Learnings & wonders from Embassy Berlin
Our space in Berlin was stunning. It’s a large space facing on the the U-bahn so that you can sit and watch the oldest train line in Berlin whizzle humans about the city. You can hear church bells ring, which is beautiful and also a regular reminder of things that the world needs. It’s chime is like a gong reminding me to hurry up and get on with the revolution.
Amazingly when I got there, I already knew people living very close by and there was an extended community of embassy people there already, that is, people who have been part of the SF embassy community at some point.
What was unusual about this space is that it is a two bedroom apartment. Which doesn’t immediately lend itself to communal ways of being. The acoustics are hard — if you speak in one part of the house, you can hear it everywhere. Despite its size, there is only one bathroom, which limits how many people can reside in the space, even though it’s big enough for 6-8 people. But with the generosity of the community I ended up staying here for six months, seeing what kind of community we could build. Here is what I learnt.
Great iterations: High turn over and few residents makes for experimentation
This project was unusual, in that often the commune would only have one resident at a time, with one or two guests. What this meant, is that you could introduce new norms with each incoming set of guests and watch how they change the feel of the place. This goes for spatial configurations, cleanliness, welcome and onboarding experiences, norms about the use of the space, the use of sound and so on. This makes for really fast and fun exploration of the axes of communal living.
Collective sociality is non-linear
When you live with 15 humans, the addition of a 16th arriving for an event is easy and not burdensome at all. When you are just one or two people, the arrival of a third necessitates more active hosting. My surprising learning here was that living in a commune with between 1 and 5 humans, required a different set of norms and approaches to that which I was used to!
Luckily, we quickly reached a norm of general quietness and peace. One would wake in the morning to find people scattered throughout the space, reading, typing, writing, and the norm that I observed was not to verbally interrupt, but to make coffee and join in solitude. This norm came about very naturally and enabled us to have multiple people in the space without anyone feeling overwhelmed.
Maximal fluidity of space
One thing that has hugely changed the use of this space as communal, is that every wall has a very large set of doors in, so that it is naturally fluid. I put coloured lights in the corners and walls of each room, so that you could see these areas as you enter the space, like a welcome map on entry.
I began to default to keeping all doors open in the house. This does two things, it increased routes and flows of movement through the space, it encourages meandering and organically blurs the implicit rule that sleeping areas are be default private or off limits. People started to use the bedroom to sit for movie night, to use the back bedroom as a work out space, a meeting room for calls. Defaulting to open doors, renders closing the doors between rooms became a purposeful act, and one that implicitly means, I need (auditory or visual) privacy.
The use of semi modular and movable furniture (mattresses instead of beds, and movable sets of drawers, string lights and tables) meant that we could adapt the sleeping arrangements according to the number and arrangement of people staying in the commune.
The most wonderful thing was the transition from day to night. During the day the aesthetic felt like a warm cozy, natural feel. The space was full of wood and light and candles. By evening the colored lights would change the tone of the space, and for the parties that we threw, the lights and the projector throwing dramatic scenes onto the main wall made for something spectacular.
A beacon for our nomads
One of the things that was incredible about Embassy Berlin, was how many embassy humans flocked to be there. People that I had only met on slack, or those between homes themselves, all came. For those of us who made it home for a short while, it forged our connections and collaborations. It was a place of healing and respite. A place for tiny intimate parties. A space for Revolution Sundays to really kick off. Humans from Embassy Athens, San Francisco, the Red Vic, Haight St Commons, Embassy Amsterdam, all came to stay. For me at least, Berlin was a transient hub that cemented a lot of new dynamics.
We shut down our space in Berlin a few months ago. In the end it was more expensive that most people could afford to pay. It was very sad, but also totally wonderful. A fleeting experiment in communal living, that for me was utterly transformative. We learnt how to be communal given very different aesthetic and spatial opportunities. Dynamic use of space and lighting is something that is very cheap to do, and can amplify the potentiality of your space in really interesting ways. See Decoding Labs more inspiration.