A Barcelona housing co-operative that had been in existence less than a year when Spain imposed one of Europe’s toughest lockdowns has won a prestigious architecture award after its model of community living thrived during the pandemic.
The wood-framed La Borda scheme of 28 apartments and several shared spaces has won the prestigious Mies van der Rohe prize for emerging architecture for a project that the awards committee described as “a transgressive… model based on co-ownership and co-management of shared resources and capacities”.
The occupants had been there barely a year when lockdown came, which was when the communal plan of the building really came into its own, says Cristina Gamboa, a leading figure in the field of sustainability who, with Pol Massoni, was the principal architect.
Once it became clear that none of the occupants had Covid it was possible to make use of the shared spaces – including a kitchen-dining area, laundry, multipurpose space, guest rooms as well as a patio, bike parking and terraces – to minimize the sort of isolation suffered by people in more conventional housing.
“It was a privilege to live through Covid here,” Gamboa says. “It showed that these spaces allow for the sort of interaction that wouldn’t be possible in a conventional apartment block. For example, the guest rooms couldn’t be used because no one was traveling so they became work spaces.”
Unlike the experiments in communal living in London squats such as St Agnes Place and Villa Road in the 1980s and 90s, which were carried out in family houses, La Borda is designed with the collective in mind.
Since Covid restrictions were lifted, every Wednesday about two-thirds of the occupants have been meeting for dinner in the communal dining room.
“La Borda is exemplary in terms of design for home-based work, a rare thing in social housing,” says Frances Holliss, architect and author of Beyond Live/Work: the Architecture of Home-based Work. “Homes can be expanded to include a workspace – on a different floor, if preferred. The building is designed at every turn to increase social interactions and build community, which reduces social isolation – the bane of the home-based worker.”
The La Borda project emerged from a local campaign to reclaim the abandoned industrial complex at Can Batlló in the Sants area of the city for use by the community, which in turned spawned Lacol, a collective of young architects interested in developing participative projects.
Inspired by housing schemes in Denmark and Uruguay, as well as figures from the 1970s such as the Belgian architect Lucien Kroll, Gamboa and her colleagues at Lacol were motivated by three principles: sustainability, participation and community.
“Our model is for accessible, not speculative housing, but we also wanted to create something easy to replicate, not a closed community,” says Gamboa, who lives in the building.
The design, with its large internal patio and light well, harks back to the “corral” concept common in Madrid and southern Spain, where the central space serves as both a meeting place and natural air conditioning.
The timber construction allows the flats to be adaptable while also improving insulation and minimizing environmental impact.
“It’s a passive building with active participants,” Gamboa says.
Co-op members, who range from people in their 20s to retirees, don’t own their flats, nor can they sell or pass them on. Rent and living costs are about 30-35% below market rates.
Solar panels supply electricity to communal areas while a shared laundry keeps bills lower and frees up living space.
Prospective members pay a refundable fee of €18,500 (£15,485) but with 50 people already on the waiting list, Gamboa says the only solution is to build more.
Only 1.5% of Barcelona’s housing stock is public and the rest is increasingly out of reach of most pockets, especially the young, with the result that around 80% of 18- to 30-year-olds still live with their parents.
Gamboa says winning the Mies van der Rohe award was a surprise, adding that “it’s great to see other ways of doing architecture receiving recognition”.
Some of the €20,000 prize money will go towards a celebratory dinner for the occupants and others involved in bringing the project to fruition.