COVID19 & Collaborative Housing #5

La Borda: Infrastructures for sustainable living, now more than ever

By Carles Baiges* and Cristina Gamboa**

Without a doubt, society was caught completely off guard by the pandemic and the lockdown, including the community of La Borda. La Borda is a housing cooperative born in 2012, which is part of the bottom-up transformation of the industrial premises of Can Batlló, as a collective response to the need for housing in the city of Barcelona. An alternative to access decent, stable, non-speculative, collective-owned and self-managed housing.

The cross-generational community of La Borda is formed by 60 people (49 adults and 11 children), grouped in 28 living units. The building, which was designed through participation of the future inhabitants, has a total surface area of 2.950m2 distributed over the living units and community areas, for example, a communal kitchen and dining-room, a multi-purpose room, a laundry, two guest rooms, and outdoor spaces to hang out the washing and for leisure.

The initiative began with concerns about and wanting to take responsibility for promoting social, economic and environmental sustainability. But, as resident Joana G. Grezner highlighted: “We anticipated that the house and its inhabitants would face the climatic emergency and the energy collapse, but never that it would come in the form of a global pandemic”.1

We anticipated that the house and its inhabitants would face the climatic emergency and the energy collapse, but never that it would come in the form of a global pandemic.

Resident of La Borda Joana G. Grezner

The lock-down landed  into a young community, without a long experience of conviviality, after a year and a half of communal life, and even some areas without finishing the self-build tasks. Because of that, it has been necessary to experiment through a trial and error process. The unstable and changeable situation, with contradictory information and indications, required a process of constant learning and evaluation. La Borda had to create new protocols while transforming spaces with new programs.

The ingrained self-management of the project has been the starting point to take control, in front of a severe confinement established by the Spanish government with an authoritarian attitude without attending to diversity or the most vulnerable.

The government of Spain legislated strict confinement regarding everyday life during most of the state of emergency, prohibiting children from leaving the house for months, and any non-essential activity for adults, including walks and sports. At some point, restrictions even included the use of communal areas of collective housing, demonstrating once again how the regulations are designed with a reductionist and standardizing view of housing and co-living. With its lack of definition, the law prohibited any use of sports areas of luxury housing blocks, as well as the terraces of small residential buildings with no access to outside spaces. Or, as in the case of La Borda, parts of the house that have been taken from the individual home to share with other housing units.

La Borda, as a collective space, has allowed its inhabitants to exercise a greater degree of self-control and co-responsibility as an individual, and as part of the community. Space to discuss the imposed protocols, to express the different needs and experiences. Even so, we self-criticize that some spaces for debate arrived too late, and the different perceptions of risk of each person have not always been taken into account.

There have been many reflections from professionals, politicians and society in general about how this situation can change the conception of housing: spatial quality, light, relations with the outside, with your neighbors. It would be interesting to see how many of the dynamics that were revealed during this period in many communities have been maintained after the confinement. For instance helping our neighbors to do the shopping, conversations from balcony to balcony, or the use of community spaces.

Unlike the majority of the existing housing stock, which was designed as an aggregation of individual dwellings, in this case it is especially relevant to analyze how a building designed to generate interaction behaves in a period of isolation. It has been an acid test for the potential of intermediate spaces (that are communal, between public and private). The intensive expansion of uses beyond the limits of the housing unit manifest the needs and potentials of these spaces. Spaces to practice sports, to be with others while maintaining safe distances, to enjoy the sun and the outdoors, so that children can play and interact with others… Also adapting the building to new needs. For example, the rooms for guests(which could not come now) and the units of people who were confined in other places became workspaces for parents who had to telework and needed a quiet space. Or, in later phases, the communal dining room served for the collective care of the youngest members of the community.

Even so, the transformative potential is not given by space, as Stavros Stavrides rightly points out (in the book Common Space) in revolutionary or utopian experiences such as the Soviet collective housing projects. We must give importance to build collective housing projects from the community. In La Borda, flexible formal and informal care protocols have emerged spontaneously, as a response to specific needs or as a decision by work commissions or the assembly. This leaves room for multiple ways of dealing with the situation (with people’s fears, their needs, individualities, etc) around care in a broad way: additional cleaning, sports (individual and collective), film sessions, shopping, food, conversations, concerts… While always keeping a safe distance. Also, when it was possible, this included self-organized collective care of children between parents and other people from the community itself.

New moments have also been introduced to verbalize and share what we feel. The emotional rounds to check the state of each person and how each one was facing the risk have been very well-received. And stable but informal meeting spaces for those who needed to express their experiences, in the form of an open meeting around coffee some Saturday afternoons announced in advance.

The emergency situation and its management have made social privileges more evident than ever, as well as the importance of mutual support networks and decent housing. Like in the 2008 economic crisis, marked by evictions, the centrality of housing and the need for stability and security have been highlighted, in the face of the precariousness of many families who have seen their income and economic activity extremely affected. In the case of La Borda, the solidarity fund, to which every adult must contribute monthly to help pay the fee to those living units with temporary financial difficulties, has been used for the first time.

Many journalists, academics and friends asked us if the confinement at La Borda was different. In response, the inhabitants, once the confinement was over, stressed that it would have been more difficult to cope with it in any other house they had previously inhabited. And back to the question about which dynamics are here to stay, some actions that did not happen previously (like the shared care of children) have continued beyond the confinement.

This video illustrates how La Borda was used in the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic.

* Carles Baiges and ** Cristina Gamboa, inhabitants in La Borda and members of Lacol. La Borda housing cooperative is a development self-organized by its users to access decent, non-speculative housing in Barcelona. Lacol is an architecture cooperative that work with architecture for social transformation, as a tool to intervene in the immediate environment critically.

1 See full article by resident Joana G. Grezner on Pikara Magazine: https://www.pikaramagazine.com/2020/05/confinamiento-comunidad-navegar-la-incertidumbre-desde-la-casa-comun/.

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