The history of communal living is much longer than the history of family living or any other type of household. Nevertheless it is considered so unusual today that the inhabitants of Loppukiri (Finnish for “final spurt”), an independently organized housing community for mid-life and elderly people in Arabianranta, have been answering questions about their daily life since they moved into their house in 2006: How does it work? Does it really work? Japanese politicians, Brazilian television crews, gerontologists, architects, would-be inhabitants all coming to see something that should be a self-evident way of life. And still they were kind enough to open their house to curious people asking them these questions as part of “Urbaanit asuntomessut” this fall so that I had the opportunity to see some of their homes.
The whole concept makes so much sense that it is hard to believe that it is not more common. Frustrated by seeing how hard it was to take care of older relatives and where they had to live the last years of their lives, half a dozen women decided that they want to take those decisions in their own hands and after years of work, planning and getting people together, Loppukiri was built in 2006. The positively inconspicuous building was designed by Kirsti Sivén & Asko Takala Architects in collaboration with the residents. Although it formally works much like a normal housing corporation with the residents as share-holders there is also an important community level: Living together, helping each other, sharing time and space will make many things in life more practical and more meaningful in old age. Apart from clubs, activities and things that can be found in other care homes they most importantly take chores in cooking meals and eat together daily. Sharing a daily meal is considered an important ritual that makes the community tangible.
What impressed me, is that Loppukiri actually gives one possible real-life solution to many problems we are struggling with as a society: loneliness, lack of social networks, an ageing population, a tottering welfare state.
The practical utopia of Loppukiri is distantly but still recognizably related to its more radical predecessors.The nuclear family emerged as an ideal in the late 1800s but was not considered the ideal living unit for a modern society until after the second world war. Especially in the first decades of the 20th century there were a lot of experiments to find the proper way to live in the modern world. The Russian avant-gardists tried to make a revolution in living that would parallel the revolution in society. Its most famous symbol, the Narkomfin (1932) in Moscow failed as a utopia of living a lot faster than the society around it but slowly deteriorating it still houses an array of alternative life styles, as presented in a beautiful web documentary by Luciano Spinelli and Natalia Melikova.
At about the same the swedish architect Sven Markelius worked together with Alva Myrdal to build a house that would emancipate especially the working woman from the burdens of housekeeping and child rearing. A day care centre for children, a communal kitchen, a communal laundromat, hired help and a restaurant combined with minimal maisonettes was the concept that was built in John Ericssongatan in 1935. In the line of “Existenzminimum” the apartments were considered to be mainly spaces of privacy for the parents and every other part of life would take place in the common spaces. It was outrageously radical in its time, but actually included only services we need close to our homes today as well. We only have replaced the food elevator to the downstairs restaurant with a microwave oven, which is a pity.
If you trace the concept of communal living to its most ancient Ur-form you end up here: The Yanomami of southern Venezuela live in large communal circular dwellings called shabono. The building has to be rebuilt every few years and so it grows or contracts in diameter according to the size of the community; as if the house would breath with its inhabitants.