In Zurich, a New Mixed-Use Development Takes Some of Its Inspiration From Former Squatters
Mätti Wüthrich and Eva Maria Küpfer are "hall house" veterans. In 1999, Mätti, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace, started squatting with a group of a dozen or so people in a former paint factory in Zurich as part of an experimental flat-sharing community and stayed for 15 years. Eva, a choreographer, dancer, and massage therapist, first lived in a squat house in the early aughts, calling a disused wine-bottling plant at the edge of the city her home. She later moved into the former paint factory where Mätti was living, and the two became a couple, going on to live with a dozen others in a former Suzuki sales office.
In these underutilized or abandoned industrial buildings, people like Mätti and Eva created their own living spaces using compact, mobile structures that could be easily stacked or moved within a communal, open floor plan. "Instead of big rooms and a small common space, we had small rooms and big space," Mätti says. Large gatherings like community discussions, performances, or parties could be held in those shared areas.
This kind of squatting ramped up in Zurich in the 1970s, fueled by the high cost of housing. The experimental, often illicit arrangement was part of a wider modern urban squatting movement that took off about that same time in cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, and London, growing out of a desire to challenge the commodification of urban space.
"We first moved into a hall in order to experience more freedom to experiment and share living with more friends in a less formalized setting," Mätti says. "Political, social, ecological, and DIY aspects were very important, too." But those living situations were temporary, and Mätti and Eva eventually sought out long-term stability and a legal address in order to enroll their children in school.
In 2013, when cooperative developer Kalkbreite kicked off a yearlong open participation process to shape a new affordable-housing complex, Mätti reached out and suggested it include a hall-style space. He eventually led the developers on a tour through his and Eva’s then squat to make the case, which helped to convince the Kalkbreite team. When the 50-unit Zollhaus development, designed by architecture firm Enzmann Fischer, opened in 2021, it had the country’s first sanctioned space for hallenwohnen (hall living).
The Zollhaus development "combines a diversity of housing types with cultural and commercial spaces that knit it into the neighborhood," says architect Evelyn Enzmann of Enzmann Fischer. It’s located near Zurich’s Central Train Station in an area with many old buildings that had been used as squats until redevelopment began to drive up rents and drive out old residents and small businesses. The three-building complex mixes a variety of residential units available for rent—traditional apartments, group flats, and short-term guest rooms—with common areas (a yoga space, workshops, music room, sewing studio, launderette, rentable meeting rooms, and a community room) and outdoor spaces (a shared courtyard and rooftop terraces with a garden). There are also commercial spaces and cultural venues like restaurants, small shops, and a theater, plus a health clinic, a municipal kindergarten, and an after-school care facility. A pedestrian-only street runs the length of the development; residents sign a car renunciation agreement with their leases.
The hallenwohnen area comprises four halls—a 2,960-square-foot space currently occupied by 12 full-time residents from a group of renters called the Zurwollke association (Mätti and Eva’s family included), as well as three other halls for smaller renters’ groups. The halls are organized around an interior courtyard that provides light, greenery, and a gathering place for residents while protecting against noise from the adjacent train tracks. The largest hall has 13.6-foot-high ceilings, an open kitchen near the entrance, and four bathrooms, but no other dividing walls. The residents’ mobile living structures—usually with a sleeping area below and a workspace directly above—can be laid out in rows, not unlike a diminutive neighborhood. The "residential towers" can cost anywhere from 6,000 CHF to 50,000 CHF to build, according to the needs, resources, and imagination of the residents. (The exchange rate for one Swiss franc has recently fluctuated between $0.99 to $1.10 USD.) On top of each resident’s 200 CHF joining fee and 1,000 CHF share purchase, required to join the cooperative, there is a group deposit of 69,000 CHF—which allows members to collectively own the building and is refundable upon move-out. Monthly rent for a basic rolling tower (plus common spaces) is 1,000 CHF. "The rent in the long run will be cheaper and cheaper [compared to market-rate housing in Zurich], as rent increases due to speculation," says Mätti.
In addition to the full-time Zurwollke residents, some part-time residents and nonresidents from the association rent space in the hall during daytime hours, when it’s less occupied: Four artists currently rent studio spaces in the hall, while six nonresidents pay for access to the location as coworking space, using common areas and available desks. Within the hall, "we wanted to avoid empty, wasted space," Eva says.
The Zurwollke group holds two meetings every month, one to make house decisions and the other to clean the space as a group for an agreed-upon two hours. It also decides when and how to rearrange the living structures, using four-wheeled wooden dollies, the kind typically employed by movers. Currently, the rollable towers are distributed along the hall’s windows, leaving an inner corridor of about 38 square feet free, leading to the courtyard. "In this hall, we tried to create niches, galleries, and space differentiation with louder hanging-out areas and quiet ones," Mätti says, pointing to the kitchen and then to areas near the structures where kids and families sleep. "Residents are free to insulate their rolling towers according to their needs. It seems a general rule that the sound from people you feel close to is easy to tolerate. Being respectful as well as tolerant toward the others’ needs and behaving in a socially competent manner are key for living in a hall—and on this planet, too.
"We arrange the common space to be as permeable as possible so it can be used in a variety of ways."
— Mätti Wüthrich, resident
Eva, Mätti, and their children live in two movable towers—each about 97 square feet—divided into five subunits that can dock into each other. The first two subunits make up a 48-square-foot kids’ space with two floors, one over the other, with a shared bedroom and playroom as well as an 82-square-foot space for the parents, also two floors, with a bedroom in the lower area where Mätti says the family often lies together on the "pool bed." There’s also a 33-square-foot office tower with stacked floors, each with a desk and storage area, and two rollable stair "cupboards" that double as storage and give access to the tower’s upper floors. The couple designed the structure and had the parts manufactured off-site because of time constraints. (The self-construction process can stretch from three months to a year.) They assembled the parts in the hall, since the towers were too tall to fit through the elevator and entrance doors. Most other residents opted to build their own towers using one of the Zollhaus’s "white" rooms (flex spaces) as a workshop.
Of course, in this first developer-driven hall-house experiment, there were hurdles for the architects and, not least, the Kalkbreite cooperative’s management, which had thought the idea a simple one: Leave large spaces in the shell and let tenant groups finish them economically and with maximum freedom. In July 2017, the management kicked off a series of workshops in which interested groups could explore their hall visions and even create 1:20 scale foam and paper models. The formal rental application required information not only on each group’s finances, but on how each would finance the project; most important was a convincing spatial and usage concept—competing groups could provide prototypes, sketches, and financial models of their ideas, plus profiles of the potential residents. For management, the initial difficulty was finding groups whose design met numerous building and fire regulations: Rooms could not be too narrow or low, various electrical and plumbing installations had to be certified, and the ventilation even had to comply with strict noise-protection requirements. "Building laws and sprawling ideas of the applicants for the hall-living spaces eventually led to an adjustment of the entire concept," says Kalkbreite copresident Jonathan Kischkel.
In the summer of 2018, the architects made a number of changes to the original design, dividing the two "naked" halls into smaller spaces using thick composite wood panel walls that can be removed or added in the future. In all four halls, the architects preinstalled a minimal kitchen and at least one bathroom, which provided a uniform installation that was approved by building and fire inspectors and allowed tenant groups the option to move in and live on-site during construction. The Zurwollke group, whose first application had been turned down, ended up being selected because of its history of living in similar spaces, its tower design, and its cohesion as a group—many members (ranging in age from 4 to 54) had lived in halls previously and were recruited by word of mouth. Prior hall experience wasn’t a prerequisite, but "knowing each other from before definitely helps in the group building process," says Mätti. "More important are shared values and attitudes and a willingness to engage with the people, with the group."
After the Zurwollke group moved into the hall dwelling in January 2021, it enlarged the built-in kitchen, adding rollable work tables and storage shelving with a gallery above. Eva says that instead of the small kitchen, a more mobile, open kitchen might have been better to accommodate the hall’s flexible nature. Instead of four individual bathrooms—one of which the residents have turned into a storage area—Eva mentions the group would have preferred dormitory-style bathrooms with centralized toilet stalls and a row of showers. From the Kalkbreite management perspective, the challenge, in comparison with the more traditional apartments in the complex, was in the planning and development phases and how the lack of standardization for the DIY interior infrastructure requires a greater level of agreement with residents, including clarifying responsibilities for repairs. Enzmann says the biggest challenge was to "comply with the regulations and still leave a lot of design options open for the future residents for their own expansion," adding, "There needs to be a willingness to stay flexible and redraw."
At the Zollhaus on a recent fall morning, nine child residents meet in the courtyard just outside the hall houses to walk along the pedestrian street to kindergarten and day care in the development’s third building. This short walk saves what could have been many car trips, not to mention parental time spent chauffeuring. Here, even kids can be independent within the larger community. Mätti pauses to think back on his family’s and the group’s move to the Zollhaus, which cost "a lot of time, sweat, blood, and nerves on setting up the place," he says. "But in the end it was totally worth it, a pioneering project with a very longtime perspective."
Architecture: Enzmann Fischer Architekten
Contractor: Genossenschaft Kalkbreite
Civil engineering: HKP Bauingenieure
Landscape design: Köpfli Partners
Construction management: ffbk Architekten
Building physics and acoustics: Bakus Bauphysik & Akustik
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