“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 gave rise to an upheaval of national policy towards one that supported a proletariat collective. This in turn afforded extraordinary levels of agency to architects practicing within that context, leading to the formation of the Society of Contemporary Architects (OSA), whose members pursued an agenda of reforming worker 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 facilitated the communalization of domestic activities such as cooking, dining, recreation, and child-caring. The OSA group approached their objectives with a methodological output of research and subsequent construction, concentrating on a close reading of spatial configuration in the dwelling unit and its relation to communal spaces.

Such ideas resurfaced in China, whom in the early 20th century was experiencing her own revolution. A fluid exchange of political and economical ideology between the two neighbors influenced Chinese architects to envision their own forms of proletariat living, most notably exemplified in the various “people’s communes” that arose in the 1950’s, which, like their Russian counterparts, combined minimal dwelling units with large communal dining canteens and club facilities.

Today, the urban architectural relics of that era are mostly repurposed or demolished, giving way to the privatized high rise living which exemplify the growth of China’s importance in a global capitalist economy. However, the rapid expansion of China’s export machine to feed the insatiable demands of overseas consumption has given rise to a new proletariat force numbering in the hundreds of millions. They’ve arrived en masse from inland China to coastal cities, and in their new homes, they find themselves marginalized and living in grievous conditions. Suddenly, Le Corbusier’s well-known 1924 call for architects to address the needs of a swelling worker population devoid of adequate housing has never seemed more relevant.  

Because of this swelling population and the resultant rapid urbanization in developing countries, contemporary architecture is positioned to address issues associated with density through the form of collective housing. In such typologies, the relationship between the individual dwelling unit and the larger whole becomes crucial – 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 catalogue 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, claiming agency once again for architecture's relationship to its subjects. 

Proletariat 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. Proletariat Unit.