An Old Way of Living, Yet Innovative

The Statement on the International Co-operative Identity ratified by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) in 1995 voices that ‘Co-operatives are based on the values of self-sufficiency, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity’. Nearly 20 years later terms such as ‘self-sufficiency’ have acquired an extensive array of meanings, ranging from energy and food production to the advent of a myriad of types of user-generated multimedia content provided by the so-called web 2.0.


Written by:

Chiara Quinzii


Chiara Quinzii (Milan, 1979) graduated from Milan Polytechnic in 2004 with the thesis project ‘Milan Apart’. Before founding Quinzii Terna Architecture in 2012, together with Diego Terna, she worked for Boeri Studio and MVRDV. She teaches at the Milan Polytechnic and collaborates with architectural magazines, online (Arch'it, PressTletter) and printed (C3 Magazine), where she publishes essays and photographs.

Diego Terna


Diego Terna (Brescia, 1979) graduated as an architect from Milan Polytechnic in 2004. Before founding Quinzii Terna Architecture in 2012, together with Chiara Quinzii, he worked for Stefano Boeri and Italo Rota. He has written for C3 Magazine, Abitare, Compasses, Klat, Arch’it and has worked as an editor for several online magazines. Terna teaches at Milan Polytechnic, IUAV Venice, the University of Milan and collaborates with NABA (Milan) in the Certificate Programme for the Design of Products and Interiors. He also contributes to his own blog L’architettura Immaginata.

The Construction of a Community

It seems that in this context, dominated by mass production of large corporations, we are no longer able to find an adequate expression of the above-mentioned values.Perhaps that’s why we are observing a slow change in perspective towards the relationship between individuals and society and a transition from the large quantity-oriented production of goods dominated by a few companies, to a fragmented production of small quantities that, through a network of interactions, matching the quantities normally produced massively. Energy, food production and the Internet are particular examples of this transformation.

The attempts of co-housing initiatives and the so called ‘DIY Urbanism’, however still immature in Italy when compared to other countries such as Denmark, Sweden or the Netherlands, show how we could get closer to the idea of constructing the city from the ground up. In a way that would make space for individual initiatives, which can often produce more innovative models and promote a stronger sense of identity of the inhabited places because of the deep motivation of the people involved. Following these objectives the United Nations declared 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives. 2 [2] With the theme of ‘Co-operative Enterprises Build a Better World’, the International Year of Co-operatives 2012, seeks to encourage the growth and establishment of co-operatives all over the world. It also encourages individuals, communities and governments to recognize the agency of co-operatives in helping to achieve internationally agreed upon development goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals. (accessed 20 December 2014)

Rochdale co-operative pioneers' (1865) The first co-operative in the world was created in 1844 in Rochdale, Great Britain, by a group of people who set up a self-help community to address economic problems, such as finding reasonably priced food. Visit for more information about Rochdale pioneers.

Rochdale co-operative pioneers’ (1865)
The first co-operative in the world was created in 1844 in Rochdale, Great Britain, by a group of people who set up a self-help community to address economic problems, such as finding reasonably priced food.
Visit for more information about Rochdale pioneers.

In a world in which consumption is defined by market rules instead of actual needs, we observe a more or less conscious return to the principles that inspired modern co-operatives born in the late Nineteenth century. The first co-operative in the world was created in 1844 in Rochdale, Great Britain, by a group of people who set up a self-help community to address economic problems, such as finding reasonably priced food. The power of acting cohesively allowed them to build a stronger stand in defining the relationship between production and consumption, as well as enabling them to help those who could not provide for themselves.

Housing co-operatives work according to similar principles, because they treat housing as one of the basic human needs. By doing so they provide an answer to the difficulties people face when applying for mortgages, to high rental costs and insufficient provision of accommodation that would respond to individual requirements.

Co-operatives are able to act as powerful interlocutors when dealing with the purchase of land, negotiating time and cost of construction that cater to the actual needs of their members.

At the same time they cancel the relationship between the developer and the client, because the community of the co-op becomes a client of itself.

A Journey to Italy: SEAO, a Co-operative in the City

SEAO, the first housing co-operative established in Italy, was founded in 1879 in the wake of the industrial revolution that for the first time brought the figure of the industrial worker to Northern Italy. SEAO was founded to build an economic and social capital, which would allow the construction of decent housing for its members.

The SEAO (the Società Edificatrice Abitazioni Operaie, literally The Building Association for Workers’ Housing) declares in its statute to take the responsibility not only for the pure construction, purchase, maintenance and management of the property given for use by members, but also for the facilities and services that could enhance their quality of living. They declare to cherish values that would provide for better social integration, cultural elevation and healthcare. The co-op focuses also on a broader scope of the needs of its inhabitants. It takes into account their extended relationships with the residential complex, urban area, as well as the local authorities and agencies that are involved in the management of the property including the available public services and facilities.

It is important to note that this statute was written in a time when there was no form of social security, and the young Italian state was struggling to face the unprecedented problem of provision of social housing for a large amount of industrial workers who migrated to the cities. In these circumstances private citizens (not only industrial workers, but also other employees and intellectuals) adopted this form of a ‘mutualistic sociality’ in which they helped each other for no profit. From the very beginning the initiative has been secular and not related to charity, which at the time of its foundation was very innovative. The initial members of the SEAO aimed to create a critical mass that would allow them to interact with institutions, public leaders, landowners and construction companies in order to provide themselves with decent and affordable houses. Now the SEAO has more than 1,300 members and manages around 400 houses and it is still one of the most well functioning housing co-operatives in Italy.

The criteria for membership has never been restricted by the level of income or the type of employment. Openness, flexibility and a pragmatic approach defined SEAO’s principles from its very beginning.

Moreover its founding ambition did not only focus on the pure provision of decent accommodation, but aimed to improve and enrich the living conditions of its members. For that reason the settlements until this day also include functions that are not strictly residential.

The first large-scale project the co-operative proposed was called the Ideal City. It was a development of rich complexity for a big urban area in the city centre of Milan. The plan included houses for sale and for rent with services such as dormitories, kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, recreational areas, shared laundries and storage.

The first large-scale project the SEAO