Illustration: iStock/Andrew Howe; Foto: Stiftung Wunderland

Saving spaces for colla­bo­ra­tive innovations

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.

The model 

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’. 

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