The Bulgarian capital has neither erased nor obsessively maintained the past, encompassing a mixture of architecture where the only omission is anything of note from the last 26 years of ‘freedom’, writes Owen Hatherley
The cities we’ve visited so far fall into a few categories: the Year Zero open spaces of Katowice, the total preservation of Bologna, and the pruning of the past in Thessaloniki. The area around Serdika, the central Metro station of Sofia, presents a much looser, much more all-encompassing kind of city, where the past is neither erased, nor obsessively maintained.
The station entrance, in a clipped, Modernist style, gives out to a sunken square, littered with tablets and foundations from Sofia’s Roman incarnation, after which the station is named; a tiny, peasant-like Byzantine church is just outside the entrance. Walk up the steps and look around, and everything is happening at once. Around you are two mosques, a minaret, a Neo-Byzantine basilica, a synagogue, a domed bathhouse, an interwar Moderne high-rise, and a transplanted organ from Stalin’s Moscow, topped with a Kremlin spire.
Look around, and everything is happening at once
All of Sofia’s histories - Roman metropolis, Byzantine and Ottoman province, interwar and Communist capital – are on display, none of them covered up with a veneer of ‘European’ good taste. The only era that hasn’t contributed much to the ensemble is post-1989 Bulgarian capitalism, which has added only a rather kitsch angel atop a triumphal column, and a lot of big adverts. Even so, the reaction of most architectural enthusiasts on getting out here would surely be ‘this is going to be fun’.
Exploring the area maintains the impression. You can’t do it chronologically, as no era dominates, at least not in the centre, but the earliest building is the Church of St George, an exceptionally early Roman 4th-century Christian basilica. It is a small, symmetrical rotunda of red brick, severe and ordered, with 10th-century frescoes inside, and surrounded with remains from Roman Serdika, which in turn are surrounded by that transplanted chunk of Stalinist Moscow, sitting in the publicly accessible courtyard of the Hotel Balkan, entered through a colonnade of Neo-Byzantine columns and down a flight of steps.
From the other side you can survey the Largo, the city’s ostentatious Socialist Realist setpiece. Planned in the late 40s and finished just after Stalin’s death, it is a cousin to the likes of Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee or Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science but even more obviously Muscovite in its derivation. Designed by a Bulgarian team headed by Petso Zlatev, it has two flanking blocks, the TZUM department store and the Hotel Balkan, leading to a third, the former Communist Party headquarters, set in the middle of the wedge-shaped plan.
If you’ve been to Moscow you’ll know the idiom - rustication on the lower floors, arcading at the top, with a scattering of heroic statuary. The headquarters has been without its crowning red star since 1990, but the inspiration of the great spike at the top of its tiered Neo-Baroque tower is easy to spot, a smaller cousin of Moscow’s post-war ‘seven sisters’ skyscrapers. When you’re standing in the middle of it, the Largo presents a total, authoritarian image, but it’s only a fragment, easily escaped.
If this overpowering presence of an era usually considered shameful isn’t enough, there are also a lot of Ottoman fragments left around in prominent places. The Archaeological Museum, just off the Largo, is a conversion of the 15th-century Grand Mosque. Stone and brick to the street, it’s only lightly remodelled, and the original purpose is clear. The multiple domes of the interior house exhibits that are not as ecumenical as Sofia’s urban planning, since ‘archaeology’ stops with the Ottoman conquest. However, much as the restorers of the churches turned into mosques under the ‘Turkish yoke’ had their Islamic decoration peeled off and the frescoes beneath revealed, here the whitewash applied when the building became a museum is scratched off on parts of the domes so you can see the Turkish decoration peep out.
On the other side of the Largo, there’s St Nedelya, the best of Sofia’s several 19th-century Neo-Byzantine churches - big, heavy, powerful, and convincingly ancient-looking. Further north is the Sofia Synagogue, overripe and eclectic, with a bulbous black dome and vaguely Moorish ornament - it’s very large and prominent for a synagogue, which speaks well of Sofia. Opposite this is the slightly over-restored Central Market, opened in 1911: one part Victorian iron and glass hall, one part Balkan bazaar. Across the road is the Banya Bashi Mosque, a 16th-century design of the great Mimar Sinan. Inside, it’s a disappointment, currently dominated by the ad-hoc frames put up to stop the dome from collapsing, but as an urban object, it has real grandeur, pulling the entire ensemble together. Across a small green square is a bathhouse, recently converted into the Museum of Sofia, with more domes and more patterns and polychrome tiles. At midday, the overdriven speakers at the top of the minaret blast out a distorted muezzin, and Sofia is the perfect Balkan metropolis, with all the area’s cultures and eras present and peacefully coexisting - architecturally, at any rate.
There’s another, less interesting, more official city centre in Sofia, towards the ditch-like Perlovska river. It consists of several dull Viennese-designed civic and political structures, the brutal, stripped-bare early Byzantine Saint Sofia Church, and the pompous, opulent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, designed by the prolific Russian imperial architect Alexander Pomerantsev. It’s a gilded gift from Bulgaria’s long-time ally, and as grossly, unimaginatively retrograde as Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Russian architecture is better represented by the Orthodox baroque of the much smaller St Nicholas the Miracle Maker, just nearby.
Walk along the river southwards towards the peak of Mount Vitosha, and you’ll find more fragments of much later Russian imperial architecture, such as the Stalinist classicism of the Vasil Levski Stadium, the frequently defaced Red Army Memorial, and lots of monumental sportsmen, sportswomen and workers left around the river as heroic punctuation. The actual buildings here, and in most of central Sofia, are speculative interwar Moderne, with the occasional neat detail in the balconies and the stairwells, but otherwise a low-key vernacular. Then you’re faced with a sudden interruption to these dense streets, thrown into a wholly late 20th-century zone of wide open space and dissonant monumentality. This is the ‘National Palace of Culture’.
The palace’s spacious foyers are the larger cousin of Lasdun’s National Theatre
Aside from the Largo - built on a bombsite - central Sofia does not have much in the way of grand projects or imposing prospects, which makes the National Palace of Culture all the more dramatic. It blasts a huge hole through the city’s fabric - although it should be noted it was built on the site of a barracks and goods yard rather than a residential area. The obligatory very big square is currently under renovation, and the ‘1,300 Years of Bulgaria’ monument, an intriguing combination of Brutalism and expressionist figuration, is literally falling to pieces, surrounded by campaign posters calling for it to be replaced with a reconstruction of the barracks’ old war memorial. There is a counter-campaign to preserve the current monument.
The Palace of Culture was commissioned by Lyudmila Zhivkova, Bulgarian cultural figurehead and daughter of the Communist Party’s boss Todor Zhivkov. Designed in 1978 by Aleksandr Barov and Ivan Kanazirev, it was finished in 1981, in time for the regime’s ‘1,300 Years of Bulgarian Statehood’ celebrations. Strictly as a work of architecture, it is an unresolved combination of monumental symmetry and Brutalist angularity, with a steel frame clad in greying marble. Inside, there is much to enjoy in this complex, multifunctional building, a classic socialist ‘social condenser’ of overlapping spaces and intersecting zones. The octagonal plan is cranked into a sequence of spacious foyers, beautifully furnished with sculptural chandeliers and ceilings made up of octagonal panels. These are a much larger cousin to Denys Lasdun’s complex circulation spaces in the (roughly contemporary) National Theatre, but with the addition of large quantities of modernised folk art on panels, murals and reliefs, with almost every level boasting, say, a wooden relief of frolicking nudes, or a mural on Bulgarian history. In each case, they’re cleverly integrated with the architecture, and mostly avoid kitsch of the Socialist Realist or folksy varieties, although you couldn’t imagine any of it in a Western building of the same period.
Along with the spaces for theatre, music and art, there are several cafés. Some of these take the hipster approach favoured in ex-socialist Berlin or Warsaw, but there’s also a Costa - the Palace of Culture is not subsidised, so parts have been parcelled off to the highest bidder. Terraces on the upper storeys give views of the city, with the centre’s skyline dominated by the domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the spike of the party headquarters, and on the other side, the suburbs, dominated by high-rise hotels and the slab blocks of the microrayons.
Metro extensions have been EU-funded, and European Union station has been named in its honour
These are best reached via the Sofia Metro, planned in the 70s as part of the same project as the palace, with its first stations opened in the mid-1990s – a timescale reflected in the Moscow Metro proportions and decorative details of some stations and the shopping mall materials of others. Extensions have been directly funded by the EU, and European Union station has been named in its honour. ‘Europeanism’ is, as in much of eastern Europe, practically an official ideology - the conservative ruling party is called ‘Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria’, a name that says a lot. Its leader, Boyko Borisov, is Todor Zhivkov’s former bodyguard, which says just as much.
Sofia has walkable streets and lots of trams, but hasn’t done much to maintain either. You can get a clue how this has transpired if you get out at James Bourchier Station, in the Lozenets district. The area is dominated by the Vitosha New Otani Hotel (now the Hotel Marinela Sofia), rather improbably designed in 1974 for a Japanese developer, by the only major international architect – other than Mimar Sinan – to have worked in the Bulgarian capital: Kisho Kurokawa. As a high-rise it is decent enough, with a dramatic silhouette set against Mount Vitosha, but the interiors are standard luxury tat; perhaps just a little uglier than normal. Outside the hotel is chaos - shrill speculative apartment blocks, kamikaze car parking, broken or non-existent pavements. This is, apparently, where Sofia’s new rich live, and suggests they are not a public-spirited lot.
The state of the city’s social housing reinforces that impression. Sofia tripled in size in the Communist era, incomers being housed in estates with optimistic names – Nadezhda (Hope), Mladost (Youth), Druzhba (Friendship). We opted for Youth. Aside from its decent connections to the centre (three Metro stations), EU funding doesn’t seem to have arrived, so the panel-built blocks are in a melancholic disarray, with residents upgrading their own corners rather than the city renovating the entire buildings. The parkland and squares around are generously proportioned but scrubby and barely maintained. To the street are grim mini-malls – ‘ALKO CENTRE’, reads the sign over one of them.
The missing factor from the Serdika ensemble is the main missing element in Sofia’s architecture in general - anything of note from the last 26 years of ‘freedom’ and capitalism. The most interesting recent structures we found were the Sopharma Business Towers. These three office blocks on a podium, which also houses a shopping mall, are pleasant Fosterian corporate Modernism, and claim to be ‘the first sustainable buildings in Sofia’.
Just behind them are more scrubby areas around panel-built points and slabs, and a former factory canteen - a simple Modernist building with a mural of revolutionary scenes – which houses the Museum of Socialist Art, the statue graveyard that each post-socialist country must dangle as an incentive to Western tourists. It has a decent selection of monumental remnants, and is nicely non-didactic. Still, as a juxtaposition, it isn’t quite so encouraging as the harmonious culture clash in the centre - there is an uneasy mix of financial swagger and poverty. Sofia feels a very easy-going metropolis - refreshing in an area (and era) that is often neurotic and paranoid. As architecture, the socialist era has left it an ambiguous legacy, but as sculptures of workers are put in museums while the former workers’ districts rot, Sofia is a capitalist city through and through.
Date entered EU 2007 (UK: 1973)
Population 7.3 million (UK: 64.1 million)
GDP $55 billion (UK: $2.678 trillion)
National debt (percentage of GDP) 18.9% (UK: 89.4%)
Unemployment rate 10.1% (UK: 5.3%)
Life expectancy 74.3 years (UK: 81.5 years)
Political leader prime minister Boyko Borissov (GERB)
Population 1.2 million
Mayor Yordanka Fandakova (GERB)
Density: people per km2
(Data source: Wikipedia)