For almost a decade, students have squatted a vacant university building in Frankfurt to protest against a lack of study time and affordable housing. Now, the squatters are faced with the threat of eviction.
“The Institute” looks just like any other dilapidated building. The walls are covered from top to bottom in graffiti and posters. Paint is flaking off the furniture.
It’s been occupied for the past nine years. Yet if the squatters hadn’t set up camp there all those years ago, the building – which once belonged to Frankfurt’s Goethe University – would have been demolished, they say.
The building is the last occupied university institute in Germany’s financial hub, the city of Frankfurt am Main.
This is the street where the urban housing struggles of the 1980s began. During that period, students occupied and lived in vacant buildings. They didn’t pay rent, but they did save many properties from demolition.
Today, the last remaining squat is the Institute of Comparative Irrelevance. It’s located in a chic residential quarter and is affectionately referred to as IVI by the squatters and their friends.
Theory, practice and parting
The building’s witty and ironic name was born out of the student protests. Sarah Schneider, who asked not to be identified by her real name, was there when it all began.
“Back then, we fought against tuition fees and against the introduction of Bachelor and Master degrees,” she said.
That was nine years ago in the winter semester of 2003/2004. During that time, the students occupied the empty houses at 130 Kettenhofweg – what used to be the Institute of English and American Studies at the Goethe University.
Since then, students have used the building for political events, feminist readings and parties.
An unrealized utopia
The activists view their project as a counterbalance to what they see as an overly authoritarian, regimented style of teaching at the university. They claim that the emphasis on achieving top grades is too heavy.
At IVI, activists are more interested in investigating how society functions and changes over time. They have consciously positioned themselves in the tradition of the famous Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, founded in the 1960s by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
“It’s also a way for us to discuss how one can resist certain developments and to explore how utopias could look,” says Sarah Schneider.
Yet today’s style of activism looks a lot different to before. At IVI today, squatters drink Coke while tapping away at their Apple Mac computers. Everyone emails, chats online, tweets and posts on Facebook.
But real estate companies and the new owner of the building aren’t impressed. The Franconofurt AG is an enterprise which proclaims that it is “continually in search of profitable real estate objects.”
The investors who bought the former institute in the chic suburb in March this year are interested in making a profit. Accordingly, they want to see the students evicted from the premises as soon as possible.
No fear of the law
Sarah Schneider recalls the first time the real estate company cut the electricity and water supply and removed the door. “They hoped that if they created adverse conditions then we would leave,” Schneider said.
But they were wrong. The occupants continued with their political activities largely undeterred by the company’s actions. “We just put in a new door,” she said.
The squatters haven’t been put off by a judicial ban or a fine of up to 250,000 euros ($320,000) either. At their meetings they discuss their next course of action. The most important thing for them is that IVI’s activities continue – despite the ban.
The members of the group also continue to promote their events with flyers, emails and posters. Student Sapho Weingold firmly believes that the IVI has the right to remain in place.
“I think that when a university leaves a building empty for so long, then they shouldn’t be surprised when people settle in and use the space,” she said.