Images of the City, Images of the Capital

Discussion Images of the City, Images of the Capital 2004 Discussion Images of the City, Images of the Capital 2004 ICA-Sofia

Public discussion 20th of May 2004, Sofia Art Gallery

Moderator Boyan Manchev

 

Capital and the City

Monopoly is the popular game that encourages you to try and multiply your money to buy yourself a street, then a good city area on which you could build. The crown of your success would be to build hotels and hotels only, since whoever will stay at one of your hotels is going to pay you handsomely.

The city of Sofia reminds us of this game more and more: from mere 11, the number of the hotels that have been built predominantly in the city center in the past 15 years reached 144. Add to this the increasing number of other related buildings, daily producing handsome sums, such as business centers, casinos, bingos, saloons and petrol stations, and you will get the picture: private capital’s determined entrepreneurship is literally sniffing out prospective building venues – and builds on them. Sometimes the building process is undertaken with a sense of national responsibility so to say, construction takes into consideration the function of the building, makes it fit into the city and its atmosphere. Other times – alas, other times construction mercilessly swallows vacant lots, destroys monuments of culture, sweeps away old small houses to replace them with buildings that are actually money belching machines. Still others build breath-taking irrational houses with turrets and retro-ornaments, castle-like contraptions fully deserving to be nicknamed “the new rich nightmare”.

What makes this reality different from Monopoly game is that the city buildings are inhabited by city dwellers, people of blood and flesh. And that the new urban developments, whether we like it or not, are going to stay and determine the city image and the urban way of life for a long, long time – and this, regrettably, no one can sweep away or fold into a box as one does with the plastic little houses and hotels of the Monopoly game.

Who decides how many hotels and business centers are needed in Sofia? The market? This is just a supposition, since at present employment in the existing hotels barely reaches 40%. What will happen, if the expected cash machines suddenly refuse to yield? The “new glass beads of Sofia” as one newspaper dubbed them recently, will turn into empty, broken shells in the centre of Sofia. Shall we succeed in repopulating them by retail shops, multiplexes and piece-meal festivals the way we handled the monster called “National palace of culture”?

The problem, of course, is one of urban concepts and financial means, but also one of aesthetics. Many of the buildings in question disrupt the city skyline, they present us with strange “designer’s quotations” generated as it is from the very personal fantasy (or is it childhood memories?) of one businessman or another, that is, by erratic concepts of how a building should stand to exude wealth, power and opulence. The individual architectural aestheticism of those buildings, as well as their adaptability to the existing built environment, are quite problematic.

As often as not all those fantasies and fake inspirations focus on what is considered prestigious part of Sofia, and concentrate around three major architectural objects of desire, the lavishly furbished techno-office, the grand-hotel with mirror glass walls and the Las-Vegas-style casinos. These seem to be the images sought after by the new rich of Bulgaria, who desire to confirm their public image. What binds them is this strange interplay of transparent and opaque, of claims to the light, new, functional, and fashionable undermined by its dark counterparts, capturing their murky images in glass.

Let us state clearly that the position of the Visual seminar does not aim at the concept of money and capital, nor at their ability to refurbish the city, for who else but people rich in ideas, money and enterprise could rejuvenate the ageing, impoverished post-socialist Sofia? We are going to present positive examples of cooperation between capital and competent urban planning. However, we are also positive that the City is a civil, as well as a market place. It may be the venue where capital plays its game but it is also home, a place where numerous people are adapting to each other, converse, unite, mix and establish their own forms of life. We are therefore going to repeat that visual environment is the environment of life. And that the citizens are entitled to expect from their representatives – the Town Hall, the Municipal council, the Ombudsman – to protect them, to defend them and to regulate the conditions of life in this environment.

It is the different ways of regulation that we intend to discuss here.

Alexander Kiossev

 

Exerpts from the discussion

 

Boyan Manchev (theory of literature, moderator):Today’s discussion will be organized in three separate sections. First, we wanted to involve some of the prominent architects of the new business buildings in the centre of Sofia, as well as some of the investors of those buildings. In a dialogue with them we will try to investigate how do such buildings come to being in our city. The second and central part of our discussion today will attempt to voice out the opinion of the city, of representatives from the Sofia Municipal Council. The third part of the discussion will involve the wide spectrum of opinion from our guests - members of the architectural community, members of the Visual Seminar and of course all our guests who will question today’s topic. Diana Popova will elaborate on the theme and the idea of the today’s discussion.

 

Diana Popova (art historian): It all begins with the obvious, the multitude of buildings of impressive size that have appeared in Sofia in the past few years, on private initiative, and with private money. In urban Sofia, these buildings have already became an integral part of the lasting image of capital. As a person professionally involved in interpretion of images, I only naturally tried to analyse this new image of capital, to identify its major characteristics and its major ideas in my search for a possible trend of development, if indeed there is a trend of development. So I have started with the obvious which comes down to the fact that in their majority, these buildings boast of glass facades. From the very onset they imply transparence - glass is transparent, it is a window to the world, it is open and frank and conveys messages such as “Here I am, standing before you, with nothing to hide, all being honest and respectful with me”. The situation changes drastically however if the facades were made of mirror glass - and mirror glass is abundant on those new buildings. Mirror glass hides, rather than opens up. It puts the beholder - more prosaically, the pedestrian, for such is our case - in an unequal position to the building, it gives cause for suspicion, it implies something secretive and therefore suspicious, if not directly dishonourable. For me, this spelt one of the most important contradictions in the world of capital: those buildings do not exist by themselves, they only mirror themselves in their environment, their neighbouring buildings (their case acquires additional gravity in that the buildings flanking the underground under construction do not actually have anything to reflect, or mirror). Thus, they create an effect which I would call a dematerialisation of architecture. The latter also enters into a most curious relationship with the functions of all those buildings and, of course, with the institute it houses. Let’s consider the example of a classic building of a bank: in it, there is not the slightest trace of any intention to dematerialise. Just the opposite, its image, its solid construction, its ornate facade, the very material of which it is built, are designed to impress on us a sense of authority, stability, security, reliability, longevity, I would even say eternal life. All these properties the building transfers onto the institute it houses and its respective capital. Whereas the new bank buildings imply just the opposite; with their glass they imply only brittleness, tenderness, short-lived existence, an ephemeral existence. In my view, these are rather disturbing qualities where banks are concerned.  I am telling you, all the time I was analysing those buildings and all related issues and was trying to discover the source of these contradictions in the new image of capital. So now I look forward to hearing more on the mechanism regulating the emergence and presence of this new image of urban environment. I also hope to hear a forecast on the future of these buildings.

 

Boyan Manchev (theory of literature): Let me make one thing clear: we are all very much aware that without the new capital Sofia would increasingly become shabbier and decaying. We do not intend to preach an easy leftist criticism of capital. Rather, we wish to make this capital work for the city, for its cultural heritage, for the tradition of this city and, above all, for the way of life of its inhabitants. This is what makes us try and identify the ideas behind these new buildings, which appear with an amazing speed in the centre of Sofia and are built to stay.

 

Atanas Panov (arcitecht): Realties have three extremely important elements: first the plot they are built on, followed by the plot they are built on, followed the plot they are built on. The plot, their location, determines the selling prize of the buildings that are being constructed today. In other words, what we have here are economic laws and nothing else. In a way, the citizens also participate in the process, managing and regulating it. To put it slightly differently, it is the citizens who sell the plots to other citizens, it is the citizens who create a product to be bought by other citizens. All this takes place inside the system and among the citizens. Architecture reflects the economic relations, the level of development of economy, technology and science, people’s ideas of art, of proper way of living. In other words we are not dealing with a dictate on public opinion, neither are we dealing with particular concepts, cynicism, personal traits of the investor/architect etc. We are dealing with the present level of development, with a modern aesthetics inherited from the very recent past, a past covering only 15 to 20 years, and related to post-modernism, yet valid for the present. There is one thing I strive to avoid in my profession as an architect and it is cliches. Cliches result from all kinds of theories as to what architecture should be nowadays, what it should have been yesterday and what it should be tomorrow. Actually, architecture is absolutely abstract art which, to quote you, could demonstrate prestige, and inclination, and you name it, simultaneously, since at the end of the day architecture is nothing more that a solution of a specific task. In view of what has been said of stereotypes, namely that stereotypes were suspiciously identical, let me tell you: they are not suspiciously identical, they are identical in absolute terms (laughter, applause, he starts talking to someone in the audience). Perhaps I should have said that the reason for them to be identical is that they use identical materials which they have jugded suitable for the present day.

 

Yara Boubnova (art historian): Money opted for architecture, in order to leave its mark in anything that is lasting and I am afraid this is far from an abstract phenomenon. Hence the variety of our demands to architecture and related problems. I am sure business feels secure and tries to leave an indelible mark on the future. I would like to assure Mr. Panov that the problem under discussion here is not the issue of a one-off construction, or a single building. What we are discussing is the issue of Sofia AND the one-off construction or building. Not the properties of the construction, and not the shape of a specific building; we are discussing the relationship of all those buildings with the logic of the city in which we all live. There is a change in the situation and it is that money has already begun to matter in urban environment. The crux of the matter is that all those positive processes in the financial area display a singular trait: while it would be natural to accept the new legislation in the building trade which, contrary to the strictly controlled situation of 14 and over years ago, is nowadays totally liberal, it is my feeling that we have reached a stage when no control is at all possible. The secondary legislation in construction, the restrictions, the relation between the individual building and the public space of the city of Sofia, the space in which we benefit from the building even though we do not benefit from the business behind the walls of the business centre, are the issues that give me rich food for thought. I would very much like to know what architects think of this. Berlin has coined the term “critical reconstruction of the urban environment”; it conveys the clash between the construction process and the traditional atmosphere, nature, logic and function of urban environment; the vision as to what could be done with this environment, and how to do it. Are you of the opinion that “critical reconstruction” can be applied to Sofia? I mean not simple construction, not simply filling of vacant plots, not only creating obvious signs of prosperous business development, but a critical reconstruction of the centre of Sofia. The centre of Sofia is not very large, it has suffered destruction and interventions at various times, and the question is: is it worth preserving its 20 c historic dynamics? While business is dynamic, coming and going, and changing, Sofia will stay. People will stay, the citizens of Sofia, generations of whom have already claims on this city, its architects and the architecture in the central part of the city; on its atmosphere. Do you not suspect that the people used to living in small houses are not easily preprared to sell their plots to the gigantic glass castles of the new business which have suddenly cropped in the neighbourhood only because somebody has already sold their own small house?

 

Atanas Panov: I see this as a particular danger. I agree there will always be people who would insist on living in small houses thereby hampering new urban developments; I do not understand these people. I simply fail to understand that particular type of romanticism.

 

Yara Bounova: It is my belief that the purpose of architecture is to serve people.

 

Atanas Panov: The state is the decision maker. In other words, where principle is concerned, the mechanism needed is in place: the process of urbanisation is in action, it functions. Again, this is the natural course of things. It does not result from any abstract whim.

 

Alexander Kyossev (cultural studies): What Mr. Atanas Panov has just said is exciting. I took the opportunity of thanking him personally in the interval and told him that he could not have been clearer or more concise in defining a new architectural and modern logic of thinking, one that I shall laconically call “neo liberal”. You all heard what has been put to discussion, a natural process. The word “natural” was repeatedly mentioned and its natural link is the word “market”. Market is natural, it is the dynamo behind all that happens, and all that happens is a response to the market demand and supply, to the dynamics, the active modern strength of modern market. We recognise 99% of this statement to be true. The question now focuses on the 1% which is still unclear and on which we are prepared to talk, to negotiate. The market is not everything, the market, too, is subject to regulators, some of which have already been mentioned by Mr. Panov who spoke of secondary legislation. But is the market concerned about the city? True, the market

changes the city. But there is a definite difference between the changes, the market invasion into the city with all its positive aspects, and market expansion which exclude the concern for the city. It is not the market that takes care of the city, it is the citizens. And their representative, of course, the municipality, the municipal council, the mayors, the chairperson of the municipal council, etc., etc. In this connection I would like to champion yet another point of view not because I want to disapprove of what has been said so far but because I wish to test what has been said so far especially where I find it problematic, where it reaches, to put it more grandly, the frontiers of its validity. Market needs its regulators. Therefore, my first question to Mr. Vladimir Kissyov is whether he, in his capacity of a head of the Municipal Council of the capital, accepts my liberal urbanistic philosophy. Which are your priorities? Do you share this type of thinking?

 

Vladimir Kissyov (Chairman of the Municipal Council of the capital): What Mr. Panov said fits the neo-liberal thinking the way you defined it. However, I believe that what shows on the photos and what we see does not fit this definition. Let me put it this way: we are now dealing with a kind of new unlimited freedom that is demonstrated at certain moments only. I am of the opinion that in a city centre, and not only in the centre but in all zones and parts of the city especially where it comes to allotting municipal land to new construction within the urban plan, this neo liberal market ought to be subject to some restrictions. I believe that even at present we have regulators to allow for norms of behaviour of the market itself yet they are obviously far from sufficient.

 

Everything is based on long-term relations. These relations are regulated by law. In addition, they are regulated by the vision for the future, as an element of today’s discussion for the future development of Sofia that creates a base to affirm today’s urban plan and do the same for the urnan plans for individual areas in the contexts of this vision for the future. Having said all that, I confirm that the citizens are the most important element of the capital. The civil society and its manifestations. Municipal council, chairpersons, or mayor notwithstanding, the absence of active and motivated civil society would lead to negligence: someone would forget about legislation, someone would not put the will of the citizens on record. We do not approach the people and when we build, or fit in a new building, we do not prepare a scale model, to show to the people. We just create a foreign body in the organism of any area and cannot be sure therefore whether what we are doing will be accepted, or rejected by the citizens.

 

As for the urban plan, it has not been accepted because it needs to be accepted as a legal act. The bill has already been introduced into the Council of Ministers and is now alternating between the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly.

 

Boyko Kadinov (architect): We are obviously contemplating the tip of the iceberg. We all know that what you see on the surface is only 1/7 or 1/8 of what is hidden in the water, that is the substantial things. In this connection, when discussing capital and the city we should not discuss the shining wrappings only. We should discuss major issues such as what

business are we dealing with, how has it become legal, what does the very concept of business incorporate and, of course, what dialogue can we hope for in this Bermuda… shall I say “bi-angle” issue? Why “bi-angle”? Because the third angle, civil society, is non-existent. Yet it is the most substantial prerequisite for the general strategy of the city. I believe that the fact that the urban plan has not yet been approved and has been delayed for years on end, is not only due to adverse circumstances but to the fact that society has not been able to realize the need of such a plan, has not been able to construct its vision. I am afraid that was the reason for Sofia to slacken its pace. It has no realistic goal, no purpose. Sofia is being reconstructed piece-meal, this is clear to everybody. I would call the architecture of the recent year, “compensatory”.

It may have been normal for some to buy all second-hand cars of Western Europe in the 1990s. It may have seen normal to some to construct a dated business park in “Mladost” 4 and maintain that we have made wonderful modern architecture and materialized the future. For me, it was a sign of decay. It is part of our position to walk all the way to our own identity. Only when we have done that could we change things: buildings would look different, business would act different, housing estates would be completely different. What we do now is nowhere near. Only because we suddenly decided to give precedence to aluminum and glass, we dropped a major, may I even call it natural, part, of the city as a place where people live. This place is the most important in the future vision of the city. Such vision, with the importance of the living space as its major element, is a burden that cannot be shouldered by a single municipal council, nor by a single team of architectures. I therefore consider forums like this an important step toward the final goal. I have discussed this with my counterparts and they agree with me that Sofia should be made venue of an European, even world competition for the future of this city.

 

Vladimir Kissyov: There is a great spirit in Sofia. Our task is to raise this spirit in the present dicussion of the vision of Sofia. Together with my partners on the Municipal Council we have unanimously decided that we have to prepare our vision for many strategic places in Sofia, and that for this, we need a discussion. I mean a public discussion, in which the citizens could be offered a plan that they could study and discuss and possibly like and accept. We need to find the common denominator in the visions and wishes of all citizens and then and then only, to prepare a scale model and to commission whatever project the citizens have agreed on. Some things are impossible without discussion, especially when strategic places are at stake, municipal property on which decisions should not be taken by the municipal counselors alone. For their number is 50 or 60 and what is that number against the number of the population in Sofia?

Vassil Vulchev (architect): There is yet another image of the capital which is, in my view, much more dangerous than the business buildings that you have made subject of your discussions. Their number is not that big, after all. The image I have in mind is the image of capital engulfing the city at an incredible speed. I have in mind the billboards. Perhaps we should convene a seminar, a conference, under the motto of “For the graphic purity of Sofia”. Sofia is swamped in billboards and ads put everywhere, at most unlikely places. The billboards simply pad Sofia exposing architecture itself to danger. As architects, we protest against this contempt for architecture.

 

Yordan Petrov (artist): The task of the Chief Artist used to be urban communication and its problems, graphic design in the widest meaning of this word, spatial design, noise and what we call visual noise; the idea was to deal with all related problems and to warn the city against possible complications. To quote Mr. Vulchev, we sometimes witness between 8 and 10 billboards at one crossing. It may sound strage but the billboards are approved by the same artistic council at the Direction of Urbanism and Architecture. Just as architects deal with the problems of architecture, the artists deal with specific artistic tasks. Whether we call it graphic design, spatial design, 3D design, whatever, our purpose is to regulate urban environment. The only thing that we aimed to avoid was dealing with finance. In other words, it was not for the team of the Chief Artist to deal with licences and to decide where to install a billboard and how much this will cost – this is someone else’s business. I regret to say that as a specific job it was taken out of the list for the simple reason that no one wanted to take it. Yet I believe this was a serious mistake.

 

Todor Bulev (architect): In its nature architecture is a lasting art. That is why architects should ask themselves about the consequences, for society, of what they are doing on commission by one investor or another. Things would not have reached the state they are in now, had society felt about architecture and the city in a different manner. In this connection I believe the present seminar is a sign that society has already felt a need for something different, that the first vestiges emerge of social attitude to the architectural and artistic ensemble of the city. I wonder whether we should not try and study in depth the attitudes of the citizens to what is going on.

 

It is not simply about the participation of the citizens, it goes about the common process, its organization, it goes about protecting public interest. It translates into raising the image of architecture and architects. You may not have noticed but the Ministry whose business it is to regulate architecture directly or indirectly, has suffered 10 to 15 reorganizations for the past few years, while the word “architecture” does not appear in the legislation or in the vocabulary of the related institutes. Just as  the Chief Artist, the Chief Architect is but a figurehead.

We formulated for ourselves the idea to launch a discussion with the municipality, with a broader participation of Sofianites, and with the aim of declaring some parts of Sofia architecture reserves. Any construction, change, or visual intervention, including billboards and ads should be subject to discussion and the agreement reached should reflect the efforts to preserve the atmosphere of Sofia. The discussion should also focus on the possibilities of building new business centers outside the historic part of Sofia. What we see as our major task is to take stock of what we have at the moment, and to convince the architects, urban developers, the municipality and the politicians that they should act for the future of Sofia for which we are all responsible.

 

Antoaneta Tsoneva (Ombudsman): This is all very interesting. It is only normal that local community should have claims to its environment. I believe Sofia possesses an exceptional potential in that its experts are all people capable of sitting together around a table and agreeing as to what to offer to the local authorities and how to involve them into this activity. Several ideas have been floated in the debate. I would ask the architectural profession to stop waiting for someone to invite them and attempt to raise their status. In my opinion, steps could be taken immediately, to enhance the representation of the profession. I suggest that the municipal expert council on urban regulation of the territory that is set up by the mayor should accept rules which are to be made public. This council should not be dominated by people accountable to the municipality, say the Chief Architect, or municipality staff. This council should have representative quotas for all interested parties. Only then the architects, including those present here, will find an adequate space for their activities. They way things are now, it seems to me that the communication has been disrupted. Your profession, which enjoys the high esteem of the public, should not agree to such state of thing, it should seek representation. Quite a few other steps could be taken to let more people know what this council will be doing. It would be normal to announce the dates and venues of its sessions publicly, so that if anyone outside the council is interested, they could be present at a specific session, or call for a session. In other words, it will be advisable to let us know when the council will be in session. The minutes of those sessions should also be available to the public.

 

To finish, the present debate has made it clear to me that quite a few positive things are within our reach and it is for the municipal council to adopt a new regulation on advertising and transferable equipment of visual communication. I understand that the work on this regulation has already started. However, I repeat that this document should be helped by your expertise. The regulation will work adequately only if you supply your proposals in writing, if you meet the chair of this council on a regular basis, if you are present at the sessions, if you insist on your opinion being considered. There should be a public debate and all those who want to participate should prove this by acting.

 

Boyan Manchev: I shall try to wind up our disussion of the past three hours. It has obviously put its finger where it hurts in this city. A couple of positions have been launched. I would not like to argue with architect Atanas Panov yet these positions seem to have shaped in opposition of his theory of the neo-liberal logic. We witnessed positions stating that the business is not a subject to the changes in the city because due to its completely heterogeneous nature. The city belongs to the people who live in it. The people who live in it are represented by the municipality. For their benefit, the municipality considers business as an object. This is obviously the normal political and civil logic.

VS Newspaper 3

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