OC 55: “Legalities of Space”: from squatting to tolerated occupation


Right to land

Controversies over ‘legalities of space’ affect a wide variety of peoples. ‘IdleNoMore’ supports the struggle of first nations for what they believe to be their immutable right to their land and their way of life (see the previous  post OC 54). Such controversies take many different forms in diverse circumstances.

1_dia Tinag 2013 Festival, debate with IdleNoMore activists, photo Judith Ryser

On the margins of urban change

Cities tend to be regulated and rights to land and property lie at the core of such rules. Nevertheless, for a wide range of reasons formal constraints are not always respected. Rapid urbanisation has exacerbated competition for space across urban society and led to increasing urban inequalities reflected in social and spatial segregation and isolation.

2_dia Loner, source: vicsocotra.com/stories/4-6-09-loners.htm

Social and spatial injustice is often associated with ‘the right to the city’ and has been widely debated by scholars. Among them - to name but a few - are Henri Lefebvre (LEFEBVRE Henri, 1968, Le Droit à la ville, Paris, Anthropos), David Harvey (HARVEY David, 1973, Social Justice and the City, London, Edward Arnold), Ed Soja (SOJA Edward W., 2010, Seeking Spatial Justice, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press), and Peter Marcuse (MARCUSE Peter, «Spatial Justice: Derivative but Causal of Social Injustice», Justice spatiale | Spatial Justice, n° 01, September 2009), Susan Feinstein (FEINSTEIN S., 2010, The Just City, Cornell University Press). Even a Journal is dedicated to the right to the city. www.jssj.org/

Urban grass-root movements are among the challengers of formal property rights. They attempt to gain access to what they consider idle land and premises to satisfy their basic needs of shelter and urban life. The focus here is the case of Berlin, which was discussed at the fourth ‘This Is Not A Gateway’ Festival, TINAG, held from 26-27 January 2013 in London. http://thisisnotagateway.squarespace.com/2013-programme/

3_dia Tinag This Is Not A Gateway Festival 2013, venue,                          photo Judith Ryser

Controlling chaos, formal informality in Berlin

Jana Perkovic and Georg Hubmann presented their work on urban movements in Berlin from the nineteen-eighties until the present days. The ensuing discussion highlighted the contrast in culture and activism between informal occupiers in Berlin and London.

4_dia Jana and Georg presenting Berlin formal informality, photo Judith Ryser

Long range history of squatting

Berlin has a long tradition of squatting and homelessness. Profoundly devastated by the second world war Berlin took a long time to recover. Many displaced people sought refuge when it lay still in ruins, including from the GDR and other East European countries, occupying make-shift spaces and trying to rebuild a life. After the erection of the wall in 1961, West Berlin, surrounded by communist countries, became an enclave of western values where outsiders were welcome. Immigrants moved in from the south, mainly from Turkey, as well as artists and marginal people who liked West Berlin’s free lifestyle. Its marginality persisted despite repeated efforts by Willy Brandt, its charismatic left wing mayor from 1957-1966, to keep Berlin on the global map, for example with the international building exhibition in 1957, Interbau, a pioneer of using ‘model’ buildings designed by star architects. In 1987, Berlin continued this star architect approach with its Critical Reconstruction Programme, ‘IBA Neu’, run by Josef-Paul Kleihus, this time under a right wing mayor Eberhard Diepgen.

5_dia IBA Berlin, example of star architecture, Giorgio Grassi, source: IBA 1987

Back in the 1970s, when the West Berlin city government undertook massive demolition and reconstruction it triggered protests and squatter movements in response to a shortage of affordable housing. In 1981, homeless people and squatters recuperated and occupied 2000 empty dwellings. They improved and adapted the buildings when Berlin was still isolated and moreover in party political turmoil. Running a self motivated undertaking, the squatters were cooperating with contractors, in opposition to the city government. 165 dwellings were occupied and improved in that manner by 1981. The government’s interim response was not to alienate the squatters. However, there were confrontations with newcomers and arbitrary evictions. Squatters in 60 dwellings were evicted and 180 legalised while the city changed to a right wing government.

6_dia Hardt-Waltherr Haemer, protagonist of soft regeneration in Berlin, source:

Meanwhile, Hardt-Waltherr Haemer had fostered soft regeneration and experimentation based on urbanity at a human scale. He applied green, self-build and self-help principles since the mid-sixties when he was appointed professor at the HfBK (now university of the arts). The marginal inhabitants with whom he worked were able to acquire greater security of tenure by belonging to housing cooperatives. From 1979, he pursued his approach of Careful Urban Renewal -Behutsame Stadterneuerung - as ‘IBA Alt’ (later turned into a regeneration company STERN) in opposition to ‘IBA Neu’. He continued this work beyond the demise of the Berlin wall in 1989 also in East Berlin until 1997 when the property crash left Berlin in debt and ended subsidies.

7_dia Soft regeneration in Berlin, IBA-Alt, source: http://www.stern-berlin.com/stern/news/

From illegality to informality

When the political right returned to power (1991-2001) there was a change of policy, underpinned by the first Stadtforum (initially from 1991-1996, revived in 2004, and planned in a new form for 2020). http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stadtforum_Berlin . This Urban Forum was conceived as an open discussion forum for all Berliners with professionals of the built environment. The Berlin government introduced lease contracts between land owners and squatters with the city as guarantor, and initiated what amounted to contractual reconstruction. Self-help grants were made available to cover 80% of the costs, with 20% contributed in kind by squatter labour.

8_dia Berlin StadtForum (1991-2001), source: http://www.stadtentwicklung.berlin.de/planen/forum2020/index_stadtforum.shtml

After the demise of the wall in 1989, Berlin had introduced a two-prong change in the planning system. Spatial planning was extended to the whole urban region beyond the hitherto confined city of Berlin while decentralisation was introduced to planning, comprising formal public consultation. The effect was population dispersal outwards which reduced discontent and made space for demolition within the city. Nevertheless, there was a second wave of squatters, mainly in East Berlin who built on the experiences of squatters in West Berlin. They occupied 120 dwellings in East Berlin. In response, the hard ‘Berliner Linie’ made squatting illegal, but evictions were followed by fights. Squatters were evicted from 34 dwellings and 126 dwellings were legalised in the early 1990s while squatter laws were revised by a neo-liberal federal government throughout Germany.

9_dia Tinag – Berliner Linie against squatting,                  photo Judith Ryser

Ephemeral occupation

In the 1990s, the music scene (e.g. apparat, tresor, ostgut) took over in Berlin and occupied abandoned spaces for ad hoc events and warehouse parties, together with gay movements and other underground activities. This went on for three years without any controls. Squatters were not considered scary. They made the grey buildings of East Berlin ‘cool’ and put many empty spaces to use in the centre where the wall used to be. The concept of ‘Soziale Stadt’, was invented in 1991 around government change from left to right in Berlin.

From 2000, during a government change back to the left (in 2001), neighbourhood and industrial area regeneration integrated education, small life-work places, artist studios, community development, etc. under the banner of ‘Creative City’. Under the socialist mayor Klaus Wowereit, he city changed its approach to public property. This included the redevelopment of the river bank. The mayor’s slogan became “Berlin chic, poor but sexy”.

10_dia Tinag Timeline of Berlin ephemeral occupation,    photo Judith Ryser

A new city geography was developing gradually led by artists who occupied empty spaces. Temporary small uses transformed into multipurpose, more permanent uses; squats transformed into informal projects. A typical example is Bar 25 (see YouTube videos, e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2Hwx_pWqBc )

Bar 25 evolved into a fixed structure built on occupied land cleared and decontaminated by the occupiers who provided spaces for entertainment, leisure and culture for all for free. They built without permits, not according to building regulations, but attracted a large amount of people along the Spree. In the spirit of ‘slow city’ they grew food, built water pools for leisure and lobbied for Berlin to become the first 25km/h city.

11_dia Bar 25 Berlin, source:

In 2007, these informal uses came to an end when the city reclaimed the bank of the Spree to implement MediaSpree city, thus far the largest regeneration project in Berlin displacing many underground activities (Ostgut being one of the most popular ones) which triggered another wave of protests.

12_dia Birdseye montage of the MediaSpree City project, source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediaspree

The MediaSpree City was building on a previous competition for a new government quarter in the Spreebogen when Berlin was reunited and made the capital of Germany. However, property development was slow in demographically and economically stagnating Berlin, and therefore temporary uses could be introduced into Berlin’s urbanisation process. When Bar 25 was forced to vacate the land it had occupied it was eventually offered a site on the opposite bank of the Spree but is planning to return to its original place, although its structures and installations had been destroyed. The view of Bar 25 followers was that an oasis for all got destroyed and was replaced by what is likely to become more planning blight. In reality, more popular growth projects were realised than monumental developments which were slow to materialise after the initial push to reunite Berlin (e.g. Potsdamer Platz, etc).

13_dia Potsdamerplatz Berlin, ubiquitous ‘international architecture’ with no convivial public realm at ground level, source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PotsdamerplatzBerlin.JPG

Due to protests and objections against the destruction of the many informal structures, temporary uses were formalised. (Zwischennutzung, e.g. Maren Krauzick, 2007, Zwischennutzung als Initiator einer neuen Berliner Identitaet, TU, ISR Heft 7; Urban Pioneers, 2007, Berlin: Stadtentwickllung durch Zwischennutzung. Jovis).

Temporary use was incorporated in the new planning regulations of 2010. Landlords became more lenient or chose to make informal arrangements with occupants to prevent unwanted squatters from taking over. Zwischennutzung and agreed Hausbesetzung meant that land and buildings were kept in use instead of being boarded up, which would have projected the wrong image for Berlin’s international ambitions. What this entailed for temporary occupants was the obligation of not leaving the building at any time, maintaining it, paying albeit a peppercorn rent, having restrictions imposed on how and who could use the premises, but without any security of tenure, with the occupiers under constant threat of being evicted without any warning.

13_dia Potsdamerplatz Berlin, ubiquitous ‘international architecture’ with no convivial public realm at ground level, source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PotsdamerplatzBerlin.JPG


The experiences of the various forms of squatting and informal occupations in Berlin were exported to other cities and publicised worldwide. However, many of these ideas got ‘lost in translation’ or were hijacked by the establishment and distorted.

The main inputs of occupants were art in abandoned spaces, play in car parks, portfolio building for architects (on temporary buildings), cafés created 5 meters away from derelict shop fronts. When population or demand was rising many of these initiatives were absorbed by the establishment and transformed into regeneration projects, eg the Guggenheim lab, or the London Pleasure Garden in the East End.

15_dia Arts as engine of revitalising derelict places, Tacheles in East Berlin, source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TachelesBack.jpg


Berlin’s practice differed from ‘international’ practice though. By now, leases from 20 to 40 years were granted for self-development, multipurpose programmes and other bottom-up initiatives. Tolerating temporary projects led to change in legislation to provide low entry barriers, easy access and little bureaucracy at the outset by means of an informal step by step process of planning. Not surprisingly, this stultified into heavier rules and tighter controls of temporary uses. However, in practice it became possible to convert temporary uses into more permanent conditions with leases and better protection of the ‘footholders’.

There were new protests in Berlin in 2008 regarding local say in large scale regeneration projects. At a public consultation of yet another large scale project for the Spree river bank, 80% were in favour of alternative solutions instead of the proposed office blocks, because the alternative offered a much larger and more accessible public realm.

16_dia Green Spree project, source: http://www.be.berlin.de/research-project-spree-2011

Only in 2012 was the Spree riverbank project resuscitated in a new form. It consisted of the original ‘People Plan’ with a new property policy. All the river fronts were to become publicly accessible, a large area was set aside for SMEs, spaces were made available for sub-culture uses and Bar 25 was given its original site back. This phase was tagged ‘hippy deluxe’. Bar 25, or rather what followed it, became an informal social entrepreneur and conceived a dual environment, with a part generating commercial return on investment and another part remaining accessible to all for free.

At present, Berlin is considering yet another initiative to attract fresh energy and interest from foreign investors. It is conceiving a new international building exhibition (IBA) for 2020 and envisages to change the whole planning system, albeit without indicating in which direction as yet. The show must go on, and the show is going on, at least in Berlin…

17_dia IBA 2020 posters, source: http://www.stadtentwicklung.berlin.de/aktuell/pressebox/archiv_volltext.shtml?arch_1009/nachricht4059.html

Similarities and learning opportunities

Production of (urban) space - to use Lefebvre’s concept - stems from continuously changing everyday life, market forces and political power, while space is shaping a this dynamic in turn. These continuous interactions tend to lead to inequalities and, in particular, unequal access to urban space. How those on the deprived side of these inequalities respond to their condition is influenced by another set of dimensions rooted in culture, values and behaviour specific to each city.

Berlin is building on a long tradition of power struggles, confrontations and rebellion driven by active citizens in recurrent bursts of energy, sometimes as extreme forms of violence, and at other moments as ingenious ways to recovery. There is no less hardship among deprived communities in London than in Berlin, but contradictions and resistance manifest themselves quite differently. This became apparent in the discussion about the respective merits of resistance to social and spatial injustice of head-on confrontation and softer ‘formal informality’.

18_dia Communist demonstration Berlin May1930, source: http://www.themontrealreview.com/pics2/Student-protests-Paris.jpg

Is the struggle for equal rights a matter of principle or of outcome? Over the years, the squatters in Berlin managed to obtain more favourable conditions which some are judging detrimental to ideological integrity. Their small victories do not mean though that their power struggles are over. Quite the reverse, they need persistent vigilance against the motivations of those in power who will seize every opportunity to claw back lost ground and impose new obstacles. Arguably, the squatters, occupiers and footholders were able to achieve more change in their favour in Berlin because the market pressures on the city were less stringent than in London. Unlike London, Berlin is not growing and has vast amounts of land available. Also Berlin may be benefiting from a social compact of sorts, perhaps rooted in its history of multifaceted struggles for survival and freedom. Despite these differences, lessons can be learnt elsewhere from both Berlin’s successes and failures. Nevertheless, in each city the disadvantaged groups need to find their own approach to turning change to their favour by taking advantage of the weaknesses of the city-own dominant system and their rulers.

19_dia Berlin’s soft take-over of urban space, source: http://hanskuiper.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/reassessing-berlin.html

20_dia London way to use sofas in the public realm, source: http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/233712