You are in probably the only EU country where architecture can be deadly – literally and figuratively. In Varna a concrete canopy collapsed, killing a girl; a tumbling building also crushed another couple of girls in central Sofia. The sandy beaches on the southern Black Sea coast are all but gone, replaced by hotels where pseudo-Egyptian statues are outnumbered only by pseudo-turrets and pseudo-balustrades. Most of them have crooked walls.
Bulgaria, some say, is an architectural hell. Some call it mutro-Baroque, after the local slang term for the nouveaux riche. Is it possible to find a building that doesn't look like a Balkanised imitation of Neuschwanstein Castle with a leaking roof? No, you may think after a stroll in Sunny Beach or an “exclusive” suburb in Sofia, but Bulgaria does have architects who refuse to design monstrosities. Anna Nevrokopska and Radoslav Markov are two of them.
“There are always compromises between an architect and a client, but I have never allowed myself to give too much ground. Sometimes people come to me with something from a magazine and tell me they want ‘exactly the same house'. I send them to other colleagues immediately,” Anna Nevrokopska says.
Born in Sliven, she decided to become an architect after her high school English teacher showed the class buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. After graduating from the Institute of Architecture and Civil Engineering in Sofia, Nevrokopska began work at the National Institute for Monuments of Culture. Her life changed with the fall of Communism in 1989. Anna went to Paris, where her maternal grandparents lived, and there she had a once-in-a-lifetime chance that seems the stuff of Hollywood: eminent architect Jean Claude Pondevie took her under his wing. Her stay in France and participation in the design of several public buildings had a huge influence on the young architect.
Anna returned to Bulgaria – a move she doesn't regret – and opened her own architectural firm. She has been working successfully for eight years now despite the mutro-Baroque fashion. Two of her best buildings defiantly stand in the bastions of this architectural style, the supposedly prestigious Simeonovo neighbourhood and Sozopol. The house in Sozopol was even featured in Bulgarian and Italian design magazines.
“Making your home in Bulgaria has its advantages,” Nevrokopska believes, “because you don't need to spend a fortune on good quality furniture. You can now buy anything you want in Bulgaria. But the best thing is that you can order custom-made wooden furniture from a furniture maker and it will cost you less than the standard pressboard stuff. I recently worked on a house and it turned out that wooden window shutters were considerably cheaper than plastic ones.”
Another piece of good news: “I haven't met many good architects in Bulgaria yet, but I have met some very good designers.”Constructing a dream house in Bulgaria has its nightmarish aspects. Have you ever wondered why the grand mansions with five-metre-high fences on Mt Vitosha have no sewage systems? “Here, the problem lies with the municipal administration,” Anna says. “In Bulgaria your lot doesn't have to have a sewage system before you are allowed to build on it. If you want a sewage system, you have to build it yourself, but before that you have to have it designed and officially approved. The perfect conditions for corruption…”
She is optimistic, however. “Three or four years ago, construction was completely unbridled; now, it is more normalised.”
Public projects remain Nevrokopska's greatest passion: “I am sad that there are no opportunities for public buildings in Bulgaria. We are only building malls and big developments. We need new museums. We need new places where people can meet, where young people and retirees can go.” She has already completed her first design for a public building: the expansion of the public library in Sliven.
Where is the best area to live in Sofia? Nevrokopska favours the idea of closing down the Kremikovtsi metallurgical plant, which does not comply with EU ecological regulations, and building a satellite village on the site.
“Whoever put this pointless polluter in the most suitable housing area around Sofia did a very foolish thing. Generally speaking, the southern slopes of the Balkan Mountains are much more appropriate for human habitation than the trendy suburbs on Mt Vitosha's sunless slopes. Unfortunately, it was only last year that Sofia's new general urbanisation plan was approved and people have started considering the benefits of satellite settlements.
”What will happen to the huge Communist-era housing estates with their prefabricated blocks of flats? “I don't think they will be demolished in Bulgaria like they were in Western Europe. About 90 percent of the flats in these blocks belong to the people who live in them. It would be impossible to get everybody who lives in a block to agree to demolish it and build a better one in its place.
”Paradoxically, you can live a much more comfortable life in the housing estates than in central Sofia. “Until about 10 years ago the city centre had low-rise condominiums, old houses and lots of gardens with hundreds of trees. They're all gone now, replaced by new blocks of flats that are so close to each other that you can jump onto your neighbour's balcony. The gardens were paved over with concrete and turned into car parks. How can you enjoy life there?”
Rado Markov has another suggestion: “If you need a place to live and not an investment in Bulgaria, look for good architecture and a decent ambience. It does not matter much whether it is in a city or a village. The mutro-Baroque plague has spared few places: mostly some neighbourhoods in Plovdiv and Sofia. Unfortunately, Varna is getting wrecked fast. Some smaller towns also have their old quarters intact. But there is always the risk of some local mutra spoiling it all with a pink ‘cake' with dormer windows, rounded balconies and balustrades.
”You have to be careful when choosing a country house, too. “Bulgaria has a lot of scenic beauty but even in attractive Rhodope hamlets with their old houses there is a risk of someone constructing a ‘modern' house the size of a school.”
Rado Markov is a man you can trust. His architectural design company, which has offices in Sofia and Varna, recently won a UK property award for the ambitious Razlog Golf and Ski resort in Bansko. It has designed over 100 petrol stations and shops as well as a residential project including houses and a community centre in Bankya, near Sofia. Markov has studied architecture in Sofia, Turin, Warsaw and Moscow, and worked in the Middle East and Zagreb. If it were up to him, Sofia and the southern Black Sea coast would have a very different appearance. “We should have introduced a ‘monuments of architecture with important ambience' category as in Spain or Italy. That would've included whole streets and neighbourhoods and would have barred owners and land developers from ‘killing' old buildings to make room for new blocks of flats.
”Corruption is deeply rooted in the construction sector – and the end user pays the price for it. Many cities' chief architects have their own design companies and extort investors by issuing them construction permits only if they hire their company to draw up the plans. “A client from London who has been working with me for a long time recently told me that he would like to hire our Sofia Plan studio for a large development. But for ‘political reasons' he had to give it to one of the chief architect's companies.
”Luckily, there are alternatives for those who don't want to support the culture of corruption. Rado Markov can name 10-15 architectural design companies that provide quality services. His own firm is currently working on a large development near Varna; now in its early stages, it will have 230 permanent residences with large terraces. Markov has seen enough of the outside world to be able to give an objective assessment of his native country.
“There is no such thing as a Bulgarian architectural tradition, apart from exceptions such as Zheravna, Veliko Tarnovo or Kovachevitsa. Bulgarians are not ones for making large beautiful things like cathedrals, for example.” Still, you can build yourself a pleasant house harmonised with the surrounding scenery and climate. The recipe for saving yourself from Bulgarian architectural hell is simple: “It has to be built of bricks and have a tile-covered, sloping hip roof, predominantly southern exposure and semi-open spaces such as verandas, without very large windows. It should have two storeys with no residential premises in the attic. Earth colours should be used: white, brown, red. And there must be a fireplace.”