By Michael LaFond
In the middle of a city of millions sits an autonomous region of 65,000 square feet. It's both urban village and neighborhood center, with cafés, schools, clinics, a children's farm, theaters, alternative cinemas, innovative ecological projects, model community self-help programs, and housing for 60 residents and 40 visitors. It's also an international cultural and social attraction, drawing 300,000 people a year with its festivals, performing groups, and circus troupes. UFA Fabrik is Berlin's premier multi-cultural experiment in living, working and laughing together.
From seven people in 1972, the Fabrik commune has grown into an adventurous extended family of musicians, dancers, acrobats, clowns, craftspersons and other artists. The members pride themselves in being as diverse as the larger world around them. They are a free commune in that they have no particular set of beliefs or religion. They come together to explore alternatives and help build an active culture. As German news fills with neo-Nazis, failing economies and dying forests, it's good to see the UFA folks succeed. They work well, cooperatively and with a sense of humor.
These grounds have seen less tolerant times. In 1917, they became the UFA film studios, Universal Film AG. The company produced German propaganda during World War I and II. In peacetime, movies for profit and entertainment replaced those for patriots. In the 1920s, during Berlin's heady experimental years, such significant films as Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari were produced at UFA. What was left of the studio closed in the early 1970s, unable to compete with television and Hollywood.
The idea for a Fabrik für Kultur, Sport und Handwerk [Factory for culture, sport and crafts] developed in an alternative West Berlin neighborhood in the early 1970s. Cold-war money pouring into the isolated city, intended to keep West Berliners from leaving, had the unintended effect of making West Berlin a mecca for radical projects, and fertile ground for the counterculture.
An important environmental festival in 1978 motivated the Fabrik craft collective to look for a place where they could realize dreams of living and working together. They boldly, but peacefully, occupied the forgotten, demolition-threatened UFA studio grounds, and immediately opened their doors to the public. Great support was shown by neighbors, media people and other West Berliners. In a gesture of trust, they withdrew from the site just before a decisive city hall debate. The West Berlin Senate granted temporary use, but only in three-month leased increments.
This was a wild, dream-come-true time, but serious questions of economic survival had to be immediately addressed. Studies and inventories were done on the deteriorated lot, and uses were considered for the long neglected structures.
Groups formed to create pro.vi.sion.al spaces for housing, a dojo, and the Treffpunkt Café [meeting place café]. This followed the "Café Theory of Squatting", which stresses the value of an informal meeting place for squatters and friends from the "outside world". Such cafés develop the necessary political constituency, bring in a little cash, and satisfy. basic needs to socialize and celebrate.
Getting through the first winter looked difficult, since the heating system and many buildings needed rehabilitation. But the UFA financed the repairs with no government support, using instead proceeds from cultural presentations, donations, credit from the Berliner Netzwerk (a community co-op bank), private loans and countless hours of sweat equity. Even the Berlin Free School, a significant project involved in the occupation, was able to organize its space in time for the Fall 1979 school season.
Competitive thinking and traditional gender work divisions were set aside in favor of learning from each other. People developed their own interests and strengths, yet maintained a readiness to cooperate. Even their economics are based on a common money system, and the community provides work for all its residents, as well as nearly 40 others. UFA people say the community works on the most advanced political model: Gleichberechtigung, or equality. Not to say there are no leaders, nor that everyone is identical, but that all people should be critical thinkers, and leaders in their own areas.
In these first years, UFA members developed the skills needed to renovate and maintain the grounds. Artists became metal workers, electricians and carpenters. On the week.ends, the men and women went public with their second natures as performers, creating colorful and provocative pro.grams that attract.ed great crowds to the UFA site.
The UFA Fabrik-Circus has always been a strong focus for the commune. It was an important time in 1982 when an English tentmaker taught the community to make a traditional circus tent. After many weeks spent creating the pieces, it was assembled and raised over UFA's circus ring, creating a home for their entertaining, low-tech mix of variety, cabaret, music, and unserious magic.
Contacts developed through decades of successful networking now enable Fabrik members to organize international projects, in addition to their locally-oriented theater, dance, music and cin.e.ma. In 1989 they coordinated the Mir Caravan [peace caravan], which started in Russia and travelled across Europe performing circus and street theater. Their Trans Europe Theater Festivals bring together in Berlin some of the best experimental performers from around Europe.
People come to UFA for all kinds of special nourishment. After all, du bist, was du ißt [you are what you eat!] The first modern food co-op in Berlin was organized by the original Fabrik community, in the Schöneberg district, to provide themselves with organic food. In the Fall of 1980 one of the first whole-grain bread bakeries in Berlin started up at the UFA. The bakery now produces more than 3,000 loaves a week, along with pastries and other delicacies. UFA bread sells in the adjacent Bio-Laden (an organic foods store), in UFA's Café Olé, and other alternative shops around the city.
Since the beginning, UFA members have worked in many ways to improve their quality of life, meaning also improvement in the quality of their ecosystem. This prompted a number of pioneering efforts, including the food co-op's connection to local organic farmers. The UFA's intensively-used, small village design provides
The 'Café Theory of Squatting' stresses the value of providing a meeting place for squatters and their friends from the outside world.
challenges and opportunities to develop a decentralized, ecologically sensitive infrastructure for community resources.
UFA members experiment with demonstrations of solar energy, roof and façade greening, composting, greywater recycling, bio-gas systems and windmills. They found building ecologically to be costly in the short-term, so they developed systems that could be realized in small steps. With the security of a 35-year lease, UFA is now carrying out major ecological renewal projects, including extensive improvements in energy and water systems, façade and roof greening, and recycling / composting programs. The community was fortunate to be selected as a demonstration neighborhood for such initiatives, receiving some financial help from the city and the European Community.
An unusual machine supplied energy in the early years at UFA. The experimental co-generation system, built from a recycled diesel truck engine, produced electricity and heat for local use. To increase their energy independence, and further reduce resource consumption and emissions of CO2 and other gases, two modern "block heating and energy power plants" (BHKW's) have been installed. These co-generation plants cover 80% of community electrical needs, and provide for all space and water heating. In addition, the Fabrik carries out many projects in building and pipe insulation, and energy and lighting efficiency.
Water in Berlin is extremely costly. In an exciting new project, rain water is collected from the village and stored in a cistern based in a renovated underground vault. A "green filter", built next to the cistern, biologically treats this water in a pond with plants. From there it irrigates green roofs and flushes toilets for countless thousands of UFA Fabrik visitors. A great volume of water is used in the café for washing dishes, and this will also eventually be collected, treated and reused for plants and toilets. UFA members hope to gain the experience needed to make greywater recycling a reality in their community, as well as others, in the coming few years.
Most UFA buildings are representative of industrial architecture and urban design of the 1950's: flat-roofed, topped with tar paper, and surrounded by pavement. As such, the grounds generated uncomfortably high temperature swings in the summer, and lots of dry air and dust. So members began a building greening program in the 1980's. So far about 8,000 out of 24,000 square feet of roof surfaces are already green, as well as 2,000 square feet of ground and façade surface area. The added vegetation has noticeably improved the local microclimate, modifying both the humidity and temperature. It has also reduced the levels of noise and dust, improved insulation, and created new habitat for plants, birds and insects. In addition, the green roofs and façades help to retain and filter rainwater before it gets to the cistern.
At UFA Fabrik's recycling station, separated wastes are either processed or sent to be recycled elsewhere. Organic wastes coming from the café and the children's farm animals are now sent to "fast composters" (Austrian hand rolled drums) that reduce the composting time from six months to two. Part of UFA Fabrik's food wastes are fed to the farm animals, and the compost is used in the community as much as possible. Out of the yearly generated 1000m3 of various wastes about 150m3 can be composted and reused. Through a combination of programs, the total waste volume is expected to be reduced by up to 40%.
In connection with the ecological renewal program, an exhibition, including a detailed site model, drawings and diagrams, is housed in a small, greened building. This is only one of many public education programs at UFA.
Several projects, including some that had been with the commune from the beginning, came together in 1987 to form the NUSZ, a neighborhood self-help center. Some NUSZ projects, such as pre- and post-natal workshops, and the children's farm, now receive a bit of financial support from the Berlin Senate. Central to the work of NUSZ is making space available for social and preventative health programs, such as meditation, martial arts, and socially healthy festivities bringing together people of different ages and cultural backgrounds.
The NUSZ is founded on the idea of self-help, or personal and social change through self-initiative. While our society gives us a lot of free and leisure time, it steadily eats away at our free space, our freedom to consider alternatives, and our confidence to think and act creatively. There's a German motto that captures NUSZ and other UFA Fabrik activities: Bist du heute nicht mobil, wirst du morgen zum Fossil [if today you're not active, then tomorrow you'll be a fossil].
Children also need this liberation. At UFA's Children's Farm, kids care for horses, pigs, and chickens, work in the garden, play, cook and eat together, and just hang out. They also train and perform over in the children's circus school, catching the thrill of the stage. UFA's Berlin Free School still needs official recognition, yet some 40 kids (including UFA children) from 1st to 6th grades, learn according to their needs, with no anxiety over scores or pressure from inhuman schedules. With no physical division into grades, the kids learn much from working and playing with older and younger students. Everyone gets lots of attention: one helpful adult for every five children. Activities break through the standard barriers between learning, home, and work, that mysterious world of adults. The school is completely woven into the life of the village.
UFA Fabrik manages to bring all these pieces together in a beautiful way. It's a mix that satisfies members, and attracts hundreds of thousands of others to see and experience this revolutionary yet sensible activity. Visitors go to hang out in the café, to dance and play music, or even just to walk on the village lanes and paths, well framed with plants and pleasantly overgrown with bushes and trees. While the UFA sits in the center of a great metropolis, and has a high concentration of people and activity, it's organized on a small, more human scale. Autos aren't seen or heard. The dominant sounds come from people on foot and riding bikes, with lots of playing kids, barking dogs and chirping birds. This utopian microcosm encourages people's involvement, inspiring many to take chances in their lives. The UFA successfully blends culture with politics, and gives everyone a good time in the process.
Not long ago, I stopped by to meet with Juppi, a central community figure, circus performer and original Fabrik personality. We had arranged to meet in the Café, and getting there a little early I sat at a corner table to think up some good questions. Juppi came in shortly with his three "circus dogs" and joined me after saying hello to a few others in the Café. While we talked, other UFA Fabrik folks could be seen coming and going, dropping in to chat, to get a cup of coffee, or to see who else was there. Suddenly a group of kids came running in from the school across the way, dressed up in bizarre costumes as part of the German Fasching holiday. They went around the Café asking everyone questions for some school survey project.
Our conversation drifted into the areas of ecology and community history. Juppi turned and pointed to others who knew more about these things, Woerner and Sigi, who happened to be seated at another table. He suggested I find them after we were finished. As Juppi explained it to me, the community has monthly assembly meetings to formally make decisions, but the real political and cultural change happens every day. UFA Fabrik members see each other all the time, and so can carry out their business informally. What they do for work is not much separated from what they do in their free time, or what they do for fun, or even from what their kids do.
Juppi emphasized that the UFA is just one example of what people can do together, and not an answer for everyone. Even after accomplishing much, the Fabrik members are still learning. They remind us that we all need to find our own way, and provide ourselves opportunities to work creatively for what we believe in.
Anyone can visit UFA, or contact Sigi for information, at UFA-Fabrik, Viktoriastrasse 10-18, 1000 Berlin 42, Germany.
Update: Twenty years later, UFA is still thriving. See this recent RAIN conversation in Berlin, between Michael LaFond and Greg Bryant.
Above: the auto-free streets of the present day UFA urban village, whose cafés, events and community service projects draw 300,000 people a year. To reduce the impact of the visitors, the Fabrik runs many systems for composting, greywater use and energy efficiency.
Above, some goods are moved about the UFA grounds. The community provides home and work for one hundred permanent and temporary residents. Some of those are members of the wild UFA circus, below, who entertain their fellow Berliners and travel a European-wide circuit of alternative, international cultural centers, with which UFA Fabrik is closely associated.
Below: the UFA grounds in Berlin today, after 15 years of friendly occupation. The UFA Fabrik collective now has a 35-year lease from the city --
1 Organization and Info Central, 2 UFO I & II Historic Cinemas and Film Café, 3 NUSZ, Neighborhood And Self-help Center, 4 Family Services, 5 Movement & Dance Studio, 6 Rain Water Cistern & Treatment Pond, 7 Natural Foods Store, 8 Organic Whole Grain Bakery, 9 Workshops & Garage; wood, ceramics, metal and machine repair, 10 Recycling Station, 11 Studios in Film Bunker, 12 Dojo - Training Room for Aikido, Karate, Tai Chi, etc., 13 Summer Bar, 14 Garden Terraces, 15 Exhibition Space, 16 Grand Theatre, 17 Open Air Theatre, 18 Free School, 19 Children's Farm, 20 Solar UFA Housing, 21 Café Olé, 22 In.ter.na.tion.al Guest House, 23 Mime Studio, 24 Dance Studio, 25 Music, Film & Video. Studios.
Below, outside the Neighborhood Family Service Center.
Below, kids from the UFA Free School ride some ponies from the village children's farm. There are several of these innovative farms in Berlin, run by children with adults as non-authoritarian assistants. The freeschoolers are riding past solar retrofitted community housing. The innovative conservation measures at UFA, which include energy co-generation and building greening (most clearly seen on the roof of the café), serve as inspiring, active models to residents of the surrounding city.
Below, guest housing at UFA Fabrik. Visitors from around the world flock to this exciting art community at the old film studios. Film is still an active part of the site, with many independent filmmakers and visitors using the facilities here. UFA has a number of film programs, including a cinema café that's a major gathering place for aficionados, and theatres for alternative and historic film.
Below stands Juppi, one of the founders of UFA, in front of the Fabrik offices. The entry behind him sports a newly installed thatch portico. It's one of hundreds of large and small modifications made to the ugly industrial 'international-style' buildings the collective found on the site upon arrival. Even bad structures can become good ones with enough effort.
Below, the popular Bäckerei, or bakery, at UFA, one of the first in Berlin to produce whole-grain breads in modern times. Adjacent is the UFA organic foods store, Bio-laden. Both are strongly connected to local farmers.