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Squatting the city: on developing alternatives to mainstream forms of urban regeneration

Hackney ghetto model

This global phenomenon points to a different understanding of the home, as a site of cooperation, emancipation and self-organisation, suggesting a more sustainable understanding of the city could be reclaimed

On the evening of  26 May 2012 a modest wooden structure was erected in the middle of a public square on the southern edge of Kottbusser Tor in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg. The makeshift building, set up by local residents in the wake of a street fair, soon became a permanent protest camp against rising rents and general housing insecurity. The protesters were part of the Kotti & Co tenants’ initiative formed by a group of social housing residents in Kreuzberg. They came from a range of different backgrounds, including many from the local German-Turkish community.  

The protesters described the small wooden shack that they had erected as a gecekondu in reference to the informal dwellings constructed by migrants on the outskirts of large cities in Turkey. In Turkish, gece means ‘at night’ and kondu means ‘placed’ and the term gecekondu is usually used to describe a house or dwelling that is ‘built overnight’. Such dwellings could not be torn down without taking their occupants to court.  

woman reading possession order tom hunter 1997

Source: Tom Hunter

‘Woman Reading Possession Order’, 1997

According to the social historian and anarchist Colin Ward, the history of the gecekondu is part of a global history of squatting and informal housing. This is a history that encompasses, on the one hand, a range of customary beliefs, makeshift practices and coping mechanisms that have emerged in the absence of the most basic of necessities; on the other hand, it is equally responsible for the making of new social forms that point to a different understanding of the home as a site of cooperation, emancipation and self-organisation.

The gecekondu set up by the Kotti & Co initiative blurred the boundaries between home and meeting place. Organised around a samovar, wooden tables and benches, it quickly became a neighbourhood social centre and a base for a range of protests against rising rents imposed by housing associations on local tenants living in the large estates that were constructed around Kottbusser Tor as part of the redevelopment of Kreuzberg in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite considerable pushback from local authorities, the initiative was eventually successful in forcing the Berlin Senate to cap rents in over 35,000 social housing units across the city. 



Source: Coutresy of Hackney Gazette/Archant

A news story in Hackney Gazette from 1993 focuses on the building Tom Hunter called home at the time

The protest camp and the wider initiative it supports have nevertheless chosen to stay. They remain active within a number of campaigns and housing struggles across Berlin. As a member of Kotti & Co concluded, ‘the articulation of a right to the city could never be expressed in parliaments, city streets or courts alone. Rather it is complex self-organised experience, such as the Kotti, through which such a right is learned, lived and fought over’.  

It is in this very context that the Kotti & Co initiative recently collaborated with the architect Ted Cruz and the political theorist Fonna Forman. Both have worked extensively on the politics of informal housing on the US-Mexico border and their conversations with Kotti & Co centred on the possibilities of extending the gecekondu’s modest architectural footprint beyond its four makeshift walls and into the wider local community. The collaboration yielded a modular industrial design – ‘a light infrastructural system’ – that could be taken apart, transported and reassembled. The final structure was unveiled as part of the Wohnungsfrage (Housing Question) exhibition organised by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in November 2015. It was deliberately designed for adaptation using local materials and could be retrofitted to meet a number of different spatial configurations from self-help housing to workshop, gallery space, or temporary urban assembly.   

In the eyes of its designers, the final structure was much more than a prototype for a new form of social housing. All the participants in the project saw it as an opportunity to use the built form as a medium for grassroots community organising and the development of alternative urban infrastructures. ‘Our proposal’, they concluded, ‘aims to elevate the capacity of the gecekondu into a distributive system, able to support a variety of socioeconomic, political and cultural activities in the context of housing.’  


Source: Courtesy of  Landesarchiv Berlin/Bert Sass, F Rep . 290 Nr 0042233

‘Green Slums’ - homes on Wilhelmsruher Damm in Berlin-Reinikendorf, 20 July 1955

It is, of course, not only in Berlin that housing activists have revived squatting and other occupation-based practices in recent years. The significance of urban squatting has received renewed attention, especially in the midst of an intensifying global housing crisis. In cities in the Global North, the symptoms of this crisis have acquired a certain ubiquity. Whether it is Berlin, London, Madrid or New York, households are, as David Madden and Peter Marcuse write, ‘being squeezed by the cost of living. Homelessness is on the rise. Evictions and foreclosures are commonplace’. And yet, at the same time, homes are now commodities. Housing is no longer seen as a basic social need – it has become an instrument of profit making, transforming today’s cities into sites of intense displacement, exploitation and poverty. 

Haus Genzmann on Wilhelmsruher Damm and Treuenbrietzener Straße, Märkisches Viertel, Berlin, 1971

As I have argued in The Autonomous City, it is in the lives, spaces and practices of squatters that we continue to find an alternative vision of the city and a robust defence of housing in both its lived social dimension and in its ‘identity as home’.  This is a vision that provides us with important tools for reclaiming the city as a site of social transformation, while challenging the logics of gentrification and property speculation, and the negative effects of urban regeneration. This is, moreover, a vision of architecture and the built form as a key medium for new participatory forms of living, organising and working.   

The relationship between housing activism and architecture is nothing new. In the case of West Berlin, it was in the spring of 1968 – and against the backdrop of the student movement and the New Left – that a group of young professionals met in room 507 of the Faculty of Architecture at the Technische Universität (TU Berlin) to challenge the planning policies that had been adopted by the city. They formed what became known as Aktion 507 and proclaimed that they were for ‘direct democracy’ and ‘better public control of the structural development of urban areas’. The group advocated ‘practical action’ and the formation of an alternative public sphere, and called for the participation of all those affected by the city’s top-down planning process. In a major 1968 exhibition, Diagnose zum Bauen in West Berlin, the group painstakingly documented the impact of displacement and relocation on inner-city residents and the socio-psychological effects of living in newly constructed satellite estates on the outskirts of the city with little, if any, social infrastructure. They also used the exhibition as a forum for discussing urban renewal with tenants and for creating a space for collective resident-led planning.  

Moved in colour3


Source: Courtesy of Assemble

Concept sketch of Assemble’s co-housing model for Stille Strasse

The focus on grassroots urban planning reflected a growing critique of postwar urban planning and design in West Germany. Inspired by local critics such as Hans Paul Bahrdt, Heide Berndt and Alexander Mitscherlich, not to mention the talismanic work of Jane Jacobs, a new generation of architects emerged for whom the Modernist city had become a source of residential alienation and anomie. Beyond the exhibition, the student architects turned to more engaged forms of research. They began work in the Märkisches Viertel, a large Modernist housing estate in Reinickendorf whose ongoing construction was part of West Berlin’s First Urban Renewal Programme initiated by then-mayor Willy Brandt in 1963. They were soon joined by more than 100 students and eight lecturers from the Pädagogische Hochschule Berlin, who had received funding from the Volkswagen Foundation to set up a five-year research scheme on grassroots organising and community self-empowerment.  

The Märkisches Viertel became, in this way, a laboratory for alternative forms of organisation and representation that treated the city, the neighbourhood and the built form as both the setting and stage for new political ideas and practices. Most of the students that became involved in the Märkisches Viertel had cut their teeth in the extra-parliamentary opposition of the late 1960s. They encouraged local residents to adopt a range of direct action tactics, from public happenings to rent strikes, resistance eviction protests to other occupation-based practices. It was, in fact, in May 1970 that the very first squat in West Berlin was set up in an abandoned factory hall in the Märkisches Viertel.  

Stille strasse debatte imgsize l


Occupation of Stille Strasse, 2012. Photograph by Peter Lämmer

While the factory occupation in the Märkisches Viertel was itself short-lived, it was nevertheless the first squatted space in a city where the radical politics of occupation assumed an enduring significance. The relationship between architecture and protest was central to this history, and helped to legitimise the squatting scene that later flourished in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It would come to feature in the Berlin IBA (Internationale Bauausstellung held between 1979 and 1987) along with the ‘cautious form of urban renewal’ that emerged as a consequence of the project. 

 ‘It is better to squat and mend than to own and destroy’

For many squatters in West Berlin, the movement that reached its high point in the early 1980s also offered an opportunity to rehabilitate and re-imagine the often heavily damaged spaces they were occupying. They famously adopted the slogan, ‘it is better to squat and mend than to own and destroy’.

They also used, for the first time, the term Instand(be)setzung to describe their actions, the term itself a clever combination of the German for maintenance (Instandsetzung) and squatting (Besetzung). Squatting, in their eyes, was a makeshift process of mending and repair as materials and infrastructures were incrementally added to satisfy new needs and possibilities. Houses were slowly and painstakingly restored using a combination of DIY practices. Dry rot and mould were identified and removed, windows were replaced, roofs patched, old and exposed electrical wiring was fixed and proper plumbing was restored. 

Repair and rehabilitation was a collective process. It depended on the sharing of materials, practices and know-how between squatters. The squatting scene in West Berlin in the 1980s was supported by a handicraft collective Bauhof Handwerkskollektiv in Kreuzberg, which became a place where squatters and other locals could learn basic construction skills and techniques from other squatters, many of whom had completed an apprenticeship in a trade or were attending a vocational school in West Berlin. The Bauhof was a site where squatters and architectural professionals often met to debate, discuss and experiment with new and innovative approaches to participatory design and adaptive reuse. It supplied squats across West Berlin with inexpensive building materials that were either recycled or purchased cheaply in bulk. The Bauhof also ran a series of articles in the Instand-Besetzer-Post, one of the chief publications of the squatting scene, that provided detailed DIY instructions on a host of repair-related issues. 

6 handbook covers

Source: Courtesy of the Advisory Servicec for Squatters.

the Squatters’ Handbook was introduced in 1976, offering practical and legal advice on squatting and homelessness.

Squatters in West Berlin were not alone in seeking to cultivate an ethos of self-determination and self-help. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in particular, squatters across Europe and North America produced their own handbooks and manuals.  These were publications that combined a sharp critique of urban planning with a commitment to providing the tools and practices for generating alternative forms of collective self-management. The Squatters’ Handbook – now in its 14th edition – was first produced in London in 1976 by the Advisory Service for Squatters. It offered detailed practical and legal advice for anyone seeking to take control of their own housing needs. In Amsterdam, a similar manual was first published in 1969 as the Guide For Squatters (Handleiding krakers). It combined a series of rough and ready instructions into how to repair a house with information on planning and housing policy in Amsterdam. For New Yorkers, it was Survival Without Rent that served as a step-by-step guide for would-be squatters in the Lower East Side in the mid 1980s.  

As one commentator has recently suggested, the booklets, guides and manuals produced by squatters represented a blueprint for an alternative urbanism that they were themselves responsible for constructing. The built form served as guiding frame for the creation of new sustainable structures of organising, working and living. Squatted buildings were re-engineered to suit the changing needs and wishes of their inhabitants. In the hands of squatters, the very idea of what it therefore meant to make a home assumed a new significance. Walls were often removed to create new communal kitchens as well rooms for general meetings, parties, gigs and other cultural activities.  

The international symbol for squatting

For squatters, architecture was a hands-on affair – experimental, makeshift and subversive. The buildings they occupied were often in terrible shape and required significant repair. In Copenhagen in the early 1970s, activists in the neighbourhood of Nørrebro attempted to preserve and fireproof many of the district’s older and often empty buildings. Block protection units were set up to prevent the removal of tenants, and were, in many cases, successful.

Repair itself often depended on rudimentary tools (crowbars, kerosene heaters, piss buckets and woodstoves) and newly learned skills (hanging doors, replacing floors and joists, framing out walls, installing pipes and wires). Many squatters valued the self-help skills they learned. In the words of one long-time New York squatter, ‘a new squat can be really raw’. ‘Being involved in this whole process’, they added, ‘learning the steps of building a habitable space, really makes you appreciate and respect your surroundings […] The knowledge of how to build and maintain my own living space gave me a sense of calm in the midst of chaos.’  

Source: Photography by Wolfgang Sünderhauf / Umbruch Bildarchiv

A street party is held for 40-42 Knobelsdorfstrasse , Berlin, is cleared of its inhabitants, 21 September 1981.

The kind of ‘habitable’ spaces constructed by squatters were transformative in other ways as well. They represented an opportunity to explore new identities and intimacies and, as such, challenged what a home was and could be. It is perhaps no surprise that the recent history of squatting in Europe and North America has been characterised by its sheer diversity, attracting students, apprentices, runaways, drop-outs, anarchists, punks, gay and lesbian activists, queer and trans groups, black nationalists, migrants, refugees and environmentalists. 

Squatting nevertheless represented far more than a crude exercise in architectural experimentation and reclamation. The improvised spaces assembled by squatters were undoubtedly creative and playful and left their mark on how we think about and inhabit the city. And yet, this was a legacy that extended far beyond the walls of squats to encompass the wider networks and social spaces they generated. The broad spectrum of sites and activities developed by squatters spoke to an expansive social infrastructure that offered an alternative to the one routinely explored by contemporary urbanists. Whether it be London or New York, Berlin or Copenhagen, this was an infrastructure that assumed a number of forms including alternative bookshops and cafés, cinemas, community gardens, concert venues, cycle repair shops, daycare centres, galleries, social centres and workshops.

Do-it-yourself instructions for squatters, Instand-Besetzer-Post, Issue 1, 11 March 1981

As a genre of urban infrastructure, squatting thus spoke to a form of architectural activism that combined community design and participation with an understanding of the built environment as a source of continuous invention. Squatters were responsible for spaces that often endured and thrived. In some circumstances, these spaces were even legalised or ‘normalised’ by municipal authorities.

There are, however, other lessons to be learned here. The participatory ‘open source’ architecture cultivated by squatters should not be romanticised. The re-use of abandoned buildings, temporary spaces and disused lots for the development of alternative practices and events has also played a decisive role in the neoliberal restructuring of major cities in the Global North. The radical openness of squatted spaces has, in recent years, been ‘captured’ by the creative industries and co-opted by municipal planning departments and city marketing campaigns. Squats, in this way, not only conferred much-needed social capital. They also became vital assets in the regeneration and marketisation of urban landscapes.

Source: Photograph by Alberto Rojas

 Aerial shot of the Pampas de Comas informal settlement in Lima, 1962.

It is clear that squatters face many challenges, not least the new wave of anti-squatting legislation that has increasingly criminalised the actions of squatters in Europe and North America. Ordinary citizens and activists have nevertheless fought back. In Spain, the elementary brutalities of the global financial crisis have forced thousands of people from their homes. Many – including members of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH or Platform for Mortgage Victims) – have turned to squatting and other forms of resistance. Elsewhere across Europe, most notably in Greece and Italy, a number of squats have been set up as space of refuge and hospitality for forced migrants who often find themselves in political limbo or unable to access local services. 

While the future of squatting has, admittedly, become an increasingly fragile project, there is still much to be gained from a return to some form of self-build housing as a means to reclaim a more sustainable understanding of the city. This is moreover, a call for a radical rethink of the role of architecture in housing. Squatters – especially in the 1960s and 1970s – were often closely allied with architects and urban planners in developing autonomous self-managed spaces (many squatters were, in fact, architects themselves). Much of this ethos has, in recent decades, been lost in favour of spectacular event-based forms that have done little to address housing needs. 

Source: Photograph by Mark Cawson / Sorika.

‘Seamus, Schoolhouse Squat, Shepherds Bush Road, circa 1981-1985’.

At the same time, it is clear that a move to re-connect and embed architecture within wider movements for the right to housing has already begun. The recent work of the London-based architectural collective Assemble comes to mind here. Their recent collaboration with a group of pensioners from Berlin who had squatted a community centre in 2012 highlights the possibilities for repurposing the home for more collective ends. As the work of the Architects for Social Housing collective in London has also demonstrated, it is increasingly vital that architects play an important role in developing alternatives to mainstream forms of urban regeneration, thereby giving rise to a different mode of practice. This is an architectural practice that would allow ordinary people to take control of their own lives and shape their own housing needs. It would, in turn, place architecture at the service of a larger project to remake and transform the city.  To do so is to revive important questions that animated many architects and planners in the 1970s. It was during this period that the architect and urbanist John Turner famously argued that housing ‘must be autonomous’. The immediate context for Turner’s argument was his own practical experience in the 1960s working in the rapidly expanding self-built and self-governing barriadas of Peru. For Turner, the most important thing about housing, according to his friend Colin Ward, ‘is not what it is but what it does in people’s lives’.  This search for autonomy in housing and built form was never resolved despite the efforts of squatters in cities across Europe and North America, not to mention the highly precarious forms of endurance developed by their more numerous counterparts in the Global South. And yet, it is only by way of a serious and committed return to this kind of architectural practice that the radical promise of a more just and sustainable way of inhabiting cities might finally be realised.

Lead Image

The Ghetto’, 1994. Photography by Tom Hunter


The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting, Alexander Vasudevan, London, Verso, 2017

This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2017 issue on houses – click here to purchase a copy