Social Condenser

What is a social condenser?

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What is a social condenser?

A social condenser may be defined as a space or volume that causes the overlap and intersection of different programs and agendas, bringing people together for an eventual shared purpose by which they are united by way of 'social collision', or social interaction within the volume. These differing agendas may constitute intended or unintended routes through space and time - this increases the likelihood and perhaps intensity of social interaction.

In the publication Content, Rem Koolhaas defines a social condenser as 'the programmatic layering upon vacant terrain to encourage dynamic coexistence of activities and to generate through their interference, unprecedented events'1.


Historically, the social condenser was a socialist construct, originating in Russia in the 1920s. The principles of the
social condenser were demonstrated in the example of the Narkomfin Communal House in Moscow (architects Ginzburg and Zundblatt) 1928-30, which contained a mix of private living units and shared spaces based on different social patterns. It was intended that occupants would be eased into a ‘fully socialised’ way of living by the ‘edifying effects of the architecture’2 through beginning their occupation of the Narkomfin in the 'bourgeois' 'K' living units which had multiple amenities, ultimately progressing to the occupation of the 'fully socialised' 'F' units with minimal amenities. The ‘edifying effects’ of the architecture would be achieved through light and colour, programmatic use of space and modulation of architectural volumes. A separate communal block housed the shared amenities - including cooking and dining facilities, a gymnasium and a library. It was intended that, as the 'F' Units only contained minimal (mainly sleeping and washing) facilities, the occupants would be encouraged to seek out the shared amenities in order to fully carry out everyday activities. Although the 'K' units contained their own kitchens and living areas, inhabitants would still, it was hoped, desire to experience the hub of amenities provided in the communal block.

The concept of the petit-bourgeois ‘hearth’ at the centre of the 'private realm of the family’3 was seen as something to be discouraged in socialist agendas, in view of creating a truly socialised society through the ‘socialisation of capital and abolition of private ownership’4. Ginzburg and Zundblatt envisioned that the fundamental concepts of domesticity should be dispersed outwards from the interior arrangements of the living units - hence, the removal of the 'hearth' from the fully socialised 'F' Units. In the 'K' Units, this effect was imparted by way of concealing features of domesticity from 'public' view (concealed kitchens and childrens' bedrooms, etc). The communal block, in its original conception, was designed so that the entirety of the glazing on the North facade could be opened up onto the park, exposing the communal activities to the 'air and light' of the green on warmer days. To the architects, this was suggestive of the harmonious dispersal of the socialist ideal out into the surrounding context of the Narkomfin.5

However, due to political upheaval caused by the Central Committee Directive of 1930, the increasing favour for Stalinist concepts and changes in the profession, the fully socialised 'F' Units gradually declined in popularity - the bourgeois 'K' Units now being favoured. The fact that Ginzburg and Zundblatt had drawn up proposals in 1929 for a 'Second House' full of 'borgeois' living units, even before the completion of the first block in 1930, was a considerable factor. Thus, at the time of the Narkomfin's completion, the concept of fully-socialised communal housing was already being viewed as outdated - leading the building to be regarded as ‘a peculiar and archaic manifestation of a byegone era’.

Presently, there are plans to restore the Narkomfin Communal House - not to its original form, but by conversion into a time share hotel. The building's historical and cultural symbolism, along with its influence on Russian society is irrefutable, and it is felt that by resurrecting the Narkomin in some form, its role in shaping modern Russia will be continually remembered.

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Social condensers in application today

The principles of the social condenser - that is, a capacity to bring people together so that they might interact with each other within the volume in question - can be observed in a variety of applications, albeit to greater and lesser degrees. The following (non-exhaustive) list of typologies demonstrate the features of a social condenser:

Museums and Libraries

- bring visitors together for the shared aim that they require the resources held there. Although some areas within these buildings may be restrictive to certain activities and so may inhibit true social interaction, they may still encourage some level of 'social collision' between the users of the building, perhaps stemming from what visitors may observe within.

Swimming Pools and (Theme) Parks

- may be used in a similar way to the above, yet in a more recreational sense. It could be said that these spaces are used generally for entertainment or sport, most likely by groups rather than individuals, although it is argued that the fact that visitors usually have to pay to use these facilities would limit their true potential to encourage social interaction between the broadest demographic.

Student Accommodation

- similar in function to some aspects of the Narkomfin Communal House, student accommodation (particularly the catered type where only limited kitchenettes are provided) is intended to cause inhabitants to occupy their own private spaces (study bedrooms) for only some of the time, as cooking/ dining/ entertainment facilities are located elsewhere, usually in communal blocks nearby to the study bedrooms. This encourages inhabitants to make use of the communal facilities in order to carry out everyday jobs, and it is usual that social interaction occurs during the course of this. It may be said that the occupation of student accommodation acts to 'socialise' students in the transition (usually) from the private family home environment to university life and its context. Even in self-catered student flats, or 'clusters', inhabitants still live in groups where the kitchen/ bathroom etc is shared; interaction between members of this unconventional 'household' will still take place, yet in a limited way in comparison with larger student halls.

Bars, Clubs and Restaurants

- although seemingly very everyday, the purpose of these establishments is to provide a place for visitors to socialise against the backdrop of food/ drink/ dancing/ celebration and so on. Generally speaking, people visit such places in groups, with the shared intention to socialise. Again, visitors have to pay for the privilege of eating/ drinking in the ambience of these establishments, and perhaps they are not a social condenser in the true sense. Yet they highlight the so-everyday-as-to-be-almost-overlooked connection between social gatherings and the consumption of food/ drink as a communal activity.

The House

- does, in some ways, act as a micro social condenser. Should a house be occupied by a family or group of individuals, it is likely that each resident will have their own private space within the house, or at least a space that they see as being their own. The living room, kitchen and similar spaces are pseudo-public, in that although they are private in a sense that they are not accessible to non-residents, they are shared by the residents of the house. As the residents of the house are very likely to meet or 'bump into' each other in these pseudo-public spaces, this implies that social interaction may occur in these areas, in a more 'public' sense than in the more private realms of the house (see diagram below).

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See also

Buchli, Victor, An Archaeology of Socialism (Oxford: Berg, 1999)

External links

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