Strongholds of an Opposition

Cooperative Housing in Zürich is much more than affordable apartments.

In conversation with Zürich-based urbanist and writer, Hans Widmer.

Bau-und Wohngenossenschaft Kraftwerk1, Zürich, Switzerland

Hans Widmer became an influential voice for Zürich’s cooperative movement in the 1980’s. Under the pseudonym P.M. he published controversial ideas about how cooperative urbanism can subvert exclusionary or unsustainable forms of capitalist development. Today, he’s been directly involved in a number of built projects that relate to his primary concept of the bolo’bolo — a self-sustaining urban community, of approximately 500 people, that allows for the ‘nesting’ of diverse groups while maintaining an overarching political coherence.

Our conversation revolves around the Kraftwerk1 project but takes deeper dives into ideologies, politics and methods of successful cooperatives. Widmer describes cooperative housing projects as ‘strongholds of an opposition’ by the ways in which they catalyze politically engaged citizens. He also explains how radical projects need to broker a ‘critical trust’ in order to foster collaborate between its own members, financial institutions, and city leaders.


ML: You’ve written extensively about how neighborhoods can organize around cooperative forms of development. How does this play out in Zürich’s recent history, and where is it headed today?

HW: Here it’s relatively straightforward. Cooperatives are something like a stock company. Cooperatives, you see, have only existed for about 150 years. Shareholder companies are older and tend to follow the English model. But really every country has a cooperative history, it simply has to do with how to organize capital.

Today we also speak of it in terms of crowdsourcing or crowdfunding. And the crowd is usually defined by some kind of cultural, social or sociological commonality. So we say, for example, we are all workers who need housing. And then we have an answer: a little, by a lot of people, is a lot!

ML: Can you explain this idea of ‘commonality’ a bit further?

HW: So there are two really important elements. The first is this idea…a lot of a little is a lot. Second, it’s important to have some kind of shared spirit of community. It doesn’t have to be much you see. Poverty will be enough. [laughter] That’s my role in it actually — to have some kind of reasonable ideology. You see because if you don’t have some kind of scientific ideology then you are going to get into a religious one.

ML: You mean it gets exclusionary in that sense?

HW: Yes. Well, all ideology is exclusionary. Because if you want to have inclusion you have to have exclusion. That’s a logic of the commons. This is a kind of virtual cloud of the commons. You don’t have to have some kind of superficial definition, it’s based on having some kind of conviction. We are not saying poor, white, male or female. No, that’s not what we‘re saying.

Hans Widmer [Photo]

ML: So are you saying housing as a shared political problem?

HW: Well, I think if you base a cooperative only on needing a house it’s very bad because everyone needs housing so it’s too inclusive, too broad. What we said [with Kraftwerk1] is how do we want to live together and what do you want to do together? Housing should not be a goal in itself but a goal for something you want to do. A means to an end not an end in itself.

We are not here to solve capital’s social problems. Then you become part of solving other people’s problems. We want to create problems for capital, not solve them. That’s what we did here. We created a lot of problems for the city. They wanted to build a huge shopping center over there with a football stadium. And by bringing all the neighbors together we killed it.

“We are not here to solve capital’s social problems. Then you become part of solving other people’s problems. We want to create problems for capital, not solve them. That’s what we did here. We created a lot of problems for the city.”

ML: So the actual construction of new housing units is just the surface layer of a much deeper political organization?

HW: Yes, these new Zürich cooperatives, like Kalkbreit, Mehn als Wohnen, Zwicky Süd, are on the political map. This is the story that nobody tells. They are actually strongholds of an opposition. These housing cooperatives have an organizing bases. For example, in one of our projects, Zwicky Süd, Greenpeace has their headquarters. For them it’s very important to have a secure headquarters. It’s harder to be evicted in a cooperative because there is a basic sympathy. Because we say, for example, Greenpeace is part of our ecosystem. These are the kinds of organizations we want to see.

ML: An alignment of the ideology.

HW: Yes, and they are very reasonable. They want to save the whales, et cetera…and it’s not about skin color, it’s about the whales. [Laughter]

ML: So because typical constraints of the ‘free market’ don’t exist, expensive rents…et cetera, a space for alternatives projects is created.

HW: Yes, our cooperatives usually have 20% of non-housing. And that’s very important because people who want to work there can live there, if they choose. And, you see, we are not really making housing specifically for Greenpeace. We are not selecting them to fulfill some kind of community ideal. But by creating these cooperatives, it creates types of space that allow activities to happen that otherwise wouldn’t.

ML: Right, let’s take the simple example of the chef here at Brasserie Bernoulli. She obviously wants to be a chef. That’s her specialty. The housing cooperative is a means by which she can thrive at her career because she doesn’t have to worry about paying too much rent, or commuting for two hours each day, or dealing with an abusive landlord.

Brasserie Bernoulli

HW: Yes, exactly. To describe a bit further her restaurant here is an independent company. We designed the space with facilities so it could be a restaurant, including the kitchen which is always the most expensive part. And then we invited the chefs, who happened to be good friends. And now they cook for a lot of the people who live here and others who work nearby.

ML: You make it sound so easy! But really the political history is more complicated, right? Last night I met with Bill, one of the residents of Dreieck cooperative. He was telling me how in the 70’s the city wanted to build a road through the neighborhood and then in the 80’s demolish it completely — and they fought back. He said those political activities were a precursor to the cooperatives in the 1990’s, like this project [Kraftwerk1] and even newer ones like Kalkbreite.

HW: Yes, you see another way you can say this is we used the so called, ‘criminal energy’ of what we did in the 1980’s, like squatting, burning cars and very bad things. [laughter] We said we need to stop the city from developing these kinds of things!

Autonomes Jugendzentrum Ajz, Zürich, 1980–82. [Photo]

ML: Right, so these actions, the ones of ‘criminal energy’ and also the peaceful demonstrations, were a kind of statement when no one was listening?

HW: Yes. At the same time I think the left in Europe is very mainstream. It may not seem like that from an American perspective. When you say something like, everyone should have a home, a job, and health insurance, this is something uninteresting and you would even find support from the most conservative right-wing parties of the parliament. So, a lot of what we say as a cooperative is mainstream, in a way. And that actually creates a lot of problems in the political spheres because we are actually telling them what they tell us. So they hear what they want to hear. But they don’t want to hear it from us, you see. [laughter]

ML: So how did you make this political energy work towards something productive, towards realizing a built project?

HW: I think the culture and background is very important. The first step cannot be just to put money on the table. You first have to show what you are serious about. What you should do is create workshops and meetings. Invite interesting people to create a cloud of concepts and convictions that are not too sectarian. Be reasonably scientific, not linked with old anarchist or socialist baggage. Forget about Sanders. You don’t want to become an antiquarian. [laughter] You want to build a cooperative. Forget dreaming about the golden years; there is no normal Capitalism. We never had a red flag here. But if you want to hang it in your bedroom, no problem. [laughter]

ML: So it’s very pragmatic.

HW: It’s pragmatic but it’s also very political. But the politicians do not realize that is it. I think a true revolutionary is one you can never tell. A stupid revolutionary is one who wears the red flag and says, shoot me please. [laughter]

ML: This seem like a view that has come with experience. A couple decades ago you were squatting and protesting in the streets. Now you are a leading contributor to a handful of new buildings in Zürich, a job often associated with real estate development and completely different worldview.

HW: You see all these people from Dreieck are old friends from the cooperative, we’ve known each other for many decades. These are people who have known each other also in difficult situations — like confronting the police, or many right-wing politicians. Most of the time it doesn’t really play out. But you see when you have to finance something then there are always moments of critical trust. You say ok, we can do it if everyone chips in 5,000 CHF as seed money to hire someone to get something started.

“When you have to finance something then there are always moments of critical trust.”

ML: So how does the project typically start. Earlier you said someone is hired, like a developer or architect?

HW: You know in these cases architects are not usually the ones who start the process. Not that they can’t be, we don’t look at job titles. But it’s important that the core of the initial organizing group is just concerned citizens. Everyday people who have strange ideas and that do something together that is clear and understandable, at least to themselves.

ML: So, it needs to start from a genuine demand from those involved. How do those ideas start to gain traction in realizing the project?

HW: So in Zürich once and a while you have a vote. A proposal comes up. For example, we need 90 million seed money for new housing. When you put it to the population 80% says yes. And so the origin of the ideas were from the weird left wing, you know, a small group on the left. When you actually propose something concrete then you get support from everyone. It’s tangible. That means if we suggest something like NeNa, you get a hearing and they listen to you.

ML: And after building a few successful cooperative housing projects it’s probably easier to get their attention.

HW: Yes, well actually in some ways. You should look at what we call the ‘rent seeking’ real estate development industry. They are doing much more than we can do in terms of providing quantity of housing units, building high, et cetera.

ML: Right, market rate residential buildings.

HW: Yes, but the influence of the housing cooperatives is they have lowered all the rents overall in Zürich. The rates have depressed overall because if you always have a cooperative offering more affordable rents the developers have to also go down if they want to follow the credo of what’s in demand.

ML: That fascinating. So, you have about 50,000 people in Zürich directly living in cooperative apartments, but then you have a much larger number who experience affordability in a more indirect way because the cooperatives are influencing the overall market.

HW: Yes, so the one quarter of cooperative units in Zürich have a very broad effect. It’s large but I think not large enough. The goal is that 1/3 of all housing should be non-profit housing. So real estate developers get very nervous because this cuts into their profits.

ML: So the cooperatives are presenting another type of competition for the real estate industry. But one that doesn't play by the same rules.

HW: Yes because their funding methods are very different than ours. We just decided to put part of our wages into our own project instead of giving our wages to the rent seekers. It doesn’t mean capitalism doesn’t go on as before, it’s nothing revolutionary, really. It just means we want to be our own landlord. Where is the problem? It’s all legal and everyone would do it if they could. You don’t need a special political ideology.

We just decided to put part of our wages into our own project instead of giving our wages to the rent seekers…It just means we want to be our own landlord…It’s all legal and everyone would do it if they could.

ML: It seems very logical actually.

HW: This is very important because we have these political movements sometimes. Take squatting for example. There’s actually not much squatting left in Zürich, maybe one or two houses. But the history of squatting is that you live in a building for a year, if you are lucky, then the police kick you out and something else is built. We said, this game is stupid. Why don’t we buy this stuff? Some said, but we don’t have the money. We said just look, we have the money! Everybody earns some money. And if you put in a little bit, you get a lot!

ML: How much money is needed to get things started?

HW: You see to build something like this [Kraftwerk] it costs about 50,000,000 CHF total. But to start, to finance it, you only need 5,000,000 of equity. This equity is provided by promises from members to pay their shares — 5,000 CHF each. And the shares are linked to the size of the flat. So, for example, with Kraftwerk1 a 3 bedroom is 30,000 CHF shares…et cetera. But when you move out you get it back. It’s like a security.

ML: Who finances the actual construction of the building?

HW: A loan through a state bank. It’s Zürcher Kantonalbankbank. This bank was founded to do this type of thing, about one hundred years ago. An anarchist founded it actually. His name was Karl Bürkli, he was in the French revolution of 1848. He came to Zürich and said, let’s make revolution. And he founded food cooperatives, which first provided silk shirts and cigars. So the idea was not to feed the proletariat, but the members of the board, you see. [Laughter]

It’s an interesting story, actually. So then those cooperatives branched out into bread and rice and everyone liked it. But then the food coops had a problem. They were shareholder companies because there was no other model. And every year there was a big gathering of the shareholders where they divided the profit. And the profit got huge! And because it was comprised of the proletariate, who were poor, they divided it amongst themselves immediately. And with the laws of these stock companies it’s difficult to accumulate money because the stockholders decide on the profit. And then Bürkli, the old anarchist, said we need a way to keep the proletariat under control. Who could it be? The State. So let’s found a state bank under new rules called a cooperative. And in a cooperative it’s harder to take out the profits. The banks should force the proletarians to keep the money in the coops. So the government said, ok the left wing is getting reasonable so let’s help them found banks. [laughter] But actually what they created was an instrument to have more cooperative housing. And this state bank still has the obligation to provide the loans and the funding for these cooperatives.

ML: You see that’s something not every country has and which makes Switzerland hospitable to cooperative housing projects. So how much funding do they provide?

HW: Each cooperative project has multiple banks, three or four, but you need a leading bank otherwise it becomes a mess. So, this state bank usually leads and organizes different types of mortgages and interests. Part of the equity always comes from members of the cooperative. Without those no bank reacts. You need have money coming from your own pocket.

ML: Is the bank financing contingent on having the apartments filled, to prove demand?

HW: We needed about 100 people who each put in 5,000 francs, regardless of what would happen — as seed money. Who would be ready to lose this money if this project [Kraftwerk1] were not built? This is the risk we put in as developers, it’ amounted to about 1/2 million. And then when a banker sees that they say ok, these guys are serious.

ML: So you only use state bank loans?

HW: We use private loans too.

ML: You see the difference is that banks in the United States would probably not work with this kind of cooperative, or at least be difficult to deal with, because they would see too much risk.

HW: The irony is that no cooperative in Zürich has ever gone bankrupt. Many other kinds of businesses go bankrupt. But cooperatives are very safe. Maybe you can get [Bill] Deblasio establish something like a guarantee incase of bankruptcy by the state. We have that in Zürich. The guarantee has never been used. You see this is also the logic of the commons, to not try to be too autonomous. You also have to involve politics.

ML: And the shareholder fee seems essential to gather a group of committed members. We sometimes call that ‘putting skin in the game’.

HW: Yes, you have to have people who are committed. With strangers who don’t share a common idea a cooperative is very tricky. The other part of the equity you can get from the investment fund of the other cooperatives. And usually they give you a loan on the additional equity you are going to get when the members of the cooperative become tenants of their own cooperative. Because remember, being a member of a cooperative doesn’t automatically mean you are going to get a flat. First the cooperative builds the building then there is another selection committee, that is not the board of the cooperative, in charge of organizing a process for who gets the apartments. This way you do not have mafia style dealing. [laughter]

ML: So, the other incentive to join a cooperative is to be involved in the development of housing and they join because they have a shared political or lifestyle interest.

HW: Yes, some people are there for political reasons. They might already have their own house somewhere else. They think this is a good idea for the quality of the city. Or maybe it keeps their landlord in line because they have cooperatives as an alternative. If you do something bad, I will join a cooperative, et cetera.

ML: So in some ways being a member of a cooperative can be a political bargaining chip.

HW: Yes, exactly. You have an option. It says, keep the rent down or I could leave.

ML: This is an interesting aspect of housing cooperatives — that a cooperative can also be a useful political tool for all kinds of people who otherwise have no political influence in the city, much less an economic one. Understanding the political leverage could add incentive for people to join. You know the first most basic issue is stigma associating cooperatives with a hippy or socialist utopia.

HW: Yes, of course. Well at the beginning here [at Kraftwerk1]we had a lot of punk communities because it was the 90’s. You see, many of the flats are designed for living communally, for 14 people in three stories. But here is the difference: they are structured like their own, independent, organization that rents from the cooperative. So they can determine who comes into their individual cooperative flat without placing that expectation on the entire development.

ML: I see so it’s a small group of people who organize themselves nested within the larger cooperative. So there can be more than one identity, and the cooperative doesn’t become exclusionary.

HW: Right it becomes a way for the cooperative to manage itself. On the other hand you have to be very conventional. You see there are not many ways to manage property. On the outside it looks like any other type of real estate development. You have to make sure the elevators work, rents are paid, et cetera. If you don’t have this the development will collapse. Because cooperative projects are an island in a relatively unfriendly urban environment.

On the outside it looks like any other type of real estate development. You have to make sure the elevators work, rents are paid, et cetera. If you don’t have this the development will collapse. Because cooperative projects are an island in a relatively unfriendly urban environment.

ML: Right, it’s an exception relative to the way things are typically done.

HW: Yes, and you have to make sure you do not become like a country that isolates itself, that cuts itself off from the world. So we try not to be secluded.

ML: Right this is the classic critique of the Fourierists socialist utopia, that you can cast yourself away from society and build something from scratch based only on your ideals.

HW: The Fourierists were based on a nostalgia about how they thought the ideal life would be. It was a very totalitarian design so the message is already there even if the content was about liberation. If you go to Merh als Wohnen there is nothing of this. But at Zwicky Süd there is an element to this totalitarianism in the design, but it’s wanted. It kind of looks like a prison block. [laughter] But then you see there are terraces, plants and people. It transforms. It has something to do with building costs and efficiency.

ML: Can you speak more about how these cooperative ideals translate through to the building design?

HW: You see there is an ecological angle to this too. Individual apartments have been growing. The average used to be 30 square meters and now its up to 50. If you look at ecological assessment this is a disaster. So we want this to go back down to 30, or even 20. The new model I’m suggesting is the apartment hotel actually. You give someone a relatively small room with just the necessities, but on the ground floor you do shops swimming pool that are shared. So if everyone gives up 2 square meters of their own there is more shared space.

ML: So you keep a small but adequate amount of personal private space, then you expand the common shared spaces and maximize amenities.

HW: This is the idea of the commons. And then you live much better. You have more room because not everyone uses the lobby at the same time. So you design hybrid spaces, with co-working, libraries or whatever so you never waste it without an ability for use. And this makes it affordable. And the commonality should not be superficially designed, but created as a side effect.

“Commonality should not be superficially designed, but created as a side effect.”

ML: Right because if people feel that’s its over designed, like some cliche where everyone must eat together at the same table, it will be fake and no one will want to do that.

HW: Right that’s very important because in the old socialist days the idea was to seat everyone together in one big room. This is not necessary. You can still have general assemblies were everyone can vote. But that’s a meeting.

ML: Right, because then the practicality of wanting quality, affordable space can foster a certain type of lifestyle.

HW: Yes, this makes life under capitalism relatively cheap. And then you can do what I did and lots of others did: you can work less. And then more human resources come into projects and less go into capital.

ML: Would you describe this as a ‘bottom up’ strategy to invent better forms of living under Capitalism?

HW: Well, it goes top down when you have a lot of people and, as long as you are weak, it goes bottom up. And then when you get stronger it goes top down. We prefer top down, it’s much more effective. But you have to be careful that it doesn’t get out of hand. That’s why there are instruments of democratic control. You can never trust any institution, as we know, but you can have bad institutions and you can have better institutions. And we always try to make better ones.

But the state guarantee was important. You see because in the 1990’s during the crash the banks were desperate. And the bankers came this area, you know upper middle class guys who live in little mansions on the hills. They said, ah look at this area, no one can live here. Who would want to live here? And we said we do! [laughter]

ML: Sounds not so different than what’s been happening with the ongoing gentrification of Brooklyn — entrepreneurial projects making turning ‘undesirable’ areas into destinations.

HW: Yes, and now everyone wants to invest here! You see there is construction all around! We are the culprits. We ignited this area. And a space that was once ugly is now one of the hotspots for real estate. And we should really be paid for this, but we cannot because it says in our contract that we cannot make any profits. It’s in our bylaws. But we are allowed to accumulate capital to make other projects, you see.

ML: For example if you wanted to segment off a part of your property to sell to a real estate developer or build a market rate building yourselves…would you be able to?

HW: No. We would lose our state guarantee. Now we can only build cooperative housing. We are building, not for the very poor, they cannot afford cooperative housing, and not for the extremely rich because they don’t need it. They have this idea of the median wage, it’s 6,300 CHF per month. So we base our calculations off that. 1.5 wage earners per household. If they are in the family model, which very few of us are here. A lot of single parents. Communities, collective, or families within communities. The family is not the model. Such a person can pay 1,000 CHF a month without starving. Professional often make 20,000.

ML: So you said the goals of these cooperatives is not to provide social housing for the poor.

HW: Yes from the beginning we said we do not want to solve social problems that we did not create. Why should we solve the problems of capitalism? We did not create these problems. But we say of course poorer people can live with us. So 20% of the flats have lower rents; they get a subsidy from the cooperative. They can also go to the state welfare department and get a subsidy for their rent and other living expenses. This allows them to afford it. You see is financially impossible to build these projects if we were to finance it according to that poor bracket.

“From the beginning we said we do not want to solve social problems that we did not create. Why should we solve the problems of capitalism? We did not create these problems. But we say of course poorer people can live with us.”

You see, 7% of people in Switzerland are officially poor, which means a person that makes less than 3,000 CHF per month. If you only make that much you cannot afford to pay 1,000 CHF in rent. You’re not extremely poor, you can still live a western lifestyle, you can have a car, exedra. And many are even voluntarily poor because they choose not to work too much. Many of them are artists, or what I call, ‘extreme down shifters’. [Laughter]

But there are also people in legitimate financial trouble. But you see the cooperative cannot be based around that, we can get a little help from the state as an incentive but they have to do their part too. And we do have a quota. For instance, we say 25% should be foreigners. Currently we have about 35% foreigners. On my floor 85% are Muslims from Morocco and Malaysia. I only realized a few months ago actually and it’s an interesting cultural element because they are just beginning to learn what the cooperative is. We also have Iraqi refuges here. And at the beginning they didn’t know what was going on here.

ML: Well that’s interesting because earlier you said there needs to be some kind of aligned ideology.

HW: Right, but I would say out of 500 you only need about 30 people who have a certain understanding. A core group. And then when you select tenants all these criteria must be put aside. Of course, you cannot say, we do not want and Evangelicals or Muslims, or no women, or right-wingers. We do not ask those questions. We just say here is the system and if you pay rent and put in some work and communicate, if you do not bother other people, then you can stay here! You are in.

ML: Yes, this a central idea to much of your writing.

HW: The concept of bolo’bolo has proven very useful. With this next project, Nena, we are essentially doing two of our 500 neighborhoods.

ML: Right and the concept behind the bolo’bolo is to create a manageable neighborhood, not too big, not too small, but just the right size to achieve a critical energy with an effective economy and enough diversity.

HW: Yes, it allows for all kinds of people. You know, strange people who never do anything, hecklers at the general assemblies…all deluded in the 500. There are no good people in a sense. [laughter]

ML: I suppose the goal is to create a system that protects against all these inevitable human tendencies.

HW: Here at Kraftwerk1 we only have 300 people, but it’s not bad. You always have to be attentive to get enough things for people to do, because people have other interests than living in a cooperative, of course. They have other jobs that are doing fantastic things. But if nobody does anything here it collapses.

ML: Right so you need to strike a balance between cooperative obligations and complete autonomy.

HW: Yeah at the same time you don’t have to be judgmental about what people do. But you have to say, ok, you need at lease 3 or 4 hours a month and it will be checked. You see the world has much bigger problems than cooperatives. This is actually a child’s game really. But it gives the basis for a lot of people who are trying to do something for the bigger problems.