A FAULT IN THE DESIGN
Looming amid lovely country homes and ultra-luxurious gated communities, 1970s prefab apartment blocks remain the most visible heirloom of communism
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.
Erecting pre-fab housing estates was hailed as one of the greatest achievements of Communism in the 1960s and 1970s
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.
Panel blocks are not the only architectural legacy in present-day Bulgaria, however. Government buildings such as the former Communist Party Headquarters and the National Palace of Culture in Sofia were designed in the monotonous Socialist Classicist style intended to reflect the imposing power of the state. Factories, airports, bus and train stations were built for functionality, rather than aesthetics. The notion that a pleasant workplace may foster a happy and productive workforce had apparently not occurred to the concrete-happy designers. Panel blocks were not the only structures being built at a rapid pace; so great was the demand for housing and workers that entire concrete cities were constructed in Dimitrovgrad, Madan, and Rudozem. Specially designed seaside resorts, constructed from yet more concrete, were built to reward Communist Party dignitaries from all over the Soviet bloc with holidays on the Black Sea. Buildings in the new seaside resorts of Golden Sands and Sunny Beach showed a greater degree of individualism than facilities for the workforce. Shiny blue and gold Perspex covered the panel block designs, which were not built in monotonous rows, but rather were set back at varying angles.
In post-war Europe, many nations resorted to monotonous prefabricated mass housing complexes. Indeed, towering monstrosities soared above the skylines in most Western European cities. Such accommodation was seen as a solution to housing people whose homes had been bombed. Also, the new workforce needed for the industrial growth encouraged by financial aid from the US Marshall Plan wanted housing. However, in the West, people grew wealthier and spurred on by the capitalist spirit of private ownership, they moved out of the tower blocks into their own individual homes, taking advantage of generous mortgage schemes. Low-income families and the unemployed were left to rent the now-decaying apartment blocks, which became breeding grounds for poverty and crime.
During the 1970s in Western European cities, it became apparent that faceless, high-rise communal housing was failing its occupants. Many estates had become ghettos of delinquency and deprivation. The buildings did not stand the test of time and were in dilapidated states. By the 1980s, governments in the West were condemning many of these buildings to demolition. Yet, in the East, the problems of crime and poverty were not prevalent in the panel blocks because they were still inhabited by a broad range of socio-economic groups. Most of these people were employed, and since the majority of city and town dwellers lived in such housing there was no stigma attached to panel block living as there was in the West.
Today, many of the official buildings that stood for power, authority and hope to millions during the Communist era languish in varying states of disrepair. The fall of Communism and subsequent economic collapse of the 1990s left little money for the new regime to continue the state's upkeep of the buildings and their communal gardens.
Many of the panel blocks are now owned by their inhabitants, with the communal areas managed by associations of apartment owners. Many inhabitants have attempted to improve the external appearance and energy-efficiency of their homes by masking the offensive grey concrete in brightly coloured render and adding double-glazed UPVC windows. Inside, the shared areas are still dreary and prison-like, with dilapidated metal lifts and external doors, peeling paintwork and broken windows and letterboxes. In contrast, the interiors of many of today's panel block apartments feature pale pastel walls, laminate flooring and co-ordinated accessories.
In the seaside resorts, private investors have taken control, leaving little evidence of the former Communist playgrounds. New hotels and apartment complexes with tasteful, individual, modern designs abound, often offering luxury facilities to cater for Bulgaria's increasing tourist trade.
In the cities, modern glass-fronted offices are emerging amidst the grey concrete municipal buildings and panel blocks. Private investors are constructing new, luxury apartment blocks and gated communities in every city, but the Communist legacy of ugly concrete architecture still dominates.
Communism has left an architectural legacy far more durable than its politics that is likely to dominate skylines for many years to come. The cost of renovating the old buildings is one third of the cost of demolition, yet ownership issues make neither option (renovation or demolition) viable. The danger in doing nothing is that the panel blocks will become an incubator for future social problems. Foreign investment and EU aid is flooding into Bulgaria, creating more and better-paid jobs. The banking system is undergoing a major transformation; this year the Bulgarian people had access to a host of mortgage and credit options. As the general population grows wealthier and people climb the property ladder to better living conditions, the panel block estates are likely to be left half empty, with only low income groups and the unemployed inhabiting them.
The panel blocks are falling into such a state of decay that they bring to the fore a host of health and safety issues. The metal bolts holding the panels together are corroding; the stark differences in summer and winter temperatures mean that buildings are constantly expanding and contracting, which causes the joints to come loose.
The flat roofs leak, while water pipes, electrical wiring and lifts need repair or replacement. The lack of insulation in the original design means that they are hugely inefficient in terms of energy and most are heated centrally, which does not allow individual occupants to control their own heat supply. The only recorded case of a panel block collapsing in Europe happened in the UK, when a 23-storey block in East London called Ronan Point collapsed. Weaknesses in the joints connecting the wall panels to the floor slabs combined with a gas leak were hailed as the reasons behind the collapse. There have been no instances of panel blocks collapsing in Eastern Europe, but the longer they stand in disrepair, the greater this likelihood is.
The present-day construction boom parallels that of the Communist era in many ways. Increased demand for new housing, workplaces and accommodation for tourists has led to a rapid upsurge in building. Every city, town, village and resort sees new structures emerging on a daily basis and all seem to be constructed according to the former Communist principles of filling space cheaply and quickly. The new homes, apartments, shopping malls and office blocks are not subjected to EU building regulations, thus many are constructed with low standards, using vast quantities of concrete and very little insulation. The designs themselves are individual and attractive; the poor quality brick and plaster work is masked by layers of colourful render. Popular resorts like Bansko and Sunny Beach have seen building on such an unprecedented scale that supply has already exceeded demand in these areas. We just might be witnessing history repeating itself; perhaps in another 40 years we will be discussing the architectural legacy of the post-Communist building boom.
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