Save Berlin: Nomad chic

Come fall 2013 Berlin welcomes Eba51, its first post-industrial-pre-fab container city: a cheap, mobile flat village offering affordable housing. But what are the repercussions of exiling Berlin's poor majority to the city's outskirts?

Image for Save Berlin: Nomad chic
Photo by Rasa Urnieziute

Dan Borden on Berlin’s ever-changing urbanscape

Last July, another Berlin landmark got booted from its Mitte home to make way for luxury condos but for Platoon (photo), it was all part of the plan. The ad agency/art space is housed in cargo shipping containers and built for mobility. On moving day, a crane picked up the green metal boxes and re-stacked them a few blocks north, on Schönhauser Allee.

This is Platoon’s third Berlin location since 2000 and probably not its last. Where will the rising tide of gentrification carry it? Platoon’s northward drift suggests Pankow… or, maybe, a grassy field in Treptow.

That’s where a developer named Jörg Duske is building his own stacks of metal shipping containers as low-cost student housing. Designed by architects Holzer Kobler, Eba51 will be a mini-city of 400 colourful metal boxes surrounded by volleyball fields, barbecue grills and a bike repair shop. Monthly rent for a 28sqm flat with built-in kitchen and bath: €220. Duske’s McDorms won’t open until the fall, but the waiting list is already a mile long. Why? Like other low-income Berliners, students are getting squeezed out of the city’s centre by rising rents. And when those high prices swamp Treptow, Eba51 can pick itself up and head to greener, cheaper pastures.

Eba51 is a first for Berlin, but with a big student population 147,000 and rising there’s a growing need. Putting this transitory population in cheap, mobile flats sounds like a stroke of genius.

Nomadic living is nothing new to Berlin. Along with Tiergarten’s houseboats, the city has about a dozen Wagenburgen, villages of camper vans and circus-style wagons parked in vacant lots. Like those empty lots, Wagenburgen are an endangered species just ask the residents of Schwarze Kanal. Founded in 1991, this queer-centric wagon community was famously chased from one Spree-side plot to another by bulldozers and construction crews. In 2010, they settled on the secluded eastern edge of Neukölln, on Kiefholzstraße a few blocks from where Duske is building his new container city.

Designers love building with cargo containers because they’re sturdy, cheap, flexible and mobile. Seventeen million of them roam the planet on ships, trucks and trains, but in hard times many sit empty and unloved. Following the green movement mantra reduce, reuse and recycle thousands of salvaged containers have found a second life as, well, just about everything.

Containers are also sexy, combining eco-friendly cred with a post-industrial Mad Max vibe. Platoon’s savvy image specialists capitalise on this coolness factor to attract advertising clients like Volkswagen and Adidas.

Treptow’s Eba51 student housing won’t use salvaged containers – it will be custom-built, pre-fab flats (undermining the “reuse, recycle” thing) shaped like cramped cargo boxes. For residents, it sounds like the worst of both worlds.

Eba51 isn’t the only student village planned for Berlin – there’s another going up in Adlershof, down south near the new airport. These suburban student camps may solve a short-term problem, but they only mask a long-term crisis: Berlin’s centre has no new affordable housing. Students are an easy target for expulsion to the hinterlands. They may be tamer than their parents who threw bombs and squatted buildings, but they can still be a rowdy lot. To some, sending this troublesome minority to live in metal boxes on the city’s outskirts probably sounds like a great idea. A cleaner, quieter Berlin is ideal for those new upscale residents the city’s leaders crave. But who’s next in line for relocation to low-cost suburban slums? Old folks? The unemployed? Underpaid magazine columnists?

There is a low-cost solution that could preserve Berlin’s downtown diversity. In January, New York City announced a program called adAPT to build affordable housing using pre-fab modular pieces. If factory-built flats can make Manhattan’s midtown affordable, why not Berlin’s Mitte?

For more information about the eba51 student village, visit

Originally published in issue #116, May 2013