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A German commune

Here’s a story of The wonders and limits of community living at a home shared by 120 people in Tübingen in Germany

On a recent trip to Germany, I met a home. This home is an artificial person of a kind, a legal owner of property, gadgets and furniture, that shelters and feeds its owners—120 of them—who live in it and pay for its upkeep. Called the Shelling Project, the home buys household provisions, lays the dining hall with food, host parties, and runs a café. Everyone who lives in it has a right to use what it owns.

There are five such homes in Tübingen—a hill university town nestled between two rivers in Southern Germany. The Shelling Project is the oldest of them. The house is legally owned by a committee and all its residents, whose ages vary from 20 to 50, are its members and thus co-owners. They retain membership as long as they live here, and relinquish it when they leave. If someone departs, other members decide who gets to take his or her place as a new member. No one can sell the property, individually or collectively, to another private party.

They don’t pay a monthly rent. Instead, they pay a kind of monthly maintenance fee for the upkeep of the property, purchase of provisions and other expenses.

Some residents are students. Others have been staying here for three decades—from the very beginning of the project. Every resident is assigned a routine task or chore to perform to have the home running.

The Schelling Project origin lies in the squatter movement of the late 70s and early 80s, when student activists, punks and artists raised their voices against private ownership and began squatting in abandoned buildings, taking them over to create shared living spaces where they could lead an alternate lifestyle inspired by the ideals of sharing and communism and opposed to the authority of ownership and capitalism.

To fund this lifestyle, they took to running unlicensed nightclubs, restaurants, bars and book stores, even theatres and radio stations to propagate their movement. With their rhetoric of equality, peace and brotherhood, they captured many an imagination of the youth of the day.

The Squatter movement did cause some unrest, particularly in places closer to Berlin like Potsdam. Street battles were fought with the authorities and the squatters were evicted from many places. But the movement survived in places like Tübingen, a beautiful old town of young people, it borders forests that open into a wide plateau with apple orchards, lovely meadows that have daffodils all through summer and large farms where humongous tractors plough fields tirelessly. The movement did not last long; as some critics say, it was hurt by its own success.

The Schelling Project is a double-storey building that is about a hundred metres across—giving it the look of the main block of a school. It was empty for decades after the French military vacated it after World War II and before squatters took occupation in 1981. Four years later, they signed a rent agreement with the local authorities for 15 years; they had cheap accommodation and wanted to keep it that way. This could be done by organising themselves as a cohesive group that would make collective decisions in the common favour. The squatters were now tenants.

It was the midnight of 16 August that I entered the home—as a guest of Johannes, a PhD candidate at Tübingen University and a friend who had stayed with me last year at my Delhi flat. He lives in one of the Shelling Projects’ 10 flats. Located on the first floor of the building’s left flank, this flat is more like a dorm and Johannes shares it with a dozen flatmates.
The building’s main door opens to a corridor that seems endless in the dim light of a dull yellow blub. I felt disoriented. “You live here?” I asked my friend, “This is so big.”

Every item on the kithcen shelf seemed to have a history attached to it

It looked like the barracks of an old castle where soldiers retire after a day’s battle. Johannes took me for a quick guided tour. Parallel to the corridor run four halls, one after the other. Each hall opens into three rooms, so there are 12 rooms. At the far end of the corridor are the common bathrooms.

While it’s a long walk to the loo from Johannes’ quarters, the kitchen-cum-dining space is right next door. It is a big rectangular hall with a long cooking slab on one side and another counter that separates it from the dining zone. There is a large dining table here, and this place also serves as a common area for residents to read periodicals and interact.

The open shelves in the kitchen has cups, glasses and utensils procured at various points in time by various residents of the house. Every item on the shelf seems to have a history attached to it. Like this bust of an old man that sits oddly with the rest of the utensils; it bears a wrinkled face with an imperial moustache, and no one knows who he was and what his association with the home is. I was tempted to believe it’s the bust of French army officer who might have had his men living here at some point, but I was told that this was unlikely since the sculpture was not as old as it looked.

The kitchen zone bulges out of the building with large windows overlooking the backyard—which has a café amid a garden where plants grow wild and the grass is left unmowed. Tucked underneath a tree there is a huge iron cylindrical boiler with a ladder alongside. On weekend winter nights, this boiler is filled with water and heated with charcoal for residents to slip in neck-deep, soak in the warmth and chat up over a drink or two. It is large enough to accommodate a dozen people at a time.

The corridor has a few lofts and one of them was converted into an elevated guest room for my four nights at Shelling Project. The first night in my special bunk, I had a vivid dream–of my watching a vintage film on a black-and-white television screen. I felt a wetness on my face, and when I opened my eyes in the dream, I found three dogs licking my face. Next, if I recall correctly, I dreamt of a white curtain with a floral print hanging loose before my eyes with what seemed like a naked woman standing behind it. Tempted to pull the curtain, I felt myself suffocating—and I was nearly choked to death by the time I awoke. It was the fault of the bust, I sensed, and I thought I might wake Johannes and announce that the place is haunted. But then I reminded myself that it’s just a dream.

The morning sun transformed the whole place. It looked so much more appealing. I loved the old sofas, the shelves made of solid wood, the full volumes of an encyclopaedia on a shelf carved out of the wall. Much of the furniture had been procured second-hand, and some of it might have been as old as the building itself, which was built in 1914. This is its centenary year!

The basement has a community hall where residents of Shelling Project gather to discuss issues, make decisions and hold parties. On the other side of the basement is another hall, a damp one that has clothes neatly hung in parallel rows of metal bars. I thought it’s the laundry room. But Johannes tells me this is where residents leave perfectly usable stuff that is of no use to them for others to make use of it they want. There were assorted gadgets, tools, an old camera-and-tripod, artefacts, pottery items, a kettle without a lid and host of other interesting things.

I watched two young men make graffiti on its entrance door.

Some of the other oddities are striking—like internet use, which is highly regulated here. It takes elaborate paperwork to get online, a process that was enforced after the police recently descended on the home in pursuit of someone who had allegedly downloaded child pornography. They could not identify who that person was. But the Project is now under watch. I used Johannes’ computer to check my email and upload pictures on Facebook. “No child pornography,” he cautioned.

It’s clear that the original ideals were given up a long time ago. The home is a fair-weather friend. Its residents may stay only so long as they have the money to pay. “And when they can’t, they have to leave,” says Ingo, who has been living here long before Johannes was born. Cash still counts.