Christian Schöningh came to Berlin in the early 1980s to study architecture. Infected with the DIY culture of Kreuzberg’s squats and affected by Berlin’s urban policies of the time, including the lively discussions generated by the International Building Exhibition 1984/87, he soon discovered that the classical role of the architect to be rather limited. So he started to develop his own expanded way of working, with which he has become one of Berlin’s leading experts for co-operative projects of all kinds – always aiming at freeing up the strictly regulated field of building. After featuring the Spreefeld co-operative project in Berlin in our latest issue, Thank You, I’ll Do It Myself, uncube’s Florian Heilmeyer talks to him about the method behind the co-operative magic.
You have been working as an architect in Berlin for nearly 30 years. It seems as though you have always worked on projects that you initiated yourself. How did that come about?
During my studies at the Technical University (TU) in Berlin I was struck by how so much was already decided before a “normal” architect was brought on board. The typical architect would sit in the office waiting for a commission or a competition, and then execute the assignment. While it has gradually become slightly more integral in architecture practise today, systematically reviewing and questioning the commission and brief before even starting to design the building is still very rare – and it was hardly ever the case back then. That annoyed me immensely – and it still disturbs me whenever I meet an architect who is not working like that.
What is your approach then?
Instead of impulsively designing a building straight away, one should examine who you are working for and whether or not the commission and brief makes sense: what is actually needed at this location? Who are the actors, the future users? What alternative solutions or locations are there? In the 1980s, urban planning in Berlin was very bureaucratic – even more than today. I was part of a group of students that was already proposing alternatives, and sometimes we could actually change projects or even stop them altogether. In 1986 we founded the Planungsgruppe Urbane Baukunst (Urban Architecture Planning Group) and simply continued initiating our own projects – from remodelling a döner shop to drafting proposals for the re-purposing of Tempelhof Airport.
This group disbanded in 1994 in the early years of the construction boom in post-reunification Berlin. Why?
Because we were in the process of becoming an ordinary architectural firm. Having done some larger housing projects for the Berlin Senate, the experiences were sobering. We were six partners who suddenly had 15 freelancers working for us, but none of us really wanted to be the boss. So we “atomised” ourselves. At the same time we had an opportunity to buy an old factory in Treptow between about 15 people. We were all self-employed – photographers, architects, artisans, artists – and we knew that soon we would no longer be able to afford the rents in Kreuzberg. Today buying a building like that would be called starting a Baugruppe (building co-operative), but we didn’t know that term yet. We were acting out of pure, existential fear!
You took over the project management of the factory renovation. As an architect that must have been totally new territory for you.
Right. We had a budget of 10 million Deutschmarks and suddenly realised what possibilities open up when you build for yourself. We could discuss everything: what we wanted and needed, how we could achieve this with our money and abilities, and what steps were necessary. This project convinced me that much better results are achieved when a building’s future users can reflect on and take responsibility for what they need.
What does that mean for the role of the architect?
In addition to the classic duties of design and construction comes consultation. You see, most building users are novices when it comes to construction, so when they assume the role of a building contractor, they need competent advice in order to make their decisions.
Through this working methodology, a lot of work is shifted onto the period prior to design and construction. Reflecting together about one’s needs is time-consuming and complex, depending on how many people are involved – and ultimately a lot of compromises must be made. What are the advantages?
Our methodology – if you want to call it that – always aims to increase our freedom of choice. Architecture often takes place within a very narrow framework, in which the architect might decide about 10 percent of the job. But I don’t want to be an expert in design and surfaces, a person who has to suggest which water faucets and doorknobs should be used. I am interested in a building’s programming: whom and what it’s for. I want to accompany the entire process from which buildings emerge.
This also means assuming more responsibility. For example, we must inform the participants of their entrepreneurial risk, or also partially carry these risks ourselves. But therein also lies the chance to make something extraordinary happen, which the “free market” does not yield up. On top of that, it is a great personal pleasure that I can almost always work for those who now live and work in these buildings, instead of working for profiteers who are interested solely in financial gain.
Do you find housing construction in general to be too conservative?
Yes, of course. Most of the building industry is fundamentally conservative, but adding to that housing construction also tends to be extremely standardised. It is not built for individual wishes but rather for “the market”, which means that statistical assumptions are made, in order to make the highest possible profit with least possible risk. In housing this often leads to luxury solutions or to risk-free, standardised products made as cheaply as possible.
That’s why I believe that self-initiated or self-organised projects are essential ingredients to a city: because they pay less attention to surface appearances or how they fit in along the street. The inner life is more important. How will the buildings be used, who will live here and who will decide in 20 years what and how things happen, how they develop in the building. Those are questions that interest me. Quite simply, with my work I want to ensure that there are buildings which are used sensibly and are tailored to the needs of the people.
How about your upcoming projects?
Since we have always tried to expand our freedom a little bit more with each new project, I wanted our next project to be, let’s say, a little outside of “normal legality”. There is a certain construction site in Berlin that has been abandoned, with a shell that is about three-quarters finished. A few things must still be done by specialised firms, but with the right people, the rest could be self-built. If we were to acquire the building, we could move in with the right people and complete the building alone, piece by piece. It wouldn’t be much different from the squats in Berlin in the 1980s, which often had to be completely refurbished by their new inhabitants.
From a legal standpoint it’s impossible. First of all, construction work in Germany must be performed by officially approved, specialised firms. And second, no one is allowed to live on a construction site. Basically this makes any form of do-it-yourself construction illegal.
Do you mean it would be DIY in the sense of an architectural project like Torre David in Caracas, made famous by Urban-Think Tank and Iwan Baan – accepting of course the obvious social and political differences between Germany and Venezuela?
We will have to see. For me it’s about further dismantling the boundary between consumer and producer. In general, ever more people are again creating things for their own uses, and I am incredibly excited by the idea of doing this in such an existential field as living – along with a targeted search for loopholes in the Berlin building codes, since there is actually much more leeway buried in all those discretionary and mandatory provisions than is generally believed.
You must be one of the very few people I know who doesn’t think that building in Germany is over-regulated?
Not when you approach the regulations creatively. I would call it an art of interpretation that helps to avoid illegality. I am also very curious if it is possible to do a project without a single drawing. We would just consider, decide and directly implement as much as possible collectively on site.
Would you agree that your work is strongly linked to Berlin and its development over the last 30 years?
Definitely. Berlin has always been a mix of economic hardship and inventiveness. I have been here for 30 years and continue to see this Berlin attitude: “Bah, if the others (or those at the top) are too stupid, then we’ll do it ourselves”. And because Berlin has such a long list of positive outcomes and examples from these independent initiatives, many people still come here today and say, “Wow, it’s incredible what is possible here”.
But can these types of projects be transferred to other cities?
The way in which we work exists in other cities as well. Building co-operatives were not invented in Berlin. I recently read that in Tübingen, normal developers have given up on the city. If this is true, then it means that self-initiated building has become the societal norm there, which would be wonderful. In Berlin, the building co-op is still primarily a middle-class phenomenon. Only when it becomes the norm will it be easier to win over craftsmen, planners and especially the banking industry for such projects. In Berlin the banks are still quite wary of granting loans to building co-ops.
Do you think that self-organised building could become the norm in Berlin as well?
Maybe up until three or four years ago I had this hope – or at least the hope that the many good projects would significantly transform the real estate industry. Because when many small projects show that we can also do it more cheaply, sustainably and better, why should more expensive and unnecessary junk still be built? I have lost a bit of this hope now, however. At the moment Big Business controls the Berlin real estate industry. They can still turn a profit with the biggest junk. I don’t want to be misunderstood: there are also investors who build responsible buildings and make a profit, but unfortunately, in Berlin’s current market situation, investors no longer have to show any sense of responsibility at all, and very quickly it becomes only about maximising profits. DIY hardly has a chance anymore, simply because it has no access to comparable resources.
This poses a great threat to the entire urban fabric, because self-organised architecture leads to better, cheaper and more attractive long-term results for the residents. In building, there must be other motives besides purely capital interests, because building shapes the face of a city over the longer term. The real problem is when the real estate industry builds for the real estate industry. Then it’s not human interests that are foregrounded but rather the interests of some funds. The cities, and not only Berlin, must protect themselves from the irresponsibility of financial investors and Big Business.
However, I have heard that established profiteers have started selling. That might be a sign that the era of big profits in Berlin is coming to an end. It would be nice if that were true.
– Christian Schöningh is an architect and based in Berlin. He is a founding partner of Die Zusammenarbeiter, an architecture agency which since 2009 has been specialising in all types of co-op projects. He lives and works in his most recent project, the Spreefeld, which uncube featured in magazine issue No. 28: “Thank you, I’ll do it myself".
– interview by Florian Heilmeyer, translated from German by Alisa Anh Kotmair.