterdam several times and even lived for a while in Pension Almonde. All together “11 in-depth interviews took place, mainly with the architects and activists working at City in the Making but also with the Pension’s quotidian inhabitants. Various sessions of personal presence (ranging from Soup Tuesdays to public presentations and, qua duration, from one afternoon to one week) enabled me to pre-plan additional in-depth interviews with the project’s users and inhabitants.”
Louis sets out to “frame the endeavours of City in the Making as a ‘planned derive in Rotterdam’, the latter idea being the Situationist method of ‘wander’ throughout the city in order to discover new places, meet new people, ignite new experiences.”
It is undoable to fully follow Louis in his arguing why the wanderings of Pension Almonde put it in an in-between position. (for that read the full chapter p 141-170), but at the end of the chapter he states some concerns:
“One may argue that City in the Making’s nomadism undermines its envisioned political potency to take root. After all, the aforementioned, shortening time spans for each occupation – time spans becoming ever-shorter the further the credit crisis disappears in the background –relate to Havensteder’s primordial economic interest of renovating its stock as fast as possible. Hence, it can be said that when a communing project is ‘destined to move’ even before a community of commoners could ever formulate its future visions, Oppositional Commoning will face considerable difficulties to take root. “
In a sense this is true, our continued dealing with Havensteder, however much autonomy we insist on, in the end produces a certain kind of trust which takes out the oppositional, ‘political’ sting. But – as is already stated in a footnote – “as is argued by a key activist, one could also construe City in the Making and Havensteder as ‘one joint party’, a collective agent opposed by yet another adversary, the City of Rotterdam. The latter, after all, complicates the activities of housing associations given the fact that the legally allowed number of social housing units must decrease.”
It is indeed the municipality which – at this moment – is the dominant hindering force in accomplishing a more just and inclusive housing system in the city. 1)
In the concluding chapter, Louis returns to Lefebvre and the two opposite modes of commoning by presenting a 3D diagram of ‘rituals’ or tactics, titled: ‘The Taxonomy of Tactics for the Production of Common Space’ (see image above). This produces “eight ideal types through which common space may be produced in future commoning endeavors.”
In the explanations of these, we encounter a few of our friends and fellow commoners, like AAA’s project Agrocité in Paris, Raumlabor’s Kitchen Monument (Berlin), and Nomadic Green’s Prinzessinnengarten (Berlin). We certainly recognize a few of the tactics we ourselves have implemented in some if not all of our projects. The types of rituals presented can certainly help us in future endeavors and may just as well be a starting point for new commoners about to set on the journey.
Much more can be said about the incredibly rich content of the dissertation. Too much to review in such a short article, half a year after the fact of the defense, we are still chewing on some of the more provocative statements. This article thus can only encourage you to read it for yourselves. Do not forget the ‘excursus’, the final discussion of the political titled: ‘Commoning between Politics and the End of Dispute.’
And let’s just end this short review with the provisional answer to the question stated at the beginning of the thesis:
“The production of common space, hence, proceeds through a constant entanglement and disentanglement among material and immaterial elements: representations (images, visions, collective thoughts), configurations (bricks and mortar, wood, city squares, deserted buildings), significations (additive thoughts, self-inventions), common goods (as a resource, as means, or both), communities (bounded, in movement, or both) and commoning principles (in flux, instituted, or both). The continuous ‘play’ with all these elements, the possible outcomes of which are numerous, is what I call: Shapeshifting.
1) More or less simultaneous with Louis defending his dissertation, Stad in de Maak joined the Rotterdam activist group Recht op de Stad (Right to the City) which opposes the current municipal housing policies (Woonvisie), and which was the main agent in making sure that the UN Commission on Human Rights started an investigation and published the results this spring, into the possible infringement by the Rotterdam municipality of the basic human rights to proper housing.
The full dissertation can be downloaded here