‘The great thing about Berlin’s Selfmade culture is its diversity. Locally grown projects are tailored specifically to the people that make them, and to the neighbourhoods in which they are built.’
There are a wide range of innovative development typologies being explored and developed by citizens invested in their urban centres around the world. This essay focuses on one example of this with the intention of gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the issues related to dweller-driven housing supply and, through this understanding, be better equipped to comment on the challenges facing citizen-led development in Ireland.
The context of this article is the city of Berlin and, specifically, the proliferation of Baugruppen within the city in recent times. It will deal with the nature and structure of Baugruppen, followed by a brief history to explain how they became a force for urban regeneration in the city, which is now spreading further afield in Germany and beyond – in Munich a third of all public sites will be sold to co-operative housing projects while in Hamburg’s senate there is a department dedicated to co-operative housing and the city has decided to set ‘aside 20 per cent of its land to building- group projects.’
Building Groups / Baugruppe
Baugruppe, or Building Group in English, is a blanket term which encompasses a variety of projects with different financial, legal, and organisational structures. The exact structure of the Baugruppe depends on the needs and desires of its particular participants but, as Hamburg-based Irish architect Tom O’Donnell explains, the basic premise is generally the same: ‘co-housing will combine private ownership of individual apartments with co-operative ownership of common spaces and gardens.’
In the beginning, either a group will come together with the intention of building their own homes collectively and approach an architect, or an architect may play a key role in the group’s formation. Alternatively, an architect might initiate the project and source clients with a site or design in mind. As Berlin-based architect Markus Lager says ‘you’re as likely to walk into an architect’s office as a real estate agent’s when looking for a home in Berlin.’ Once a group has come together, a legal entity is formed to co-ordinate the procurement of the building. There are a number of different legal associations which Baugruppen may form, but the most common is a Gesellschaft burgerlichen Rechts (GbR) which is the equivalent of a civil law partnership.
User Driven Design
A common theme to all Baugruppen is that they are user and design driven. In this way, the design phase is a participatory process in which each individual’s needs are taken into account, within the parameters of the wishes of the whole collective. The level of participation can range from ‘simple choices out of a catalogue up to a general influence on the size and arrangement of individual flats depending on needs and budget.’ The group can also decide on the type and size of shared amenities such as shared garden spaces, work spaces, guest rooms, and more. Not only does this involvement in the design process lead to a higher degree of satisfaction with the completed building, but educates participants on the importance of urban regeneration, as ‘the act of making the city changes your relationship to it. The more people that actively take part in creating our city, the better it will be.’
A Unique Context
In 1987, an urban renewal project known as the International Building Exhibition (IBE) was completed in Berlin. The IBE produced two overarching themes – ‘careful urban renewal’ and ‘critical reconstruction.’ The most important influence this had on the makeup of the city was that it promoted user participation in the planning process, the integration of existing buildings, and city centre living (in direct opposition to Modernist city planning).
A mere two years after the IBE, the Berlin Wall fell and this expanded the scope of the IBE doctrines from the semi-derelict urban core of West Berlin to the huge tracts of vacant flats and sites in East Berlin. The wide-spread renovation of the housing stock was funded by the federal government, European funds, and large tax incentives for private investors. On a smaller scale, the result of the IBE values in this context of vacant sites and derelict buildings was an ever-changing streetscape of ‘self-initiated projects in the form of “illegal” bars and clubs, but also galleries, shops, meeting and working places, as well as cultural institutions.’
The next formative event in the history of the Baugruppe was the huge cut in funding in 2002 by the Berlin Senate in all housing programs, which was accompanied by a slump in the economy. Many people in Berlin could no longer find suitable, affordable homes in the city in a primarily rental-based market – Germany had, and continues to have, one of the lowest percentages of owner-occupiers in Europe. Pioneering urban professionals looked to innovative cities in the south of Germany such as Freiburg and Tubingen where, in the early 1990s, city planning projects promoted private citizens to build collectively. Taking the lessons learnt from these ground-breaking regeneration projects, people in Berlin banded together and started to apply them to the many vacant in-fill sites that pockmarked the city thereby creating affordable, urban living spaces of their own.
These early Baugruppen were scattered, bespoke developments driven by active citizens who were interested in creating a place to live and, through the process of building, they became invested in their locality. The huge variety of Baugruppen typologies stems from the unique response each group had to its exact restraints and context. There is no single answer to ‘bottom-up’ development in an urban context, but the Baugruppe model has thrived by being ‘built on a collective vision and on the actions of many.’
1. Kristien Ring, Selfmade City Berlin: Self-Initiated Urban Living and Architectural Interventions, Berlin: Jovis, 2013, p. 11.
2. Andreas Ruby and Nathalie Janson, ‘On the Baugruppe Initiative,’ Blueprint, 2014.
3. Tom O’Donnell, ‘Co-Housing in Germany – Experimentdays15 Berlin,’ Architecture Ireland , no. 284, 2015, p. 40–41.
5. Markus Lager, conversation with Author, November 25, 2016.
6. Ring, Selfmade City Berlin: Self-Initiated Urban Living and Architectural Interventions, p. 213.
7. Dougal Sheridan, ed., Translating Housing: Berlin – Belfast, Belfast: Northern Ireland Department for Social Development, 2014, p. 62.
8. Ring, Selfmade City Berlin: Self-Initiated Urban Living and Architectural Interventions.
9. IBE 1987: International Building Exhibition Berlin 1987, Architecture and Urbanism Publishing Co., May 1987.
10. Sheridan, Translating Housing: Berlin – Belfast. p. 13.
12. Ring, Selfmade City Berlin: Self-Initiated Urban Living and Architectural Interventions, p. 19.
13. Valeria Fedeli, Rethinking European Spatial Policy as a Hologram: Actions, Institutions, Discourses, ed. Luigi Doria, Taylor & Francis, 2016, p. 37.
14. Europe in Figures, ‘Housing Statistics’, Eurostat Yearbook, Eurostat), accessed 30 November 2016, [http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Housing_statistics].
15. Peter Hall, Good Cities, Better Lives: How Europe Discovered the Lost Art of Urbanism, New York: Routledge, 2014, p. 248-273.
16. Kelvin Campbell and Rob Cowan, The Radical Incrementalist: How to Build Urban Society in 12 Lessons, Massive Small (incorporating Urban Exchange), 2016, p. 10.