In April 2019 Action Archive held a witness seminar at the Swedish Center for Architecture and Design with the historical Swedish group Bo i Gemenskap/BiG which translates as Living in Community. The group has today 6 active members and they are architects, researchers and journalists. BiG was founded around 1976 and consisted back then of ten members (all female), its purpose was to research, discuss and promote the concept of living in community, of spatial and chore sharing in a living situation. Their subject of inquiry is and was collective cohousing, collaborative housing and as it is often being referred to today; co-housing. They focused on a particular housing model which their name also references (The BiG model) which has been the base for around 50 co-houses in Sweden since the late seventies.
Reflections on BiG’s witness seminar
One of our purposes for organizing a witness seminar around BiG was to foreground a practice that is paradoxically both marginalized in the Swedish context and had a large impact on Swedish planning through their model and their publications. Consistent with the methods of witness seminars, all participants were asked to prepare a short statement responding to questions concerning their initial goals and personal motivations, reflections regarding how attitudes towards Collective Housing have shifted the last decades and finally thoughts on specific achievements in terms of their influence on Swedish building politics and policies.
BiG and the second wave of collective housing
BiG developed a strategy that we see as form of ‘practical activism’, intended to construct collective models for a future habitat. Their work demonstrates a new attitude towards activism and feminist strategies in the field of architecture, moving from a critique of power structures to instigating real changes within these power structures. Through their positions as writers for widely circulated magazines and newspapers, and as occupants of central positions in the Swedish Association of Public Housing Companies as well as in the Swedish Association of Architects, they had the capability to change reality. BiG managed to launch the idea of a ‘second wave’ of collective housing, based on labour distribution between inhabitants rather than earlier distinction between employees and inhabitants. This was more attractive for the developers, with whom they worked closely, and in the 1990s almost fifty collective houses were built.
Most of the BiG members have previously and simultaneously been part of other groups and associations; collective work has always been a fundamental part of their thinking and production mode.
“With the support of The Swedish Council for Building Research (and a lot of our own time) many research reports and books were produced as well as many case studies and study visits in Sweden and in Europe. This in return resulted in new articles, lectures and new contacts.”
Although in retirement-age today, the BiG group is still active and does recurring study visits to Collective Houses in Sweden and all around the world. Most of the members still lecture and publish within academia as well as in popular science media. BiG members have also written a series of short publications about recent collective housing and developed guidelines for future building and planning of housing for elderly. To be noted, several of the BiG members have been very successful as researchers and writers within the field of housing research individually. As the group BiG, however, they are surprisingly unknown among younger Swedish planners and architects. The group is, despite its strong influence on the collective housing discourse, barely present in the recent Swedish planning and architecture history.
Helena Mattsson,”Shifting gender and acting out history: is there a Swedish postmodern-feminist architecture?”, in Feminist Futures of Spatial Practice: Materialisms, Activisms, Dialogues, Pedagogies, Projections, eds: Schalk, M., Kristiansson, T., Mazé, R. (eds.). Baunach:AADR / Spurbuchverlag, 2017, pp. 289-300.