October – the month of a socialist collective housing neighbourhood in Bulgaria

pool-platform-manpower-lina-krivoshievaAction, Citizen participation and Production at ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK 2016

In October one Bulgarian socialist collective housing neighbourhood celebrated its special character. This neighbourhood was Trakiya – the third largest of its kind in Bulgaria, built as a dormitory-suburb in the 70’s, transformed daily by its inhabitants ever since and symptomatic for a phenomenon of civic action, widely spread in Bulgaria. The celebration was brought forward by a group of international architects, urbanists and activists who actively involved the local citizens. The occasion of the celebration was the 9th edition of the international festival for contemporary architecture and urban environment – ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK. The festival entered the socialist collective housing neighbourhood and focused on mechanisms of citizen participation. With the motto ACTION! Towards a neighbourhood practice and an extensive program ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK acted on the ground and involved both citizens and administration.


What were our ambitions?

In 2016 ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK revealed the importance of citizen participation for the contemporary city. The location of the festival was “Trakiya”, a modernist prefab neighbourhood of the 1970’s, located in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Trakiya served as an inspiration, being a prime example of a phenomenon of wide-ranging grassroots transformations in most Modernist neighbourhoods in Bulgaria and throughout the wider Balkan region. This phenomenon consists of a gradual and continuous adaptation of the building stock, shared and public spaces, executed solely by the inhabitants and private (small or large) investors. An incremental change formed by millions of small actions: each of them rather unimportant when taken on its own, but hugely transformative when put together. Due to such actions the Modern neighbourhoods of the Balkans were changed from repetitive, monotonous dormitory suburbs into active, and sometimes even attractive urban areas. “Trakiya” is a perfect example of this phenomenon and the festival worked in and with the neighbourhood in order to showcase it.

The 2016 program was formed under the curatorship of studioBasar from Bucharest and included research, exhibitions, lectures, interventions in public space, a kids program and many more events.

“Action! Towards a neighbourhood practice” was this year’s manifest that focused on the mechanisms of public participation, but at the same time it explored and learned from the experience of collective housing accumulated in Trakiya. By taking concrete actions, the 2016 edition aimed to go beyond the pattern of an architectural festival. It acted on the ground, developing tools before, during and after the festival, in an attempt to coagulate in the community a neighbourhood practice for medium and long term.

The main location was a former supermarket in Trakiya, a central and well-known location, where residents already had the habit of frequenting and passing.


How did we work?

As in previous years, ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK started working on the theme by conducting a research of its main subject of interest, Trakiya, already 10 months before the actual start of the festival. The research was led by Nina Toleva, who organised a multidisciplinary team of about 40 people that covered nine different aspects of Trakiya’s reality: economics, social relations, public spaces, infrastructure, amongst others. The research involved various methods of gathering information (mapping on site, collecting data from government institutions, conducting questionnaires, organising meetings, etc.) and was carried out in cooperation with various partners (universities, local municipality, inhabitants, national research centres, NGOs, schools, etc.). This research was important not only for building up an argument, but also for forming relationships and alliances in “Trakiya” long before the actual festival took place.  ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK worked actively both with citizens and the local authorities.


What were the results?

The festival took place between Sept. 30th and Oct. 9th 2016 and included more than 60 elements in its program. It managed to produce not only an attractive list of events for the 10 days of its duration, but also formed some lasting results.

A map

An interactive map of the “Trakiya” neighbourhood, where all the information collected during the research was placed. The map combines both the official information about the area (infrastructure, buildings, roads, etc.) as well as the less-known or unofficial one (local businesses, DIY gardens, self-made gazebos, etc.). The map has been an experiment both for the Bulgarian and the wider European context. The map is extremely useful for noticing correlations between spatial characteristics and citizen actions. It was created with the substantial help of IN-Formal.

A book

Another result of the research was a book, composed by Nina Toleva, the research coordinator. We named the book “Almanac of pre-fab Trakiya” and it is an alphabetical description of all the elements, which the research team covered. As with the map, the Almanac is an innovation for the local context in the way an urban form is being analysed and presented. The book aims to become a tool used by the administrations and public institutions, professionals, different groups, NGO’s and citizens. The Almanac is available only in Bulgarian at this moment, with introduction and conclusion in English.

A film

Buildings do not come with instructions, and inhabitants all come with their own ideas of “home”. Rarely does anyone outside of the profession of architecture hear all the intentions and reasons that go into a building’s or a neighbourhood’s design. ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK 2016 produced a video interview, which brought together some of the planners of “Trakiya”. What were their intentions? What did they experiment with? What worked in their eyes, what didn’t? The film is conceived and directed by Lina Krivoshieva and Megan Lueneburg. It features the following architects who took part in the design of the neighbourhood of Trakiya: Vesselin Donchev, Violeta Raeva, Vesselina Pandzharova, Antoaneta Topalova, Alexander Petrovich and Stoiko Maronov. The film is in Bulgarian.

An exhibition

The festival’s main exhibition, “Living spaces” set out to tell the story behind the creation and transformation of the neighbourhood of Trakiya through experiential and interactive spaces. Over 30% of the population of Bulgaria lives in neighbourhoods like Trakiya. Constructed en masse, the pre-fab concrete residences gained a reputation as monotonous and lifeless. The neighbourhood of Trakiya, designed in the 1970s, attempted to differentiate. The architects experimented based on their ideas of social living, stepping the blocks, and placing them in organic configurations to create contrast and a sense of individuality.  The inhabitants moved in eagerly, carrying with them their own ideas of living. The small apartment boxes were quickly filled, and the transformations seeped beyond their walls. The balconies pushed out and were glazed in, becoming kitchens, kids rooms and bedrooms, layering them with sun blocking fabrics, foils, lace, solar panels and parasols. The facades started reading like a patchwork, as the people living within expressed themselves. Around the blocks, neighbours planted gardens together and built structures for gathering with any materials they could find. Moving throughout the neighbourhood, they forged their own paths diverting from the planned sidewalks and walking through the meadows. In the course of the 40 years of its existence the residents significantly altered the original spaces of Trakiya. Led by ideas of ownership, individuality and the changing needs of everyday life they created, and continue to create their own living spaces.

“Living spaces” uses the neighbourhood of Trakiya as a case study, presenting the coexisting work of architects and inhabitants as equally valuable. The exhibition unfolds the processes of design and adaptation, overlapping them to reveal a new perspective of how we understand housing. Organised from the individual apartment to the urban plan, the progression through the exhibition is the way in which an inhabitant experiences the neighbourhood everyday. Inside to outside – exactly the opposite of how an architect typically approaches the design of such a neighbourhood – from outside to inside. As a living laboratory, the exhibition provides an interactive opportunity to review how we can learn from the creative processes that continue to shape Trakiya. “Living spaces” was curated by Megan Lueneburg, a US-born architect, who spent more than an year living and analysing Trakiya.

The Congress

Almost 50 years ago architects from all over Bulgaria gathered in Trakiya for an architectural Congress where they learned about this newly built prefab neighbourhood and its innovative approaches, as Trakiya was then the pride of local planners. During the 2016 edition of the festival, a second international edition of the Congress of Trakiya took place.

The Congress functioned as a reflection moment and the discussions focused on how that prefabricated future actually took place. For two intense days we shared lessons from east and west, north and south, about the post-prefab neighbourhoods and their post-prefab buildings, and we zoomed out and talked about post-prefab of public spaces, of community spaces, educational and cultural spaces.

Divided in four panels, the speakers presented lessons learned from their experiences and projects, which became a base for a final discussion at the end of each panel. These discussions proved to be a form of “live” text commenting from different viewpoints some of the crucial issues facing the contemporary urban living.

Community making was discussed as an urgency, which needs new tools, skills and formats to be developed, and also physical spaces to crystallize. The process involves different groups among which collaboration should be tested and adapted locally, because there is no universal recipe for it.

In the process of resourcing the community, buildings are not necessary the goal, but one of the means to achieve it. Without abandoning aesthetics over ethics, shrinking contexts and post-catastrophic situations prove to be engines for advancing and producing new archetypes of buildings which are regaining social relevance for the built environment, linking it to local resource networks and addressing human nature in general.

Not only the tools and the formats need to be reformed, but also the architects. By radicalization of their profession, the architects are building capacities and drawing road maps for participative and co-creation processes. Aiming to transform the city in an open source tool, they have to acknowledge that bottom-up tactics are not enough. Aware of the risks associated with social engineering, the architects need to support up-scaling and connecting the bottom-up with the establishment and the local governance.

As a conclusive paragraph of the two days talk, the structural values of the modernist social project were discussed along city’s un-modernizing reform for the use of the people, in an attempt to focus also on inclusive processes and its spaces, where education and performative commons are playing a key role. Radical privatization, eradication of conflicts and smoothening of the public spaces are some of the risks that public participation and community making are facing along that path.

In addition, a more structural component of the Congress involved some of the speakers that have been participating in thematic meetings with representatives of local administration and NGO’s.

Pictures here and here.

Institutional meetings

The festival arranged six meetings, at which we introduced some of our foreign guests to Bulgarian decision makers. The meetings were by invitation only, took place at the Trakiya Local Council building, lasted for about 2 hours each and were meant to increase the exchange of knowledge and experience between people from Bulgaria and abroad. We had chosen three topics of discussion – City energy, City governance, City commons – each inspired by a pressing issue in the urban planning of Bulgarian cities. Each topic was discussed by two different groups. On the Bulgarian side we had representatives from the Region of Trakiya, the Municipalities of Sofia and Varna, the Ministry of regional development, representatives of different NGOs.

An education program

One of the main festival aims is to serve as a tool to challenge citizens to think critically about the environment, which they inhabit. A crucial part in achieving such an aim is working through the education system, involving schools and universities. For its 2016 edition ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK worked with both. It engaged university students from various disciplines in the research of Trakiya, it involved others in the formation of the festival’s program, and it also integrated students in the process of conceptualising, planning and realisation of the intervention, in which there was much contact with citizens and authorities. The festival worked also with school children. Together with the Architectural workshop for children from Sofia it launched a pilot project called “Urban awareness”. The project took place during the spring semester of 2016 at one of the four public schools in Trakiya. The main aim of “Urban awareness” was to stimulate the young to be sensitive and critical about their environment. In the course of 12 consecutive meetings, one each week, students practiced the theoretical knowledge about their environment in practical tasks. The mentors involved the kids in discussions and exercises, in which they all reflected upon the importance of every citizen playing an active role for the sustainable development of the urban environment. Currently talks are being held both in Sofia and Plovdiv about possibilities for implementing the program at more schools as a long-term one.

An intervention

Every year ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK realises a number of interventions in public space with two main goals: experiment and sustainability. Thе main intervention of 2016 took place at an open-air public green space, located between blocks 1, 2 and 3 in Trakiya. This is an underused space, which the festival wanted to help turn into a common good. It features all the characteristics so typical for a Bulgarian pre-fab neighbourhood: uncared areas of grass and vegetation, abandoned kids playground, lack of parking places, etc. But it also features, again typically for such a Bulgarian urban area, small gardens taken care by certain inhabitants, gazebos, benches and tables placed by the citizens themselves, repairs of the pavement and other public infrastructure realised by the locals. This specifically chosen green area was both specific, as well as generic. Bulgarian cities are full of such areas.

The intervention was a collaboration between different architects. A Polish (H2 from Warsaw), a French (Gonzague Lacombe and Alexander Roemer) and an Austrian (Gabu Heindl) team each worked on three different, yet well-coordinated installations. Prior to their participation a Bulgarian team, IN-Formal, was involved. IN-Formal managed the first stage of the intervention: analysis and design brief. In the course of 10 days they set up a mobile structure, which was used for gathering people and organising events. In this process they observed how inhabitants move and use the space, what are the different interest groups, what do people wish or hate about the space, etc. On the basis of their observations and a number of interviews, they put together a design brief for the three foreign teams. Based on this brief, the foreign teams gave initial ideas, which IN-Formal put for discussion with the locals once again. Afterwards the final designs were drafted. As a last step of the realisation, the local inhabitants were involved once more.

The whole process aimed to serve as an example both to the locals, as well as the authorities, of how people can be fruitfully involved in creating, changing and maintaining the urban environment. ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK strives to encourage a process of urban transformation, characterised by participation, transparency and durability.



Lessons learned

ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK 2016 was a successful attempt in attracting attention to and experimenting with the effects of a phenomenon, which is widely spread in Bulgaria. That of citizen actions in public space. The festival did not aim at discussing the aesthetic aspect of the Modernist neighbourhoods. It also did not look into the technical condition of the buildings from this period. Both of those are undoubtedly questions worth the attention of society. Instead, the festival chose to observe, to study and to present a widely present aspect of the Bulgarian urban reality, which at this moment is rather neglected, but has a large transformative potential. With its 2016 edition ONE ARCHITECTURE WEEK argues that the millions, often chaotic, private actions have the power to be a substantial generator of urban change and need to be taken seriously. By the citizens, by the planners and by the politicians.

If neighbourhood is a verb, then community making requires action. Without concrete steps, without developing success stories, without testing models and adapting them to the local conditions, the participation of the inhabitants in the management and development of their own cities will not surpass the slogan of good intentions, of weekend acupuncture actions, remaining a restrained avant-garde area of active citizenship and professional activism, with no major effects on urban planning. Thus, the 2016 edition of the festival could be a starting point, testing a format where professionals, citizens and administration meet, exchange, produce and engage in the long process of public participation which is based first on trust.

Action-based research, applied education, neighbourhood celebration and sharing knowledge were the main directions of approaching Trakiya. These are starting points, that will prove its effects in time, after the festival is over.