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ufaFabrik and the Power of Intentional Communities
Alex Steffen, 4 Sep 06

ufa-aerial.jpgIt's pretty easy to make fun of intentional communities, if that's the sort of thing you enjoy, but utopias have their purposes, and intentional communities often offer the leverage of instantiation -- they're not just plans on paper, they're sitting right there in front of you, ready perhaps to offer the threat of a good example. It's easy to dismiss a plan, but harder to dismiss a demonstration.

Which is what makes Berlin's ufaFabrik such a delight. For three decades, ufaFabrik has been pushing the boundaries of the possible, turning the old pre-war UFA studios (where classics like Metropolis were created) into a thriving-if-threadbare arts, community and sustainability center.

I'm sitting at their outdoor cafe, surrounded by people having meetings and young mothers chatting. A cacophony of young unicyclists rides by. The wind turbines spin in the breeze over the green roofs. The solar panels glint in the sun. It'd take a heart of stone not to feel that the ufaFabrikators have earned a little satisfaction in all they've accomplished. They're certainly nice people, and their vision has been impressive.

ufaFabrik now features a theater, a dance studio, natural food store, a bakery, the cafe where I now sit, a guesthouse (which we would highly recommend), the largest solar installation in Berlin, 4,000 square meters of green roofs, rainwater harvesting systems, smart lighting that turns itself off when no one's around, bike racks and foot paths, a 90% solid-waste composting and recycling rate, extensive gardens, a children's farm (with horses, pigs, chickens and geese), a community center offering a variety of classes and programs, a Free School, even a circus.

The paint's peeling, the residents perhaps a little long in the tooth, but unlike some grandiose visions, this one actually works, and works pretty well, both strengthening its local community and greatly reducing the ecological footprints of those who live and work here. It's useful and beloved and still fairly radical.

So I'll set aside the hippy jokes, and just note that many of the things ufaFabrik has made happen (the hard way, through thirty years of sweat equity and trial and error) are the kind of things that are now landing in the mainstream, from clean energy to green building to local food. Folks like these have brought us the tools we're now widely adopting, and helped make the advantages of those tools clear by actually using them in public. That's worldchanging, and makes me wonder what young punks out there are launching some idealistic and foolhardy venture now which will make our kids grateful.

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The hippies were right and don't you young whippersnappers forget it! Now get off my xeriscaped lawn!!

Posted by: gmoke on 4 Sep 06

Sad that the term "hippy" continues to carry such sorry-ass connotations and is associated with a pessimistic view of "intentional community." In fact, all this technological magic won't be adopted and used as it should be unless the social challenges of cooperative and collective living are dealt with. The Farm - the largest, longest-lasting "hippy commune" - at least experimented seriously with technical innovation and the social realities of total collectivity for 12 full years.

How do you get and *maintain* the commitment of enough people to maintain a localized self-sufficient community? That question, I believe, will need to be answered once the techical solutions are all in place. Even the best gizmos, if abandoned by their builder/users once they reach a point of "socially fatigue," will risk abandonment. Cooperation over the long run is a learned skill, requiring a level of commitment at a level somewhere between marriage and military platoon.

Posted by: Fig on 5 Sep 06



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