Reproductive Commons: From Within and Beyond the Kitchen – Julia Wieger
by Achilleas Lehmann
Julia Wieger is an architect and researcher. She works as a architecture department in the Academy of fine arts in Vienna. She is interested in collective approaches to research, production and design.
Before addressing her main exapmles for collective housing which try to break the socially defined gender barrier, she briefly introduces the concept of commons and the act of commoning. Commons are defined as spaces, which are available for undefined use by a community. However commons are easily exploited and ruined, this is why the practice of commoning is relevant. Commoning means, to establish a community, which takes care of the shared resource by setting or adjusting the regulations considering the use of this shared resource. The following cartoon by Garrett Hardin (Tragedy of the commons) shows the fragility of commons. In Switzerland one example of commons might be the Allmend. It is a patch of land, un-built and only defined by its borders. It can be used by “anyone” with some restrictions. Julia Wieger introduces the concept of commons to show that there are also less exploitative ways of living together than the capitalist system. This serves as a bridge to introduce her discussion on the concept of reproductive labor.
The idea of reproductive labour, came up in the 1970s. The mentioned theorists are Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James and Silvia Federici. They used this term, to describe the unpaid work, which women in private households were doing. They argued that this form of exploitation would be one of the main drivers of the capitalist system, especially because this kind of unpaid work, maintained the workers ability to perform their jobs. Their main critique on Marxist concepts was that this particular aspect was often neglected. They actually also defined it as a spatial issue. Their argument was that this labour is not recognized as work, because it is done at home and thus rendered invisible. Wieger introduces some other theorists, Gibson and Graham, who in the 1990s argued, that the above stated critique didn’t propose the search for an alternative. With their scetch, Economy as an Iceberg they argue that capitalist and non-capitalist economies actually do coexist and that they are not exclusive.
In collectivizing reproduction Frederici actually proposes something similar to commons, which might lead to a reversal of the gender based social division of labor. But she argues, that commons are impossible because of our capitalist society, and society needs a radical transformation in order to allow commons to exist again. Wieger claims that space is a mean of communing practices. So she tries to find examples of spaces or designs that can facilitate the act of commoning, and wants to research other aspects of the commons.
Julia Wieger introduces then a few concepts showing how this might be translated spatially. One of them is the Frankfurter kitchen. It is a kitchen design by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. The design is defined by the ways a woman will have to move in a kitchen and aims in reducing the overall time spent there, by reducing the distances.
The other example is the Heimhof Einküchenhaus in Vienna. It is a housing complex, where the kitchen is centralized. The individual apartments were reduced to the absolute minimum. This concept could also be found in some apartment complexes in the former Soviet Union. On the first glance this model promises independence for women. It also seems to make it easier for women to get a job. But these apartments were to expensive for lower class inhabitants and it pretty much worked like a hotel. The big central kitchen and the washing rooms were still run by women. Just by even poorer women. According to Günter Uhlig the concept of the Heimhof Einküchenhaus had huge potential because of its collectivity. But the Einküchenhaus also received a lot of criticism. The richer bourgeois class, who could afford to stay in such a building, mistrusted it as communist, and feminists were not happy, because it did not go far enough.
What Julia Wieger makes very clear is that changing gender relations and lifestyles through design involve a bunch of new questions now. It is not only about who can afford to change, but it quickly becomes political and architectonical.
In her next paragraph she introduces the Türkis Rosa Villa in Vienna. It was about to be torn down, and it was squatted. During the squatting it had become a political issue. Activists had painted the house pink and were hanging banners fighting for rights for homosexuals. After two years of squatting a deal with the municipality was reached. The activists were allowed to use the building for the next thirty years, but they had to renovate it and offer support and counseling to homosexual couples. This shows how the squatting scene, intervened in politics and urban planning. The activists used the prominent location of the building to contrast with the surroundings and fight discrimination. This project is an experiment in producing reproductive commons, which according to Julia Weiner clearly shows, how questions of reproduction are going beyond the realm of the kitchen or the single household.
In the 2000s the Frauenwohnprojekt Kalypso was opened. It consists of a courtyard, a common room, a shared kitchen, a laundry room and individual apartments. Office spaces can be rented as well. Only women are allowed to rent an apartment there. The main idea in this house is that in order to create an autonomous space, this space has to be organized and managed collectively. This project allows inhabitants to share reproductive tasks outside the nuclear family. This housing project was one amongst others that have been subsidized by the state. According to Julia Weiner collective housing in Vienna has almost become mainstream today. But according to her the topics that were the main reasons for these projects, are not as present in politics as they should be. These kind of projects are still treated as special cases.
The main achievement of this text, is that Julia Weiger shows with a critical reflection on examples, how the issue of reproductive labor can be tackled and it shows the connection of the reproductive labor discussion to political, economical and spatial issues. She does not neglect the fact that we live in a capitalist society, and she does not call for a radical restructuring of the system. She introduces or reintroduces the idea of commons and the practice of commoning, which are able to co-exist with a capitalist economy. The interesting part is, that in dwelling projects, this idea of shared spaces works extremely well for economic purposes too. The reason Kalkbreite was built the way it was might not have directly been the social aspect of sharing spaces and facilities, but the average area per inhabitant, which can be reduced by sharing various facilities. An issue that cannot be solved by these housing projects is that they will not help the ones needing them the most, because in their scale they are simply too big to be affordable for the lower class. The lower class which would profit from them the most, is mostly responsible for building and maintaining these structures. Are they just another, politically more accepted way to outsource reproductive labor in our western society?