There is a very chronological story to it – the development in time. In the case of the Nadácia Cvernovka time means growth – human, individual, professional, as a community, as an organ within the organism of Bratislava. What did the community learn through their experiences and in the course of and how did they manage to re-insert their organically grown structure into a new location?
From A to …
Still, the building was in an unpleasant state, due to the previous owner that had little interest in neither investing nor cooperating with the tenants. What to change about it: buy the building in order to gain more spectrum of taking action? Understand and settle a new structure? “Our first idea was to take the responsibility as a group of individuals with the offer to the owner to provide basic maintenance, based on a fee. We would govern and manage this organic content in order to create a functioning creative cluster” tells Brano Cavoj, who is now part of the central entity of the ‘Cvernovka’. “This more stable structure could result into more attractive space for tenants and their visitors, a functioning platform with regular programs, with media outcomes for the public and at the end a winning situation for the owner.” The first concrete step was to research the financial investments of all the tenants into their own and the common spaces that would indicate a budget, which could be organized collectively. Despite the uncertainty of the rent period to go, together with a little team he found out about a huge financial disposition. All together they were taking a financial risk, summing up to 500.000 Euros. Why? ‘Well, the name of Cvernovka really became known in the cultural scene of Bratislava, events were taking place, exhibitions, lectures and even the National Design Awards. People started to take it more seriously.’ All that motivated Brano and four other tenants – Šymon Kliman, Viliam Csino and Boris Meluš – to found in September 2015 a foundation in order to gain more structure and power as a community organ. ‘An association in Slovakia is linked to a very strict set of rules. Still, this format was the most transparent and democratic and thus the most trustworthy in the eyes of people.’ – says Brano. A couple of months after forming the association the pack was reshuffled — the owner of the factory changed. After a series of discussions, it became obvious that the cultural community had to leave the building. What first seemed to be misplacement in time turned out to be a great gift: the freshly founded association helped to keep the crew together. ‘Bratislava as a capital doesn’t have another cultural space on that scale, so we decided not to stop. What was challenging was the fact that we were still not such a united community, consisting of different companies, some more commercial, some more underground, a lot of people with a different story. So we investigated with everybody what to do next, and whether we should search for a new space. Luckily they all agreed.’ Simultaneously many private and public groups encouraged them. On the background of how industrial heritage is handled in Bratislava, it became a long search finding a suitable building. In the words of industrial heritage specialist of the Slovak Academy of Science, Katarína Haberlandová: ‘In Bratislava [editors note] we do not take advantage of the unique opportunity to adapt industrial buildings for different purposes, as witnessed in other countries. On the contrary, we are losing these values for good. Most of the former manufactories […] are condemned to doom.’ In the end, the Cvernovka association found a former Chemistry School building, remote from the city centre, yet well connected with a main tramline. It is a huge property, with a vibe of old school days, emptiness and a lot of future potentials. On the property that is rented by the provincial government, there is the former dormitory and the actual school building. ’What is a great addition compared to the Cvernovka is the greenery surrounding the buildings.’ It was a tough process to convince the government that finally led to an agreement, similar to their big-brother-project, the Stará Tržnica in Bratislava. They would rent the property for a low, symbolic price with the condition to invest 60.000 Euro per year into the construction and maintenance of the building on the total period of 10 years. The potential of what can happen at this special spot is contrasting the load of work that has to be accomplished. ‘Currently, we are having a tough period. The school is really in a bad shape. It was unattended for a long time, heating units were destroyed, water was everywhere around the place.’ During the construction works, a lot of the workers and future tenants moved into the dormitory. The small incomes from renting out the dormitory provide a part of the (symbolic) salary for the workers. We as the founders and organizational team don’t have any income yet.’
What about the financial plan in general?
In order to create a financial model that suits the organic structure of all interested parties, the association is handling a multilayered plan. Big support, yet not sufficient, came from the population. 16.500 Euros were collected in six weeks time through crowdfunding. Although this demonstrated the backup power from the Bratislavian population, the association needed to take a bigger step: currently, they are dealing with the bureaucratic process of requesting a loan from the social branch of the Slovak Savings Bank. The comparatively low investments into construction work are making the investors slack-jawed. Brano tells: ’Needing only 500.000 Euros for the entire reconstruction is little. When you compare the costs to a standard development project, where you can expect at least 1000 Euro per square metre, we have this unbelievable 100 Euro per square metre.’ Partnerships with local constructors, the high level of self-investment and a special plan together with the tenants permit these low costs. All the future tenants are financially responsible for their own space. The association and the money collected will be invested into the common spaces, electricity, water pipes, walls and ceilings. An ArchBoard, and an EcoBoard were formed, where they discuss and decide on architectural and ecological adaptions within the building. During our tour through the school, Boris, another founder of the association, explains: ‘We also literally want to be an ecological system. For example, we want to integrate rainwater into our water system for the flush and for gardening. For the realization of many such elements there is no money yet, but we need to prepare them already.’ The big challenge is the loan they are anticipating: it creates a tension between their adventurous ambitions and the commercial aspect that will come in: ‘It is an element that can ruin the project in the sense of the social beneficial aspect, because you need to follow all the hard and tough economic rules, the guidelines from the bank. They ask us to exploit the project economically. However, imposing high rents would demolish the concept. When we were talking to the bank it was tip toeing, expressing the needs of the low rents. Fortunately, we found a level that is affordable for the people and yet brings in sufficient money to pay back the loan.’ Although there is a high level of motivation and enthusiasm, the community must acknowledge the system, follow rules and keep business connections. ‘You cannot extend the limits too much with unpaid work. But the experience when you see directors and graphic designers who are in these work suits and in the dirt is surprisingly nice!’
Organically grown organism into a new structure
Their growth and literally new positioning in the Slovak cultural scene brings along new challenges. Dominika Belanská, a placemaker and architect from Bratislava is observing their process: ‘Their creative hub in the old building grew organically, without planning. Now their big challenge is to re-organize this very organic body in order to insert it into a new space. They as a group have been through something, understanding how important it is to stay together as a diverse community and now can establish something new.’ The main common factor of this organic, yet non-homogeneous body used to be the same building. Their re-location carries huge potential: it means growing together by having a communal goal. This again is the base for new synergies. The participating parties will be at least 70 percent of the former Cvernovka tenants and many new ones. ‘We are really proud of their multidisciplinarity, it is not a single-sided project, the tenants range from artsy painters to computer programmers to young businessmen, start-ups and yoga teachers. We mainly focus on the creative industry sector, but are looking forward creating cross-sections and synergies with the social sector,’ Brano explains. Improving the life quality with the existence of this creative hub is a central goal. ‘The intention behind the association was a philanthropic approach. Sometimes that’s hard to combine with a business model. When we will be more settled, we plan to organise these philanthropic activities for the neighbourhood.’ When Brano talks about the current state of Bratislava, one can sense the frustration about the institutional layer in Bratislava: ‘For example, there is a huge problem with visual smog. It is messy. There are no regulations, and the Municipality doesn’t really have the power to manage the companies and the owners that pollute the public space. We have a huge committee of architects. However, we are lacking the capacity to organize public architectural competitions for public properties, we have to push this field. We do as much as we can. The community already grew so incredibly, we have a growing group of friends in the municipality, so it can somehow work.’ The core team, the association itself, is there to push the topics that are important to the city and its quality of life. They want to be the connectors and manifest the bridges where collaborations can grow on. Despite the struggles they are facing, Brano is excited: ‘None of us of the foundation needed to tell the people what to do, to persuade them to participate. The moment we started everyone just joined and took his or her part. We are integrating the architects, project managers from the Cvernovka community — this is the biggest advantage. It is something that we brought from the old Cvernovka: the community spirit.’ At the same time, the community of tenants and stakeholders and the association is growing up, getting more mature and professional.
What calls him to action? – Association co-founder Brano Cavoj
Working in the world of advertising is shiny on the outside but manipulative on the inside. Brano experienced a ‘lack of meaningfulness’: ‘It was a feeling that you need to do something that makes sense. People in the Cvernovka community are so different than in the advertisement sector. In that field there is so much ego, everybody is feeling like the king of the jungle. Here, we all pursuit the same goal, share common values and don’t follow only individual benetfits.. Another point that drives me to engage within the community is related to the political state in Slovakia. Living here is not easy going. I was watching the behavior of the political representatives for many years: they are not helping the city and the country and you are waiting for change. At some point, you need to acknowledge that if you don’t move your ass nothing will change. It was a good luck that we found each other in Cvernovka and in the community.’