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Old Urban Houses amid a Construction Boom

A frequent comment from regular visitors to Bulgaria is how much the skyline has changed since they were last here. Indeed new apartment complexes, hotels, shopping malls and office blocks are springing up with alarming speed in some parts of the country. As the construction boom continues and skylines change, some would say for the better, we take a look at the issues of preserving Bulgaria’s cultural heritage.

Heritage at Risk

Last year the city of Varna hosted an exhibition, which focused on disappearing houses from 19th and 20th century. In Sofia, a group of architects put on a similar display in the capital. Eventually the two exhibitions merged as one under the title Town’s Memory – Heritage at Risk and in support of the national campaign of the Union of Architects in Bulgaria for the preservation of the country’s architectural heritage, the exhibition has been displayed throughout the country in an attempt to alert the public and decision makers about the extent of Bulgaria’s disappearing architectural heritage.

Wander through any of Bulgaria’s key cities and you will come across crumbling old houses, which in their heyday were striking examples of a wide variety of architectural styles, from Neo- classical and Baroque to Bulgaria’s unique Revival style. In the rush to make money from real estate little thought has been given to large scale renovation and preservation. In Varna, the stunning French Girls’ College turned Navy Hospital was demolished despite the promises of the local government there.

Preserving architectural heritage

Klianti’s 19th century merchant’s house is one of the oldest houses in the Old Town of Plovdiv and one of the most valuable from an architectural and artistic point of view. To this end it has been declared a cultural monument of national importance. Yet in 1928, due to the regulations laid down by the town planning department, part of the building was demolished. The interior is famous with its rich architectural work with geometrical motives of the ceilings and multi-coloured surfaces, unique landscapes on the walls dating back to 1817, and a richly painted niche "French style". The walls are decorated with monumental compositions with vegetation ornaments. However, the lath-and-plaster construction is in an extremely bad physical state, the entire frame is in a poor state of repair as are all of the timber floor joists and roof.

Another similar case is the House of Ilarion Dragostinov located in the village of Arbanassi. It is a classic example of the rich merchant houses typical of this region and was also declared a cultural monument of national importance. The house was probably built in the 17th century, later on, during the 18th century reconstructive work was carried out to create an entrance hall on the ground floor and an enlarged open gallery on the upper floor. The ground floor and the whole south façade are made of stone, while the remaining three façades of the main floor are made of wood. All of the rooms have wooden ceilings and the floor is covered in ceramic tiles in figurative patterns. The ceiling of the north room is plastered and ornamentally decorated. At present the building is in a very bad situation. In 1977, the house suffered from an earthquake and no measures to rectify the damage and strengthen the building were taken at the proper time. The wooden beams of the floor between the ground floor and the main floor are almost ruined. The filling of the inner walls is removed and the supporting frame in the interior is totally exposed, its elements are seriously damaged by water, penetrating through the damaged roof. The roof construction and the walls are at present supported and strengthened by metal scaffolding.

Sadly these houses occupy land in cities where real estate prices are at a premium and little thought is given by the owners of these decaying homes as to the effect that a sale to a large-scale developer will have. Indeed the issue at stake is how owners of these old historic and architecturally interesting properties can be motivated to keep and maintain them.

Beautiful Bulgaria

There have been occasions where the buildings have been restored and renovated to their former glory by more caring developers acting on behalf of banks and prosperous companies who restore and renovate them. The proactive campaign known as the Beautiful Bulgaria Project has actually helped to save many old houses like the incredible architectural reserve of Revival style wooden houses in Kotel, but towns and cities like Plovdiv, Russe, Veliko Turnovo and the coastal towns of Sozopol and Nessebar contain many decaying old houses, which are under threat of demolition.

Yet, in countries like Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, the owners of historic belonging to the country’s architectural heritage, are supported financially with things like interest-free loans, in other countries protection orders are placed on historically significant buildings, yet in Bulgaria there is still no legislation to preserve the beauty, which exists in all towns across the country. Leading architect Veneta Pavlova a member of the Managing Board of the Society of Varna Architects says, “The legislation in this sphere is in need of revision and updating in the context of the incredible construction boom underway in Bulgaria.” She suggests that the state should apply the same principles to architecture as it does to endangered plants and animals and list them in a Red Book of Bulgarian endangered architectural heritage.
Bulgaria has put up with the uninspiring concrete constructions from the Communist era for so long, that the colourful, architecturally, designed modern buildings springing up all over the country inspire many of its people and improve the overall look of the urban environment. However, measures need to be taken to preserve the true architectural heritage of the nation, which is an integral part of the Bulgarian way of life. Whilst modern buildings look extremely attractive and contain all of the modern conveniences demanded by today’s buyer, but with a little effort and forethought and improvement grants from the state, the old Bulgarian home can be transformed whilst still retaining its traditional appearance.