Beyond Type: The Zürich Undercommons (1)

Zurich intends to densify its built areas by approximately 20% by 2040. This argument is used to justify the strategy of the Ersatzneubau that characterises the transformation of many areas in the city. Moreover, densification is used as a reason to demolish many existing buildings that do not seem fit for transformation, whether former industrial areas or more recent buildings that were not conceived to live in. But even apartment buildings make place for new apartment buildings.

We ask ourselves, for whom does the city want to densify? Which people and practices are considered? As the Ersatzneubau replaces the material substance of the buildings, it also intervenes in the usages and practises that currently inhabit them. Moreover, in risks to displace practises that operate in the fringes of society and shelter those bodies and activities often unacknowledged, in service and/or in precarity: Frauenhäuser, laundromats for hotel linen, temporary housing for construction workers,industrial kitchens, unofficial economic activities, brothels, asylum centres. The city benefits from their existence, but

in practice wishes to neglect them as part of its program. Existing buildings possess multi-layered dualities: as built form, they seem fixed and unchangeable, while through their mere material existence and multiple temporalities, they are able to be appropriated and reinterpreted.

What if we, as architects, not only consider the re-use of existing buildings in material terms, but also in terms of the immaterial activities, scenarios, people, bodies and usages that inhabit them?

This master diploma will engage with these practices that we consider crucial to make a city function but that are always the first to be pushed away. We understand them as ‘undercommons’, a term we speculatively borrow from Fred Moten & David Harney’s eponymous book The Undercommons (2013). In their terms, the undercommons are regimes of solidarity and co-existence between excluded groups and overlooked activities. We take this as a reminder of the diversity and complexity of the city. The undercommons presents to us an often neglected spatial intelligence and reconfiguration of architectural type, expressed in the appropriation of existing buildings and spaces. In this master thesis, we aim to learn from these neglected actors and practises. We hold that an in-depth study of, with and through the undercommons can offer us clues to design according to different values than those that result in the generic ‘types’ of neighbourhoods, buildings and spaces that continue to emerge all over our cities.

From this perspective, re-use and durability are understood both as (i) the capacity of the architecture of the city to physically transform and adapt through time, and as (ii) the aptitude of the architecture of the city to create social commons in the urban environment that can accommodate a variety of urban citizens and practises.

We will ask ourselves: within the context of densifying Zurich, can we design an alternative, more inclusive and multi-layered architecture of the city, by engaging more profoundly with the existing material and social ‘undercommons’ presences? Does an engagement with the undercommons offer us the possibility to think beyond the standard ‘types’ of housing, collective and public spaces? Can we design beyond type, as a kind of un-type or non-type? Can we factor in appropriation, regimes of invisibility and inaccessibility as a strategy to design for undercommoning these activities and practises? Can we, as architects, creatively and spatially engage with the undercommons, not only as a site of interest but also as a site of care? Further, how does such an engagement with the undercommons make us think differently about the character of an architectural project and the role of the architect?