Co-operative Practices

Established – Various

A co-operative is commonly defined as an association of people who have come together on a voluntary basis in order to work towards a common economic, social or cultural goal, as part of an enterprise that is collectively owned and often also managed collectively. This means that these are private enterprises that are as free from institutional control as possible. Co-operatives are based on values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. They have an open and voluntary membership and are organisations that are controlled by their members who also actively participate in decision making and the setting of policies. This usually takes the form of a voting system with one member having one vote and members contributing equitably to, and democratically controlling, any capital.

The co-operative as a modern business structure originated in C19 Britain in response to the depressed economic conditions brought forth by industrialisation. The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, founded in 1844, devised the principles which have since become the model for co-operatives worldwide. A consumer co-operative, it was set up by a group of 28 weavers and other artisans whose skilled labour was less in demand due to growing mechanisation. Their store sold flour, sugar and other basic food items to its members. The 'Rochdale Principles' as they later came to be known stipulated an open membership, democratic, control, payment of limited interest on capital, distribution of surplus amongst members, cash trading only, political and religious neutrality and a promotion of education. Other than the reference to politics and religion, these principles remain intact today in the form of the International Co-operative Alliance's principles.

Architecture has been slow to take up the principles of co-operative practices. Edward Cullinan Architects were one of the first practices to operate as a co-operative, three years after they were established in 1968. Legally, they remained a partnership but each member looked after their own financial affairs, including indemnity insurance and all received a percentage of the fees. This informal agreement worked as all members contributed to all stages of the design work as well as to management decisions. Cullinan's still operate in a similar fashion with all permanent members of staff having the status of directors, receiving a share of the profits and having some say in day-to-day management decisions. This seems to have become the accepted model for operating as a co-operative within the architectural profession.

Collective Architecture are a Glasgow based practice that recently began operating according to co-operative principles. Originally established in 1997 as Chris Stewart Architects, in 2007 they gave equal share to each of their fourteen employees. This mutual structure is also reflected in the day-to-day running of the practice, where each architect is given complete responsibility for their project, including the design and management aspects, client liaison and fee decisions. The practice has been involved in a number of regeneration, housing and community projects across Scotland taking a sustainable approach to design. Collective Architecture's inclusive and collaborative approach to architecture is characterised both by who they choose to work with: social enterprises, housing co-operatives, local manufacturers; and what they choose to build, mostly public projects including housing and community spaces. Another Glasgow based practice operating co-operatively is City Design Co-operative, who are landscape architects and urban designers. Their office structure is non-hierarchical with all members combining teaching and research with their professional practice.

Another route to operating within a co-operative structure is to work for co-operative organisations such as Solon, an independent, locally-controlled and community focused housing association. Established in 1974 and currently operating in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Mendip and the Forest of Dean, it aims at providing good quality, affordable rented housing and they are particularly involved in inner-city regeneration with a long history of encouraging resident involvement. In its early years, Solon employed its own architects, although this was discouraged by the RIBA due to a perceived conflict of interest.

Architects operating outside of professional bodies can of course set up as worker's co-operatives without any legal issues, for example G.L.A.S (Glasgow Letters on Architecture and Space) were a group of ex-students from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland who operated together between 2001-2005. Their aim was to critique the capitalist production of the built environment through design, graphic work and writings and their most notable output was glaspaper, a DIY publication that interrogated these issues through a series of themed issues.

Whilst the output of the practices described in this section is diverse, they are brought together in their desire to work within an equitable environment where responsibility and gain are shared equally amongst members. Other co-operatives include Matrix, Sunderlandia,Team Zoo, Urbed, and the Viennese Cooperative Garden City Movement.

References About

Severin Carrell, 'Strike Rochdale from the record books. The Co-op began in Scotland', The Guardian, 2007, [accessed 26 April 2010].

Tom Woolley, 'Cullinan's Co-op', Architects Journal, (1977)(166): 741-742.

---, 'Alternative Practice', Architects Journal, (1977)(166): 735-737.

'National Co-operative Archive', [accessed 19 March 2010].

'Rochdale Pioneers Museum', [accessed 19 March 2010].

'Cooperatives in Social Development', Social Perspective on Development Branch, [accessed 26 April 2010].


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