Ökohaus view from outside

Building together the Ökohaus

Frei Otto and collective improvisation

German architect Frei Otto questioned the role of architects in today’s society throughout his entire life. [1] Determined to put into practice his idea - which he shared with French architect Yona Friedman [2] - that “each man can create its own individual environment” [3], in the early 1980s Frei Otto imagined a green vertical cocoon called Ökohaus [Eco House] in which inhabitants were to build their own “nests” in nearly total autonomy.

Ökohaus Frei Otto

“Each man can create his own individual environment”

Located a few minutes walk from the Tiergarten - one of Berlin’s largest parks - the eclectic Ökohaus is composed of three atypical residential houses - each with an original concrete skeleton positioned on solid pillars. Despite its stiff and raw appearance, the deliberately open structure was to be customized by the inhabitants themselves - with Frei Otto’s support and the guidance of the architects selected by each family.

Echoing the Ville Spatiale - a structure imagined in the late 1950s by Yona Friedman with “no floors, no walls, no roofs, nor any preconceived containers or shapes” [4] - the Ökohaus offered a suitable repository for improvisation and auto-planification. The future users only had to follow some “ecological” restrictions, such as installing large bay windows, setting up green roofs and conserving the existing green surroundings.

In order to make this social and collective project sustainable, an article was published in local newspapers to attract potential “co-builders and co-participants” [5] - a call which was immediately followed by a great number of applicants. “From the outside, all you could see was a wild overgrown piece of land”, recalls Manfred Ruprecht, who joined the experiment at an early stage. “Spontaneously I said to my wife: this is where I would like to live!” [6]

Although many backed out after discovering that the overall costs and the duration of this “multi-storey gardens and living” project were uncertain, a building community of 18 families was finally created. “It was interesting - for my family and for myself as an architect - to be able to develop the design of my own house, according to my own needs”, explains Jurgen Rohrbach. [5]

The community of users “had an agreement that if one of them would have financial problems, the others had to stand in for him, in order to keep the project safe. Budget management was a big challenge for all. The individual inhabitants had to invest more than they had expected but also the big concrete structure had to be built in a cheaper version of what was planned at first, in order to keep within the social housing budget.” [6]

Designing the Ökohaus

Illustrating that individual housing is possible even in a multi-storey context and without compromises on collective and ecological aspects, the Ökohaus stands as a successful solution to the exodus of single-families to Berlin’s outskirts. Moreover it is a positive attempt to question the roles of architects and inhabitants in the building process.

Yet, this experiment inevitably leads to the question of ephemerality and flexibility so dear to Frei Otto. In fact, as each home is the product of its user and self-planner, how are newcomers supposed to adapt to an already highly personalised “nest”? Initially new families were supposed to be able to “demolish the old nest” and start over again, but this has never been the case. As Dutch architect Caro van Dijk underlines, “this has for a result that, after the initial adventure, the project just became ‘another’ house on the market. [...] In order to realise this concept in a perpetual way, with continuous flexibility as envisioned, it needs a whole new idea of home ownership.” [7]

designing the Ökohaus

[1] Do we need architect? one can read in a note on a drawing by Frei Otto, entitled What is it?, (1984); Frei Otto notoriously referred to himself as an “anti-architect” in Nerdinger Winfried (dir.), Frei Otto complete works, lightweight construction, natural design, 2005, p. 57; [2] Both Frei Otto and Yona Friedman were members of the collective GEAM [Groupe d'études d’architecture mobile] between 1958 and 1962; [3] “Each man can create its own individual environment”, one can read in a note on a drawing by Frei Otto, entitled What is it?, (1984); [4] Vladimir Belogolovsky, An interview with Yona Friedman, January 27th, 2016, Arch Daily; [5] Words by Manfred Ruprecht - inhabitants and member of the cooperative since the early stages of the experiment, in, Dreaming of a tree house, video published on YOUTUBE on 12/01/2012; [6] Dreaming of a tree house, video published on YOUTUBE on 12/01/2012; [7] Words by Caro van Dijk Architectuur

1_View of the Ökohaus from the river, Berlin; 2_Frei Otto, Nature What is it?, drawing,1984; 3_Frei Otto with the future inhabitants of the Ökohaus, Berlin, 1987. Image from L‘architecture engagée – Manifeste zur Veränderung der Gesellschaft © Edition DETAIL; 4_Frei Otto with the future inhabitants of the Ökohaus, Berlin; 

Published: 9 Mar. 2017

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