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Shaking hands with the Bulgarian President So what’s a handshake got to do with architecture? We must admit, we hadn’t planned for a degree at Sheffield School of Architecture (SSoA) to result in shaking hands with a head of state either, it just did. We understand that a handshake might not be every architect’s aspiration. And yes, a handshake with Obama might have been cooler, but it has marked an exciting point for us. At SSoA, surrounded by similar minded people, it’s easy to forget that a social agenda to architecture is not necessarily commonplace. As we’ve discovered in life sans Le Arts Tower, not everyone shares the belief that architecture should be a shared enterprise; collaborative, proactive and socially sustainable. For us, it has become second nature to understand the start point and foundations of most projects that come out of SSoA. But conversations can become rather difficult and especially awkward when unassuming small talk leads to “so what kind of buildings do you like then?” It doesn’t tend to be socially acceptable to cite passages of Lefebvre’s Social Production of Space or David Harvey’s the Urbanization of Capital to contextualise which buildings we ‘like.’ Often it’s easier to just agree that The Shard is indeed cool and shiny. It avoids opening a contentious can of worms that in fact, really does need opening so that more people understand how architecture can be more than just buildings. During our final semester of undergraduate we spent (too) many hours procrastinating over issues facing us as soon to be graduates. In retrospect, our procrastinating was a way of filtering all we had learnt – from subjective theory on the social production of space to objective fact on the efficacy of a tungsten filament lamp. We could call it work avoidance as we should have been producing those all important sections, plans and enigmatic killer images for our final projects; or we could call it working through our own architectural beliefs, trying to decipher which avenue of architecture we wanted to pursue upon graduation. In light of all we had been exposed to at SSoA and our pent up frustration of university projects only ever existing in our portfolios, the formulation of a real-life project arose. It grew off the back of a chance conversation, some hard work, and a bit of belief thrown in for good measure. The result was CreatePlay; a collaborative design and build project aiming to improve the integration of disabled children in mainstream schools in Bulgaria. The plan is to work with the local community of Gorna over the next few months to design and build an outdoor play-space in Summer 2013. (Note the intended avoidance of the word ‘playground’ - we’re avoiding the conventional swings and slides and instead drawing design inspiration from an exploration of sensory play.) On wider terms, the project hopes to spark discussion about disability; an incredibly sensitive conversation in Bulgaria, whilst providing a precedent for future community driven projects which we hope will begin to strive over the bureaucracy of Bulgarian culture.  Random? Perhaps. But we’re of the opinion that if an opportunity comes along to do something a little out of the ordinary whilst being able to help a worthy cause, it’s too good to miss. To us, the blessing of a 7 year course is the window of opportunity before returning to MArch to take risks and experiment. Of course this is all a little simplistic and in reality, starting your own project is not all swings and roundabouts. To date, we’ve entered 3 architecture competitions and lost 3 architecture competitions and despite the overwhelming help and support we have already received, running a charitable project that relies entirely upon charitable donations during a severe recession is neither wise nor stress free. As dear Kev is told weekly by his never ending supply of grand designers; if you really knew what you were letting yourself in for when you started, you would never have done it. (Stupidly) we reckon this is half the fun and whilst the most of us are young, beautifully naive and mortgage free, it’s probably a better time than ever to utilise our skills and see what we can do beyond a portfolio page. So, what of the handshake? It was a good handshake, vigorous and firm. Admittedly he shook a lot of hands that evening, we were not the sole recipients. We were at his residency a few weeks ago as part of an EU conference exploring future community based solutions to address the issue of the institutionalisation of disabled children. The President made a speech on the importance of protecting and promoting the well being of vulnerable children and the need for a change of tactics to do so. For us, the handshake and speech stressed the realities facing our project and reminded us of the possibilities of the scope of architecture and the many routes it has to offer. Want to get involved? We want you to help make CreatePlay a success and are in search of volunteers to help with the construction from July-Sept 2013. Find all the info on or email us at

Shaking Hands with the Bulgarian President  

A short piece written for Sheffield School of Architecture Journal 2013.