WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SUGAR FACTORY?

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgief

Sofia's hidden gem slowly disappears

sugar factory sunset.jpg

Faux industrial style is all the rage in new development in Sofia: brown and grey façades of fake bricks can be now spotted in both old neighbourhoods and gated communities on the city's outskirts.

But while new construction in Bulgaria aims to achieve the attractive weathered look of the repurposed 19th century warehouses and factory buildings that are now associated with the poshest parts of NYC, London and Hamburg, genuine old redbricks are slowly falling to ruins. Sofia's Zaharna Fabrika, or Sugar Factory, neighbourhood is one of the best – or worst – examples.

Known as a place of petty and sometimes violent crime, the Sugar Factory neighbourhood starts after the flyover at the Zaharna Fabrika railway station, on Slivnitsa Boulevard. In broad daylight it has all the charm of a place where time has stopped.

The factory's main building

The cafés and small shops, the façade of the old cinema, the cars and the washing hanging from windows: everything looks like the last 30 years have bypassed the area, speeding down the renovated Slivnitsa Boulevard. Sugar Factory is one of the few Sofia neighbourhoods where the spaces between the living estates, instead of cars and building sites, are still filled with tall shrubs, verdant trees, green grass and attempted flower cultivation.

The neighbourhood is named after... well, a sugar factory: an imposing building with a red-brick façade and crenellated roof that is arguably the most beautiful old industrial building in Bulgaria.

Built in 1898 beside the railway line to Kyustendil on what at the time were the outskirts of the city, it was the project of several enterprising foreigners. Increasing affluence had led to a boosted demand for the luxuries of life, including sugar. Bulgaria had never grown sugar beet, and so every lump of the sweet substance had to be imported. At the end of the 1890s the government approved the offer of a Belgian company, chaired by Baron Van der Straeten-Solvay, to plant sugar beet near Sofia and build a processing factory as part of a concession.

The railway tracks define part of the neighbourhood

Within a few years the sugar factory became one of the major employers in the capital and many workers were even given corporate housing. In 1914, however, things started to go wrong. The First World War broke out and four new sugar factories opened in Bulgaria. Strong domestic competition and the fact that Bulgarian beet was not sweet enough took their toll. The factory struggled against its fate for over a decade but eventually had to close down in 1925.

The end of sugar production did not, however, lead to the demise of the area, as the factory became the centre of a new and vibrant neighbourhood. When, in 1941, the government began the construction of 350 flats for workers, the ceremonial turning of the first sod was attended by the mayor and the minister of commerce, while Sofia's Bishop Stefan personally blessed the project with holy water.

Under Communism, the neighbourhood preserved its proletarian character. New prefabricated blocks of flats sprang up alongside the working class dwellings, whose romantic charm still peeps out from under their neglected roofs and peeling walls. The former sugar factory was now used as a granary.

Under Communism, Zaharna Fabrika's cinema was known for its repertoire of Western movies

Despite the fact that in 1998 the main production hall was listed as a culture monument of national significance, the granary continued to use it. A task force began the blueprints for its transformation into a culture centre with art galleries, museums and restaurants. It was to be a welcoming and beautiful place, a kind of antidote to the Communist NDK.

The projects remained on paper, however, and due to the lack of maintenance and security, the building began to crumble. The abandoned rooms suffered increasingly from the incursions of the local unemployed in search of scrap iron – even if that meant breaking off metal columns or smashing walls to get at the metal rods inside.

For now, property developers and investors have avoided Zaharna Fabrika

The main obstacle to renovating the Sugar Factory is... its owners. A number of companies have owned the premises in the past three decades and none of them cared to maintain the building. The state and the Sofia City Council tried, halfheartedly, to force the owners to do something before the factory caves in. There was even a court decision. In reality, nothing was done. Sugar Factory is obviously the victim of a trend that has been seen all over Bulgaria since 1989. Many owners of old beautiful buildings in good locations, even ones listed as architectural heritage, are interested solely in the land beneath. Playing the long game, they know that the only thing that they have to do is to wait and resist the authorities and the court decision until the neglected building collapses, or "suddenly" catches fire, freeing the terrain for the construction of new flats and malls. Preferably with faux brick façades.

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