Alternative Living Makes a Comeback in Germany | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 19.02.2007
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Alternative Living Makes a Comeback in Germany

Four decades after Commune 1 was set up in West Berlin, alternative living is experiencing a renaissance both in the German capital and across the country as a whole.

Commune 1 members sharing food around a table

Few of today's alternative living projects insist on their members eating together.

Subversive politics, illicit drugs and free love. Germany's most infamous experiment in communal living was an act of rebellion against the family and a deeply conservative society, which, in many ways, had still not completely thrown off its Nazi past.

Commune 1's members slept on mattresses in the same room, they relieved themselves in bathrooms without any doors, allowed their phone calls to be broadcast by loudspeaker and their private letters to be read to the group.

Although the commune broke up after less than three years, it helped to spawn an alternative living movement that flourished in 1970s Germany.

Recent years have seen a renewal of interest in group living. But today's projects are far from being merely a carbon copy of what went before.

Importance of privacy

High-rise building

Unlike conventional housing like this, small-scale projects can respond to members' individual needs.

"There's a different degree of proximity and I don't just mean sexually," said Harald Zenke, an architect, who has spent over three years realizing a co-housing initiative, which he describes as intergenerational and ecological in outlook. Zenke also lives with his family in one of the estate's two-story houses in south-eastern Berlin. He said he thinks it's important that everyone should have the option of withdrawing to their own four walls.

Yet the inhabitants of Lebens(t)raum Johannisthal, or Life's- Dream Johannisthal, which is situated on a former airfield on the city outskirts, also regularly spend their spare time together.

"Here we can't just go round the corner to the pub," Zenke said.

There are also practical benefits to living in this kind of community, such as sharing cars and babysitting duties, going shopping for each another and providing mutual support in times of difficulty.

Intergenerational living

When the project is complete, the estate's 18 houses will be home to some 70 people ranging in age from 0 to 64. Another building is planned for communal use. But members do not just live here, they have also helped to build their homes - a process which helped to foster community spirit and group identification, as well as save costs.

Rentner auf einer Bank Kabinett Rente

Fear of growing old alone motivates many group members

The members' shared interest in the environment is reflected in the house's wooden structures, the cellulose insulation and the wooden pellet heating system.

Many of the new projects that Michael LaFond, the coordinator of experimentcity, which networks alternative living groups, has seen springing up in Berlin over the last few years have an ecological aspect. Grants and low-interest loans from the German government and local authorities are fuelling this green trend, according to La Fond.

Economies of scale

Being part of a group has advantages if you are interested in living in an environmentally friendly way.

"As a housing project it's possible to do things that you can't do as an individual," LaFond said. "There's an efficiency there. On your own, you can't implement a really advanced heating or insulation system."

As a member of a co-housing group himself, he is speaking from personal experience. In August, he will move into an apartment building with a co-generation heating system. As well as warming water, the gas-powered engine will produce electricity that can be fed into the city grid and thus also raise revenue.

Passive house technology

Roof of passive house

Passive house technology is being integrated into some Berlin projects

Several other new co-housing projects in Berlin are based instead on ultra-low energy, passive house technology. The super-insulated structures, which are aligned to make the most of the sun's warmth and also use the residents' own body heat, are able to dispense with conventional heating systems.

But while worries about climate change and global warming clearly account, in part, for the rise of such alternative living projects, LaFond believes other motives are important -- the better quality of life, for one.

Human touch

Work on LaFond's own apartment building has been largely carried out by paid professionals, but he and his wife, Diana, have been able to design the lay-out of their living space and the physiotherapy practice in the building where she will work. The project also has a communal garden and roof terrace – things that the couple would not have been able to afford on their own.

La Fond regards economic and emotional factors as being the real driving force behind today's co-housing movement. The graying of German society and concern that the ailing state pension scheme will collapse under this demographic strain is reflected in the stated intergenerational character of many of the self-help groups.

Fear of loneliness

"Many people are worried about the future," he said. "Some for economic reasons, others because they're afraid of ending up living on their own, particularly when they're older. The movement is less idealistic and socially minded than it was 20 or 30 years ago."

Berlin Wall

The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the East German regime caused many buildings to be abandoned and left land derelict

But the spirit of Germany's so-called '68 generation has not completely died out. In north-eastern Berlin, close to where the Wall once stood, a group of citizens has got together to form a non-profit association.

Their ambitious aim is to renovate a complex of buildings with historical significance and install living and working quarters there, as well as a shop, a museum and a therapy practice. The entire project also has to meet exacting ecological criteria. Manager Uwe Glade described Stadtgut Blankenfelde as a socially-orientated and holistic in approach.

Money doesn't rule

Rather than owning the land, the members lease it from the Trias Foundation. Funding for the 10 million euro ($13.1 million) project is being raised in the form of non-interest loans from private benefactors, charitable organizations and the members themselves.

But Glade said people without any capital of their own would not be barred from taking part. As a result, it is much more socially mixed than many of the other projects. The concept in Blankenfelde is also proving popular. The list for the planned apartments is already full.

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