In Sofia, there is a place where you can see a representative sample of modern-day Bulgarian society in just about a couple of square miles and in less than a few hours. This is the National Palace of Culture, or NDK.
On its vast square, teenagers skateboard and flirt, elderly people have coffee with friends and mothers stroll with their children, while buskers and icecream sellers vie for customers. In the evening, people heading for some festival or concert at the NDK's Hall 1 flock in front of the main entrance. It has about a dozen doors, but typically just one is open. The bars around are packed, and those who can afford it head for the luxury restaurant on the top floor.
The NDK encapsulates the whole of Bulgaria in one small area, but this is the only small thing about it. The building, which was completed in only four years and reportedly contains more steel than the Eiffel Tower, is propaganda on a grand scale.
In 1977, the Council of Ministers agreed on the proposal of chairman of the Culture Committee Lyudmila Zhivkova, the daughter of Communist leader Todor Zhivkov,to build a national congress and concert hall in Sofia. The complex was to be ready in time for the celebrations of the 1,300th anniversary of Bulgaria's foundation and, importantly, for the 11th Congress of the Communist Party. The construction began the following year. It was designed by architect Aleksandar Barov.
The grandiose project needed proper space, and the government provided it with the demolition of a whole neighbourhood near Vitosha Boulevard, which included the remains of some old military barracks that had suffered heavily from the Allied bombing during the Second World War. The project was lavishly funded, but still more money was needed and a campaign for "voluntary" funding was organised. Due to lack of labour, Sofianites had to work a day for free on the construction site.
The People's Palace of Culture, as the building was called back in those days, was inaugurated in March 1981, even though it had not been fully completed. After Zhivkova's death in July the same year, the building was named after her: People's Palace of Culture Lyudmila Zhivkova.
The final result was spectacular. NDK stood 51 metres high, with a total floor area of 123,000 square metres, creating the overall impression of an amalgamation of a maze and a cave full of treasures of Mature Socialism. Every detail in the building screamed Communist glam – from the thick fitting carpets and the heavy glass chandeliers to the tinted windows and the sumptuous murals and mosaics by the top artists of the time. The garden around it was decked with plants imported from the GDR and Czechoslovakia. There were fountains and water cascades, and the whole square was paved with marble, although in winter the paving became dangerously slippery.
The Fire, mural by Hristo Stefanov, in Hall 7 of the NDK, depicting major figures in Bulgarian culture through the centuries. Lyudmila Zhivkova, whose contribution to culture is unclear, is among them. She is depicted to the right of the central figure of a traditional fire-walker. Zhivkova, who reportedly became a mystic after a visit to India, used to say: "Think of me as if I am fire." The mural covers about 90 square metres and took its author a year to complete
In the 1980s, the NDK was mainly used as a place for party plenums and events like the Banner of Peace international children assembly, a festival of children's art created by Lyudmila Zhivkova.
The collapse of the regime changed the attitude towards the NDK. The "People's" in its name was replaced with "National," which was easy enough as both words start with an N in Bulgarian and so that the acronym NDK, by which everyone refers to it, remained unchanged. The palace turned not only into a place for cultural events and post-election press conferences, but also a shopping area with stalls taking over the subterranean level. The lustre of the Communist luxury began to wear out but there was no cash for maintenance.
The space around the NDK changed too. The shrubs and the ventilation shafts attracted homeless people, the fountains dried up. At the beginning of the 21st century, several monuments to the victims of Communism appeared in the garden, including a chapel and a segment of the Berlin Wall. Other high points in the life of the complex in those years were the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2002, and the meeting of NATO's foreign ministers in 2006.
In the 2010s, the NDK is trying to reinvent itself as a place for cultural and political events. The shops in the subterranean level are no more, and a series of renovations began, although their quality is often disputed. One important and largely positive development has been the creation of a literary café called Peroto, or The Feather, which has become a focal point of writers' life in Sofia and beyond. Many book launches are performed here and there are regularly TV crews doing the filming.
The current round of renovations started in 2016. These include a major overhaul of the interior to make the building fit for the headquarters of the Bulgarian presidency of the EU, in 2018. From their start, they were smeared by allegations of wrongdoing, embezzlement and corruption.
Sofianites put in some "voluntary" work for the construction of the NDK. Over 30 million then leva were collected through "voluntary" donations
The Revival, by sculptor Dimitar Boykov, is the first thing visitors see when at the NDK's main entrance
The building is decorated with murals, mosaics and ornamental panes of metal, woodcarving and textile
Due to the labyrinthine architecture of the complex, visitors often have to ask for directions
The fountain, designed by architects Ivan Radev and Atanas Agura, has won the politically incorrect monicker Little Women Brains
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.