CONTEXT IMMEMORABLE LANDSCAPES mila chorbadzhieva
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION TO CONTEXT
ŽIŽEK AND RAMMSTEIN
NEON LIGHTS AND HOPES
CONVERSATION I. SPAS
CONVERSATION II. VICTOR
IN SEARCH OF A USABLE PAST
1. PERSONAL MOTIVATION
26 years ago with the fall of the Berlin wall the communist rule in Bulgaria ended, and the years which followed were marked by a deep social and economic turmoil. My country’s instable present is driving an overwhelming number of young people to go abroad in search of a better future. In the position of a young Bulgarian living abroad, I’m intrigued to explore this period which ended just before I was born, but indirectly had such a significant impact on my parents’ and my own generation’s lives. The communist times left a significant material heritage, which is now falling into oblivion. As silent remnants of a dark past, numerous ownerless neon signs, buildings and monuments all over
the country are demolished, or slowly being taken over by nature’s forces. My interest as a designer in disclosing this material and immaterial traces and potential of this past is on the one hand triggered by the creepingly beautiful aesthetic of this heritage and the stigma which surrounds it. On the other hand it is motivated by the need to take a position. Disclosing this part of Bulgaria’s recent history is an attempt to attract attention to these neglected pieces of culture and an attempt for another take on them. To confront, accept and know our past, to shake off the shame and negativism – this seems to be the only way to move on.
2. INTRODUCTION TO CONTEXT
The communist regime represented one of the most catastrophic political experiments of our modern times. The East European countries which were allies or part of the Soviet union shared a common story of an utopia turned into dystopia; which, for some countries like Bulgaria is still resonating in the current turmoil of the country. In order for the regime to be able to control the masses to such a profound extent, a very elaborate propaganda was needed. It promoted the ideology of communism on a scientific, artistic and social level, shaping new modes of thought and a new outlook on the world. It would be heavily spread by means of mass media and the arts (which were recognized as a very powerful tool and put under state control). The propaganda resonated in the public space, too. Posters showed the faces of leaders, nu-
merous signs in the streets were telling people how they should behave, neon signs were giving a sense of modernity - just to name a few. The propaganda developed its own strong and distinctive graphic identity. Radically new urban planning and pieces of architecture arose, too. These were created with the intention of emancipation of the modern socialist society, but today represent an uncertain past, one that post-socialist society is still trying to come to terms with. The buildings and monuments were designed with a very articulated appearance, often brutal to their context. They are authentic experiments that reflect what was to be a new order in the society. They are buildings that had a strong psychological impact on the image of their surrounding, and as a result are now perceived as monuments to dystopia.
‘The socialist city was to be a place free of historical burdens, where a new human being was to come into existence, the city and the factory were to be a laboratory of a future society, culture, and way of life.’
Alicia Kurimska, ‘Looking back: The Ideal Communist City’
3. ŽIŽEK AND RAMMSTEIN ON THE POWER OF A DIFFERENT EXPRESSION - HOW DEMISTIFYING THE SYMBOLS OF AN IDEOLOGY CAN ULTIMATELY OVERPOWER IT
Slavoj Žižek is a contemporary Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic. His unorthodox style, popular academic works, frequent magazine articles, and critical assimilation of high and low culture have gained him international influence and a substantial audience outside of the academic circle in addition to controversy and criticism. In 2012, Foreign Policy listed Žižek on its list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, calling him “a celebrity philosopher”. In his movie “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” Žižek makes an interesting analysis of the scenic behaviour of a hard rock group: ‘The german hard rock band Rammstein are often accused of flirting and playing with nazi militaristic iconography. But if one observers closely their show one
can see very nicely what they are doing, exemplarily in one of their best known songs “Reise reise”. The minimal elements of the nazi ideology enacted by Rammstein are something like pure elements of libidinal investment. Enjoyment has to be as if it were condensed in some minimal ticks, gestures which do not have precise ideological meaning. What Rammstein does is it liberates these elements from their nazi articulation. It allows us to enjoy them in their pre-ideological state. The way to fight nazism is to enjoy these elements, ridicoulous as they were here, by suspending the nazi horizon of meaning. This way you undermine nazism from within.’
4. NEON LIGHTS AND HOPES THE BRIGHT LIGHT OF A PROMISED MODERNITY
Sofia’s embrace of capitalism is marked in the countless billboards that cover almost every surface of the Bulgarian capital. Entire façades of hotels, high-rise blocks and even historic buildings are cloaked in massive fabric screens promoting Coca-cola or ice-cream. Behind these glossy surfaces, many of the communist-era structures on which these ads are fixed are slowly crumbling. Advertising, it seems, represents not only Bulgaria’s happy embrace of commerce but also its disregard for the communist past. The neon advertising signs from socialist era are still to be found as silent
reminders of the past, but are slowly disappearing from the urban environment. They were a novelty in the cityscape, entertaining people with their lights and inviting them to make use of certain services or products. Although the installment and maintenance of such signs was an expensive investment in that historical period, they were widely used due to their great effectiveness. A big part of these signs - ghosts of unexisting shops, logos of former state enterprises or just indication signs are now ownerless and there is noone to maintain them.
letter [ii] from an original Bulgarian font created during socialist times
At that time there were no computers and lasercutters. First the font had to be designed and drawn by hand by artists, then projected on a facade; the measurements were taken and afterwards the letters were produced - which could take from three up till six months for bigger projects.
‘GROCERIES’ hanging above what used to be a shop long ago
In June 2011 during Sofia Design Week a discussion was held with the theme ‘Advertising Signs From the Socialist Era’. Because of the lack of ownership and the poor state, the municipality of Sofia started an initiative to dismantle them. The faith of these curious elements from the city environment - three-dimensional, handcrafted with original Bulgarian fonts, raised a serious debate, but many questions were left unanswered. Should the signs be removed or destroyed, or should they be exhibited in a museum? Could they be preserved in the urban environment as reminders of the history?
‘The signs need renovation, and then they could shine again. And this would be a clear sign that Bulgaria has finally overcome its complexes and realized that the only way to handle our history is to deal with respect towards it, and not destroy it. The attempts to destroy the signs, or eventually taking them to some museum, would be attempts for hiding this history. Moreover, this particular part of the cultural heritage left from communism has artistic value, much bigger than the visual noise which we are now witnessing in Sofia’ - Asen Assenov, co-founder of One Design Week
â€˜The attempts to destroy the signs, or eventually to take them to some museum, would be attempts for hiding this history.â€™
Assen Assenov, co-founder of One Design Week, Bulgaria
5. IMMEMORABLE MONUMENTS MEGALOMANIC, BEAUTIFUL, UGLY OR UNBELIEVABLE THEY ARE STILL THERE AS SILENT REMNANTS OF A BIZARRE PAST
The communist era left a heritage of numerous monuments all over the country. After the political changes in 1989, a number of them have been dismantled but many are still there. Once constructed as expressions of national pride, most of these sites are now looted and neglected. Whether they commemorate the feats of the Soviet Army, the April Uprising of 1876, or the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885, they all share a common fate – to be silent remnants of a past which many don’t want to remember, or simply don’t know much of. In the last few years ongoing discussions about their fate divide the Bulgarian society - should they be totally extinct from the face of our country, or should we preserve them. And if the latter - in what possible way, and with what function?
All these questions remain unanswered due to the complicated nature of the issue. There are different layers to it - the interests of the current ruling party, the lack of adequate education about this part of our history, the lack of financial resources to maintain many of the sites and even the lack of such to fully demolish them. Meanwhile, nature’s forces take their toll, rendering the monuments living beings with expiring dates; like the disappearing neon signs on the facades in Sofia and other cities. Learning about history by reading books is a needed basic, but a much more enganging experience could be to be able to see and experience history by engading the senses through visiting a physical place, touching a wall, holding an object.
“1300 Years Bulgaria” monument in front of the National Palace of Culture (NDK), Soﬁa, 1981
State of the monument in 2014
Monument to the Soviet Army
Banner of Peace
‘1300 Years Bulgaria’
Monument to the Founders of Bulgaria
Pantheon of the Immortals
Memorial House ‘Buzludzha’
‘Defenders of Stara Zagora’
Monument to the Soviet Army, Soﬁa
Memorial complex ‘Fraternity’
Monument to Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship
‘Founders of Bulgaria’
Locations of some of the biggest monuments built between 1950s and the 1980s
These monuments were often meant to be isolated places from which people could acquire a positive stance towards the future and at the same time would commemorate historic events.
The monuments, along with their often natural surroundings, were designed to become public spaces where people hiked, sat down and recreated. Some of them are located in areas of historical importance (e.g. important battles). They have different forms, but all function in the same way. Each monument – both those in the city and the ones located in parks or landscapes – is located at a completely unique place within their context. The visitor has to make an effort to reach it and when actually at the monument one can marvel the view and experience a sense of disconnection from the world. However, all monuments can be experienced in different ways, as each monument employs design choices that have a connection with the specific location and the events that have happened at the spot. This is why every visitor experiences the monuments in his or her own
way, depending on their connection with the location or with historical events. In the summer of 2015 I visited a few of the monuments. It was a special experience; especially because of the precisely chosen locations of the sites. Sometimes they would suddenly emerge in the landscape, or there were very few signals that reveal that the monument is nearby. The paths often at first lead away from the monument, and towards the end suddenly take a sharp turn towards them. When ultimately there, the site feels as an entirely new, surrealistic, and at the same time very ancient location – an environment where one loses contact with the everyday world. I focused my research predominantely on one of these sites, the ‘Memorial House Buzludzha’ for its extraordinary fate, location and appearance.
I’m slowly walking up the hill. I hear my friends’ awe by the view which is being disclosed in front of our eyes. An imposing silhouette of a giant - still and powerful, overlooking the top of the hill. Coming closer to it reveals its shabbiness and the traces of merciless time. The monument stands tall and proud, like an old ancient creature, aware of its deadly wounds. It’s size is so absurd that it almost feels arrogant, to be standing on the top of the mountain imposing itself to everything and everyone beneath. In front of its entrance there are huge three-dimensional letters in concrete fixed to the walls. They form sentences from the ‘The Internationale’, the famous left-wing anthem. Some of the letters are missing, others are hanging crooked or laying on the ground. The contrast of the solemn tone of the words and their
gloomy desparate appearance now is so ironic. We find a hole in the concrete structure to enter the giant hall. After going through a few meters of darkness and piles of trash and broken interior pieces, a magnificent view is revealed in front of us. I’m overflowed by amazement, admiration, and some vague deep sadness. Because what I see reminds me of the state of my country itself. Oblivion; replacing one story with another, one history with another; continuous flux. I cannot relate to this place the way my parents did, nor can they relate to it the way my grandparents did.
The monument lends its name from the peak where it is located on - Buzludzha. It is a historical peak in the Central Balkan Mountains, Bulgaria, 1441 metres high and located in the perfect middle of the country. It was built as a tribute to the creation of the Bulgarian socialist movement in 1891 and is the biggest ideological building in the country. The construction of Buzludzha was made possible thanks to government funds and supportersâ€™ donations for an amount of around 14 186 000 leva (around 7 000 000 â‚Ź). The site was built by civil engineering troops from the Bulgarian army and volunteers. The author of this project was the architect Georgi Stoilov. Some of the biggest painters and sculptors of
that time have participated to create the decoration of the interior - consisting of huge moisaics covering the walls of the main ceremonial hall and the outside ring which surrounds it. Buzludzha consists of a vertical pylon (70m) and a concentric hall (60m diameter). They were planned to symbolize a torch and a flag which is waving in the wind - common visual elements of the Soviet propaganda. In order to avoid making people feel entirely alienated by the abstract shapes, the mosaics were created to depict realistic scenes which people can easily relate to. They would visualize the history surrounding the creation of the regime and the party.
Original plan drawings of Buzludzha
The key to this piece of architecture, as all the other Soviet time monuments present in Bulgaria, is above all political. The causes of its evolution are to be sought not in architectural theory but, more prosaically, in the regime and its evolution. Visible from afar and unfailingly spectacular, Buzludzha stands as an ideological marker with an almost mystical aura by its positioning in space
and expressive megalomanian power. It has Modernist architecture influences, and can be considered an example of Brutalist architecture for its rigid geometry and repetative elements and lines. The circle was considered by the architect to be â€˜the perfect shapeâ€™ which would represent in the best way possible the greatness of the project.
6. CONVERSATION I SPAS SPAS MAVROV IS ONE OF THE SEVERAL ARTISTS WHO CREATED THE MOSAICS ON THE INSIDE OF BUZLUDZHA. HE IS A SCULPTOR, WRITER AND A LECTURER, STILL ACTIVELY WORKING IN HIS FIELD. HE INVITED ME TO HIS HOME AND WE HAD A LONG AND INSIGHTFUL TALK ABOUT BUZLUDZHA, SMALTI STONES, VALUES AND OTHERS.
‘Buzludzha is one of these peak moments when the Party wanted to create a unique site. It had to appraise the existence of the regime, to represent it in apotheosis. [...] Every regime, every structure, every state which organizes the lives of people should at some point find a cultural phenomenon which would represent it. And that’s exactly what Buzludzha is. The 50th year anniversary of the Party was approaching and it was about time for such a phenomenon. There was no obvious or explicit resistance on the side of the population; so we could assume that majority was approving of it. In this regard, it was right to build Buzludzha. I’m not entirely sure if it should have been so grandiose€, so expensive for us; because Buzludzha is built by us - with the money that the people have earned, and by forced ‘donations’ from people - like
me as well. [...] I was working with a team of artists on the mosaics of the outside ring walls. They were a creation of Stoimen Stoilov, a very renowned and respected artist. What was special about that moment was the artists finally got a bit more freedom for expression, they were freed from the most narrow-minded socialist perceptions about art. In general, at that poing the country was getting rid of the most rigid, narrow and strict workframes of the communist idea. Buzludzha was built as a site which would tell of the history of the party. [...] From the project blueprints to the execution of it, Buzludzha is a unique cultural site. They shouldn’t have let a single piece of stone to fall down of its walls. Not to be robbed the way it is now, and to let these precious smalti stones turn to
Spas in his atelier
dust. They should have restored it and turned it into a cultural or historical center...Every piece of mosaics there is cultural phenomenon, apart from its ideological meaning, it is an example of an exceptional mastery. [...] It is a crime by the communist party that after it (almost on its own) changed the regime of the country, changed its function to another the - pro-capitalist, allowed this site to be destroyed. To destroy it is equal to us destroying e.g. the Rila monastery. Because, in the frame of the Christian art of our country, and the socialist art, of our same country, even for a shorter period of time; to me personally, Buzludzha is an analogue to the Rila monastery. Because it is a great cultural achievement
regardless of the ideology which it stemmed from. Maybe today we want to decontruct the monument of the Soviet army in Sofia because e.g. we think it is an aggressor. I donâ€™t agree that that monument should be also demolished - because a new social system should not come and destroy the heritage of another social system. In this case we should then also destroy all the churches, because the Churchâ€™s structure is not existing anymore in the way it used to; and also all the mosques, because Islam is not an official Bulgarian religion. So why are we then destroying the cultural phenomenon of our last regime which has such a big cultural value?â€™
7. CONVERSATION II VICTOR VICTOR HAS BEEN CONNECTED TO BUZLUDZHA SINCE HE WAS LITTLE. I ASKED HIM TO COME WITH ME UP TO THE MONUMENT AND SHOW IT TO ME TROUGH HIS EYES.
‘My name is Victor and I’m 31 years old; from and currently living in Kazanluk (a little city just next to Buzludzha). I’m connected to Buzludzha since my early youth – I spent almost an entire summer coming up here every day together with my friends. The atmosphere attracts me – it is nice, very grandiose; the architecture is very special, you really cannot see something like this anywhere else. And it is up high in the mountains, I really love the surroundings. It is a part of my childhood and I feel connected to it. And I feel somehow good here, even among all the misery. I think Buzludzha should be preserved,
but I have no idea who and how could do it. It would need a huge investment in making it safe so I really don’t know who could do that. I’d like it if my children could come up here one day, too, and see what I have seen. I think that it should be preserved. Not because of the ‘glory’ of that regime or anything like that. But because of my childhood.’ As we walked through the monument, Victor was sharing with me his childhood memories, pointing out places and sights. In this gloomy surrounding, I felt like an explorer of something I never belonged to, and yet, in some weird way, is a part of this land I that I come from.
8. IN SEARCH OF A USABLE PAST
I climbed over fences to break into a sealed monument which is falling apart; I heard the stories of a young man growing up with Buzludzha and the reflections of an artist who worked on its creation. Like pieces of a puzzle, all this gives me an idea, a vague impression of what it is and how it used to be. There is all the opposition between people who love the country’s communist past and those who hate it. But there is also the big group of young people who just don’t know enough about it. I am part of that group, and I am trying to
delve deeper into what it was that partially shaped my country’s reality nowadays. The challenge is not to deface or tear down a certain material heritage but rather to demistify it. The ongoing public discussion about the faith of this uncomfortable heritage is a sign that we are yet to come to terms with what happened and where we’re at now. The challenge is to give all this a place in people’s minds through education, discussion, observation and thought - so that we can move on towards a new chapter.