Will Bulgaria's Communist-era panelki buildings survive into future?
With the mountains for a backdrop and amid large green spaces, uniform apartment blocks line up like Legos. Along the dual carriageway, 7km from the centre of Sofia, the underground comes above ground: Mladost Station.
Mladost 1, like its consecutive namesakes and other Sofia microrayoni, or housing projects, dates from the times of Communism. Its cityscape is defined by minimalist apartment blocks called plattenbau in Germany, panelák in Czechia, panelház in Hungary and panelki in Bulgaria. Nowadays, these, rather than the megalomaniacal Communist buildings in the capital's centre where all the tourists flock, are the most visible relics of Communism in Sofia. They might be less imposing than the Council of Ministers with its Stalinist Baroque grandeur, but they are still inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians.
In the 2020s, over 30 years after Communism collapsed in Bulgaria, more than two million Bulgarians, or roughly one-third of the country's population, still live in panelki. The 700,000 flats built between the early 1960s and the late 1980s are in dire need of renovation. People of all walks of life live in panelki, but during the transition to democracy these neighbourhoods acquired the aura of ghetto lifestyle with their own specific subculture and problems. Meanwhile, as newly built blocks of flats are causing a sprawl, the panelki are less expensive on the booming property market in Sofia.
A symbol of Communist urban planning and way of life to many Bulgarians today, the panelki were not invented in the Eastern bloc. After the Second World War, both sides of Iron Curtain Europe were facing a housing shortage. A lack of materials and qualified workers triggered the need for innovation in building. In 1948, a French engineer, Raymond Camus, patented a system of building heavy prefabs. In a couple of years, the trend spread all over Europe.
The USSR was quick to realise the benefits of Camus's invention. In 1954, the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech at a national conference of builders, architects and construction workers: "Our country is engaged in building industrial enterprises, residential buildings, schools, hospitals and other structures on a large scale (...) We have an obligation to significantly speed up, improve the quality, and reduce the cost of construction. In order to do so, there is only one path – and that is the path of the most extensive industrialisation of construction." Four years earlier, while he was Moscow’s Communist Party leader, Khrushchev had already stressed the need for fast and low-cost technologies. In Moscow, his building programme gave birth to the K-7 design of a prefabricated concrete-panel building. These were nicknamed after him, khrushchyovki.
To keep up with housing demand, the Soviet authorities standardised both the design of the buildings and the building process. Following Henry Ford's assembly line, the East started building homes the way the West was building cars. In 1964, a Soviet architecture magazine reported: "The USSR today constructs more apartments every year than the United States, England, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Sweden, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland combined." All over the East bloc, from Leipzig to Siberia, prefab panel blocks arose.
The People's Republic of Bulgaria was quick to embrace the innovation. Initially, it copied the Soviet building techniques and processes. Each citizen would have 9 sq m of living space. Bulgaria's first experiment with housing projects dates back to the late 1950s, when in Sofia's Tolstoy neighbourhood the Scientific Research Institute and the Institute of Typisation and Industrialisation in Construction erected nine buildings of up to four floors, which comprised 216 apartments. The authorities eventually deemed this design both expensive and inefficient, as the concrete was actually produced on site. With a population which in less than two decades had doubled in size, Sofia's 1961 urban development plan prescribed high-rises. Mladost 1 would be Bulgaria's first large-scale prefab neighbourhood. Bulgaria also developed its own types of panelki, which were larger. By the early 1960s, the Domostroitelni Kombinati, or House-Building Factories, all over Bulgaria manufactured concrete panels on an industrial scale.
Sofia's new neighbourhoods were given optimistic names such as Mladost, or Youth; Druzhba, or Friendship; and Nadezhda, or Hope. As they expanded, sequence numbers were added to their names, the ultimate champion being Sofia's Lyulin with as many as 10 "micro districts".
The new estates offered spectacular and outlandish vistas. Towering panelki arose from vast prairie-like fields full of scrub in spring and summer, and mud in autumn and winter. Grazing flocks of sheep were not uncommon. Large holes gaped between the buildings and improvised paths ran to the main streets. At the time, the new neighbourhoods were built in green fields. The authorities would add all the necessary infrastructure only after the blocks were completed.
Unfortunately, this habit stuck in Bulgaria years after the collapse of Communism. Even in the 2020s, basic infrastructure such as proper streets, sanitation, healthcare and education facilities is lacking in modern, newly built neighbourhoods of much flashier apartment blocks and houses.
Panelki encircle a shanty town where poor Roma live in Kazanlak
The task of Soviet architects went beyond creating new living spaces. They had to help build a whole new way of life. The new architecture would guide the overhaul of a rural agrarian society into an urban Communist proletariat. As early as the 1920s, architecture theorist Mikhail Okhitovich stated: "The goal of architecture of our period is not the construction of a given building but the shaping of new social relations resulting from new production conditions."
Just like the early USSR, in the late 1940s and the 1950s Bulgaria was a farming society that was quickly reinventing itself as an industrial one. Its population urbanised with an astonishing speed. While in 1946 only 25% of Bulgarians lived in cities, this percentage had reached 46% in 1965 and 58% in 1975.
Like other new neighbourhoods, Mladost was meant primarily for young families. Most of its early residents came from the countryside. Their offspring, the so-called first-generation townsfolk, would grow up in the new-built district, in an architectural environment no previous generation had seen before.
Mladost's chief architect, Bogdan Tomalevski, designed an environment for more than 100,000 people, envisaging a living organism that would combine classical panelki with more traditional brick buildings. The high-rises would coexist with low rises and architectural elements such as corner sections and joins would bring some variety in the outlook. Communal facilities and green spaces would complete the social condenser.
But the regime proclaimed standardisation, unification and homogenisation as the leading principles of the new developments. Many of Tomalevski's ideas were erased from the drawing board. His award-winning design was reduced to a small number of prefab typologies and many of the communal facilities were scrapped altogether. The engineer and the planner had replaced the architect. A planner who worked with Tomalevski explained: "Mladost does not have an author. It is a construction system."
Ultimately, Tomalevski resigned. In a candid 1986 interview he expressed his fear: "A person can start to resemble his home. Can you imagine? From Kalotina to Kapitan Andreevo, the same people in the same homes?". Ironically, Tomalevski phrased the regime's very objective: the construction of a "prefab society."
Reality, however, was different. In a short time, panelki became a sign of privilege and a coveted property in a society where housing shortages were still dire. As a general rule, the authorities, factories and institutions from local municipalities to operas and scientific organisations gave young citizens and employees the right to settle in a designated panelka. They were generally rented out, but after some time the inhabitants were able to buy them. Most did. This was how owning your home, particularly in a society that shunned private property, became entrenched in the Bulgarian psyche. Currently, 95% of Bulgarians own the place where they live.
Of course, property ownership in Communist Bulgaria was in fact private property. To avoid the ideological conundrum, the authorities invented a new term for it, personal property. Thus, a flat was billed personal property just like a car was. In a society where all spaces and means were public, the panelka provided some sought-after privacy. The dwellers turned their standardised homes into much more than concrete boxes where living happened. Each flat became a unique home. They put glazing on their balconies to insulate them from the harsh winter winds and tore down internal walls to win more living space.
After Communism collapsed and market economy became the norm, the panelki transformation went further. Ground floor flats were quickly converted in all facilities that the neighbourhood residents needed: grocery shops, cafés, hair salons, bars, repair shops, language schools, even small restaurants.
Panelki also provided a shell against the uncertainties of the transition to democracy with its turbulence and crime. Today, it is still common for three generations to inhabit a panelka: the first-generation townsfolk share the flat with both the generation born before Communism and the one born after. Thirty years after the collapse of Communism, the 9 sq m of living space for a person have become a mirage.
In 2017, Moscow started demolishing its khrushchyovki. The old low rise will make room for new high-rises. Berlin, home to what once was Europe's largest prefab panel neighbourhood, already demolished 350,000 of its plattenbau flats and reused the concrete for building roads. Modernising the internal infrastructure and improving insulation of walls and windows is another widely applied way to deal with the ageing, but still needed prefabs in the former East bloc. On top of the panel buildings' aesthetics and facilities, their past regularly stirs the discussion of whether or not to demolish them – as if all memory of Communism ought to be erased.
Bulgaria's panelki have exceeded their life expectancy, but a recent study confirmed they are safe. Nevertheless, they are in dire need of renovation. Poor insulation is the main problem: heating a panelka in winter is hard, the summers are hotter indoors and one is constantly aware of the conversations their neighbours are having and what TV shows they are watching. To tackle this, in 2015, the Bulgarian government launched a renovation programme that was supposed to improve the panelki energy efficiency. Millions of EU money were poured indiscriminately into these projects, resulting in suspicion of widely-spread embezzling, corruption and low quality of work.
Living in a panelka in the 2020s has its advantages and challenges. Flats there have generally better layouts than ones built after the collapse of Communism when, driven by the market's invisible hand, developers now sell smaller apartments to more customers. On the other hand, the panelki inhabitants still have to cope with poor insulation and ventilation. The large open spaces that used to exist between the buildings are no more. After 1989, nationalised land plots were returned to their previous owners who sold them to developers. The result? As monotonous as Communist planning was, as eclectic the new one is: medieval-looking towers, fake Revival Period houses, semi-detached cottages.
Just like in the days of hectic panelki construction, no one is interested in building communal infrastructure. There is a dire lack of parking spaces for the growing number of cars.
In the few green areas still spared by the latterday construction rush, the elderly sit on benches and silently watch the children playing on rusting see-saws, slides and merry-go-rounds. They themselves once played on the very same equipment. A teenage boy and girl leave one of the buildings and, holding hands, walk towards the underground station. The couple looks excited. They are about to visit the city centre. Will their future life be in a panelka?
*Mike Diliën, who has lectured and done research in Spain, Italy and Argentina, works for Belgian national health insurance