An insight into the Spreefeld project in Berlin (Germany)
An insight into the Spreefeld project in Berlin (Germany)
Laura Weissmuller

MUNICH — For a communal housing project, there are bound to be endless discussions over commons areas before the foundation stone has even been laid. There are also financial questions such as "can I sell the apartment if I have to?" But the most pressing point is just how many people will be living more or less on top of you for a very long time.

To many people, this description of communal living sounds like a personal nightmare. But there are houses being developed in conjunction by multiple future owners who won't be given immediate occupancy by a property developer as is normally the case. The future owners also forgo the possibility of making a sizeable profit with their property later on.

Nevertheless, these kinds of projects have their own, growing fan base since rental prices in larger cities are rising inexorably. Many of these city properties are also very similar, and give you the feeling of having been mass-produced. But what many people hope is that living within a tightly knit community will close a gap they feel modern life has created.

"These new type of living projects become more and more important as normal family systems fall apart," says Hilde Strobl, curator of an exhibition at the Munich Museum of Architecture entitled, "Don't be afraid of participating!"

Her exhibition of 12 living projects demonstrates that the communal living movement transcends all strata of society and age groups. The films that accompany the exhibition, shot by Munich-based photographer Jörg Koopmann, help to illustrate the movement. They address such varying topics as the choir rehearsal of the "Women Living," an all-female cooperative in Munich, or children playing in the inner courtyard of the "Kalkbreite" cooperative based in Zurich, which transformed a former tram depot into a building with living quarters, work spaces and leisure zones. What all of these films have in common is the interaction of and with the people who live in these novel settings.

The occupants are the focus of these projects rather than the architects, which in itself is quite unusual, seeing as this is an exhibition of buildings in an architecture museum. It is clearly not about the ingenious design of a single architect and the most ecological facade or the most cleverly devised material concept. No, it's about the interaction of people who live in these buildings.

It's not written in stone that entrances and hallways have to be dead spaces in which people hope not to encounter anyone else. Nor is it imperative that the space between buildings, and which, by rights, belongs to the public, is given to the public. In fact, quite the opposite.

As costs soar

The exhibition demonstrates what a city can gain if it specifically and intentionally supports such cooperatives with financial aid and cheaper plots, as has been the case for decades in Vienna and Zurich. It's not just inhabitants who move into these buildings, but also public life itself. A good example is "Kalkbreite" in Zurich. The small workshops, shops and restaurants on the ground floor make this an attractive spot even for people who don't live there. And the large green spaces and inner courtyards make these projects hum with life, because they are also easily accessible to the general public. But conflict is nevertheless still a part of that way of life.

The inhabitants of the Berlin project "Spreefeld" weren't particularly thrilled with the fact that a growing number of homeless people began using the green areas. "This is a fight that has to be fought from the beginning to the very end," Strobl says.

So how much public life should be allowed in communal areas? How do you choose the inhabitants? And are they really willing to pay for something that, in the end, can be used by everyone? The development process is always stressful, and the exhibition addresses this. Every project is introduced not only with a Koopmann film but also with a kind of notice board where confusing words are written — things like flexi rooms, cluster apartments and speculation withdrawal, in addition to mind-boggling layouts that will baffle architecture novices.

All of this reflects the confusion that people who plan such a project will encounter along the way. But the exhibition aids the visitor with wall panels and a handy guide book that explain the meaning of all these communal terms and notions.

Flexi rooms, for example, are rooms "that, if necessary, can be rented for a short period of time," say for the aging and ailing mother or the pubescent teenager. Cluster apartments are those that surround a central, shared living room, something along the lines of a flat-share for adults. Speculation withdrawal means that "no individual profit can be made due to communal ownership."

It is precisely this relinquishment of profit that is essential for these projects to function. The basic concept of solidarity would no longer work if one person within the group attempted to sell their apartment to the highest bidder, given that it was a collective that developed the project. How would you even put a price tag on all these endless discussions? It should also be kept in mind that everyone paid for the communal areas, after all.

The exhibition only explores rental communities despite the fact that house building communities are becoming increasingly popular. These often produce architecturally stimulating and appealing houses, but these are in the end nothing more than privately owned terraced houses.

Above all, the exhibition highlights that the development of one of these buildings only really begins when it has been built and the inhabitants move in, as they grow older and their needs change. An investor wouldn't care, but a communal residency group does care. And cities should most definitely care too.

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