New Life In An Old Factory - Corliss Anderson and Eddie Roberts


Overview of the squatted Kerngehäuse in Berlin, a former factory which hosted a number of collectives when occupied.

Originally appeared in Bar Fax.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 10, 2021

FOR MOST PEOPLE the word 'factory' conjures up a picture of meaningless, boring, stultifying and nerve-racking work. The picture is reinforced if the factory happens to date from the nineteenth century, has a Dickensian facade of bricks and small windows and is squeezed between foul streets in one of Berlin's most densely populated areas. Such a factory stands in Cuvrystrasse, Kreuzberg 36.

Moreover in this case the old adage. 'don't judge a book by its cover', really comes into play. For within the four-feet thick wails one finds a combination of over ten groups, clubs and businesses concentrated not on profit of an economic kind but of a social, cultural and political nature. The factory has been squatted and re-christened Kerngehäuse (central or core houses). Within the same block an eight storey high apartment complex has also been squatted, re-establishing the old idea of living and workplace in the same area. The juxtaposition of home and work is typical of the working class areas of Berlin and helped create positive structures by weaving together living, working, leisure and cultural activities. It also strengthened co-operative ties between the many small businesses that were to be found in the Hinterhofe (courtyards) behind the apartments.

History of Kerngehäuse

The factory was built in 1888 by a carpenter, Carl Ahrens. who died four years later. It was then sold to a Herr Muller who manufactured sewing machine parts, later concentrating on children's sewing machines. These innocent toys were set aside during both world wars for the production of machine guns and other weapons. Due to Allied bombing the factory was reduced from 6,000 sq. metres to 2.600 sq. metres and after 1946 produced only children's sewing machines.

In 1977 Muller went bankrupt and Cuvrystrasse 20 was sold to K D Schutze for DM 500,000. One and a half years later it was sold to a building firm, Dr Marx GmbH for DM 1.9 million. A short time later a consortium of speculators, called COMBAU, including Dr Marx, bought the whole of Block 133 (the factory and accompanying apartments) and planned a large scale modernisation (read demolition).

This sale prompted squatters to move into the empty apartments in the front of the factory. At the same time Citizen's Action Group SO36 (SO36 is the post code for inner Kreuzberg) and the Zip Committee became the legal representatives of both the squatters and the long established residents threatened by the speculation. Zip and the SO36 group put forward an alternative renovation plan for the block, determined to halt the 'delapidation' plan of COMBAU.

In June 1980, COMBAU appeared to be giving into the citizens' initiative by allowing the complex to be rented—but only until the following September. By this time people were very excited about using the factory to house their various projects. They were also aware that the winter would soon be upon them, and typical of such situations, Dr Marx and [i[COMBAU[/i] had not invested one pfenning in the maintenance of the budding. It was then that Dr Marx came and saw the building for the first time and began to get papers flowing that would allow the squatters to rent, and over a period of three years, to purchase the block. Dr Marx stipulated that the repairs had to be carried out by the leasees. So began the large scale squat of both facttory and apartments.

However the contract between COMBAU and the squatters came to a sudden end after the police cleared a squat in Kreuzberg cn December 12 1980. During the action the police used their truncheons and many arrests were made. As a result of this, Kerngehäuse broke its ties with the speculators and came out in full support of the Squatting Movement

Kerngehäuse today

The philosophy of the people involved in the Kerngehäuse is to help break the demarcation between life and work. Through their various protects they hope to offer an alternative to the modern economist's view of 'labour'. For the letter has been brought up to consider work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot to be eliminated altogether by automation. From the point al view of the worker, it is a 'disutility'; to work is to make a sacrifice of one's leisure and comfort, the wages being a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.

The folk down in Cuvrystrasse take a different view of work. They see the function of work to be at least threefold: a means of utilizing and developing one's faculties; a way to combat one own ego-centred nature by joining with others in a common task; and to produce the goods and services needed for a 'reasonable existence'. They work with friends, have no bosses and everyone is entitled to an equal voice. They are aware of the emotional deprivation that traditional work methods, such as division and specialization of labour can cause, so once somebody begins a task they see it through to the end.

Kerngehäuse projects

The factory is home for the following collectives; Wood Workshop, Self-Help Health Group, Non-Nuclear Engineering Group, Babylonia, Taxi Collective, Food Co-op, Ratibor Theatre, 5 aus 36.

On account of their past bureaucratic and legal struggles they have a wealth of firsthand experience and advice which they willingly give to those involved in squatting or related movements. Through the Kerngehäuse workshops they are able to offer help and advice in the repair of squatted houses. Their advice is also sought by their more established neighbours which earns them respect in the neighbourhood.

The WoodWorkshop was established in August 1978 with six people, five of whom earned their living building stages and props for the film industry. Now they specialise in the carpentry side of renovation—repairing floors windows etc. There is so much work to be done that they often work with other collectives. Over breakfast they discuss the workday ahead and meet once a week with the other collectives of the Kerngehäuse. They also have a small metal workshop which manufactures potters' wheels and windmills. They hope to make money installing central heating, stressing solar and other renewable energy forms. The money from this venture will be invested in the general renovation and improvement of the factory.

The Self-Help Health Group is run by a group of people from the health world —physical therapists, women doctors and inhalation speciaiists. They attempt to heighten people's body awareness and to educate them into using the health industry sensibly. They have plans to form a library and hold the following in the Kerngehäuse; breathing and massage workshop. acupuncture groups, Shiatsu and foot reflection therapy. Many alternative medical groups profit handsomely through their services, but the money this group makes from workshops is ploughed back into the renovation of the factory and patient groups.

They hold an open appointment every Tuesday between 4.30 and 7.00. Here you can get more information and also medical advice, should you be feeling under the weather.

The Non-Nuclear Engineering Group specialises in windmills for watering crops and tree plantations, and offers free workshops for those interested in renovation.

Babylonia is an association of colourful people whose aim is to help broaden peoples' cultural and political outlook through the free exchange of foreign opinions and ideas. This is achieved by organising music and information evenings on countries all over the world. For example, in October, [i[TALKA[/i], a music group from Peru, performed Indian and contemporary Peruvian songs in the Kerngehäuse, and last month the factory was the venue for a Guatemalan information evening, with films and discussions describing the situation there. Naturally, one acquires a deeper knowledge of another country when one is able to speak and read that country's language. So, through Babylonia one can, with native speakers, learn Turkish, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and German.

Babylonia also runs programmes to help foreigners in Berlin get a better understanding of the German cultural and political situation. No knowledge of German is presumed. They meet in the Kerngehäuse or in the cafes and pubs and study such topics as contemporary German music and the social problems of the Turkish community. They also go to the theatre and cinema or make a big meal together in one of the teacher's homes. [i[Babylonia[/i] feel that this is an ideal and natural way to learn German. Most participants look upon Babylonia a group of friends rather than an educational institution.

The Taxi Collective was formed in April 1980 with thirty people, aged between 23 and 40, most of whom are students, or ex-students who had worked earlier as taxi drivers. Because of the large number involved it was decided to divide the people into groups of five. Each group could then take responsibility for the office side of the operation as well as the repairs, the latter being conducted by the collective in its well equipped workshop. Their pay is similar to other taxi companies but all profit is channelled into various alternative projects.

The Food Co-op helps people to buy natural foods at a cheaper price than the usual natural food shops. They do this by buying organic food in bulk direct from the producers at a price 30-50% the norm. They are willing to help anyone interested in starling their own food co-op.

The Ratibor Theatre Group was established in 1977 by a group of people with experience in street theatre, traditional drama, cabaret, political satire and comedy. They write pieces themselves. concentrating mostly on socio-political conflicts.

5 aus 36 (Five from Kreuzberg 36) is the Kerngehäuse rock group, famous for the writing of the first squatters' song 'Lass die Leute frei!' (Let the people free!), which can be bought in good record stores and left-wing political bookshops.

All those involved in the Kerngehäuse stress the fun and intimacy their jobs bring them and the knowledge that their work helping prevent the destruction of Kreuzberg. Their projects are a reflection of their belief that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy work and bliss of leisure.



3 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by Fozzie on April 10, 2021

This is pretty uncritical and raises the usual questions about employment practices in small "right on collectives" (and the merits of getting "medical advice") from them.

There is a brochure here which I think was produced by Kerngehäuse residents at the time - it includes more photos: