Building Cooperative Centers, Building Communities

AUTHOR / Nuša Zupanc

This article was originally published in Delo in May 2022.

Asta Vrečko, Martina Malešič, Blaž Babnik Romaniuk and Rastko Pečar make up the curatorial team of the Slovenian pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Hashim Sarkis, a Lebanese architect and Dean of the Department of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – MIT, set the question “How will we live together?” as the theme of the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale already a year before covid-19 pandemic struck. The proposal of a multidisciplinary team of experts mapping and listing the scale of the phenomenon of cooperative centers won the Museum of Architecture and Design Ljubljana public call for the Slovenian pavilion.

The project of building cooperative centers started two years after the Second World War. All over Yugoslavia, cooperative centers began to be built to connect survivors with shock work and to offer spaces for economic, cultural and an array of other activities that the local community deemed necessary. The study, the pavilion and the accompanying film also focus on cooperative centers today, conveying a strong message for modern times, and offering an insight into what it means to think and act affirmatively. A cooperative center is that part of a village or town where authentic human phenomena enabling community take place: socializing, transfer of knowledge and memories.

It is difficult to articulate how important these fundamentally human phenomena are. It is even more difficult to articulate the sobering element – how are we going to build, for whom, and what of it will be relevant for posterity – if we do not even know how to resolve the current spatial and social problems. Our awareness of the importance of solving these problems will peak when it is going to be too late, as we are currently generously subordinating public space to the appetite of the market economy.

We live in general abundance, but we have never been so close to general impoverishment of the public good. The Common in Community is a project that calls on us to recalibrate as a society and consider what kind of environment we want to coexist in. The curatorial team of the Slovenian pavilion consists of art historians Asta Vrečko and Martina Malešič and architects Blaž Babnik Romaniuk and Rastko Pečar, and the research process was chronicled in a documentary film by the director Vid Hajnšek.

As a multidisciplinary collective, what does community mean to you?

Asta Vrečko: There are many definitions of community, and these have changed over time. As part of the project, we understood community as a group of people who are bound by a certain interest, space and time in which they want to cooperate. Of course, this does not mean that the community always operates as a unit; community represents a platform creating the conditions for the self-realization of individuals’ potentials, whereby the interests of the individual must not be above the interests of the community as a whole. As part of the biennale, we were investigating indoor public spaces – cooperative centers. Through the concept of the common, these cooperative centers create opportunities for the development of such local communities since they provide a place for its members to meet. As the spatial sociologist Aidan Cerar wrote in the monograph published at the time of the Venice exhibition: when asked what they want in their space or neighborhood, people often answer, new community spaces if there are none, or the renovation of old ones.

Why do cooperative centers represent a phenomenon of extraordinary proportions?

A. V.: Building cooperative centers was a federal project of the entire Yugoslavia, and had its own specifics in each republic. We must also be aware of the specific context two years after the war: in a psychologically and physically devastated state of society, it was necessary to somehow make sense of the years of slaughter, in which many families lost friends, family members, and relatives – the war left deep wounds everywhere you turned. This project allowed for collective traumas and the desire for a better future to begin to be translated into social good – through doing voluntary work, establishing new ties and building a new society. All this was part of the wider project of post-war modernization of society.

The motto of the builders was, “we build cooperative centers, cooperative centers build us …”, meaning that through the construction of centers, the community was also being built. Involvement was a major contribution of the project and – we must not forget that this was a gigantic project – 523 centers were established in Slovenia, several thousand at the federal level. It seems practically unimaginable to think about such proportions today when we struggle to find the political will to provide space for various civil initiatives, young people, cultural organizations and artists, schools, health services, etc. At that time, they built 330 buildings for the common good in five years – all this in times of…

Rastko Pečar: …extreme scarcity.

A. V.: Exactly. Of course, not everything was ideal, but it’s hard to find something that could match such a grandiose project. Right from the beginning, a cooperative center newspaper/chronicle had been published regularly for two years. During the construction films were shot, people and places came to life together with the centers. In short, it was a huge project that was to some extent designed to detail, but on the other hand it allowed for freedom…

It dismantled the established hierarchy?

A. V.: Yes, and I think this is key – how to imagine a society or big projects that seem impossible at the beginning.

Martina Malešič: The key to the success of this project was active involvement of those who were directly affected by it, who used the center. Although they were given very detailed instructions and plans, everything was done by the community on the site itself. This worked well because it was also the only possible solution in the post-war situation, as there was neither money nor raw materials, nothing. The participation and the self-initiative of the local community was the only way this project could be implemented.

Our research did not include other buildings that are similar in typology, but different in execution, for example cultural centers that were built in the 1950s, where you have an architect, a contractor, and then the community gets to manage the building. The main point of a cooperative center was that the local community decided what kind of building they wanted, what kind of space they needed, and then they built it themselves. This is probably also one of the reasons these buildings are still standing and mostly functioning: because of the younger generation’s emotional attachment to the building that was built by their relatives, great uncles, grandfathers, and grandmothers themselves, with their own hands.

Today, the post-war type of shock work would certainly be made more difficult due to legislation, documentation, etc., alone. What is a shock worker like in the age of late capitalism, how does he or she not only preserve the milestones of the common good, but also move them forward, for posterity?

Blaž Babnik Romaniuk: In fact, there is still a lot of shock work today. I would highlight the example in Višnjevik – not only in terms of construction, but also in terms of the organization and implementation of the program. We can see a diverse organization of events among young people. The physical work thus transformed into organization, maintenance, and cultural work, which may be less noticeable, but is nevertheless demanding and completely voluntary. They are guided by their own interests and hobbies, as well as the will to contribute to the wider community, to make things happen, to socialize … The form of shock work has changed, but that does not mean that there is any less volunteer work for the benefit of the community.

Voluntary work has changed due to the development of construction technology and greater specialization of professions, as well as due to the legal framework allowing or limiting the scope of self-building. Today, it is legally significantly more difficult for shock workers to erect a structure, especially if it is a public building. Construction is more closely tied to legislation, the formal responsibility of construction participants, the qualifications of personnel, supervision, and permits. Today, voluntary work is more focused on building maintenance and care, which has proven to be crucial in the case of cooperative centers. The care and management of the common good is what not only preserved the buildings, but enabled the gradual adaptation of the premises to the actual needs of the community.

Asta Vrečko: “We are justified to be critical of what is happening – at every turn we only see the dominance of capital over reason and over the well-being of people . If the role of architects and urban planners is devalued when it comes to city development and spatial planning, we give more power to investors and capital.”

A. V.: We can say that the entire cultural field, but especially NGOs and self-employed people in culture, follows the principle of shock work. Most of this work is based on self-exploitation, underpaid or even unpaid work for the benefit of the common good. For many, this type of remaining community space is precisely what allows them to function. Of course, this is a different type of shock work. The entire society enjoys the fruits of cultural work and art: films, theater, exhibitions, cultural events, etc. At the same time, capitalism uses the desire for work and creation for even greater exploitation.

The project represented a shift in spatial planning. For example, Edvard Ravnikar placed the center next to the NOB (National Liberation War) monument, close to the square and the existing extremely important connected village buildings (the church, guest house, school), thereby indicating the role of community centers. The plans were made with the new typology in mind and at the same time flexible enough to take the wishes of the community into account. On a meta level of architectural theory, could it be said that the involvement of the local community turns this into the vernacular architecture of the post-war social order (people’s anonymous architecture that is not directed or determined by experts) ?

R. P.: We could say that it was a type of vernacularization since it was a process in which an abstract type of concept was adapted to the local environment under the influence of local specifics, such as the configuration of the terrain, the range of materials, architectural knowledge and building tradition, while the architect was still involved in the beginning. It could also be said that new construction techniques, work methods and materials were spread and thus vernacularized during the construction, since the shock workers continued to use the new knowledge in construction in their environment. Finally, we can also find architectural plans that included facades with adopted folkloric motifs.

M. M.: Yes, we could consider the process itself vernacularization, but we cannot consider it vernacular architecture; that would mean no architects were involved. In the case of cooperative centers, architects planned different types for different landscapes (lowland, coastal, mountain, Pannonian type) based on local specifics. They designed abstract types that would enable the fastest and cheapest implementation (using local materials and techniques), and at the same time probably facilitate the construction and the appropriation of the building by the community. The latter took one of the plans and adapted it to their needs and capabilities, while also adding unique solutions, stone cutting details, and carpentry work. The local implementation was thus tied to its microlocation, but the entire consideration of placement, typology, program, spatial design, construction, and execution of facades was in the domain of the design department, most often of a government-owned enterprise. The leading architects of the period were involved, including Edvard Ravnikar, Herman Hus, Emil Medvešček …

Rastko Pečar: “I am critical of my professional field, which often makes lofty statements about self-building, colored facades, too few houses having flat roofs … These judgments are often torn from social reality, people’s material condition and historical circumstances. Cooperative centers are an example that shows that in addition to condemnation, there is also a path of cooperation. This message is intended for the professional field rather than for the ruling politicians.”

In architectural theory, not every building is defined as architecture. The key component of an architectural building is its surplus value. Despite the lack of the latter in the case of cooperative centers, their function, the unifying power of the project and its spatial placement is what makes these buildings architectural buildings. Let me refer to the quote from your book by Neža Čebron Lipovec: “The material substance is therefore protected above all as historical values and collective memory.” How would you define the surplus value of this project?

M. M.: When it comes to the construction of cooperative centers, we cannot speak of work marked by architectural authorship, so it is difficult to include the same criteria as we would otherwise to reflect on their surplus value. However, I think that in this case we can still claim that the buildings, the project, and the infrastructure have surplus value. I agree with Neža, both the historical value and the importance of collective memory add a lot to this value. At the same time, this project is architecturally extremely well thought-out and detailed.

Our basis is that the construction of cooperative centers was an architectural project. The architects were heavily involved from the beginning and thought out all the components, from urban planning to theater stage plans, from the design of the outdoor public space to the implementation of window glazing. At the same time, we must also be aware that the time period demanded other topics and tasks from architects. During the post-war reconstruction and the establishment of a new state, the architectural profession played an extremely important role. This was also a time when architects were employed at key institutions, often in leading positions: at the Ministry of Construction, research departments, and later also urban planning services. Therefore, they were able to actively participate in the decision-making processes regarding the management of space, which is no longer the case today.

An additional subject they dealt with was the countryside, and they devoted as much attention to it as to the city. We must also understand the planning of cooperative centers within this context. The architect dealt with the regulation of the village and the planning of collective cooperative stables, while simultaneously developing new types of residential buildings and designing the main representative buildings in the city. Part of the surplus value therefore lies in the fact that these projects arose from a holistic consideration of the space.

Does the rich program accompanying the construction play a part in the surplus value of this project as well?

R. P.: Definitely. During the construction itself, a rich cultural program took place, serving a motivational, unifying role, and spreading the future vision of the countryside among the builders. Another important element is the dissemination of knowledge. During the construction, a dedicated newspaper was being published, containing plans equipped with explanations of individual procedures, building blocks or details; a kind of manual. The surplus value – not only of the final building but of the project itself – is in its organizational structure, in the dissemination of knowledge, cultural activity, also in the extremely thought-out material logistics, etc. Not all of these elements fit into the established framework of judging architecture, but we hope that our research will stimulate reflection on the criteria of architecture.

A. V.: Since it was necessary to set up many things anew, this required serious considerations, but quick reactions at the same time. Cooperative centers established new relationships between destinations, and contributed to decentralization and accessibility of services since they also housed various services, such as libraries, shops, consulting rooms and, of course, a cultural hall. They tackled things holistically, conducting research in search of a vision for the future, reflecting on how to live a quality, modern life together in a new society. And this is precisely the question of the curator of the Venice Biennale today, and at the same time a broader social issue of our time, also addressed by the European Union in its New Bauhaus project.

Your answer to the question posed by Hashim Sarkis, the curator of the Architecture Biennale, about how we will live together, was a presentation of a phenomenon embedded in the past political regime, which is still functioning today despite political and social changes. Could it be said that the centers still function today because of transtemporality and the connecting arc between generations?

R. P.: Instead of the future – utopia – we sought answers in the past. At the start of our research, we studied archived materials and it immediately became clear that the project of building cooperative centers was conceived in a highly strategic manner and aimed at promoting social cohesion. It was a socialist method of socialization. At the same time, we discovered many buildings in our fieldwork that – while not maintained to the highest standard – still cater well to the needs of local communities. This surprised us. It is evident that they play an important role in small Slovenian settlements and villages as well as the countryside in general. We did, however, notice increasing differences between Slovenian regions or the urban and rural areas while driving. This indicates not only that cooperative centers are resilient, but also that there is a lack of collective vision – a problem faced by today’s society.

B. B. R.: Considering the project has been around for 70 years, the important thing is the time span. In the meantime, the political and economic systems changed, generations exchanged, but these centers are still here and still active. This is precisely what aroused our hope that we will be able to find some answers to the main question of Bienalle’s curator. So, besides the historical perspective – the reason why and the way it was conceived – what is also intriguing about the project is how it has changed and persevered in the time of all these social changes and how it functions today. Maybe we should talk about how the project was continuously adapting and preserving community spaces in ever-changing conditions rather than about transtemporality of the project. In this sense, the centers are always changing, some more significantly than others, according to the various spatial and social conditions of individual places and regions. This brings us back to the topic of maintenance and care as a crucial community action to preserve the common good, in the material and the non-material sense (values, memory).

A. V.: And this is the answer to the first question. Without some kind of community and collective awareness of the wider common good these centers contributed to, these places wouldn’t have stayed active for so long. During research we found similarities throughout different time periods and political situations. We were mapping them out and contemplating the importance of preserving interior public spaces.

A cooperative center is also a phenomenon of free space without a strictly defined function – this is a component every architect should strive for in every project. The kind of public space you mentioned is not embedded in the free market economy. In relation to your first answer, could you explain the gist of why these spaces are an integral part of every community regardless of the political context?

B. B. R.: The indeterminate and flexible nature of these spaces is very important due to their potential for easy adaptation to the changing conditions of use. We also have to take note of the size and versatility of these spaces. This is what allowed these spaces to be used by various communities: theater groups, firefighters, bowlers, families … The same hall could accommodate a fire drill, a theater play or a rock concert. The conceptual and material aspects of these spaces are less important in comparison to the scope of their ambitious aims and construction that enabled their resilient continuation. These spaces offered versatile use and simultaneously allowed for predominantly voluntary community use and maintenance. Thus, the actual users of the space are also its maintainers. Essentially, communities are partially built through their relationship with the common good, the cooperative center building in this case. If you cannot reach an agreement or develop mutual trust, it does not matter what the space is like. Due to the lack of mutual agreement it cannot function and therefore doesn’t fulfill its purpose or rather, its purpose is not established.

A. V.: Spaces that arose from specific community needs have always existed; people have always needed them to strengthen their communities, to create and to socialize. When there is no appropriate infrastructure, these spaces pop up organically. But these types of self-organized communities can be a nuisance for the authorities and they can be violently discontinued, as seen in the case of the Autonomous Factory Rog. Not all self-organized initiatives are necessarily formalized and this is exactly why open public interior spaces are important, so that this kind of collectives can exist. Today these spaces are becoming more and more rare, since their value is too often seen from the prism of the building’s or estate’s market value.

Has the market value caused the conflict between the accessibility of space and residents? Since space is too often just a matter of free market relations?

A. V.: Capital normally takes over community resources and enriches itself with it; it exploits the common good for its own economic interest. The society and the politicians as well, of course, are the ones who should take a stance against this kind of agenda at every turn. Unfortunately, these mechanisms are often not established. The most serious problem is the close relationships between decision-makers and investors. This is evident when you consider fenced neighborhoods in Slovenia where public space and infrastructure – that should be accessible to and intended for everyone – are being exploited to raise the standard of living for a handful of people who want to be isolated from the exact same public.

You have mentioned self-organized communities, such as Rog. Whose duty is it to dedicate space to self-organized communities as well? Is this not only the responsibility of decision-makers, but also of architects, anthropologists, etc.?

R. P.: In principle, the authorities should protect and support the non-formal, self-organized communities and spontaneous use of space if they act for the common good. The Autonomous Factory Rog and cooperative centers are these kinds of venues; they are similar because they arose in a time when there was a clearly defined common purpose. Once the latter took a backseat, appropriation began. In Rog’s case, it took a form of occupation as a way of protecting the common good against privatization.

In the case of cooperative centers, appropriation took a form of cultural, social and other activities that flourished after the function of agricultural production ceased. Let me refer to Vid here and say that appropriation allows the community to fight for not only the activities, but also the values that have started to die out with the change of the social system. One of these values is the common good – a syntagm that we don’t hear in the speech of political representatives, but we do come across it in communities. An architect is an expert equipped with the sensibility to notice such phenomena in space, and has the duty to advocate for them in public.

The Autonomous Factory Rog or other cases where young professionals established collectives, such as Kreativna Cona Šiška, Poligon at Tobačna, studios in Sokolski dom in Novo mesto … Do these examples represent a search for space within the city, where the inhabitants responded and found a solution themselves?

M. M.: Now we are discussing very particular local cases, but the analysis of cooperative centers indicates what is crucial: the strategy and the integrated idea that such spaces are necessary, that we need to establish them in some way. And then the implementation follows, occurring on a lower hierarchical level. A clear, strong infrastructure and an organized structure were established. This is something we can learn from this case of common spaces, be it in a city or a village.

B. B. R.: The municipalities allocate certain funds to the centers and in return, the centers make sure there is space for formal and non-formal communities. Young people have their spaces and as such they function best – there are rules, but this is their space and they design it as they wish. Maybe we shouldn’t see this issue in such black and white terms; that there is no support for this in politics anymore. At least in the case of cooperative centers, especially the ones in remote areas, there is active support and constant dialogue between local political actors and local communities. The roles of individuals are flexible: someone might be a part of a theater group and a member of the local community council; someone might be a visitor while helping to maintain the center as well.

R. P.: There are two types of social organizing in the environment we conducted research in. The first one is the dynamic of a small town or village, where family ties and neighborhood relations play an important role. Cooperative centers are often used for birthday celebrations or for celebrations of local significance. On the other hand, a cooperative center is a public space, or rather a civic space, meaning it is a space for civic activities; something that was generally absent in villages. These two principles intertwine, which can sometimes result in friction, but I have to say that our research showed that cooperative centers are a great example of blending the common and the civic.

Martina Malešič: “We’re not only talking about a historical moment that passed and is not possible anymore, but about something that is still relevant. Vid’s documentary film concludes in a place called Višnjevik in Goriška brda, where they built a cooperative center a couple of years ago. They received EU funds for the construction, but they built it themselves, with shock work.”

The same can be said about the Autonomous Factory Rog, where you had a series of particular spaces or activities, and, on the other hand, an assembly that ensured they followed the common interest. There had always been conflicts between the two, of course, but what I am trying to say is that this dynamic produced non-profit, social, cultural and other important projects; it benefited and created the common good. But the City of Ljubljana, which sees public interest through neoliberal lens – so, through the lens of profitability, was inhibiting Rog and ultimately destroyed the community through illegal eviction.

There are two other extremes present in our space: we have a lot of, often problematic, self-building, and simultaneously top architects who are capable of reflection and carrying out architectural projects at a global level. Then we also witnessed a bill on debureaucratization being proposed, trying to achieve the abolition of public tenders. Where is the middle ground?

A. V.: The way cooperatives centers were built with the help of self-building has to be seen in the context of the post-war period and the project itself. But even then not everything was self-organized – precisely the spatial planning, so the urban planning aspect, and the architectural consideration were key in cooperative center construction. The construction also enabled planned education; the acquired knowledge was then used by people to build their own individual housing that they needed due to the devastation caused by the war.

We live in completely different times today, of course. The current new construction bill that devalues the work of architects and urbanists and diminishes the importance of architectural competitions is extremely harmful. Experts should be the ones who take the lead in urban, city and countryside planning, in harmony with the local community, of course, and environmentalists, which is of utmost importance today. We are justified to be critical of what is happening – at every turn we only see the dominance of capital over reason and over the well-being of people. If the role of architects and urban planners is devalued when it comes to city development and spatial planning, we give more power to investors and capital.

R. P.: In those times self-building was present, of course, but the architect was not separated from it. I am critical of my professional field, which often makes lofty statements about self-building, colored facades, too few houses having flat roofs … These judgments are often torn from social reality, people’s material condition and historical circumstances. Cooperative centers are an example that shows that in addition to condemnation, there is also a path of cooperation. This message is intended for the professional field rather than for the ruling politicians. Regarding the so-called debureaucratization, I agree that these measures are problematic.

How exactly will we live together? Why should non-architects go to the Architecture Biennale?

A. V.: It is good to visit as many local and international cultural events as possible. The Venice Biennale is one of the oldest and biggest world exhibitions, bringing together participants from all over the world. It always stimulates new ways of thinking. This year, we considered space and community. We touched on various questions about life in the future, not only the ones related to the epidemic, since it was conceived prior to it.
*The curators in the Slovenian pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. PHOTO: Jana Jocif
Conversely, the topic of the Biennale – how will we live together – has never been more relevant than in the moment when we weren’t able to be together. The presented projects discuss living in times of climate change, refugees, population growth in cities, and other problems we are facing or will face. An important topic is also the common interior public space. It seems as though we have only realized its value now, when social distancing rules were imposed, resulting in the ban of their common and free use, breaking social ties. These are important topics we have to face as a society.
B. B. R.: Spatial planning concerns each and every one of us, and so does the Biennale’s topic. Maybe a better question would be if architects need to go to the Architecture Biennale; the Biennale’s topic probably hints at that, since “living together” includes all of us.
Blaž Babnik Romaniuk: “Capital forces us to choose everything for ourselves according to our taste, as if flicking through a catalog, be it a dentist or an electricity provider; it convinces us that every decision is taken only with regard to oneself. I think that today, communities are still being set up to create and preserve the common good. Why and how intensely this happens depends on individual places, generations and also coincidences.”
R. P.: The first thing we need to do is to reject the potential accusation that nostalgia about the past or the romanticization of shock work is what got a hold over us as a group. In the light of the Biennale’s topic, we felt it necessary to reconsider certain social practices that are hard to find today. We think that the shock work type of action as a specific relation between society and the state and as a phenomenon of big proportions, and especially remarkable speed, is an absolutely relevant topic for our times – especially in relation to climate change, the scope of the necessary adaptation and the time we have left as a society. The same goes for the current epidemic situation and efforts to contain it. We have a case of the Indian state of Kerala where society as a whole mobilized against the spread of coronavirus and achieved great success.
M. M.: We’re not only talking about a historical moment that passed and is not possible anymore, but about something that is still relevant. Vid’s documentary film concludes in a place called Višnjevik in Goriška brda, where they built a cooperative center a couple of years ago. They received EU funds for the construction, but they built it themselves, with shock work.

We could conclude our conversation with the main message of the exhibition that cooperative centers run on affirmative position, connection and care that resists individualism and the principle “every man for himself”.

B. B. R.: Maybe the phrase “every man for himself” is not exactly the right one, since all of us are still inseparably connected with communities. Maybe if you are living in a city, you are part of smaller, more common-interest-focused communities. But in remote places wider communities are established in order to co-exist and co-create. Capital forces us to choose everything for ourselves according to our taste as if flicking through a catalog, be it a dentist or an electricity provider; it convinces us that every decision is taken only with regard to oneself. I think that today, communities are still being set up to create and preserve the common good. Why and how intensely this happens depends on individual places, generations and also coincidences.