Berlin has been a hot-bed of squatting for decades. Before the wall came down, it was common in West Berlin. "During GDR (German Democratic Republic) times," as the locals like to say, West Berlin had many abandoned buildings. Being completely surrounded by East Germany was not an easy place to live or do business. But once the wall came down, residents of East Berlin flocked to fill the West's empty buildings, leaving behind a void in the east part of the city. Squatters went East to occupy the many newly vacated buildings. In the few years that followed, squatters took over nearly 150 buildings in East Berlin. Many of these still exist, legitimized in some way or another.
K77 is one such building. It is the oldest building in the neighborhood, which aided in their successful squatting effort. The action was done as a performance art piece. The residents-to-be made a giant (anatomical) heart, dressed up in nurses and doctors outfits, and made a show of transplanting the new heart into the "dying" building. Over 100 people from other squats came to witness the event, and a lawyer was on hand to explain to the police that this was a public art piece. Turns out that public art has certain protections under Berlin law. The east Berlin police were still unfamiliar and a bit mystified by the whole concept of squatting (not something people did under communism) and allowed the action to happen.
Over the last 15 years or so k77 has been an important haven for artists and crafters. One of the three buildings on the property, as well as portions of the others, are devoted to such activities. Support for the arts is codified in the collective's mission statement. Currently this includes an independent cinema, a yoga and dance studio, a pottery studio, an art therapy practitioner, and graphic art lab. The artistic focus is also evident in the creative construction, mosaics, graffiti, and other art built into the environment.
The house cherishes and protects its historical roots. When mold was discovered in the building many walls had to be removed, and were replaced using cob (a clay/sand mixture bound together with straw.) The house made an agreement that the old walls could not be modified in anyway. Although this lends the place a somewhat shabby, gritty appearance in places, the rough texture of shifting greys and browns certainly has an artistic appeal. And as one resident said to us, "if it were painted over it would be gone forever." The importance of this approach to a building with a long history is emphasized by the rampant gentrification that has taken place in their neighborhood. Almost every building has gone through major renovation over the last 10 years, and the street is lined with trendy stores. Luckily there is no chance of K77 losing the property, as title to the property is held by an organization who's mission includes assisting in property acquisition for progressive groups. Ownership will transition to K77 over 50 years.
K77 is home to about 20 adults and 5 children. A half-dozen of them have been there since the beginning, and membership turn-over is low. The house has a curious approach to shared living, including the most innovative approach to the issue of room selection we've seen. Every two years everyone shuffles rooms. The whole group sits down, each person says what they want, and they work out a new arrangement. On rare occasions people keep their room, but it is not appropriate to come to the meeting with the intent of holding on to your room. Many people, myself including, find this idea at least unsettling if not outright threatening, but it seems to work well for them. The rooms vary widely, and they find that people's needs shift over time. Someone who was needing peace and quite may find themselves wanting a more social atmosphere. Maybe a new baby is born and the parents need a different space to accommodate their family. Also, it means that every two years you have more contact with who you hardly saw and barely knew because they lived in the other building and three floors up.
The community shares food completely, but they have no labor system to speak of, nor any requirements for cleaning or other tasks, except being part of a cook team to make dinner once a week. In part this means that the place is very dirty and messy most of the time. But generally people don't seem to mind. They are a very close knit group (they might not think so, but sitting with them at the dinner table or breakfast nook made it obvious to us), and it seems that the lack of requirements supports this. Rules for cleaning or other chores would probably just create tension.
Artists... go figure.