Communal Architecture

To be communal is to be human.

The notion of the communal has been a fundamental catalyst for numerous political theories. I am interested most in Democracy. In a democratic political system, communal delight is paramount. A communal agreement is paramount. And communal progress is paramount. Accordingly, delight, agreement and progress are seldom achieved without struggle. It is the struggle that defines the integrity of a community and the strength of its communal spirit.

I explored these thoughts in the spectacular exhibition held at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne named Vienna: Art and Design. One begins this exhibition greeted by the words:





Freedom is important, especially if we are to create communal, unified spaces. I believe consideration given to the word ‘freedom’ is one of the main reasons democracy remains something worth fighting for in this information age of a modern world that we live in. Ideologically, at least, freedom is a word that calls out to the individual, power is a word that calls out to the people. (Or was it the other way round?)

Communal is a word that calls out to humanity. Architecture in our information age must constantly grapple with the communal.

How can we create a unified space that allows freedom for the individual? How will individual self-realisation contribute to a collective whole? Can it? Why not? The Viennese Secession combined emotion and rationalism perfectly, balanced between refinement, feeling and function and emancipated the individual, all while admitting that ‘diversity is difficult to regulate’.

Besides, how much of a community are you if an individual expression is not celebrated? A dynamic communal spirit can only be achieved if there is new, non-imitated individual expression.


“The hard-won rights to individual expression are today taken for granted. They are no longer experienced in the wider context of society but within the confined structure of an egocentric society. Self-realisation no longer serves to enrich society or strengthen a community but is a means of achieving a short-lived self-gratification. This self-serving purpose already contains the seed of death, threatening the achievements of a democratic society, a legacy that must not be frivolously gambled away.”

- Vienna: Art and Design, Christian Witt-Dorring­­


Vienna: Art and Design introduced to me the concept of a meta-national culture. Very different from a multinational culture, a meta-national culture views the world as a global canvas filled with untapped potential within differences. Multinationals are concerned with the relationships between the different nations while meta-nationals transcend these very relationships. The uniqueness and potential of each different part are embraced and sought after. Cultural differences lead to cultural exchange. This exhibition salutes the phrase “learning from one another”. 

Today, every industry, including architecture, whether it has local or national aspirations, must engage with the world.

Communal Architecture must engage with the world.


By Steven Chu

Steven Chu is a Burmese-Australian architect and the Founding Director of Alter Atlas.

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