Ecologically-Responsive Design in Berlin

Ecologically-Responsive Design in Berlin

was published in Australia's Ecodesign Foundation newsletter, D2>EcoD, in Volume 2, Number 4. For info, contact Tony Fry or Anne Marie Willis, PO Box 369 Rozelle, NSW 2039, or tel: 61-(0)2-555-9412


As you travel around in Europe, you'll have the opportunity to see successful environmentally-sound systems at work in large cities that include recycling programs, bike lanes, easy access to public transportation, and you'll enjoy pedestrian-oriented auto-free zones dotted with public squares and gardens. In a city on the crossroads, Berlin, there are several creative sustainable development projects that are raising living standards to new levels. Two of these projects strengthen the urban ecosystem's infrastucture and deserve a closer look.

Developing environmental technology and vocational perspectives are the goals of Atlantis, a new public service corporation. This is a unique "workfare" program for job training in the new technologies that are fueling Germany's future. Here, formerly unemployed workers develop and produce renewable solar and wind energy products, as well as design and build passive solar architecture and landscaping. The employees range from unskilled and semi-skilled workers to professionals including engineers, scientists and designers. Atlantis was founded just three years ago in the period immediately following Germany's reunification, and by mid-1992, already had 240 people at work in the field of ecology. Their approach to solving unemployment and infrastructure problems is a visionary response to situations that parallel ours in the U.S.

Their underlying assumption is that it costs less for the state to create jobs than it does to sustain the costs of unemployment. Atlantis is also demonstrating that it costs less economically and environmentally to use renewables and implement source reduction strategies. The employees work for a maximum of two years at one of Atlantis' four different networked sites in the Berlin area. Each site is purposely limited in size and has a transparent and modifiable organizational structure that encourages solidarity. Departments have autonomous authority over administrative decisions. In addition to job training and working, each employee studies or teaches other subjects four hours weekly. Social workers are on staff to help regenerate social and psychic energies, an element Atlantis considers integral to their ecological work. As the program's graduates return to their homes across the country, they'll continue their work in environmental technologies.

Currently, two of Atlantis' workshops produce solar thermal and photovoltaic products for home and municipal applications. At their administrative offices, passive solar architecture, efficient interiors and drought-resistant landscaping are being developed that utilize new technologies as well as traditional materials and construction techniques. A third site, 25 km away in Kesselberg, was the Stasi headquarters, but now it is the research and design center for wind powered centrifugal water pumps and aeration systems. Here, 80 people work at a site that generated great fear when the secret police had it, but today, it's benefitting the country on many levels. Their fourth site is their public relations department, which provides information about Atlantis' goals, performance and products to promote public awareness. They also produce an in-house newspaper to encourage communication between departments.

The Atlantis project reflects Germany's decision to employ energy efficiency and renewables to reduce oil dependency. They depend almost entirely on government funding, which is adjusted every year. Atlantis' continual discovery of niches in the ecological marketplace and use of adaptive technologies provides an important link in the cooperative network developing in Germany and Europe.

S.T.E.R.N. Behutsame Stadterneuerung Berlin is another government funded group. Here, approximately 100 architects and related designers plan and implement "careful urban renewal" in Kreuzberg, Berlin, an area on the eastern edge of former West Berlin that is similar to NYC's Lower East Side. Their approach was developed in response to squatters and immigrants who confronted the government over their right to adequate housing. Over the last 13 years, they have transformed more than 80 whole blocks by involving the 56,000 residents of crumbling buildings in the re-design and reconstruction of the neighborhood.

S.T.E.R.N. has created hundreds of moderately priced apartments and co-housing projects (with a combination of private and shared living and working space) plus commercial space with, for example, renewable energy or grey water reclamation systems. The residents decide if they want their building powered by solar, wind or cogeneration, if they want daycare centers, roof gardens with grass growing on them, workshops, etc. Inside, ecologically-sound construction materials are used efficiently to suit their inhabitants' needs. As many of the original buildings as possible are preserved and most of the blocks have courtyard gardens, vine-covered walls and well-kept appearances.

You might notice S.T.E.R.N. by chance if you spot a wall covered with plants that filter the used water for the garden of a 35 person co-housing project. Perhaps you'll be invited into the kitchen where the residents share supper in a wonderful, bright and comfortable building. The residents pay a fairly low rent or trade work for rent, and they take turns making dinner and maintaining the common spaces.

Like Atlantis, S.T.E.R.N. is also a job training program specifically for the construction trade. In this workfare project, a resident can work on the renewal of their own home, then stay on the crew as new projects get underway. Their creations include the preservation of landmarked structures, small industrial complexes, buildings for the aged, and even two neighborhood petting farms with swimming ponds for city-dwelling kids.

The S.T.E.R.N. group is now branching out into other parts of the city, including into East Berlin, where housing is in terribly delapidated condition. They're aware that projects there may take more time to complete as the citizens are just starting to learn about the rights and obligations of freedom. For the first time in a generation, they are being asked to envision the ideal home and then work to bring it to fruition. The experience that S.T.E.R.N. gains in East Berlin will be used to make their techniques even more applicable throughout Europe. With so many successes and beautifully photographed, multi-lingual promotional materials that spread their method, they encourage the duplication of their approach in other cities.

Atlantis and S.T.E.R.N. are just two examples of the many projects designed to integrate ecological concerns into daily life in Berlin. With the government supporting the redesign of the city, much has been accomplished in a very short time. We all need to take a good look at how their approaches can help us change our lifestyles for the better while lowering our impact on the resource base of the Earth.

Contacts (may be a bit out-dated):

Alice Herz, Offentlichkeitsarbeit (Public Relations)
S.T.E.R.N., Kopernicker Strasse 154A, D-1000 Berlin 36, Germany, tel: 030-6100-03-22
Gunther Hofmann, Abt. Zuwendungen (Administrator) Atlantis, Cuvrystrasse 1, D-1000 Berlin 36 Germany, tel 030-618-20-91, fax 030-618-90-90

© Wendy E. Brawer 1993

Back to Writing Projects