Material Commons

Fachsemester Fachsemester – Material Commons (063-0858-22)
Veranstalter: Professur Avermaete
Dozierende: Prof. Dr. Tom Avermaete, Dr. Sebastiaan Loosen, Sanna Kattenbeck, Hamish Lonergan, and Maxime Zaugg

This semester’s Research Studio focuses on the material commons of Zürich and explores how local material resources influenced the aesthetic, construction and craft cultures of the city. By investigating the material commons using the tools and knowledge of the architect, this studio will attempt to answer questions as: What are the material commons and how does Zürich’s material history helps us in addressing the social, political and environmental challenges of our time? What leeway do we see for architects and other producers of the city to mobilize Zürich’s material commons to serve the common good?

The Fachsemester (Subject Semester or Research Studio) is a course of 14 credits equivalent to a design studio and is open to students enrolled in the Master’s program (not Bachelor’s). Students can only do one Fachsemester during their program.

Enrollment will not take place through the D-ARCH website. To enroll for the Fachsemester ‘Material Commons’ at the Chair Avermaete please send an e-mail to by Wednesday January 26, 2022, 8 p.m. Available places will be allocated firstly conform the A-B-C-studio priority system, and secondly, if necessary, randomly. You will receive a confirmation by Wednesday February 2, 2022, 2 p.m. In case of over-applications, students who are not selected will have the opportunity to choose a regular design studio through the D-ARCH website.

The "Kratzquartier" (today: Bürkliplatz) was commonly used since the late Middle Ages as a workshop for stonemasons and carpenters, linking the material resources around Lake Zurich to the production of the city. Credits: Baugeschichtliches Archiv.

Material commons

Cities have always been places based on common resources and common practices. While designing and constructing the architecture of the city, architects, urban designers, builders, and inhabitants have had to engage with common resources located in particular places and geographies: inherited common-pool resources (water, nature, air); material common-pool resources (clay, brick, stone, wood); as well as immaterial common-pool resources (craft, knowledge).

This understanding of the city, as being intrinsically related to common resources and practices, has gained renewed attention, as neoliberalism replaces ever-shrinking welfare structures, and global urbanization is accompanied by rising inequality. It is not only architects and urban designers who are again becoming interested in alternative principles of governing common resources, but also political movements and society at large. Hence, some of these issues – generally labeled ‘the commons’ – have received growing attention in the last decades within the fields of critical urban studies, urban history, urban geography and the social sciences.

After three semesters focusing on the water commons, the green commons, and the housing commons, this Research Studio continues the investigations into the rich history of ‘the commons’ in the city of Zürich by focusing on its material resources. The ‘material commons’ will be investigated from architectural, urban, typological, environmental, and material perspectives. We will explore how common practices have affected the development of the city, and conversely how material commons enable and structure common practices. Ultimately, this historical research will unlock an alternative reading of the urban and architectural qualities of the built environment of the city, potentially pointing to more socially inclusive and environmentally conscious alternatives to the mostly market driven material production of the city.

Whereas most materials take part in the construction of the city by being traded privately in the building economy, during the semester we will identify, define and analyse under the category of the ‘material commons’ those instances of material use that defy this logic of market driven exchange. By investigating, for instance, how material resources are extracted from its natural surroundings and enter the building economy; how the continued engagement with specific materials leads to an accumulation of specific forms of collective expertise, knowledge and craftsmanship; or how end-of-life materials are reimagined to be reused in unforeseen ways, this studio aims to explore how material commons may be produced, managed, used, maintained, appropriated, and how they manifest themselves in the city.


The Research Studio has two main objectives:

First, to develop an ‘Archeology’ of Zürich’s material commons. In this part, the work of the urban historian or theoretician is understood as an archaeological venture. The collective material stock, as well as the crafts and realizations (buildings and neighborhoods) related to it, will be systematically analyzed as the outcome of codes and as reliant on established practices of ‘commoning’. The result will be a catalogue of the city’s common-pool material resources, illustrating how these provide a basis for practices of ‘commoning’ and how, as architectural and urban figures, they are integrated into and have an impact upon the city fabric.

Second, to identify a ‘Project for the City’. Based on the archeology, we will explore the inherent logics of the material commons of Zürich. The idea is that the uncovering of these logics not only helps to comprehend the historical development of the material commons, but also to speculate about future scenarios for engaging with material resources in the city. The past, present, and future roles of the material commons in the city will be discussed, as a more comprehensive project for the city as we know it and as it might evolve.

Thus, with these objectives this Research Studio is geared towards developing answers to the following research questions:
  • How can we apply the theoretical framework of the commons to understanding and interpreting Zürich’s material history?
  • Based on this understanding, how do we envision future of this history? What local logics are worth keeping and developing?
  • How does Zürich’s material history offer us insights in addressing the social, political and environmental challenges of our time?
  • What position do you take, as engaged individuals and professionals, vis-à-vis Zürich’s material commons, their history and their future?
  • And what leeway do we see for architects and other producers of the city to take use of its material commons and serve the common good?


The overarching hypothesis of this Research Studio is that historical and theoretical research can gain from a profound use of the tools and knowledge of an architect. On the one hand, the spatial, formal, material, and constructive knowledge gained throughout your architectural studies will guide the historical research in the archives, in the library, and/or in the city itself, and allows to articulate specifically architectural interpretations of the material found. On the other hand, the Studio explicitly aims to employ specific architectural tools such as drawing, writing, and model making to explore the historical and theoretical realities that are being investigated. By actively reflecting on the composition of a varied set of analytical and interpretative drawings, texts, and models, participants in the Studio will probe the capacity of these media to act as tools of historical and theoretical research.

Within the general theme of material commons, you will be guided to identify your own subtheme, which will require exploring your own specific methodologies of doing research. These architecture-specific methodologies – or knowledge pertaining to the ‘autonomy’ of architecture – will be strategically chosen to go into a dialogue with specific aspects of society: political, economic, social, cultural, or otherwise. In the relation between these autonomous and heteronomous dimensions, a new understanding of the city will be constructed that allows to answer (some of) the mentioned research questions.

Research Process

The course investigations will be guided through three phases with different emphases: Definitions (of the Material Commons), Logics (of Material Commons), and Reinterpretations (with regards to Material Commons).

The first phase, Definitions, is focused on developing an understanding of what the notion of Material Commons can entail and how it relates to the ordinary use of materials in the production of the city. This phase allows to become familiar with the historical and current Material Commons in Zürich and will closely examine the main materials, actors and practices, as well as their place within the broader networks they take part in.

The second phase, Logics, is about understanding and demonstrating the inner workings and mechanisms of Zürich’s Material Commons. Each of you will focus on one specific case – a material, a site, an actor, a practice, etc. – and will examine it closely through targeted archival and library research, and through drawing, writing, and modelmaking.

In the third phase, Reinterpretations, you will formulate and demonstrate a hypothesis regarding Zürich’s Material Commons. Based on this hypothesis, you will position yourself in relation to Zürich’s Material Commons, their history and future. The position statement will take the form of a written, drawn and/or modelled ‘Project for the City’.


Compulsory readings will be available via a separate Course Reader.

Teaching objectives

This course will:
  • offer students an overview of the most important historical and contemporary contributions to current debates on commons and material history, as well as local, historical and current, debates regarding Zürich’s development;
  • equip students to reflect upon material and urban commons with the help of both theoretical and historical perspectives;
  • make students aware that the material production of the city is not a neutral given, but is always informed by certain values, assumptions, and expectations, impacts the everyday environment, and as such conditions inhabitants and users;
  • help students to position themselves within current debates on cities, urban development, and urban life, in relation to broader challenges such as sustainability and social inequality.


The course is assessed on the basis of students’ weekly active participation, their submitted material throughout the various assignments (text, drawings, and models as specified and agreed upon in advance with the course tutors for each assignment), and two formal presentations with invited guests (the mid-term and final reviews).

Studio contacts

Sebastiaan Loosen (tutor),
Grégoire Bridel (student assistant),

Historical photograph of the opera square (Sechseläutenplatz) before its refurbishment in 2013. How can the materiality of the public space serve as a common resource to the city? Credits: Baugeschichtliches Archiv.