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“Laborers and intellectuals are prevented from following the profound injunctions of the family; they use, every day, the brilliant and actively efficient tools of the era, but they do not have the option of putting them to work for themselves. Nothing is more discouraging, more maddening. Nothing is ready. Well might we write: Architecture or Revolution.”

- Le Corbusier

Hongshunli Street People's Commune, Plan drawing.

The Russian revolution of 1917 afforded extraordinary levels of agency to architects, leading to the formation of the Society of Contemporary Architects (OSA), whose members pursued an agenda of reforming housing to accustom people to the ideals of a new society. The resultant buildings sought to change the very foundations of the home, favoring the design of apartment blocks that reduced the individual dwelling and redirected domestic activities such as cooking, dining, recreation, and child-caring towards the communal. The OSA group approached their objectives with prolific research and subsequent construction, concentrating on a close reading of spatial configuration in the dwelling unit and its relation to the whole.

Such ideas resurfaced in China, where architects in the mid 20th century experimented with their own utopian ideas. Open exchange between the two neighbors influenced Chinese architects to envision their own forms of housing, most notably exemplified in the various “people’s communes” that arose in the 1950’s.

Today, the urban architectural relics of that era are mostly re-purposed or demolished, giving way to the privatized high rise living accompanying the growth of China’s importance in the global market economy. This rapid expansion has given rise to a new population of urban workers and a renewed agency to Le Corbusier’s 1924 call for architects to create housing that befits the needs of marginalized urban dwellers.  

Collective housing supersedes pure function as shelter to offer ideas about how a group of people living together benefits shared needs or goals. If housing is seen as a multitude of individuals, families, and groups living in proximity in one place, collective housing strives to be more than just the sum of its parts and imagines how the relationships between people create new opportunity. In such typologies, the relationship between the individual dwelling unit and the larger whole is symbiotic – each satisfies its own set of demands at their respective scales but cannot function in disregard to one other. This relationship is examined in a study of collective housing that emerged during China's modern period. By producing a graphic catalog of such housing types, a consistent mode of comparison is developed across scales, starting with the individual dwelling unit through to the building block, neighborhood plan, or urban plan. The potential of this obtained knowledge lies in its capabilities to project towards forms of housing that can meet the rising challenges of urbanization in the twenty-first century.

Pro Unit is the work of De Peter Yi with advising from Neeraj Bhatia, and support from Rice University and the University of Michigan.

Copyright © 2012. Pro Unit.