Within these Berlin walls - the rise of the mega flatshare

They're professional and old enough to know better. But in the lonely hearts capital of Europe, a growing number of singletons are choosing the communal life. Ruth Elkins is one of them
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The Independent Online

It is a cold Sunday afternoon in Berlin and Michael Heitz is enjoying a rare solitary moment in his large kitchen. He lives in the central Mitte district, a trendy corner of the German capital where rents are cheap and Heitz, a publisher in his 30s, could easily afford to live alone. Instead, he chooses to share the kitchen and the four-storey 19th-century townhouse with 14 others. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

Berlin is famous as Europe's singles capital. There are said to be a million lonely hearts here, and around the same figure live alone. But Berliners like Heitz have shunned a bijou pied-à-terre for a Wohngemeinschaft (WG), where communal living means more than a couple of years tolerating flatmates before you get on the property ladder. The Teutonic take on the flatshare - which began as a 1960s commune - is an unknown and basically untranslatable concept for the average Brit. Communes may be dead, but on Berlin's ultra cool and liberal streets the "living communities" are still alive.

"I love living like this," says Heitz, who has been in the WG for two years and works from home. "I tried living by myself, but I got too lonely. I like the feeling of being in a place where there is always someone around."

Most of the 15 in the WG (apart from three children, aged three, five and seven) are in their 30s, successful, and working in the creative industries. All have their own private quarters, but share the brightly painted kitchen (which looks as if it belongs on the set of C4's sitcom Friends), four bathrooms, two washing machines and large, open-plan office. The monthly rent and bills are split equally and come to £150 per head. The WG buys food together, and several nights a week they'll cook and eat together. They even have a weekly household meeting.

They are part of a growing band. A few tube stops north, on what was once the border between East and West Berlin, live Thomas Lehmann and his 29 flatmates. Lehmann's WG, called Zorrow, was formed in 1983 and the people who share the rambling, 19th-century apartment house (eight singletons, four families and a couple) include a poet, several teachers, an environmental chemist and a journalist. They have their own rooms but share the WG's massive kitchen, four bathrooms and library. Most nights they cook and eat together, and rent and bills are calculated according to earnings. Any domestic issues that can't be handled via the household "message book" or internal phone system are dealt with at the WG's weekly "plenary session".

If this all sounds a little too hippy, it really isn't. Certainly Berlin's first WG, a 1967 commune called Kommune 1, was pure flower power - a rejection by Germany's post-war generation of the petty bourgeois values it associated with fascism. But today, WG life is far less extreme. "Ten or 15 years ago, I would have called living like this a political project," says Lehmann, a 47-year-old tour guide who lives at Zorrow with his 10-year-old daughter. "Now, I'd just call it practical, and a way of beating the loneliness that affects a lot of people these days."

A certain level of commitment is required, but again this is pragmatic rather than ideological. As well as the fact that meals for one don't exist in Germany, apartments in Berlin aren't furnished and don't come with appliances. My move into a four-person WG last year required that my flatmates and I build our own kitchen. The mountain of time, effort and expense that went into setting up our new pad means that although we're renting, none of us plans to move out any time soon.

But the solidarity doesn't stop with interior design. An American friend who moved into a flatshare with strangers was astonished that her new "friends" expected her to go out and socialise with them. "It's not the same as having a normal flatmate," she whispered desperately down the phone one night. "I'm not even allowed to label my food!"

She certainly wouldn't have won last year's competition by the German magazine Der Spiegel to find Germany's "super WG". The rules stated "just getting pissed with your flatmates is not enough." The eventual winners - six eternal students from Trier, the town where Karl Marx was born - gushed that "nothing was coveted" in their household.

I admit it would be a nightmare to live like this in a poky Victorian terrace in Neasden. Much of the reason adults can tolerate living like students into their 30s, 40s and beyond is due to Berlin's plentiful stock of identical 19th-century apartments. There are around 450,000 in Berlin, in elegant five-storey gabled and balconied blocks, built around courtyards. Based on Parisian architecture and built to cope with the city's population explosion in the late 1800s, apartments in Berlin's Mietskasernen - "rental barracks" - often have up to eight or 10 (sometimes more) equal-sized rooms set off a long hallway.

Since the middle class for whom they were intended is still in absentia (many left Berlin with the rest of West German industry after World War Two), there are plenty to go round, and they are big. In a flat as airy as the one I ramble around in I can avoid my flatmates for days.

"Our WG life only works because we have enough space to hide away if we need to," says Lehmann. Lehmann - who has lived at Zorrow for 20 years and describes WG living as a "kind of postmodern family" - says he has no plans to move out any time soon, and his flatmates feel the same way.

"Sometimes people laugh, as if I've failed in some way," admits Uta Kollmann, a 36-year-old graphic designer and one of Heitz's flatmates. "When you're a student, you're allowed to live in a flatshare; but once you've graduated and have more money behind you, there is an expectation to rent some amazing place for yourself with your partner. But those are just social norms people have in their minds. And I'm sorry, these days I find it a bit boring to think in those narrow terms."

Meet Paul, my new flatmate. He's not very chatty...

My Dutch friend Darius swore he'd never get a flatmate. A self-confessed control freak, the only people Darius shares his life and large Berlin apartment with are a signed Liza Minnelli photo and a Barbie-sized doll of Sigmund Freud.

But lately Darius has become a bit mopey about his lonesome domestic existence. I suggest he moves into a WG. "I'm not that desperate for bad company, darling," he purrs.

Darius's lonely yet isolationist tendencies make him the ideal candidate to try Single-Tapete ("single wallpaper", pictured left). Developed for the 14 million Germans who live alone, the life-sized, high quality photographs of men and women in various domestic poses on wallpaper are the latest offering of German interior Vorsprung durch Technik. All Darius need do is paste up a wipe-clean flatmate who won't leave dirty dishes in the sink.

Together we look through the Single-Tapete catalogue and decide to order "Paul". Paul has floppy hair and wears a green T-shirt. He is 25 years old and Darius can have him for 150 quid.

Single-Tapete developer, interior architect Susanne Schmidt, assures me the effect will be "really realistic". She suggests erecting Paul next to Darius's kitchen table. "He'll be surprised. He'll really feel like he's having breakfast with someone," she says. I tell Darius, who is not convinced.

To add to the realism, I also order Darius a special CD, Nie Mehr Allein ("Never Alone Again"). It is the work of Hamburg DJ Dr Bernd Klosterfelde, and features 60 minutes of sounds of communal living. In Dr Klosterfelde's world, these include drinking a beer and a six-minute, 35-second aural rendition of baking a cake.

We paste Paul on to the wall and put on the CD. Then I leave Darius and Paul to it.

For days I hear nothing. In the end I call. "How's Paul?" I ask.

Darius is convinced Paul is not life-sized. "It's like having a silent Munchkin in the house," he says. "But at least he's not nicking my teabags." He is more enthusiastic about the CD. He says he feels less lonely when he hears the sound of someone unpacking shopping bags.

Then it all goes wrong. Darius calls to say he's going mad; he's been talking to Wall, but Wall isn't listening.

"It's Paul, not Wall," I say. Darius tells me to sod off and invites himself over for dinner.

Paul won't be coming. He is permanently off his food and Darius says the two of them aren't getting on any more.