Christiania: A Utopian Social Experiment?

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Christiania is a social experiment with an indefinite duration period. It is a communal living settlement in the centre of Copenhagen that has struggled to sustain its livelihood over the course of its 45-year existence. Rather than allow several government issued orders to have the settlement abolished scare them away, Christiania residents have used the on-going threat to their livelihoods as the common thread to bring them together. Banding together in the face of adversity to self-govern and operate a thriving community that boasts a formalised organisational structure so refined that it is almost ironic when juxtaposed to the free spirited façade it presents to the public. The ‘general assembly’ is Christiania’s highest authority, with subordinate authorities corresponding to different areas dealing with specific issues, and all making decisions based on the utopic principle of unanimity. In addition, a series of committees exist that regulate the economy, buildings, external relations, social services, health care, kindergarten, cultural activities, etc.

The conception of Christiania sparks the first of a series of reflective questions that will occur throughout the entirety of this post. Why was it okay for Christiania residents to live illegally for over 40 years? What type of precedent does that set to the rest of Denmark, as in, what if everyone else did the same thing?

Although open to the general public, borders are strictly and vehemently controlled when it comes to new residents. Selection is carefully made as all decisions in the commune are; a community vote, which only occurs when an opening is made available. A system which has resulted in the population remaining the same (roughly 900) over the past 42 years. Even with a rigorous selection process, Christiania has a disproportionally high percentage of its population on welfare (36% are formally employed) when compared to Copenhagen as a whole (56% are formally employed). A characteristic which means that rent payments are pro-rated based on an individual’s incomes with some residents not paying anything at all. But money is not the determining factor whatsoever in the selection process, something that pop star Lenny Kravitz realised when he offered any amount of money they wanted to purchase a property in the commune and was strongly rejected. That may be the reason why Christiania still exists today, it has been able to keep the vibrancy of youthful socialism with the constant temptation of the market economy waiting to capitalise on the authenticity of the experience. A fate that a countless number of once thriving ‘hippy’ communes have succumbed to. For example, Brisbee Arizona, a once thriving mining town turned hippy commune after the closure of the mine left abandoned buildings ripe for squatting. Brisbee has since become Estately.com “10th best place for hippies” in America. 20 years after its 1960 inception, Brisbee was over run by a wave of yuppies migrating from nearby Tucson in search of affordable rent prices and an edgy, alternative living experience that Brisbee was actively advertising. In 2016, decades after any sign of authentic hippy commune was overrun by developer-instigated urban reform, the official tourism website advertises a utopian community where you can ‘Be refreshed. Be inspired. Be yourself’. Contrasted with the VisitCopenhagen website’s notice on Christiania it is evident why the authenticity of the commune has sustained. The website states:

For your own safety, visitors are advised not to film nor photograph in Christiania, especially not in the area in and around Pusher Street, mainly due to the hash dealing, which is illegal in Denmark. At the entrance you will find signs indicating ‘do’s and don’ts’ in the area. We advice you to take them seriously and follow them for your own safety.  

How does a town with the name ‘Freetown’ have a zero tolerance immigration policy? Is a less than free movement of people into the settlement necessary to monitor its residents and ensure its livelihood? Or is it a symbol of the over-controlled bureaucracy that its founding members sought to revolt against?  

I was fortunate enough to personally walk through Christiania on a free, guided tour given by a long-standing resident and local expert. The sites, sounds, and even smells were unlike anything I had experienced in the surrounding city, and the sensation of entering a new place was immediately felt. I was one of 1 million tourists that entered Christiania last year, a statistic that is astonishing based on the fact that there is no infrastructure to accommodate or encourage outsider engagement. There is no hotel, no Starbucks, no visitors centre, etc. there is simply people living their lives in a way which questions traditions and norms that have been instilled in us from birth. Whether it’s the intrigue of differentiation, or simply a facilitator of self-critique on our overly privatized lives, visitors flock to Christiania without residents asking them to. Christiania reminds me a lot of the bar that doesn’t advertise, doesn’t have a sign on the door, but has a lineup 4 nights of the week of people hoping to have the opportunity to post an Instagram picture of them inside. The only difference between Christiania and that bar is authenticity and longevity. The bar owners set out to create an experience of being ‘cool’ or alternative which is why they allow graffiti tags on the washroom mirror, or cover the walls with posters of classic rock bands its patrons have never heard of, etc. The issue with creating authenticity is that it will always result in being contrived and shallow. This is why that bar will close down after 6 months and a new place selling the same identity opens up down the street, while Christiania remains thriving 42 years after its inception.

Why do you think as a society, we are often obsessed with people who are radically different from ourselves? I believe that we often feel stuck in a routine of day-to-day life and fetishize a means to break that monotony. Christiania offers that kind of shock to our perceptions of normalcy that we both consciously and subconsciously desire.   

The concept of fostering an ‘authentic’, vibrant, and creative atmosphere extends beyond the world of bars/restaurants and has been discussed by prominent urban theorists that focus on place making and the illusive creative economy. Christiania has harboured the idea of establishing a creative economy decades before Richard Florida coined the term, and continues to be a hot bed for knowledge-based commercial activity as well as unparalleled cultural richness. Architectural expression is encouraged, public space is intertwined with private dwelling, possessions are shared, tolerance is so high it is insulting to even the word to describe resident’s values, murals are the dominant façade treatment, and the list goes on.

It is undeniable that Christiania has successfully fostered a dynamic, creative atmosphere, but how? To answer this question, I looked deeper than the history of the settlement itself and tried to understand the social and political atmosphere of Denmark as a whole at the time of its inception. As is turns out, experiments in communal living were widespread in Europe and North America in the 1960s as an alternative to the perceived oppression and alienation of the nuclear family (the authoritarian, fixed gender role encouraging, hypocritical nuclear family that favoured the aspiration of privatization). Denmark was able to harbour a strong sense of cultural radicalism and emerged as Europe’s commune centre, reflecting the egalitarianism and greater gender equality that was being expressed throughout Scandinavia. As early as the mid 1960s critiques of the family and alternative ways of living began to appear in underground publications, seminars, culminating in the Kokoo journal which was used to co-ordinate the Danish commune movement and offer a discussion forum to strengthen the movement. The journal provided a national sense of community and a platform for the exchange of ideas for people looking to stand up against the oppressive system. The mobilised movement accelerated rapidly, with 10 established communes in 1968 growing to 700 in 1971 and over 15,000 in 1974. The population sizes of the communes varied, but in total there was 100,000 commune residents across the country of 5,000,000 people. Christiania was therefore a small member of a massive Danish community that was able to capitalise on the convergence of a radical youth generation and the opportunity for experimental living to occur. Sustainability proved to be the biggest problem to these communes. The energy expressed to form a commune is difficult to prolong after the reality of the situation sets in. When it is understood that in order to keep the community thriving, a group of anarchists must band together to create a micro-scale governing body. The difficulty of that task alone is coupled with the tendency of the influx of free-loading homeless population that doesn’t necessarily share the political spirit of the commune’s founders but rather are just in need of a free place to sleep. So then, commune members are faced with the ethical dilemma of either allowing anyone into their utopia or being discriminatory to a certain population group and risk expressing traits of the very system they are in opposition of.

The most interesting aspect uncovered in the research is the fact that communal living is often referred to as an ‘experiment’, and I agree that it is. It’s a social experiment to see how individuals are able to navigate through self-governing and creating a new political paradigm, its an architectural experiment of utopia as it uses built form to organise people in a way that encourages the decay of private life, it’s an economic experiment which looks at a new configuration of the market economy that isn’t purely profit driven but rather focused on sustenance. The only issue with calling Christiania an experiment is that there are no scientists involved, there is no subjects, no controls, no hypothesis, etc. it is simply a product of radical thinkers that were able to band together in the face of adversity. I believe that the fact we have labelled it an ‘experiment’ is to feel more comfortable with the idea of it being a threat to the lifestyle that has consumed the planet. Labelling it an experiment gives it an air of danger, of clinical absurdity, of differentiation from the norm so severe that its residents are equated to rats in a maze being observed by intellectuals.

I will conclude this post with some more questions: the energy around the critique of the nuclear family reached its height in the 1970s and coincided with the communal living ‘experiment’, but what happened since then? Why did the movement seemingly die? Also, are we currently entering a new paradigm shift related to the relationship of private-public life with the growing popularity of the shared economy? Can we consider apps that facilitate sharing of our homes, cars, tools, clothing, etc. a new virtual commune that doesn’t require physical space to thrive?

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

Works Referenced:

Alberto, V. Alternative economy and the creative class: the case of Christiania. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 37 (5). P. 1785-1798.

Davis, J. Living utopia. The Journal of Social History Society. 8 (4). P. 513-530.

Jarvis, H. Against the tyranny of single family dwelling: Christiana at 40. A Journal of Feminist Geography. 20 (8). P. 939-959.

Mitgaard, S. But suppose everyone did the same: the case of the Danish utopian micro-society of Christiania. Journal of Applied Philosophy. 24 (3). P. 299-315.

Thorn, K. In between social engineering and gentrification. Journal of Urban Affairs. 34 (2). P. 153-168.

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