Jan 12, 2019

Inside Berlin’s Former Squats

Housing crises prevail across Europe. But what if there was a different and more sustainable way of living?

Ciannait Khan for The University Times
Ciannait KhanAssistant Editor

It was years ago when I first visited Liebig 34, a building in Berlin that has been occupied since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I had just moved to the city after graduating, and in my early nomadic days, I’d been crashing at a feminist houseshare when I made a friend, River. River showed me lots of things you might expect to find in Berlin, once you knew where to look: parties in the woods, anarchist bars, bookshops that doubled as clubs. She’d sometimes show up at my doorstep, her huge husky in tow, to invite me to legendary fetish club Kit Kat, or to anti-fascist parties. River soon got a room in Liebig 34, a collective touted as a safe space for the kinds of people who don’t usually get safe spaces.

When you think of the word “squat”, Liebig 34 is the picture that jumps to mind. Five storeys up and many more across, its facade is plastered with graffiti, overgrowth and banners declaring that the house is going nowhere. Inside is more of the same: steel doors, dimly lit stairways, a barrage of trippy murals. When she was moving in, I tried to help River tidy up her new room, but it was hard to make a dent in the grunge of the place. Her room was big, but the walls and ceilings were crumbling and could have done with a lot more than a lick of paint. There was no central heating, though there was an enormous ceramic stove in the corner. Showers were in short supply, so much so that River would often ask if she could come over and use mine.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a five-star hotel. But people don’t join Liebig 34 for luxury. The collective, which identifies as anarcha-queer-feminist, sees itself as a political project where people come together to escape the confines of capitalism. The project disavows patriarchal structures, and all gender identities are welcomed – all, that is, except for cisgender men. The building is home to over 40 people, but the Liebig 34 community extends far beyond this through its downstairs bar, a buzzing venue and a cradle of fringe culture.


K, a current resident of Liebig 34, describes the house as “somewhere where I can be kinda left to do what I want. And just be treated as, like, a weirdo. Where weirdness is accepted”.

I lost touch with River after a while – anarchists can be difficult people to keep track of – but I never forgot my brief visits to Liebig 34. There were lots of things about life there that I liked: the freedom of it, being able to talk about radical ideas. But I think what was most exciting about those first experiences of Liebig 34 was the glimpse it offered into Berlin’s alternative housing scene, a space where new and alternative ways of living, so different to what most of us are used to, are made possible.

* * *

On the evening of November 9th, 1989, a historic press conference was broadcasted on television sets across East Berlin. What may, under other circumstances, have been a minor gaffe by German Socialist party member Gunter Schabowski – like any good politician, he ad-libbed live on TV rather than admit uncertainty when asked about whether it was true that East Germans could now travel without having to go through a third country – turned out to be a momentous slip-up. As a result of Schabowski’s miscommunication of orders, thousands of people immediately flocked to the Berlin Wall. The wall, standing 12 ft high and stretching for 27 miles, guarded every few steps by towers and landmines, had been Europe’s greatest barrier to freedom, both materially and symbolically, for over 25 years. The roaring crowds that arrived at the city’s East-West border that night overpowered the guards. In the days that followed, the newly liberated people, armed with hammers and pickaxes, began tearing down the wall, brick by historic brick.

It’s difficult to imagine the effect that sudden, unbridled liberation might have on a population following decades of life under an oppressive surveillance state. The momentum that gathered on that fateful night in November 1989 endured for weeks, months, even years, albeit in many forms. In hindsight, it’s perhaps no surprise that years of repression bred a thriving counterculture in Berlin that is matched by few places across Europe today. When the Berlin Wall fell, large sections of the East were abandoned, only to be gradually reclaimed by what was termed the “DIY generation”.

The project disavows patriarchal structures, and all gender identities are welcomed – all, that is, except for cisgender men

Amid the chaos and desertion, squats sprang up across the East. Squatting culture in Berlin predates the fall of the wall, but the city truly became a hotbed for squats after 1989. Most of the squatting communities that have endured until today have their origins in this era. Strolling through East Berlin, there’s a good chance you might catch sight of one – they’re not hard to spot. But, despite the banner-laden facades, these houses are no longer technically “squats”. With law and order largely restored, occupied buildings have either been evicted or legalised. Now, they’re housing projects. They mostly have contracts with the government of Berlin, and while they usually pay only a relatively small amount to keep the house, they aren’t completely free to live in. Regardless, “squat” culture and all that it entails is still writ large in the city. Driven by politics, idealism, or a bit of both, these housing projects help to make Berlin what it is today.

* * *

An anti-fascist puppeteer, K will soon celebrate their 26th-and-a-half birthday. Originally from Ireland, K has been living in Liebig 34 since last February. Every week, K stages a musical puppet show in the park. The rock-and-roll show stars the Animaux Family, publicans who own “the only animal-run bar in the world”. The idea of the show, says K, is “to take back rock and roll to its rightful owners, which are the kids, the teenagers, the boppers”.

“Last week, it was great”, they tell me. “We were in the park, and a cart of children showed up, and by the end of the show, all the kids were dancing.”

While they usually pay only a relatively small amount to keep the house, they aren’t completely free to live in

Puppets are one of many ways that K raises the funds needed to pay their way in the house. Sitting in a windowsill upstairs, having a smoke, a defunct telephone dangling around their neck, K tells me a little bit about how they ended up in Liebig 34.

“I was running away from home”, says K. “I was living a comfortable life in my homeland. But I needed to escape my identity in that homeland, and become a different person.” It’s a story that is no doubt familiar to many: “I’ve been a lot of places where I didn’t feel like I belonged. I was one of the weird outcasts.”

Like a lot of residents in Liebig 34, K isn’t comfortable with the gender standards that society has laid out for them. “Here is the only place I feel sane and normal, places like this”, they say. “Because I just don’t have to deal with this massive list of assumptions that everyone’s making about me all of the time.” But, like many people in today’s world, K is jaded by the gender conversation. They don’t want to talk about it, because there’s not a whole lot left to say. “I just think it’s hilarious that we have two genders and everyone is into them.”

The world that K inhabits may seem mysterious and elusive, but K didn’t stumble in through any secret backdoors. They found their way into the alternative sphere through the most mainstream channel of all: Google. “I heard the word ‘anarchism’ and Googled ‘anarchism’. And then Googled ‘squats’.”

“So many middle-class entrants to alternative worlds don’t come about it by like, poverty or desperation or need or being excluded from society. There’s a whole group of people who do. But then, like, loads of people just Google it.”

When you think of the word “squat”, Liebig 34 is the picture that jumps to mind.

Ciannait Khan for The University Times

Liebig 34 is anarchist in ethos. But what does that mean in practice? It’s certainly not the cartoon version of anarchy, a well-worn cliche in which chaos reigns and cities burn to the ground. But while there’s a general sense of solidarity against anti-capitalist causes, there’s also no singular branch of anarchy that everyone in the house supports. K tells me – somewhat facetiously – that they personally subscribe to “the Patti Smith of 1976 anarchism”. They explain that Smith did an interview that year in Stockholm, which is K’s favourite video on YouTube. “She just kinda like, waxes poetic on what she thinks”, says K. “She kinda says that once you put words or labels to anything, to any idea, it’s already dogmatic. So just like, forget even anarchism, because that’s just a word.”

The environment in Liebig 34 is laid back and open. People file in and out of the kitchen while K makes me dinner – spinach and peanut spaghetti – in their shared kitchen. Roommates jump into the conversation and chat away happily, openly offering food or smokes.

It might be tempting to stereotype about the kinds of people who might live in alternative housing projects – hippies or punks, idealists or troublemakers – or to not take their ideas seriously. But K isn’t making any grandiose claims to having achieved some kind of utopia. They don’t pretend that life at Liebig 34 works perfectly, not by any means. “I wouldn’t argue its indisputable merits”, they say. “It’s got its problems, just like everything else.”

“It doesn’t work without serious problems or difficulties. But like, does it work? The house is still here. We’re still here. It functions, I guess. Which is all you can say about any system.”

As for spreading the message beyond the house, K has no interest in preaching. “I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously to say, this is how the world should be. Because I don’t know”, they say. “I just … I’ve just chosen what I think is the most plausible option for me, and this seems to be the best thing available.” They laugh. “That’s not a very ardent call to arms.”

* * *

North of Liebig 34 and its home neighbourhood of Friedrichshain is Prenzlauer Berg, by far the most upmarket district in Berlin’s former East. In contrast with grungy Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg is filled with Parisian cafes and a young – but markedly wealthy – population. On Kastanienallee is the city’s smallest cinema, Lichtblick-Kino, where Dan Tsubari regularly picks documentaries to screen.

Ten years ago, when he was 17, Dan took a trip to Berlin from his home country of Israel. While here, he visited Liebig 34 briefly with a friend. “They had this huge door made of metal with barbed wire in the staircase”, he says. “You really got into the eye of the storm.” But he loved it right away. “I liked the atmosphere there. The sharing.” It was only a short visit, but enough for him to be inspired.

It might be tempting to stereotype about the kinds of people who might live in alternative housing projects – hippies or punks, idealists or troublemakers – or to not take their ideas seriously

Since 2014, Dan has lived in K77, a communal house above and behind Lichtblick-Kino. “This is the mothership. Kind of the last hardcore project in Berlin”, says Dan. He gives me a tour of the house, which has been occupied since 1992. Since then, it’s been legalised by the government on the grounds of the contribution it makes to the city’s arts and culture. Most residents of the house are artists in some capacity, says Dan. At the moment, there are 20 adults and 11 children.

K77 looks very different to Liebig 34. The rooftop, with its wooden benches and multicoloured light bulbs, looks out over stylish Prenzlauer Berg. Countertops and shelves are handcrafted – with so many artists around, they make everything themselves. The kitchen is shared between the whole house, but there’s not a single dish left out. Dan cuts me a slice of homemade chocolate cake and takes me to sit on the balcony, which overlooks flowering gardens. It’s an undeniably beautiful house, and it costs very little in monetary terms to live here. The trade-off, I suppose, is the challenge of sharing your life with not one family, not two, but many. Does Dan ever find this communal living tough? “No. I knew exactly what it is and exactly what to expect.”

What qualities does he think people who live here need? “Chill. People need to fucking chill”, he says at first. Then he ponders more: communication, patience, and a splash of idealism.

“When I have problems, you just say it. We are not in high school”, says Dan. “Of course there is some minor politics.” But for him, it’s no different to living in an ordinary houseshare, where passive aggression is often favoured over open communication.

“The reward for it is a house like this: I’m rich. I live in a border with Mitte and I have 25 rooms.” He’s got a point. But, of course, as he points out, “it’s not just cheap or fun. It represents something”.

Unlike Liebig 34, K77 doesn’t claim any particular political identity. The house draws inspiration from the work of artist Joseph Beuys, whose concept of “social sculpture” describes life itself as a form of art. As a community of artists, K77 follows in Beuys’s footsteps by championing art’s transformative potential. Still, the residents aren’t bonded by loyalty to any specific politics, though Dan says there’s still a natural filtering system that precludes “the type of people who are naturally individualists”.

“You cannot be a capitalist here, somebody who truly believes in neoliberal ways”, he says. “This give and take creates a community that in the end is much stronger than each and every one individual.” Dan asks me to imagine if the building were instead made up of 20 separate apartments instead. “Everybody loses connection with each other, and that’s it. You’d lose a lot of beautiful stuff”, he says. “This is the hippy inside of me talking.”

The fact that children grow up in this environment is hard, at first, to envisage. For most people, growing up means one family, one house. But even when pressed, Dan struggles to recall any problems he’s had sharing a home with children who aren’t his own. As for the kids, he reckons it’s a good life for them: they get to be around friends all the time, and they learn valuable skills, like communication, from the get-go. The house is nearly 30 years old, and some people who were born here have already grown up and left. “I think once you grow up like that, you grow up wiser. You see how people solve problems and you get it”, says Dan.

Can Dan imagine ever living outside of here, now that he’s seen what it’s like? “Some connection will always stay because it’s a personality thing”, he says. “It’s not something you can run away from.”

* * *

Of course, with Berlin’s prices rising and the topic of gentrification now trite, many of the houses are under threat. A lot of people don’t want to see houses like these in their expensive neighbourhoods. “They don’t really like the idea”, says Dan.“When people come here and buy houses, they kind of buy the environment around the house too.” But, he says, “this house was here long before anyone that lives here bought any apartment. So it’s kind of a shame to see this shift in power towards money”.

For K in Liebig 34, they’re not sure what will happen when their contract comes to an end. They’ve been raising funds towards the cause over the last few months, though nobody seems to know exactly what will happen. Sitting in on their weekly “plenum”, or house meeting, I watch as many newcomers put themselves forward to become part of the collective. They explain a bit about themselves and why they’re here, and if they’ve had experience in communal living before.

You cannot be a capitalist here, somebody who truly believes in neoliberal ways

One woman has come for a friend, who is about to become homeless. The friend, the woman explains, has had a rough time, particularly with men, and is interested in becoming part of a community where she would feel safe. The members of Liebig 34 are somewhat sympathetic to the women’s plight, but they’re unsure. It’s not the right time to accept somebody who is healing, they explain, because soon they’ll have to fight to stay here. What the house needs right now, they say, is fighters.

But while houses like Liebig 34 and K77 face challenges, I’m reluctant to believe that projects like this are a dying breed. In this day and age, a shift towards a more communal way of living seems in many ways inevitable. Housing crises predominate across Europe – in Dublin itself, rents are sky high – and there’s simply not enough room in the city for everyone to live.

“We have architects sometimes coming around, to take a tour to see how communal living is working”, says Dan. “There is a movement towards sharing more. You can see it also in car sharing, that was unheard of 10 years ago. Or bike sharing. Or Airbnb – but that’s the devil, don’t ever sleep in one!”

On a global level, environmental pressures mean that living as we do now may not always make the most sense. If we want to reduce our impact, sharing seems like a good way to do it. “This is making much better use of the land if you think about it, in the really grand scheme of things”, says Dan.

“People don’t instinctively protect what is not theirs”, he says. But living in a collectively owned house might make it easier to reimagine what “mine” means. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico, it’s my world. It’s everyone’s.”

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