The Wunderland Foundation has taken over at-risk properties and now makes them available for various projects – based on a collaborative partnership with their users.
Switzerland’s Wunderland Foundation is characterised by all kinds of collaboration at various levels. The groundwork for the foundation’s ecosystem was laid by filmmaker Res Balzli, who died in July 2019. Res and his sister Brigitte Balzli are the children of the Bernese dialect poet Ernst Balzli and author Alice Balzli-Vischer.
They inherited a sizeable amount of wealth from their mother. ‘Neither Brigitte nor Res had children, but they did have a really strong social and cultural streak,’ says Uwe Zahn, former Managing Director of the foundation, its President ad interim since 2020 and friend of them both. From 1996 to 2013, Brigitte Balzli and two partners ran the Hotel Bistrot Villa Lindenegg in the heart of Biel. She remains a trustee of the Wunderland Foundation today. Res Balzli was a social worker, restaurateur and cultural mediator who made a name for himself as a film producer and the co-founder of various cooperatives.
A foundation is created
In 1982, Res and Brigitte Balzli were two of seven young people from Bern who set up ‘Kreuz’, a Nidau-based pub structured as a cooperative. Events are still held in its historic premises today. When, in 2003, Nidau’s town council refused to grant the cooperative an interest-free loan for the urgent renovation of its premises, this cultural oasis was left facing ruin. Uwe Zahn, involved in the cultural association at the time, explains: ‘It quickly became clear to me that it was just impossible to find a million Swiss francs for a self-managed cooperative.’ Then the idea behind the foundation was born. Supporters and some Kreuz co-founders put money into the pot and the cooperative contributed its property, so it was still available to be used as before.
Since then, more properties, home to a wide range of projects, have been added to the foundation’s inventory. Wunderland does not need to generate profits, meaning that it doesn’t need to sell its property stock for gain. As a result, it can wrap a protective cloak around the projects, as it were. The foundation looks after the properties while also guaranteeing that the people within the projects don’t get the chop. Its income takes the form of rent, gifts and donations.
Passing the baton to the next generation
The Wunderland Foundation deliberately tries to attract younger trustees. If someone’s interested in taking part, they’ll attend the meetings of the foundation’s board of trustees for a year to determine if they’re a good fit. Uwe Zahn introduced this model. As he puts it: ‘Over this period, they’ll get lots of insights and, of course, confidentiality is upheld. It gives us a chance to see if there’s chemistry there.’ Then, and only then, are they entered into the commercial register. ‘I find it fascinating that we’re not just doggedly aiming for a board with the traditional configuration of members,’ emphasises Valentin Ismail, the youngest trustee: ‘The social and cultural aspects are just as important as members’ skills.’
A collaborative partnership
The work on the board of trustees is wide-ranging and covers various levels. Properties are usually allocated to individual trustees, who can make decisions jointly with the Managing Director. Any resolutions are then documented in detail. The foundation is on a very sound financial footing, with much of its work financed from its own capital. In terms of debts, it only has mortgages of around 500,000 Swiss francs to report. The foundation is also happy to invest in other projects, including collaboration with partners. However, the price cannot exceed one hundred Swiss francs per square metre, per year, otherwise it makes things tricky. Valentin Ismail emphasises this landlord-tenant partnership: ‘We take a long-term perspective: we collaborate on the concept and design of the locations, too. We offer a hand where we can, share our network, write to other foundations and do some of the PR work.’
La Coutellerie in Fribourg: a place to meet. Photo: Stiftung Wunderland
A restaurant managed by its workers
La Coutellerie is radically self-managed and possibly the most characteristic Wunderland project. Uwe Zahn grins: ‘La Coutellerie is a reflection of Res. He acquired it because he was so enthusiastic about its approach.’ The collectively run restaurant is located slap bang in the centre of Fribourg, right behind the town hall and on the fringes of the red-light district. ‘Originally, Res wanted to live there and run a bar as a place for older people to meet each other,’ the trustee explains. ‘While the renovation was underway, he happened upon a group of young people wanting to use the space as an interim solution.’ Since then, La Coutellerie has served as a kind of people’s kitchen, where ever-changing teams of young people interact in all kinds of ways. ‘It’s an experimental laboratory, a place where we can step away from normal market forces and test things out,’ explains Valentin Ismail, ‘a space where things can come into being. Anyone who wants to can get involved, assume responsibility, take the initial steps and try something out.’ This is right and important for many reasons, emphasises the trustee. The book value of the gifted building is low. The foundation knows the amount of earnings required and communicates this to the collective.
Restaurants and hotels
Aarberg’s Mercato has been around for more than 20 years. At this pizzeria, young adults have the opportunity to re-find their feet after going through challenging times. At present, the project is battling with dwindling contributions from Bern’s social services, which it relies on.
In 2006, Res Balzli transferred the property 4 Vents in Granges-Paccot near Fribourg to the Wunderland Foundation. Together with Catherine Portmann, he’d turned this former patrician house into a romantic retreat, a place for city-dwellers to get some rest and relaxation. Today, the hotel is managed in the traditional way by two leaseholders. The land, with its unique stock of trees, used to be reserved for private use but it’s now accessible to the public.
A place with dignity
Another project, the Sleep-In, offers emergency accommodation in Biel and is open year-round. For six Swiss francs, unhoused people and those suffering from addiction and mental health issues receive a bed for the night and breakfast the next morning. The project has signed a service contract with the city of Biel. Its two former owners wanted to offer the property to the city of Biel, but it had no interest in it – which is why Wunderland took it on and organised its renovation, out of respect for the people using it. A renovation week takes place once a year. All upcoming work is organised to take place within this period and anyone who is able to help is welcome to, including its users.
Every property owned by the Wunderland Foundation has its own story to tell. If you were wondering, the foundation’s name relates to the Balzli siblings’ mother. As a good chunk of the money came from Alice Balzli-Vischer, they said it’s as if she were ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
In the novel of the same name by Lewis Carroll, Alice asks the white rabbit: ‘How long is forever?’, and he responds, ‘Sometimes, just one second’. Even today, the foundation’s correspondence bears the phrase ‘Alice aux pays des mères veille’, referencing the wonders worked courtesy of the Balzlis’ mother. And so Alice will be watching over the foundation ‘forever’.