Catarina Leal makes a Communist-era rundown residential complex into a photography exhibition. Is "Youth" a concrete jungle or an atmospheric relic?
Catarina's first photographs - of herself and her brother - date from when she was about four years old. "We always had a camera in our hands, wasting film," she says, dismissing the suggestion that photography ran in the family. Her brother outgrew the childhood game but Catarina's passion for photography continued unabated.
Born in Figueira da Foz, a seaside town 170 km north of Lisbon, Catarina graduated in Graphic Design in 2000 from ARCA-EUAC, the University School of Arts of Coimbra. Then she was selected for an internship that took her to London and to Pentagram Design, an international design group, which hired her after the nine-month programme ended.
In 2004 Catarina added another title to her CV: MA in Photography and Urban Cultures from London's Goldsmiths University. London is a city renowned for spotting burgeoning talent and Catarina's potential was quickly discovered. Aiming for a career in photo editing, she worked in the picture department of the art book publisher Phaidon Press and Time Magazine's European office. But photography continued to be her abiding passion as evidenced by a project on British seaside resorts.
Catarina arrived in Sofia in September 2006 because of her partner's work. She admits that they knew little about Bulgaria. Catarina visualised Sofia under a blanket of snow but the weather proved unseasonably mild over the winter. So other images came to mind instead.
"What struck me most was the sheer number of chemists everywhere. I don't think I've ever been anywhere where you can find one or more on every corner," she says. She was also surprised by the incredibly lengthy menus in some Bulgarian restaurants, making a choice of meal a drawn out process. "But the food normally helps to compensate for this and other drawbacks such as the less than competent service and the lack of non-smoking areas," she adds.
Being Portuguese means that Catarina was no stranger to Bulgaria's idiosyncrasies. She notes the similarities between the two countries: the ubiquitous red tape, empty bottles rolling in the streets and late eating hours as well as clubs and bars staying open until the small hours.
She has not yet travelled extensively throughout Bulgaria but has explored a good deal of Sofia and its suburbs, familiarising herself with the city's architecture and urban development. She finds NDK and the National History Museum particularly interesting for their sheer size and total isolation from their surroundings.
She had visited Mladost on many occasions, usually for shopping or en route to the airport. The area not only impressed her but also inspired her to go there for a completely different reason. Its Socialist-era buildings may have seemed an unlikely subject for a photographer but, for Catarina, they provided a fascinating insight into the past.
"This Mladost project happened because every time I passed there, the buildings set against the backdrop of Vitosha held such a surreal appeal. So one day I decided to return with my camera," she reveals. All the photos were taken in a single visit last January. "The area has a very characteristic legacy," she says. "But we don't know how long this will last. There are already signs of change. But, whatever the future holds, photography has this amazing ability to capture snapshots in time and carry them into the future."
In the meantime, Sofia, and the Mladost district in particular, will feature in a British exhibition of Catarina's work. Last year she was short-listed for London's Observer Hodge Photographic Prize exhibition - an honour Catarina modestly downplays - following four showings of her work, in Portugal and France, over the last decade. She entered her British seaside photographs, which easily helped her land a spot on an electronic journal for emerging photographers in the UK. Catarina's Mladost works will now be exhibited there.
In addition to continuing her photographic work, Catarina wants to develop personal projects and commissioned works. Currently, she is working in graphic design with a Sofia-based English language publication and an international advertising agency. She can be contacted via her website at
text and photography by Catarina Leal
Arriving inSofiaduring the second half of 2006, I expected to see a poor and isolated ex-Soviet city. But I was wrong. Instead, there were many indications of a thriving market economy with prestigious products and brand names. Indeed, at first sight, Sofia seemed very much like any other Western European city. And certainly the gap between East and West will narrow further now that Bulgaria is part of the EU.
In the city centre it was already possible to see evidence of renovation of old monuments. Most of the buildings in question are the legacy of turn-of-the-century architects from Austria and Hungary, who were entrusted with shaping the image of the city that officially became Bulgaria's capital in 1879 - a year after liberation from Ottoman rule. This is why influences of Neo-Baroque, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Classicism and even Vienna Secession are still visible in the city centre. But, after the Second World War and the beginning of Communist rule, a new design started to change the face of Sofia. The architecture that emerged, often adhering to Stalinist guidelines, was stripped of "superficial" stylishness; it consisted mainly of concrete monuments that paid tribute to the regime.
But, as the city grew, hefty housing estates with inspirational names like Mladost ("Youth"), Druzhba ("Friendship"), Nadezhda ("Hope") were created along the same symmetrical guidelines that placed functionality above beauty and other "superfluous" aesthetic qualities.
This "Socialist Construction" is very much based on the geometrical concepts of modernism. Bauhaus, the German art school, and the architect Walter Gropius, who developed socially conscious urban housing after the First World War, exercised great influence in this respect. Architects exploited industrial techniques and materials such as concrete, steel and glass to keep costs low while maintaining the purity of form and proportions. The use of concrete, to the extent of making it a major feature of a building, was mastered by the French architect Le Corbusier between the 1940s and 1960s, who aimed to create a better standard of living in crowded cities. This style was later termed Brutalism, after the French beton brut, or raw concrete.
In these suburbs we get a better visual idea of the Communist social architectural legacy and the application of so-called Brutalism. Strolling around Mladost's prefabricated estates, we see swings every 100 or 200 metres in what must have been well maintained communal gardens. The swings themselves are a health and safety hazard nowadays, although new children's playgrounds can also be found. Mladost and, particularly, Mladost I and II, appear mostly derelict and untidy. But there are also hints of progress in the form of recently introduced recycling bins and non-stop construction.
Hence Mladost, one of Sofia's 24 municipalities, continues to grow today with new contemporary high-rise blocks and a "business park". Accompanying these developments are all the necessary amenities for the contemporary "capitalist" lifestyle: hypermarkets, cinemas, gyms, fast-food outlets and also a planned underground to link the neighbourhood to the city centre. All these co-exist today within the once idealistic Mladost.