Recently I have been exploring what an anarchist house looks like, particularly using the work of Colin Ward. Anarchism is essentially self-organisation, people providing for themselves without state intervention. It has multiple variants and part of its appeal for many is the flexibility with which it can be understood and practiced[i]. Colin Ward was a key advocate for anarchism, especially in Britain, and was particularly interested in housing and architecture; indeed he was an architect by training. He argued that anarchism was always present in society, not a utopia in the future; “an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow”[ii]. He was interested in fragments of anarchism already in existence and wrote numerous histories tracing anarchist practice;
Many years of attempting to be an anarchist propagandist have convinced me that we win over our fellow citizens to anarchist ideas, precisely through drawing upon the common experience of the informal, transient, self-organising networks of relationships that in fact make the human community possible, rather than through the rejecting of existing society as a whole in favour of some future society where some different kind of humanity will live in perfect harmony.[iii]
In particular he documented the history of the housing of the poor, who often had to rely upon squatting land to make a home[iv], and of ‘plotlands’; the self-built unofficial housing often along the British coast as escapes for city dwellers from the 1870s to the 1940s[v]. For Ward, anarchist housing is a form of liberation[vi]. This is achieved primarily through dweller control (after Turner[vii]) – that there is housing for all, housing for all needs, and that residents have full control over that housing (be that through direct ownership or other forms of secure tenure). This control is not a form of capitalist exploitative profit making (an approach to housing rejected by anarchists such as Proudhon by his famous assertion that ‘Property is Theft’), rather it is the freedom to have a home and the land required to live. Turner argues that dweller control leads to better and cheaper housing than when provided by the state.
In providing for these needs, anarchist housing often requires unconventional societal structures, such as sharing homes through multi-family occupation, communes and co-operatives. It is also likely to involve combining uses such as reintegrating work and home. This collectivisation is also evident in the construction of anarchist houses where the tasks of construction, navigating legal requirements and the cost of purchasing land are all reduced through sharing. It can thus be an act of mutual aid – people mutually supporting and helping each other. In particular Kropotkin, another famous anarchist, called for housing to reduce the burden of household tasks on women and instead offer them liberation from drudgery, this included making the kitchen bigger and central for all to use[viii]. What is more, housing should be convivial, built to encourage interaction and to suit human behaviour and demands[ix]. An anarchist house would seek to avoid or subvert any planning restrictions, especially where the basic needs of people were not being met, hence anarchism’s strong links with squatting[x].
The anarchist house is very much in the vernacular tradition of using easily available free materials to self-build, and such houses would be maintained and modified (such as extensions) by its occupants as needs changed. Brand defined such houses as being ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’[xi] – easily adaptable buildings, built to last and with minimal environmental impact. The environmental features of anarchist housing are not particularly explicit in Ward’s discussions, but many anarchists such as Murray Bookchin[xii] and Henry David Thoreau[xiii] understood there to be strong parallels between anarchism and environmentalism. This was expressed in housing as being about simplicity, self-sufficiency and human scale approaches which reduced humans needs while restoring a concern for the environment. In other words the anarchist house has minimal resource needs and enables interactions with the environment which in turn allows people to understand their direct environmental implications.
[i] Colin, C (2004). Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
[ii] Ward, C (1973) Anarchy in Action. George Allen & Unwin. p. 11.
[iii] Ward, C (1992) Anarchy in Action. Freedom Press, London, p. 5.
[iv] Ward, C (2002) Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History. Five Leaves, Nottingham
[v] Hardy, D and Ward, C (1984) Arcadia for All: The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape. Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham.
[vi] Ward, C (2011) Alternatives in Architecture, in Wilbert, C and White, D, F (eds.) Autonomy, Solidarity and Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader. AK Press, Edinburgh.
[vii] Turner, J. F. C. (1976) Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments, Marion Boyars, London.
[viii] Ward, C (2011) The Anarchist House, in Wilbert, C and White, D, F (eds.) Autonomy, Solidarity and Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader. AK Press, Edinburgh.
[ix] Ward, C (2011) Alternatives in Architecture, in Wilbert, C and White, D, F (eds.) Autonomy, Solidarity and Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader. AK Press, Edinburgh.
[x] Ward, C (1990) Talking Houses. Freedom Press, London.
[xi] Brand, S (1997) How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built. Phoenix Illustrated, London.
[xii] Bookchin, M (1986) Toward an ecological society. Black Rose Books, Montreal, Canada.
[xiii] Thoreau, H D (1980) Walden