Happy together: the utopia of the buildings for community life

Social life is a fundamental part of human communities. However, how should collective forms of life be conceived? A series of projects from the Domus archives to reflect on one of the themes of the upcoming domusforum, to be held on November 24. 

With the increase in the individual fruition of entertainment – from the streaming of films to sports enjoyed from the sofa – and the psychological scars left by the pandemic, social and collective life now aren’t as seamlessly bond together as they used to be. 

Thus, there have been years where these two concepts were seen as inseparable, to the point that they were staples of ambitious architectural projects.  

In Italy, the industrial revolution had already offered some primal examples of urban planning that promoted social services – take, for instance, the Leumann Village in Collegno, Turin, and the settlement generated in Schio, Vicenza, by the wool factory Lanerossi. However, the post-WWII economic boom was truly responsible for the development of such models, which also started to integrate notions of psychology and politics. It is the case, for example, of the INA-Casa housing project series.  

Enrico Castiglioni, with the project for the Sant'Anna church, conceived the altar as the symbolic centre of the community, mostly made of economic migrants, of a INA-Casa village in Busto Arsizio, Milan. Photo: Domus 403, June 1963.
Enrico Castiglioni, with the project for the Sant'Anna church, conceived the altar as the symbolic centre of the community, mostly made of economic migrants, of a INA-Casa village in Busto Arsizio, Milan. Photo: Domus 403, June 1963.

Urban expansion, in fact, offered a fertile ground for the fascination many architects and urbanists nurtured towards autonomous and self-catered dormitory neighbourhoods and suburbs. The vertical development of constructions was mirrored in the idea that spare time was meant to be collective, hence the need to project site-specific forms of entertainment and social life. This concept also came from the idea that the families of migrant workers – especially from the South to the North of Italy – were in need of a new community to call home.  

“Every detail is aimed to start a new communitarian life that brings together these family groups eradicated from their natural habitat,” wrote Enrico Castiglioni on Domus 403 commenting his (unfinished) project for the Sant’Anna church, conceived for a three-thousand people INA-Casa neighbourhood in Busto Arsizio, Milan. 

If “for Sant’Anna the element that generates the space is the idea of the community gathered around the altar,” we can argue pretty much the same, albeit in a laic key, for the project of the Parisian architect Christian Germanaz for a Centre des Arts et Loisirs in Vésinet, 30 kilometres outside of Paris. 

The Centre des Arts et Loisirs by architect Christian Germanaz was thought as a polyvalent centre for the community of Vésinet, Paris. Photo: Domus  555; February 1976.
The Centre des Arts et Loisirs by architect Christian Germanaz was thought as a polyvalent centre for the community of Vésinet, Paris. Photo: Domus 555; February 1976.

As it can be read on Domus 555, the three-storey, four-level structure includes “a number of rooms and halls for different activities as cinema, theatre, music, dance, pub, library, parking. […] The theatre is built on two floors, the highest part of it (so-called “polyvalent hall” because of its convertibility) entirely occupies the third floor and is provided with mobile stairs for different uses.” 

The concept, although anticipating that of modern shopping centres, had a special consideration for the cultural empowerment of the inhabitants. 

A similar approach was adopted in the same years by Olvietti in Ivrea – especially with the hotel Le Serre, which included an indoor swimming pool and shops for the local community –, and also by the Architetti Nizzoli Associati for the Social and Commercial Centre in the Paolo VI Neighbourhood in Taranto (1971-74). 

The Social and Commercial Centre of the Paolo VI neighbourhood in Taranto by Architetti Nizzoli Associati, 1971-74. Photo: Domus 586, September 1978.
The Social and Commercial Centre of the Paolo VI neighbourhood in Taranto by Architetti Nizzoli Associati, 1971-74. Photo: Domus 586, September 1978.

Articulated over three levels connected by a “virtual” (meaning transparent) tunnel, the structure presented a two-storey tower, including a cinema and a recreative centre, connected to two low circular buildings featuring commercial activities and services “necessary to the life of the neighbourhood”. The three shapes were brought together by a square which could, on the occasion, be turned into an open-air theatre. 

Four years later, Domus 596 commented on the project: “Besides offering the architects an opportunity for an “architectural promenade”, the idea behind the plan was that the circular routes joining the different social, cultural and commercial facilities should become a participatory spectacle for all”. 

The project by Vico Magistretti and Guido Veneziani for a Club House with swimming pool in Carimate, Como. Photo: Domus  384; November 1961.
The project by Vico Magistretti and Guido Veneziani for a Club House with swimming pool in Carimate, Como. Photo: Domus 384; November 1961.

These living models also found an application in non-working-class neighbourhoods, as witnessed by a 1961 project by Vico Magistretti and Guido Veneziani for a Club House with swimming pool in a residential complex in the green of Brianza, outside of Milan. An elegant building catered for an ambitious project of “environmental creation” where the enhancement of the natural spaces met with community-oriented housing, as reported on the pages of Domus 384. 

These housing projects, that may now be considered utopist, were no doubt moved by noble ideals, albeit slightly paternalistic: the architects – modern philanthropists – had the presumption, from the privileged position determined by their social and cultural capital, of providing an improvement to the life of the groups at the bottom of the social scale, without realising that they were often generating further social segregation and polarisation. 

The interiors of the Club House by Magistretti and Veneziani for a residential neighbourhood in the green of the Brianza. Photo. Domus 384,  November 1961.
The interiors of the Club House by Magistretti and Veneziani for a residential neighbourhood in the green of the Brianza. Photo: Domus 384, November 1961.

These efforts were nonetheless fascinating for their ability to promote the architectural avant-garde. On top of the Castiglioni church project, it is worth mentioning the neighbourhood built in the early 1970s for the workers of Eridania, in San Pietro in Casale, outside of Bologna. The surface of the buildings conceived by architect Lorenzo Cremonini were entirely painted in a style halfway between the graphic psychedelia of The Beatles' animated film Yellow Submarine and the colourful explosion of Superstudio, Studio 65 and Archizoom’s concepts. 

“On the walls […] pieces of rainbows, suns, clouds, “ruins”, this is an inverted camouflage process, where architecture disappears and simultaneously enhances this new structure by concealing it,” reports Domus 505. 

The neighbourhood for the workers of Eridania projected by Lorenzo Cremonini outside of Bologna, Italy. Photo. Domus 505,  December 1971.
The neighbourhood for the workers of Eridania projected by Lorenzo Cremonini outside of Bologna, Italy. Photo. Domus 505, December 1971.

Over the years the idea of happily spending our free time in the confinement of dormitory suburbs has no doubt proven questionable, as they often incubated further social disease. However, the fascinating scenarios left to us by these structures – often abandoned to their self-determination and now run-down – have the benefit of stimulating still relevant debates on the role of architecture in the organic development of a community in times when national borders are under discussion but social mobility isn’t. 

Opening image: A building by Lorenzo Cremonini for the Eridania workers' neighbourhood in San Pietro in Casale, Bologna. Photo: Domus 505, September 1971

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