Revisiting Berlin

by Greg Bryant
An interview with Michael LaFond
September 3, 2013

Twenty years ago, RAIN published a series of articles about innovative projects in a new city -- the combined former East and West Berlins. Architect Michael LaFond penned these, including an early and influential article on Carsharing, and this 1993 overview of former East Berlin

Dr. LaFond is still a busy organizer in the Berlin scene, and I sat down with him, at a collectively-run housing project and café in Prenzlauer Berg, to discuss changes and advances in Berlin over the last two decades.

Our reunion was serendipitous. I was in town helping an exhibition at the non-profit Neurotitan Gallery, in a complex of art and community projects called Haus Schwarzenberg, which Olga Volchkova was part of. The day after the opening, Germany's wonderful alternative daily paper, die taz, reviewed the exhibit, and coincidentally, on the next page, Dr. LaFond had written an article about his upcoming Experiment City conference. So I contacted him before leaving town.

ML: Guten Appetit.

GB: Guten Appetit.

GB: So I was trying to find some points of continuity for our readers, for those articles you wrote so long ago ...

ML: Yeah, I think about those sometimes ...

GB:  ... we started talking in 1992. You had some suggestions, we had some suggestions, and I think you ended up writing pretty much all of them. Carsharing, Block 6, the wall, UFA Fabrik ... I visited UFA Fabrik in the 90's. How's it doing?

ML: Unusually well. For such an ... older project.

GB: It's a mature project.

ML: It's very mature. I mean ... for me it remains one of the more interesting projects, that I know, anywhere in the world, for this kind of local realization of sustainable community development, which they were really pioneering back in the early 1980's. The nice thing about it, with that project, you can see how much has been realized, all these environmental technologies, but also education, the free school, the environmental bakery, there's a long list of successes, a fascinating collection of projects that, in their time, were illegal or pioneering or both. And now, they're not necessarily mainstream, but they're nothing people would consider particularly radical. I'm not as closely connected as I was ... I was there with an office for about seven years. I lived there for one year. I created this new organization. I guess it's part of a process we see in life, projects are created and born, like children, and then they want their own independence and identity, and for me it seemed like the right thing to do was to move away, and create our own space. We were kind of smothered by the old-family feeling of the commune there, and the fact that they were all older ... we were trying to find our own way.

GB: ... and there are plenty of places that need help.

ML: ... right, lots of things to do, and places to work with. We were not just an UFA project, we were a project of Berlin, or of the world, so ...

GB: I remember they had an educational center for greening buildings ... it was very sophisticated and ambitious, kind of a museum, and workshop, and demonstration project ... it seemed like a granted institution with a lot of community interaction ... did I get the wrong impression?

ML: Well their strength has turned out not to be in this area of environmental education, or teaching about environmental technologies ... they were able to implement really pioneering stuff ... they were leading the way for many years with these things. But they really haven't been able to establish themselves as an environmental education center. They could have, they had the ability, but they didn't, and maybe didn't want to. Their strength is really different. People go there to see the technologies, but it's new ideas, not systematic education. You can go to other places and learn: like the Center for Alternative Technology in Wales or, a place not far from Berlin, Sieben Linden ecovillage -- they made education just as important as invention or implementation: solar, straw bale, participatory architecture ... it's really an important part of who they are.

GB: So, did UFA not need to make the educational part integral?

ML: Well, they do education. Just not with environmental technologies. They have their own school, the Free School, I think the first one in Berlin, which was illegal, and they paved the way for alternative schools, for free schools -- really the more radical version.

GB: What does a 'free school' mean here?

ML: In their case, between kindergarten and the 6th grade, there are no classes, no grades, and no set routine ... the young people have the maximum amount of freedom to make decisions everyday ... whether they go out, stay in, do math, play music or draw ... really maximized freedom. 

GB: Like the children's zoo you wrote about ...

ML: Like that. It really emphasizes the idea of self-responsibility and self-organization, beginning with children. You could say it's anarchist-influenced, but I don't usually say that because most people misunderstand that -- like, it's people doing their own thing, and flipping out, and being freaky ... but it's the positive sense of anarchy, the networked anarchy ... I use the word self-organization.

GB: Right, people want to do things, people have their own drive, and you want to encourage that, encourage mutual aid ... especially a group of kids, growing up and learning to deal with the world -- they'll do all kinds of interesting things.

ML: UFA's been doing this for 30 years, and they find that: 1) children want to learn, and, 2) they do end up learning what they need to learn. They come around to it. It's not like these kids fall off the earth after 6th grade ... they go onto other schools, they work, they're normal people.

GB: ... and their enthusiasm hasn't been beaten out of them by super-structured schooling.

ML: Exactly. And for some kids, it's really the only school. Say, hyperactive kids, or rebellious kids, who cannot sit still ... it might be the only solution for them. Or maybe they have parents who are really anti-authoritarian and so it's the right place from that perspective.

GB: So, there are many schools like this in Berlin now?

ML: Every year there are more of them. Between ten and twenty now. It's significant because in Germany private alternative schools are much more difficult to establish than in, say, the U.S. ... home-schools, for example, are just unheard of. But the free school idea is becoming established, along with the idea of special kindergartens, such as 'forest kindergartens', for example: they spend every day in the forest ... 

GB: Really?

ML: ... even in the winter.

GB: Of course: they need to learn how to be in the forest at all times. It's one of those lost arts ... we haven't been living in the forest for a while. Did you see the documentary 'Happy People'? ... subsistence in Siberia ... all four seasons are important ...

ML: ... so, to sum up UFA ... largely because it was started by a group of people as a commune -- where they shared everything and talked about everything, everyday for years -- they really bonded, so they have a really incredible shared vision, which they're willing to die for ... so this happens in some projects where, naturally, you get a very strong sense of either being in the group or not being in the group, with all the advantages and disadvantages of that. So it's difficult to bring people in: that's one of the disadvantages. A lot of people like myself come along and, the group is not able to integrate us. We could still do interesting things, but only to a certain extent. We didn't have the same level of respect or position. And so their projects always were able to just go ahead, and do things freely, but our projects needed to always check-in with them. I respected that. But I'm not part of their family, and couldn't be. I wanted to be, I should say: I was fascinated and in love with the place. But it couldn't work. 

GB: Is it possible for people to be born into UFA Fabrik's collective?

ML: They had children over the years, the oldest are already like thirty. Those kids all went to the UFA school, went on to do other things, and quite a few have come back now. And for this reason it's really interesting times there now ... they'll do new projects, or new things with old projects. It's a unique situation, worth watching.

GB: ... what other projects ... so, I visited PrinzessinnenGarten the other day. What is that? I had lunch there, it was nice, but ... how would you describe or characterize the place?

ML: Prinzessinnengarten is really the best-known of the Berlin community gardening projects. It's well-known internationally. In the last three years they've really put themselves on the map. It started off as a mobile garden: the non-profit translates as 'Nomadic Green' ... their idea was influenced by mobile gardeners in Havana, Cuba. The two guys who started it, neither was a gardener. They had been making films, running bars, and when you talk to them, they'll tell you that the garden is not the most important part of it ... 

GB: Olga, who's a gardener, could see that ... there must be community gardens all over Berlin that are more focussed on the quality of the gardening itself.

ML: Oh, she could see that, sure ... the most important thing at prinzessinnengarten is the meetings, the culture, the neighborhood part of it ... it's the space. That's why we like it so much. We're interested in urban space and what people do with it, together, and how they make it available ... that's what people pick up on, and that's why it's popular, why people go there. Some people go to garden, or to learn something ... but most people just like the space and the energy ... hanging out, doing stuff, talking in the outdoor café, learning things ...

GB: ... right, the café is lovely. You know, that goes back to a conversation I think we had 20 years ago, about the "café theory of squatting" -- the other side of which is the "coffee-drinkers theory of community-support' ... you know, go to the right place, drink the right local products ... Although you were talking about squats at the time, the theory is true for every community project ... it must have some important draw and provide community service ... 

... so what's exciting in Berlin right now? What's the state of 'the movement'?

ML: One thing I'm involved in, which I think is pretty exciting ... the coöperative movement is enjoying something of a rebirth here, especially, there's a lot of awareness around housing coöperatives. Quite a few have been created over the last 10 or 20 years. And there's a new consciousness about the significance of coöperative ownership, as opposed to condominiums. There's an interest in not feeding speculation, in going into something together with people ... and the cooperatives are becoming better known, becoming stronger. A lot of my work has been with what we like to call self-organized, community sustainable housing -- and we published a book called CoHousing Cultures

ML: It's available on Amazon. It's half-English and half-German. That's been a major part of my work these last ten years: understanding the significance of these kinds of self-organized community housing projects, for sustainable urban development. Something like UFA Fabrik is on the spectacular end of the spectrum, but in the last 20 to 30 years at least 300 major projects have been born ... the place we're in right now is an example. This building was also a squat and turned into housing ... self-help renovation. And people still live affordably upstairs, with affordable commercial spaces like the collective café here, and an anarchist bookstore, and other activities. It's a nice demonstration of what's possible.

 GB: Berlin's a huge city ... it seems endless to me ... so, do a few hundred projects make a difference?

ML: If you look back over the last decades, Berlin, and maybe every city, has these interesting projects, but they exist as islands. There have been networks of projects, which come and go, and they tend to exist during some exceptional moment in history. In Berlin now, we have a good number of people who know what it takes to do this kind of project: architecture, finance, all these specialties ... we have banks and foundations ... all the pieces ... and that leads to a few new projects every year, through the loose cooperation of these networks and people. It's great, but still, the projects exist as islands, and it still doesn't quite seem like it all adds up to anything.

GB: So, you have a development network ...

ML: An informal one. But in the last few months we've started a new cooperative, it's called a 'development cooperative'. The normal cooperative we have in Berlin relates to housing. Those coops usually exist to build and manage a housing project. But this new coop, which barely exists at all, is strictly intended to develop those other kinds of coops. In the US this would almost be like a Community Development Corporation, but here it has a cooperative structure ...

GB: It's a "Community Development Cooperative" ...

ML: Yes, that would probably be the translation. This has been created to develop self-organized affordable housing for Templehof, the former airport ... the land is quite contested. All kinds of people want to do something there, other people want to prevent anything from happening, and so there's a lot of emotion and energy being thrown around ... our proposal, in discussions with people and with the City is to give this development cooperative a chance ... it could be as many as 1500 apartments ... basically a whole neighborhood. 

GB: It's a "Neighborhood Development Cooperative" ...

ML: The point is to go beyond the level of the small island project, which is nice in itself but, of course, it is an island ... and the reality is that it doesn't do much to stop gentrification ... these island projects get overwhelmed by normal development over the years ...

GB: So, Haus Schwarzenberg is an example of an island in contrast with the development around it ... 

ML: Yes, that's a good example of an island. It's reminiscent of East Berlin in the wild 90's ... the idea of 'free space' is a central Berlin topic. Physically, in the city, but also mentally. It's one of the identities of the city and one of the main draws, for young people, for creative people, but also for investors ... people see Berlin as a place where you can play but also do things. That also leads to conflicts, I suppose. Some people want to come and go, and play, and other people want to take money out of the city ... but the government isn't quite able to regulate that ... But there's a lot of consciousness in Berlin, in general, because of the history, the geography ... one of the encouraging things about Berlin, really, is the political culture. It's very broad and very intense. But also there's not much of a "loss of ideas" ... I mean, most of these ideas existed in the US and then kind of disappeared there, but in Europe they have a continuity. They don't become unfashionable, like they do easily in the US. The system here absorbs the ideas, and the system hasn't swung as much here, in the last decades. The logic of renewable energy, organic food, bicycling ... they have become accepted.

GB:  Are you saying people are more rational here?

ML: Well, the neoliberal economics, mass media, consumerism, they have all taken a toll here. But there's still more healthy dissent within those systems here than you'll usually find in the US. The concentration of power in corporations is happening here too, but it's just not as advanced here as in the US. But, you know, the main thing that makes a difference here, I'm convinced, is the multi-party electoral system.

GB: Of course. That's huge.

ML: It has made a difference that these new parties can come along and get enough power to make an impact. For example, the greens have been able to have, not just a voice on the outside, but the ability to bring policy inside the system, and work steadily for changes inside. Things like getting out of nuclear power, promoting organic agriculture, etc.

GB: How did 'getting out of nuclear power' happen?

ML: It was a red-green initiative at first, and then their coalition fell from power, and the current coalition put it on hold, but when Fukushima happened, Merkel, who's kind of a populist, decided it would be the most accepted direction, and of course she claimed to be for it the whole time, etc. 

GB:  So tell me about your latest project.

ML: Experiment Days -- sometimes called the Experiment City initiative, started in 2003, with the idea of connecting with Berlin culture, talking about sustainable development in a language that people relate to better here. So calling it 'experimental' rather than 'sustainable' ... we had done a 'sustainability week', well-organized, with funding, and partnerships, but it was too boring for most people here. It was lots of effort, but not enough fun. So, the new direction is to give these ideas a kind of face, so they can be recognized, people can talk about them, participate ...  giving them a way to develop some critical mass. In a big city like this, you're talking about 50 - 100 smaller initiatives, each one interesting, but not really emerging to the level of 'awareness by the whole city'. So, over the course of a week, we organize tours and workshops and discussions to bring people into contact with them. We want people to know that they're happening, but we also want the projects to connect with each other. People are always busy in their own way ... so we network people, get them publicity, do some political work ... etc. Workshops, exhibitions, tours. In the first year, we worked on redevelopment of vacant land and buildings, which there were a lot of. Over the years, we've worked on community gardening and community housing, things which are naturally strong in Berlin, so the networking could have a strong base. It starts this Friday, people coming from all around Germany to talk about housing coops, the role that they play and the role they could play, then there's a "project market", an exhibition and presentation of projects.

GB: ... right, we sometimes call that 'speed-dating'.

ML: ... connecting people. Then an 'Experiment City Camp' on the Templehof field. With workshops and building projects ...

GB: ... ah, a kind of community-project 'burning-man'.

ML: ... well, Templehof is a heavily-managed space, with lots of restrictions, and people need to leave at night ... so, not quite like burning-man.

GB: What are the big issues that you organize around today?

ML: Well, the City's real-estate policy. Over the past few years we've promoted an 'initiative to rethink the city' ... its major focus is to get the City to stop privatizing land, to put a moratorium on that, so the City in the future would only lease land ... long-term leases. But short of that, if the City feels it needs to get rid of some land, it should be a concept-driven process ... not just the highest bidder, but the best idea, best use.

GB: ... in most community proposals, I argue that the successful bidder should be the one with the maximum number, and best quality, of community benefits ... our City will give away money to developers based on future tax revenue, even if that depresses the whole economy. It's a very bad criterium.

ML: It's crude and simple, but almost every City government does the same thing. It's a neoliberal development model in cities ... it's not local jobs or local benefits ... it's just tax revenue. Period. It's very crude.

GB:  In the extreme example, a company town could pay the City staff, while all the citizens are slaves ...

ML: ... Berlin is still a relatively poor city. High unemployment, poor immigrants, housing subsidies, so rents are going up much faster than income, people need to sacrifice more, struggle to become more establishment, or move. The governments of most cities have really lost their power to intervene ... Berlin is interesting because it's on the edge. It hasn't completely lost that power, making it still a kind of "urban laboratory". People are fighting back. The government seems to be responding. It's not over yet. The next few years will tell what path Berlin takes.

GB: ... so, government is not 'naturally' in the pockets of investors ... that's what investors like to think. The government pays exclusive attention to them only if there's no counter-force, if there's no public movement with alternatives and collective resources.

ML: ... those development interests are very active, and very self-interested, which is why they win so often. This has been recognized even in academic urban studies, with "The City as a Growth Machine" ...

GB: Yes, but you can still stop the machine. They're just people. Development corporations are very small empires ... their infrastructure is pretty minor. People don't realize how much the "growth machine" depends upon things being quite smooth for them. They don't like real democracy, because they tend to lose.

ML: I'm hopeful. I've see many good projects win in Berlin. It's not a lost cause.

GB: What's another hot topic in Berlin?

ML: Well, Tempelhof Airport: it's one of the biggest test cases for this. What will the city do, and allow to be done? What's the process? That's why Experiment Days is at Templehof this year. To try to get people engaged there. Including our Neighborhood Development Cooperative.

GB: Do you document these housing projects anywhere?

ML: We have the Wohnportal, an online alternative housing gateway and network. We try to document projects, and hook people up to projects. The portal hooks together the networks of projects on the national level. Over 200 projects are there for Berlin, and more than 1,000 projects for Germany ... 

GB: ... it's a lot of work to get inspiring projects visible and attached to each other ...

ML: ... this problem happens in Berlin too: lots of groups are just doing their own thing, and don't really join their natural support networks. They don't particularly help others to organize similar projects.

GB: Whatever happened to Block 6? Where is it by the way?

ML: Very close to Potsdamer Platz. The greywater system is still working, but the rainwater part, which was the interesting part, isn't being maintained. 

GB: Ah.

ML: We do tours, by the way: these 'creative sustainability' tours, to make projects visible, help people to understand things ... I mean, people will come to a co-op like this, with a fascinating history, and the people here don't even tell their story. What a lost opportunity! So, almost nobody knows what an inspiring place they're drinking at. They enjoy the atmosphere ... that's about it. So the tours are meant to help repair that situation.

GB: ... hmm ... tours like that could be done anywhere, and probably should be ...

ML: ... there are so many stories that could be told ... a lot of people come to Berlin looking for these things. So, we're not funded in any way, people just pay us to give them a tour. It's a clean relationship with the projects, but it helps make all of them more visible. We have maybe a 100 tours a year ... still, many projects already work quite hard to tell their own story, if you visit them ... finding them can sometimes be a challenge, but, for example, there's a map of Berlin's Community Gardens online. And checkout the documentary group, alternation: they're now covering alternative projects in Berlin ...