Wohnregal: not shelved.

Talking of ‘new-style co-operatives’, cohousing, and of course my (now decade old) pet subject of the IBA, I went to meet a guy recently who was one of the founding members of a self-build project on Admiralstrasse in Kreuzberg, completed in 1986, and who is still living there. The project is “Wohnregal” (“residential shelf”) – it comprises a simple frame structure with concrete floors, onto which the residents then “placed” different configurations of apartments, each to their own specification.


Image by Gunnar Klack, linked from the extremely useful F-IBA site, and which credits the design to Kjell Nylund / Cristof Puttfarken / Peter Stuerzenbecher

Most of the twelve apartments were built as cohousing units, although in this case they are closer to shared flats than the cohousing movement’s definition, with up to five bedrooms which share bathroom, kitchen and a central living space. They still function this way today, and include a handful of the original residents. I have described this as a form of cohousing on the basis that they’re included on the Cohousing Berlin website, but also because in spirit the whole block does seem to function very much as an intentional community. On the day I was there, many of the residents were involved in a work-day digging out and rebuilding the rotted planter boxes on the roof, which involved a lot of earth being moved six storeys down to the garden, but with kind of a party atmosphere brewing (maybe that was just me).

The construction of the block was also the first building that formed the Selbstbaugenossenschaft Berlin eG (self-build co-operative Berlin) that’s also still going strong, and is the co-op that’s building IBeB, the new mixed development on the former Blumenmarkt site opposite the Jewish Museum. Thus it also represents an early example of the re-emergence of smaller-style co-operatives – in fact, I just learned from the Internationale BauAustellung site (which I’ve only just come across, looks excellent), it was “the first housing construction cooperative for a joint new building project since 1945”. Blimey. In the whole of Germany? Doesn’t say, will check…

And as noted, above, it was also a small but important part of West Berlin’s building exhibition of the 1980s, the IBA (International BauAustellung), and forms part of a much larger housing block that was reconstructed in the same period by various architects exploring a range of different ideas about how neglected parts of the urban fabric might be rescued and reintegrated. Parts of it covered here and here, and includes the much more recent addition of the Beginnenhof – a Baugruppe apartment block for women only (and which is frequently referred to as a kind of touchstone reference by many of the older people forming part of my PhD study).

Anyhoo, back at the Wohnregal… I had half an idea (more of a researcher fantasy really) that given the age of the block, it might be occupied by many of its original residents, who I reasoned might well have aged together and now comprise a kind of unintended cohousing group of older people, maybe in their 60s. There are indeed a handful of founder members still living there, although mainly younger than that, and the block seems to have maintained a good spread of ages and different kinds of people (including some refugees in the cohousing apartment that I visited) so unfortunately (for me) it didn’t quite fit the bill.

One interesting thing that came out of the chat I had with one of the founder residents was that over the years, the cost of servicing the loans that the co-operative required to build had been quite substantial, meaning that rents had been above market rents for many years, a situation that has only changed relatively recently with the massive increases in market rents fuelled by property speculation in Berlin (and especially this part of the city).

Having said that, they are fantastic, airy, flexible apartments, which hopefully will long remain in use for the mixed, sharing crowd that currently lives there. Out of courtesy, I didn’t take any interior photos, but I did take some snaps from the roof, which is quite a view.





Back in Berlin, and collaborative housing


Have been back in Berlin since May (here till end of October), for research purposes. No, really. I’m a recipient of ESRC funding to do a PhD looking at cohousing in Berlin, specifically what can be learned from groups of older people coming together and creating their own housing projects. I did a short study of two such groups in London in 2015, but both were in the development phase – I wanted to look at groups who were actually long-established and living together. And also spend my entire summer in Berlin*.

I first came across cohousing for/by older groups, when one was being built right across the canal from me when I last lived here. I quickly and incorrectly assumed that:

a) all cohousing was created for and by older people, and

b) that the one I’d seen was just one of loads that existed in Berlin

Cohousing turned out to be for people of all generations (although it’s not quite as simple as this, as I will be exploring at some later date). And the one example of a specifically older group turned out to be one of…  only two in Berlin. Thus these are the two Berlin examples that I have selected. To be fair, there do seem to be a large number of cohousing projects done by older groups that are in progress and likely to open within the next year or so, but that’s no use when you want to look at how it’s working out in practice.

Anyhoo, what is cohousing? Good question. It’s an intentional community (intentional neighbourhood is a term often used) where a group has come together to live in individual dwellings, but clustered around a common space. It’s not a commune. The ‘intentional’ bit comes from an agreement by all involved that they will work to actively maintain a community, with regular events, sharing a meal together weekly, and so on. It’s better described here.

My question of ‘what might the UK learn from examples in Berlin?’ is perhaps slightly undermined by the strong tradition of community-driven housing that already exists in Germany (and Berlin in particular). Here there’s a lot of different forms of housing – legal, financial social and architectural that make up a kind of ‘field’ of alternative community housing, and cohousing often overlaps with some of these. As one background element to my own research, I’m exploring some of these – the following is an attempt at describing a couple, just some thoughts rather than a full or accurate description:

  • A Baugruppe [‘Building Group’] – essentially where a group gets together and commissions or builds their own housing development, just how they want it. Self-funded private Cohousing often uses this model, and could in principle be done more in the UK, but but in Germany there’s more of an established legal model, specialist lawyers and other specialists etc, who make this a relatively common thing.
  • A Genossenschaft (= co-operative, sort of) – these have a long tradition in Germany / Berlin, and form the major part of what we in the UK would view as social housing, similar in some ways to housing associations, and which often receive(d) state funding.
  • A ‘new-generation’ Genossenschaft – often overlapping with Baugruppen, a group come together and sets up a housing co-operative, raising their own funds, with the co-op owns the land/buildings, and everyone rents. Each co-op member/renter has a right to their tenancy in perpetuity, and the rent is theoretically lower as no external owner is making a profit. Cohousing could use this model too – it’s arguably closer in practice to Community Land Trusts in the UK.


In the case of one of the groups I’m looking at, it’s none of the above – the group rents apartments in an existing housing estate (better than that sounds), along with an additional apartment that they rent jointly as a communal space. It therefore exists essentially as an idea more than a physical form, but socially seems to work very well.

You might be thinking this all sounds a bit Scandinavian (it is) and seems like a good-idea-in-principle-but-not-my-sort-of-thing-really. I can understand that. But the aspect that appeals to me personally is what it might offer as we get older – a group of friends, or at least amenable acquaintances – who are proximate, who you can do stuff with or drop in on without having to travel miles, and who can support each other when family are (increasingly) far away.

The questions I’m asking are rooted in sociology and gerontology (How does it work out in practice? How do we differently negotiate the exigencies of later life through such communities?) which was… something of a struggle for a while, as it’s not my background.

But I will do some posts about architecture too – have been doing a lot of exploring, especially as I’m staying in Prenzlauerberg, so kind of unfamiliar territory to me after many years in Kreuzberg.

Have long lost access to my Flickr account (Flickr insists my emails etc are linked only to an account that isn’t mine – if anyone can help on this, it’d be appreciated!) but I regularly pile up snaps on Google photos, albeit quite low quality (in both senses).







*Ha ha, I said to friends in London, I’m off to spend an endless summer in Berlin, enjoying proper ice cream and al fresco electronic dance music, while you all remain in London moaning about the weather and going to work a lot. Not so. It has been raining in Berlin since late April**, and shows no sign of stopping as I write this in July.

**I’m exaggerating, but not a lot. The weather has been much better in London. But I have eaten some good ice cream, and also some clubbing, things no longer possible in the UK capital since all ice cream outlets, clubs, pubs, decent bars, markets, sports facilities, public swimming pools, parks and libraries have been redeveloped into thirty storeys of luxury apartments***

***By which we all now, of course, mean shit apartments. But with a concierge, gym, Cafe Nero and Sainsbury’s local cluttering the ground level in place of a decent public realm. Or an ice cream shop.