Looming amid lovely country homes and ultra-luxurious gated communities, 1970s prefab apartment blocks remain the most visible heirloom of communism
Issue 15-16, December 2007 – January 2008
by Libby Andrews; photography by Elena Filipova, Dragomir Ushev
Communist rule lasted for 45 years in Bulgaria, yet its architectural after-shocks still reverberate throughout the landscape today.
Communist governments left an everlasting legacy of Brutalist architecture across Eastern Europe; nearly every Bulgarian town and city is blighted by gargantuan monoliths of unsightly, concrete buildings. All around, shabby apartment blocks, decaying factories, characterless government buildings and gigantic monuments declaring allegiance to the fight for freedom tower above the country's mix of stunning neo-classical, Baroque and Rococo architecture.
The Swiss architect Le Corbusier pioneered Brutalist architecture in the 1920s in response to the housing shortage in Paris. His search for a practical means of housing large numbers of people lead to the construction of cell-like boxes stacked one on top of the other. He believed this modern architectural solution would improve the quality of life for those who had previously been living in urban slums.
Leading architects adopted this new functionalist style across the globe, and in particular the Communist governments of Eastern Europe and the Soviet bloc implemented widespread re-housing policies designed along Brutalist principles.
Those unacquainted with the rationale behind the sudden need for new buildings find it easy to condemn the post-war construction boom as lacking in ethics and aesthetics. After the Second World War, massive industrialisation swept through South Eastern Europe.
In Bulgaria, the economy until then had been largely agricultural, but post-war investment from the Russian Molotov Plan and membership of Comecon, the Soviet-influenced Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, enabled the economy to expand. Industry grew, creating thousands of new jobs and causing a significant population shift to towns and cities, which forced city planners to quickly provide large quantities of inexpensive housing. The speediest and most cost-efficient way to do this was to use cheap materials like concrete combined with uniform designs. Governments chose the “panel block” design for high-rise apartment buildings constructed from pre-fabricated, pre-stressed concrete panels.
The panels were constructed in factories and then transported to the building sites, where each piece was lifted into place by a crane and then joined together with welded metal joints. This process requires a high degree of precision and skill; if such expertise is absent, the structure is liable to weaken. The benefit of panel blocks is that the design formula can be adapted to suit increasing housing needs simply by adding more floors. The erstwhile designers also believed that the new form of housing would foster a collectivist, interdependent nature, which tied in with Communist ideology.
When rows of panel blocks were constructed in Bulgarian cities, people were happy to move into the relative luxury provided by the new high-rise homes, which compared favourably to the wood and stone rural houses they previously inhabited. The new panel block estates allowed people easy access to workplaces, retail facilities and schools, and also provided communal open spaces where the young and old alike could congregate.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers