Two recollections of moments and details from spring-times past. Above: A kite, a delighted child, and a patch of green on the shore of the Golden Horn near Fener, Istanbul, 2012. In the background, a shipyard and dry-dock dating from early Ottoman times. Below: Blossoms, greenery, and the weathered, roughly-welded sheet-metal wall and numbered spaces of an empty parking lot in Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014 (the straightforward text on the signs: “paid unguarded” + “parking”).
One summer, a little over twenty years ago, I took to wandering the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria late in the evenings, with a medium-format camera and a light-meter slung over one shoulder and a heavy tripod balanced on the other. At the time, I was entranced by the interplay between strong artificial streetlight and the textures of well-worn building facades and the way it registered on high-contrast black/white film pushed a stop or two beyond its rated sensitivity.
Among my favorite subjects, then as in recent years: balconies. As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, Sofia was and still is a city of balconies: wrought iron, wooden, concrete, and plaster. Two decades ago, however, just as today, most of Sofia’s balconies appeared empty, even on springtime and summer evenings. Life had turned inward, so it seemed, and had yet to reemerge. The social function of balconies as an interstice between the private and public realms had ceased, with nobody observing public life from balconies nor conducting their private lives in view of neighbors or passersby. Instead, a sharp, albeit invisible, dichotomy arose between public and private and indoors and out.
The source of this dichotomy is by no means a mystery. Factors include a rise of urban anomie in general, a search for privacy and an over-reaction against the pressures and intrusions of the public realm during the communist period, and the absence of social cohesion and trust in the time since. The replacement of physical interaction and neighborhood connections by internet-based social networks also plays a part, as does the out-dated confusion of gated isolation with status. For an in-depth examination, both of the history of Sofia and matters of public vs. private space in general, I recommend urbanist Sonia Hirt’s excellent book, Iron Curtains: Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space in the Post-socialist City, which I have been savoring chapter-by-chapter over the past year.
Further to “Past Glory,” a weblog entry from 2014, the photos above and below show the present states of two mineral bath structures in the vicinity of Sofia, Bulgaria.
A rough-hewn stone structure set at a hillside mineral water source a few kilometers outside of the village of Zhelyaznitsa at the foot of Mt. Vitosha, not far from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. The structure contains two bath chambers, one derelict and the second functioning. In an unabashedly Balkan manner, the functioning chamber remains the province of men; the derelict chamber, in principle, is reserved for women.
The ornate former entranceway to the abandoned bathing pavilion at Gorna Banya, a one-time spa resort just outside of Sofia. Today, Gorna Banya is a quiet residential village but in the first decades of the 20th-century, it was sufficiently popular as a resort and suburban residential locale to merit being the terminus of one of Sofia’s first electric trolley-bus routes. In the early years of the last century, Gorna Banya had the added panache of being the site of Bulgaria’s military cavalry school and later, less romantically, of an armored tank battalion.
As to the style of the entranceway, if the decision was left to me, I’d label it “Balkan-Neo-Secessionist-Neo-Ottoman” — a combination of the characteristic styles of two vanished empires but built of a Balkan provincial mix of brick, plaster, and ceramic roof tiles. Any other suggestions as to stylistic labels, or any information about the history and prospects of the bath pavilion and its surroundings, are most welcome.
While the bath pavilion molders, a couple of hundred meters away from it, on the other side of the village green, a nondescript commercial structure is being converted into an impromptu gambling casino, a usage, it seems, still in accord with the developmental ethos and preferences of Sofia’s private sector and decision-makers .
In a recent series of posts about Sofia, Bulgaria, I focused on the present-day appearances of the exteriors of Soviet-era, brutalist-style, prefabricated concrete-panel apartments block complexes built in the 1970s and 1980s, and on implications thereof re: issues of public and private space and of the nature of infrastructure. However, Sofia is more than mere concrete.
Sofia is a paradoxical city. Over the last century-and-a-quarter its population has grown by a factor of 100, from less that 20,000 to almost two million. It is one of Europe’s most compact and densely populated cities — a potential advantage in terms of energy efficiency and non-automotive mobility, if and when properly capitalized upon. Not least, Sofia is also one of Europe’s greenest cities — in terms of its tree-lined streets and unusually high ration of green-space to built-space. Expansive parks, heavily-wooded and well-manicured, anchor the north, south, east, and west cardinal points of the city. Smaller parks dot the its and a greenbelt circumscribes its periphery.
Sofia’s parks were cornerstone features of a city plan drawn-up off-site in Berlin by the Nazi German architect Adolf Müssmann during the years of Bulgaria’s venal 1930s/1940s alliance with Hitler’s Germany. The plan, by the way, was so foreign to the nature of Sofia and so imbued with Hitler’s visions for Berlin that it alienated Sofia’s otherwise quite pro-German municipal authorities and was in large part ignored. After World War II, dedication to park space were the only elements of Müssmann’s concept that the newly-installed Communist regime retained in Sofia’s first post-war city plan drawn up in 1948. In the decades since the fall of Communism in 1989, shady property and real estate development deals have eaten away at the edges of Sofia’s once-ample green-space. More recently, however, the green-space that remains appears, year by year, to be better and better maintained and more fully utilized.
Pictured above and below are two of Sofia’s smaller parks. Both are the creations of religious traditions that emerged from the late-nineteenth scramble to create, shape, and give legitimacy to a Bulgarian national identity and to create new, vernacular-language, and supposedly indigenous spiritual spaces as alternatives to the once-ubiquitous power of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in what is now Bulgaria.
In the photo above: The garden of the Theological Seminary of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The autocephalic Bulgarian church was reconstituted in 1870 by a firman (writ) of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in part as a concession to Bulgarian aspirations for political, cultural, religious, and linguistic autonomy.
The clerical buildings in the background of the photo tell a story of their own. They were designed is what is retrospectively called the “Bulgarian National Style” — actually an eclectic amalgam of Moorish Revival, Secessionist, neo-Baroque ,Jugendstil, and supposedly neo-Byzantine elements characteristic of the work of Friedrich Grünanger, an Austrian-Hungarian architect who spent the bulk of his career in Sofia and who designed a number of the city’s iconic structures including, in addition to the Seminary, the city’s central bath house and what is now Sofia’s one remaining synagogue.
The supposedly neo-Byzantine elements that gave facades of Grünanger’s edifices their ostensible “Bulgarian National” character are horizontal courses of glazed-tile-work meant to simulate horizontal courses of brick interspersed between and cushioning courses of stone, a structural and decorative feature that was actually a signature, not of Byzantine architecture. but of the architecture of the Ottoman Turks, the non-Christian, “foreign” tradition that the Bulgarian National Style was meant to supplant and to obliterate from memory.
Grave of a mystic …
In the photo below: The carefully tended garden surrounding the grave of the late-19th/early-20th-century Bulgarian religious syncretist and mystic visionary, Peter Deunov. Deunov, a son of one of the first clerics of the reconstituted Bulgarian Orthodox Church, studied at a Methodist seminary in the United States but, following his return to Bulgaria did not enter the ministry. Instead, he founded a nature-oriented spiritual movement of his own, one that remains active and vibrant to the present day. Deunov’s journey from belief to belief was not atypical of the experimental searching for new religious and political identities characteristic of urban Bulgarians of his generation. Izgrev (tr. “The Dawn”), the suburban neighborhood surrounding the garden, was founded as a colony by Deunov and his disciples in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Deunov garden is one of the lushest, well kept, and peaceful green spots in Sofia — this the result of the voluntarism and sense of community of those who maintain it. May it remain that way.
Mondrian meets Dorian Gray: Patterns of neo-liberal disregard
The photos above and below not only capture the accidental Mondrian-like effect of relegation of the maintenance of building envelopes to individual tenants, they also reveal a Dorian-Gray’s-like picture of the inefficiencies of neo-liberalism and the cumulative effects of decades of rising economic inequality and shirking of collective investment in an important component of the infrastructure that enables and sustains us.
Thoughts on infrastructure in general and building exteriors in particularly:
Infrastructure has been a recurring theme throughout the twists and turns of my eclectic work-life: Subway transportation,* the third city water tunnel, and green infrastructure in my native New York; airports, harbors, and inter-modal transportation nodes in the Netherlands; telecommunications and “smart” workplaces in Western and Central Europe; monitoring of infrastructure projects in the broader European context; and the history of infrastructure in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire.
A broad view …
My view of infrastructure is a broad, social-democratic one; a take that does not limit infrastructure to the usual narrow scope of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. but that zooms out to include educational processes and facilities, health care delivery systems, the urban natural environment, and public housing — in other words, all that is critical to human activity and survival and implementation of which is beyond the reach of individual users and the efficacy of for-profit “entrepreneurial” activity (i.e. the so-called “market”) and outside of simple models of enterprise-based accountancy.
Envelope as infrastructure …
Building exteriors are infrastructure. The upgrading and maintenance of the legacy built environment are not just matters of patch-work attempts to achieve individual comfort and moderately lower energy bills. Attention to building envelopes is crucial to effective energy conservation society-wide, the slowing of climate change, and the reducing of dependencies on profit- and politically-motivated energy producers. As a side effect, it removes the visible stigmata of who can and cannot afford to insulate their dwellings.
Societal glue …
Across-the-board attention to building exteriors provides societal glue. The inefficient patchwork of apartment by apartment insulation is a sign of societal failure and ideologically-motivated narrowing of the responsibilities of governments, communities, and even tenants’ councils. In Eastern Europe, it is a visible sign of the abandonment of “we” in accordance with the cynical dictum of Margaret Thatcher and her like that “… there is no society.” Worldwide, we now foot the bill for such idiocy.
The mass construction of panel-block housing in the former Soviet bloc was a strategy for creating low-cost housing during the post-war period of massive migration to cities, constraints in housing stock, and minimal availability of resources. The aesthetic merits of such housing might remain open to debate but among the the practical result in Sofia, for example, was that by the final years of the communist period more than 80% of the population was housed in dwellings to which they had clear title of ownership, a major achievement by any account.
And failure …
The design and implementation of panel-block buildings was achieved according to a short-sighted logic that has been unsustainable for decades. On the positive side, the panel bloc approach cut costs through standardization and modular prefabrication. On the negative side, however, it gave no attention to insulation, heat retention, or cooling through shading. The period of mass construction of panel block housing in Sofia was congruent with a period of nuclear power and nominal charges for electricity consumption. Thus, if rooms were cold, one simply plugged in a few electric convection heaters. And, if enough heat was not retained, one simply turned up the heaters up another notch and run them longer. As to improving insulation: One could always cover one’s single-glazed windows with sheets of newspaper.
A remedy unlikely to effect a cure …
I do not follow news from Bulgaria closely but in a conversation last week I heard that one-by-one private insulation of individual apartments recently has been made illegal. Also, it seems, there are now European-financed programs for the insulation and renovation of apartment building exteriors. But, as always, there’s is a rub, things turn out not to be so simple. To qualify for European-financing, buildings must first be organized as legal entities, this requiring the assent of each and every apartment title-holder. Also, residents must contribute a portion of total costs. Not least, the organization of such requires good-will towards one’s neighbors and familiarity with the law, as well as a degree of experience with navigating official channels. A single hold-out or contrarian can block the process. Thus, available funds flow more readily to smaller buildings with fewer and more prosperous and educated residents, rather than to higher-need towering apartment blocks with scores upon scores of apartments in the lower-income neighborhoods of the city. For the moment, thus, it is uncertain whether the remedy is likely to effect a cure.
* Specifically, subsidized, affordable subway fares as a means for ensuring work-forces and customers to the private sector, for maintaining well-trafficked streets, and drawing the city’s ethnically and economically diverse population out of their homes and into cultural institutions. Coincidentally, a similar argument was recently advanced by infrastructure advocate and scholar Alex Marshall. Marshall’s excellent book The Surprising Design of Market Economies contains a passage about the social nature of infrastructure that may (or may not) have had its origin in an approach to the definition infrastructure that I shared with him during a conversation at the Regional Plan Association in New York in 2010.
Photographic footnote: The wrong tools for the job
On the basis of the photos above, absolutely nobody — me included! — would ever confuse me with the likes of, say, Andreas Gursky! Indeed, the photos above were taken with the wrong tools in the wrong way and then processed in a manner no less inappropriate. I’ll explain …
First, each of the photos was taken hand-held rather that tripod-mounted, a self-deceiving arrogance when working with strong verticals and horizontals and when confronted with a large two-dimensional object to be positioned parallel to the film- (or sensor-) plane. Second, the photos were taken from ground-level with the camera pointed upwards rather than from a neighboring building at a height roughly to half the height of the subject.
The result? An amalgam of vertical and horizontal distortions (keystoning, pitch, yaw, etc.) beyond the reach of the correctional powers of image processing software, especially when working within the small confines of a laptop screen. In Lightroom, for example, one can easily correct for vertical distortion and rotate an image, but add horizontal adjustments plus some compensation for barrel or pincushion distortion to the mix and the shapes within an image begin to contort and vertical and horizontal lines to squiggle — and this atop the irregularities and lack of true verticals and horizontals in the subject itself, in the case of panel block buildings the results of attention to speed rather than precision during construction combined with the effects of gravity and the elements as the years pass.
So, for now, I’ll view the images above as “studies” and next time will head out with my tripod, my old folding field camera fitted with a lens and film back, or with my ever older combination of a legacy Nikon analogue body and perspective-correcting shift lens. In the meanwhile, my excuses.
More Accidental Aesthetics of Insulation
Above and below: Further to my last post, three more images of the accidental aesthetics of the downward relegation of building-envelope maintenance and insulation of legacy structures — one of the major pressure points for achieving heat and energy conservation in the built environment worldwide — from national governments to regional authorities, to municipalities, to tenants’ councils and cooperatives, and, in the end, to (“the-buck-stops-here!”) those individual residents with the cash or credit to insulate the external walls of their apartments on their own. The serendipity of the visual outcomes belies the inefficiency and absurdity of apartment-by-apartment solutions to what is a serious energy conservation, environmental, and quality-of-life issue worldwide.
Murals: For Whom and Why?
In my last post, I asked any and all who happened to stumble onto this site to share with me whatever they might know about about who were responsible for the giant murals that have appeared on, among other large surfaces in Sofia, the formerly-bare lateral walls of Soviet-era concrete panel block apartment buildings in several neighborhoods. I received two responses:
The first was an email from Sofia green-architect, urban activist, and restorer of traditional wood-fired baking ovens, Martin Mikush. Martin pointed me to this 20-minute video on the work of one group of muralists. The video is beautifully shot and carefully tracks the entire mural-painting process — from initial sketches, to scaffold building, to the masterful painting itself — but all this becomes overwhelmed by repetitive interspersed vignettes interspersed portraying the self-styled “hipness” and narcissistic “campy” antics of the artists themselves. Only in a couple of cases of lovely murals portraying themes from nature, do the artists share and explain their intents and searches for subject matter. For the rest, the video seems a self-congratulatory celebration of the artists’ cultivated hipness. The film says nothing about the residents of the buildings and neighborhoods that provide them with their canvases — neither about residents’ approval of, participation in, nor reactions to the artists’ seemingly well-funded efforts. Indeed, much of the video appears to have been shot in off-hours when the streets are uncharacteristically empty and void of the usual streams of passersby. The only public reaction to the murals included in the video are a few enthusiastic words from a parked taxi driver. In the end, the video is more self-promotional than documentary.
Apparently the video, the website on which it appears, and the mural project itself were funded by an “NGO” (a so-called “non-governmental organization”) in this case one funded by Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, of all places. One of the ironies in Eastern Europe in the more than quarter-century the collapse of the old Soviet Union and its client governments is that many functions and responsibilities have devolved from governments to non-governmental organizations that are in no ways grass-roots but, rather, are funded by foreign governments with their own values and agendas, and conceived and run by locals having a sufficient strong witch’s-brew of competence, nerve, connections, personal agendas, and knack for self-promotion to apply for and win such grants.
Each time I walk past the murals that I’ve posted photos of on this site, I wonder whether provisions were made to insulate walls before murals were applied. I also try to imagine what the walls on which the murals are painted will look like next year or after five years or ten. Will the visual fields of neighborhood residents be confronted with expanses of sadly-peeling paint and the faded remains of images that were once novel but that long since have become tiresome? Have the donors and artists made provisions for maintaining the murals or periodically painting them, either with a fresh coat of paint to allow eyes to rest or with the works of other artists? Or, after all the fun, publicity, and self-congratulatory back-patting, will the artists have moved on to new opportunities for self-expression and career-building and the donors to larger budgets and new disbursements, thus leaving residents of buildings and neighborhoods involved with the tattered legacies of the no-longer-timely visions of others? I’ll write more about this if/when answers emerge. Again, any and all hints, links, and contrary opinions are welcome.
Internets Celebrities to the Rescue
It shouldn’t have surprised me that another part of the (to me) puzzle of the provenance of the Sofia murals was cleared-up in a flash by a comment posted from New York by Rafi Kam. Rafi pointed out three apartment block murals indeed had been vetted and approved by local authorities. He also sent links to sites that reveal the provenance of murals portrayed in each of the three photos I’ve posted. The girl holding the mystery gift is by the internationally active Polish street-art duo Etam Cru. The smoker and the urban creature are by a Bulgarian artist, Bozko.
At the moment, in a bit of longer-form writing plus photographic documentation I am trying to place such murals in the context of evolving concepts of public space and divisions of public and private realms in Sofia and elsewhere. I wonder if the towering projections of the subjective visions of Etam Cru and Bozko divorce residents from their surroundings or unite them in a sense of shared ownership. Another, power-related, issue lurks in the background: the neighborhood in which the murals are painted was for long one of Sofia’s lower income and poorly maintained quarters. Do the building murals add value to the lives of the residents or do they represent a sort of artistic colonialism and appropriation of space by the culturally empowered? I’m not yet sure which.
Rafi Kam, by the way, together with Dallas Penn, is the on-camera side of the urban culture gadfly team Internets Celebrities (slogan: “kicking truth to the online youth”). By the way, that’s indeed internets in the plural, this out of homage to a celebrated malapropism by a master of malapropism, George Bush. Among the Internets Celebrities’ many works is the short video Bronx Bodega, a hilarious but very much to the point tour of the once emblematic Puerto Rican and Domican bodega corner grocery stores of New York City’s poorer neighborhoods, neighborhoods under-served by food retailers and by everything else for that matter. I always recommend Bronx Bodega as an essential part of the canon of urbanism, and as a slyly humorous work of comic improvisation as well.
A Virtual Plate of Chicharron
The Internets Celebrities now ride through cyberspace and the NYC subways in their latest avatars as the Food Warriors. In addition to the coincidence of Rafi holding the answer to the provenance of murals in Sofia, here’s a second, culinary, coincidence proving that not only do great minds think alike but that great gourmands binge alike and great New Yorkers explore alike. My very first click on the Food Warriors’ website brought me to their recent account of a visit to La Reina del Chicharron in Washington Heights, a place that has many times caused me to salivate while walking past and that I regret never entered. Thanks, thus, Food Warriors, for the virtual dreamed-of but never tasted meal!
Further to a previous entry on the presence (and, to me, mystery) of a spate of apartment-building-height murals, psychedelic in style and puzzling in content, in the adjacent Sofia neighborhoods of Poduyane and Hadji Dimitar, I’ve posted a photo of a third such mural above.
I’ve selected the photo not just for its bizarreness and whimsicality nor for the issues it raises as to the ownership and aesthetics of the public realm. Rather, a close examination of the building on which the mural is painted summarizes a full set of urban issues which I have been researching, conceptualizing, and visually portraying over the past months and into which — ideas for grant support, anyone?!? — I intend to delve further in the time to come.
Specifically, note the balconies on the right-hand face of the building, some open as per their original design and others closed-in to expand private space. Balconies, as I hope to explain in subsequent posts, are interstices between public and private space, and Sofia is a city of balconies. How balconies are, or are not, used reveals much about the history of and changes in social and politic environments and individual responses thereto.
Also note the monochrome, but vaguely Mondriaan-like, effect on the walls of the building in the photo above, an effect more pronounced in the photo that I’ve added below. The question of why such buildings have been insulated apartment-by-apartment rather than building-by-building, and what this tells us about societies and governments, is one that I have also been examining and visually documenting of late. Although the aesthetic effect of uncoordinated action by apartment owners on their own relieves monotony and adds color to the public realm, devolution to the individual apartment owners is the most inefficient and inequitable means of preserving public health and comfort and of cutting heat-loss through building envelops, possibly the most weighty contributor to energy consumption/inefficiency in the built environment. Hopefully, more on this as well.