In my memory, it’s a Zoom call of a house, a collection of two or three irregularly shaped buildings of five storeys or so, with amorphous facades of windows coming out on all sides and little decks with houseplants. Each apartment-sized facet was so different from the others that it seemed as though the whole couldn’t have been built as one project, yet the units couldn’t have been built separately either. Together they formed a perfect apartment complex — it was clear that’s what they had to be — though had they been built on a smaller scale it’s possible they could have been just single-family homes. When I first saw those pieced-together houses, after ambling away from the Bauhaus Archive on a grey Berlin afternoon, everything about them bespoke different lives happening separately, but in tandem. Fourteen years later, and three months into our experiment in living exactly this way — alone, but together — I wanted to see those shapes again.
I thought I’d find the site by googling “unusual apartment buildings” or “notable buildings in Berlin,” but you can imagine the sorts of structures I found: famous ones, big ones, places where nobody lived, and certainly not ones where many people lived together. Of course, apartment buildings are not always thought of as architectural landmarks — maybe Gaudí’s Casa Milà and Safdie’s Habitat are the exceptions. The humble low-rise is a modest, human-scale expression of architecture, compared with, say, a Mies van der Rohe tower, and its livable model of sustainable density is something to celebrate.
As I filtered through hundreds of images of interesting buildings, I missed the one in Toronto I had fled at the beginning of the pandemic and wondered whether the apartment way of life would hollow out over time, whether a sudden digital turn really would spread everyone out across the landscape to pursue our lives over screens, and whether, as I searched from the farmhouse where I grew up, I’d have any neighbours left when I finally got back to the city.
I couldn’t find it. All out of synonyms, I loaded Google Earth onto my tablet to search by place rather than term, but the Bauhaus Archive, where I’d begun my walk that day, was a rubble of renovations in the footage, as were several surrounding blocks. The complex could have been torn down, I realized, thinking of how that week in Berlin I’d tried to visit the spot where my grandfather had lived, only to find a place so wrecked that the street itself had vanished. Still I knew that if I couldn’t find the curious buildings, I wouldn’t be able to let them go. Early in the pandemic I’d misplaced some earphones, and, mired in a dopamine feedback loop, flooded by desire to find what I’d lost without regular exposure to outside faces to regulate its peaks and troughs through the day, I couldn’t stop looking for them. I was concerned that my hunt for the missing houses would roll into the same ongoing and fruitless search for control.
Going upstairs after dinner, I told myself that I would have to be content with never finding that place again. This would be part of a practice of letting go, of disavowing attachment to things, and so on. But I was snagged on the idea of finding it, as though some COVID‑19 riddle could be solved through its retrieval. Having remembered it, I wanted it back, along with a sense of reality in a memory. I wanted an address on a map, a name, some pictures in Google Image Search, a couple of German blog posts, anything to confirm that this vision wasn’t mine alone. I craved a demonstration that, in having this memory of this unusual assembly, I was part of a knowable world of other people, and that I could control things by finding them. That, despite my loneliness, I was part of a hive whose walls, the structures that connect our lives, are real.
So I kept going. Late that night, I wandered Berlin from above, joining in yet another new pastime to stir lockdown wanderlust. Roving Google Earth alone in the dark felt like a virus-induced form of dreaming that made me into another one of the ghosts who haunt the capital’s streets. Over and over, I would start from the Bauhaus Archive and spiral out. Nothing. Just massive Cold War apartment blocks built on bombed lives. And then I’d start again. Finally, I noticed the little river, or is it a canal? That week in Berlin I’d been fascinated by the small houseboats and barges that some of the locals called home. Surely, I hadn’t just wandered out from the archive for no reason; surely, I’d been following the water, to look for more of these little houses, little lives. Like a drone, I started tracking the stream from on high: one block, two. Had I crossed that busy road? I must have. And then I saw a shape that seemed right. Nothing regular about it, completely opposed to fascism. I tilted the perspective down just a bit and yes — there — the windows. There it was.
One of the strangenesses of this pandemic has been its invitation to undertake massive collective action in solitude, at home. Through the various shutdowns, the walls of our homes have supported our isolation and our efforts to keep others and ourselves from infection. Early last spring, as we became birders and watched nests get built stem by leaf, Pinterest’s numbers also jolted upward, with millions poking about for twigs of their own: the perfect little balcony chair or candle holder or other reminder of the outside world — anything to define a space by choice, rather than entrapment. Our dwellings, no longer simple oases away from work, protected us from contagion and locked us in with our own miasmas, made us lonely, and made us free. If architecture shapes our lives, quarantine gives architecture a new shape.
Though the home may always be an overdetermined symbol, I had never noticed my own transform so many times per day — from haven to snare, lock‑up to respite. Most often it settled in as both cage and refuge, revealing a new paradox in the idea of home. This pendulum swing of unwelcome ironies replicated itself again and again in our dwellings over the last year. The virus has made shelter both more dangerous to occupy and more difficult to access. Children have played on top of working adults. At first, bringing the elderly back to live with family seemed like a risk, and then the safest option. Office workers wondered whether their workplaces or their dwellings were changed most but then found the question silenced by the collapse in contrast between the two. The prospect of office buildings repurposed for affordable housing, with little Zoom stations set up in every corner of every new apartment, overlaid itself on a vision of a city emptied by a general flight to the countryside. Questions about space abounded — Can the city endure? Are we alone or are we together? — while “home” changed with the speed of a door slammed shut to include both solitude and too much company.
Real estate markets have registered a general surge toward the suburban and the Muskokan as prices shoot up in those areas, but space on its own is no panacea. The dense, multi-generational life of apartment buildings may actually support physically distanced living, with grandparents around to help mind the children during the workday, younger adults ready to buy that massive load of groceries once a week, neighbours available to pick up the slack in the case of a sudden hospital stay or self-isolation. Counterintuitively, we are perhaps better able to isolate while living side by side.
It’s not always easy, though. In my own small building, in Toronto, angst surged a year ago, in mid-March, when it became clear someone in our complex had the novel virus. Some fearful individuals made aggressive demands to know the identity of the sick person, before their voices were supplanted by calls for greater compassion and the organization of a stronger support network. By disrupting the balance, this incident heightened a sense of the community’s proper, gentler homeostasis, but the tension at its root lies at the heart of every multi-unit dwelling: How can residents defined above all by their individuality live well closely together?
Those buildings I suddenly remembered seeing in Berlin, with their collective independences, seemed to propose a habitable solution to this very quandary and a joke that turned on its irony.
The Ökohaus sits on Corneliusstraße, by the Landwehr Canal near the Tiergarten and the Bauhaus Archive, in Berlin. The Ökohaus, which means “eco-house,” was imagined as a collective project, led by the German architect Frei Otto, who won the Pritzker Prize shortly before his death, at eighty-nine, in 2015. It’s not listed as one of his notable works on his Wikipedia page, perhaps because other architects designed most of its visible components. As part of a plan commissioned for the 1987 International Building Exhibition and completed in 1992, eighteen of 1,300 applicants were invited to build homes with their own architects, on two of the concrete structures; Otto designed eight units in the third structure himself. The architects were constrained only by a few key ecological parameters, including large walls of windows for passive heat and light, as well as by construction methods that protected the forested grounds. Built to let city people live in communion with nature on the site of the former Vatican embassy, the dwellings congregate with so many trees and bushes that if I had not wandered past in winter, I might not have noticed them through the leaves. At around 1,400 square feet each, the twenty-six units are about twice as spacious as the average Toronto condo. They rest on the underlying concrete platforms, not on each other, so they are structurally and therefore aesthetically independent. The architects did not coordinate their plans, save for one afternoon meeting to insert mock‑ups onto a common model, to ensure all the edges lined up. The project cost more than expected and took longer to build, but the anarchic yet harmonious patchwork result is bewitching, strange, and, by all accounts, livable.
The Ökohaus gives structure to a particular hope, one that we have all become familiar with during the pandemic: the idea that together we can accomplish a collective goal while operating as individuals alone. The place reminds us that we are all different, but to support each other, and the planet, we can live together and apart, and this irregular shape of living can be beautiful and strong. The ecological cause of the project signals its modernity, but so does its reliance on variability within a pattern. In a 2008 manifesto, Patrik Schumacher, the current head of Zaha Hadid Architects, named this form of algorithmic architecture parametricism. Otto, whom some now call a proto-parametricist, offered the prospective inhabitants of the Ökohaus an algorithm to fulfill: he let its variable be their unique desires, and then he sat back to watch something marvellous and smart emerge.
It was important to Otto — whose first name, Frei, translates as “free” or “open”— that individuals have a sense of their homes as their own, so he pursued a concept of units built on a common structure like nests in a tree, rather than the beehive model of regular apartment buildings that allow for no individuality. In a short documentary from 2012, he said that with the Ökohaus, he had been driven by a question: How can a “poor terrestrial” achieve the satisfaction and beauty of creating one’s own home within a high-density urban area? In the crowd of the city, the challenge is to build something that provides for solitude and individual identity, while also helping residents support the social and physical needs of their communities, their collective life. There is a tenderness in Otto’s vision that may be traced to his experiences in the Second World War. In 1943, while still in school, he was drafted into the Luftwaffe. “Cities in flames seen from above,” he later recalled, “are one of the toughest semesters for an architectural student.”
Not an inferno but the cytokine storm of a million immune systems, the pandemic overtook our cities and homes like fire but is taking its time to leave. As we wait for the post-vaccine aftermath, with no after yet in sight, we’re living out a history that has revealed the home as clink, getaway, and the scene of our weird solo work for the collective. The experience may revise how we view multi-unit residences. Human-scale examples of this mode of architecture, like the Ökohaus, imagine us as individual nesters building up our dwellings and ourselves as unique supports to the community, both part of the whole and comfortably alone. Sweet home, now, is a place where we can be trapped alone for the good of everyone just beyond the walls and still feel like ourselves, as if we are free.
The house is above all a shelter for dreams, said the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, so being stuck at home has confined us all to a time of dreaming. Over the centuries, some rare individuals have sought this seclusion out, to achieve some further release of the spirit, but this past year, nations across the world have grown whole populations of anchorites, mystics whose strange visions are both the gifts and the symptoms of solitude. As each person’s window on the internet arches over an individual world, together they form a novel cloister where we now circle each other in a kind of silence, pressing separation into intimacy to fire a new meditative tradition and, with luck, keep delirium at bay. We strain through our machines to see each other inhabiting common otherworlds and to feel, despite being glassed in by our screens, some measure of separated companionship. In quarantine, I have found, memories seem more real, but thoughts more deranged. Gathered by our loneliness into a moment of forced contemplation, we live our social lives mostly in reminiscence, and, as we pace the inner courtyards and gardens of the mind in a long dark artist’s residency of the soul, faces surface from the past. So do houses. I was driven by restless isolation to googling my own memories; I opted, as though it were a choice, for time travel over tourism; and, behold, it worked.
Shut away from the past we’ve known, struggling not to be defined by the uncertainty of the future, it is a relief to pinpoint a recollection, clarify it, make it something to hold and return to, to live inside. Since that afternoon in Berlin, I now realize, I’ve gone noodling down the internet’s cow paths many times, trying to find the Ökohaus, retrieving and then, for some reason, forgetting it again. My meandering walk from the archive hasn’t ended: I’m still chasing little lives to look at, to better see my own. Each time I’ve gone through this ritual, I’ve found a bit more about the Ökohaus online: a whole blog post in English, a recent T Magazine piece. Now I too am adding to the pile. This time, going through my routine of looking up the house felt like visiting a lost way of spending and remembering time, not just because we could still travel then but because my stroll that long-ago day happened offline, in a prehistoric land before smartphones and streetside internet searches.
I didn’t snap a photo of the house to text to a friend or post to a feed. But I’ve been haunted by it, always forgetting and remembering it, ever since. Now, as our social connections are not just deliberate but usually mediated by screens, retrieving some offline memory feels unusual, if not illicit, and then somewhere outside the fabric of everyday life. In the past, had I wanted to, I could have gone back to Berlin and searched, done interviews, visited more archives. But now I can’t. The internet is all I have. So let this piece stand as a permanent memo to myself. Next time I forget the Ökohaus, I may even google this essay to remember what it stands for, and perhaps, rather than feeling haunted by it, I’ll invite it in to nest longer with my own wandering soul.
Alone, we haunt our houses, while drawing vitality from the presence of others living around us, if not face to face, then side by side. I see this way of life in the collective action that has atomized us to slow the pandemic, I see it in how we socialize now, and I see it foreshadowed in the work we’d need to do to stave off our environmental disaster. I see it in how the Ökohaus imagines a way of hiving together while maintaining the individuality we need. Its version of collective life enshrines through its diverging windows one of the major opportunities of being a person: the chance to experience the world through your own perspective. Frei Otto’s vision builds us all up, everything different and nothing the same but a common concrete floor supporting us, as our solitudes greet each other by looking out, alone together.