The disappearing charisma of modernism

Why we do not appreciate the artworks in this architectural style from the period between the two world wars

Interview: Tzvetana Chipkova

We are talking to Vasil Makarinov – an art expert, one of the team of the National Museum of Polytechnic and Teodor Karakolev – a journalist studying “Arts Studies and Arts Management” at New Bulgarian University (NBU).  They are the administrators of the Facebook page “Bulgarian Modernist Architecture” and have more than 10 500 followers and this year they left the virtual world and travelled around the country with the travelling exhibition “Bulgarian Modernist Architecture. Examples from 1920s, 1930s, 1940s”. Vasil’s interest in this type of architecture was triggered with his bachelor’s thesis at NBU, then, in 2013, he created a site in the social media and since ‘in the time of Facebook it is extremely easy to meet someone who shares your interests and exhibits the same passion for research’ Teodor soon joined.

MD: What do you find intriguing in Bulgarian modernist architecture?

Vasil Makarinov : The modernist architecture of the period between the wars has been underestimated and neglected unlike the other earlier architectural styles. It, however, has inherent beauty which moves not with decoration and ornaments but with proportions and materials. In order to understand that, however, one must have basic knowledge that we try to spread. It is our mission to make the architecture of the Modernist movement between the two world wars a recognizable value. This implies research work and promotional activities.

MD: Why is this architecture so underestimated in Bulgaria?

Teodor Karakolev : There are a lot of reasons – in fact, this style has been studied by just a few people, most actively by architect doctor Lyubinka Stoilova. And this could be the starting point – because of the few researchers and promoters it remains unpopular and cannot be appreciated by the people. This is what I see as the heart of the problem – everything else is a consequence. We could say that modernism has been underappreciated because people are mostly attracted by details and decoration or because it has a lot to do with architecture from the socialist era which is associated with adverse political burden despite the fact that it can have architectural merits. What we believe is important and try to achieve is – modernism should be popularized in order to be appreciated in our country.

MD: Why did you choose this particular time frame?

V. M.: We have focused on the 20s, 30s and 40s of the 20th century because that was the time when the architecture of the Modernist movement started to gain ground in Bulgaria, the great artists became recognized, the innovative ideas of the European and world schools were adopted. We chose the 40s as the end of the period because in 1948 the private architectural practice was fully banned, the studios were closed down and Bulgarian architecture started to develop in a completely different and unnatural direction.

MD: Which, according to you, are the best examples of modernist architecture from the period you study?

V. M.: It is difficult to choose particular examples because the style has a number of various trend in different places in the country. The ones I really like are the “Bulgaria” complex in Sofia – unique with the technical innovation and the only concert hall in the country, but also the Sea casino in Burgas, “Iskra” library in Kazanluk and the Kaishev’s house in Plovdiv.

T. K. I like free of ornamentation buildings with a lot of light: the “Iskra” building Vasil mentioned in Kazanluk, the Plovdiv “Hristo Botev” woodworking high school or the 22nd High school “G. S. Rakovski” in Sofia, for example. I also like when architects solve problems. The Kaishev house in Plovdiv is a good example – architect Svetoslav Grozev created an incredibly beautiful building which is also characterized with good functionality on this acute-angle terrain with huge displacement.

MD: How useful is the Facebook page?

V. M. Gradually our activity has gained popularity. Owners of modernist buildings or heirs of architects who worked during that era have started to approach us providing valuable information and even inviting us to take photos and show some of the most impressive interiors. That was how we showed the home of architect Mumdjiev, Angel Kantardjiev’s house and others.

MD: How do you gather materials?

V. M.: In the first place we do field research in various places – Haskovo, Burgas, Pernik, Varna, Yambol, Sliven, Radunci etc. We also plan to go to many other places we have not visited until now. It often happens, quite by accident, to visit certain places where we meet the owners who are well-intentioned and sometimes give us valuable archive materials. Another important source are the town and government archives and also the media from that period ( “Architect” and “BIAD” magazines, regional newspapers, magazines). We also use the studies conducted so far by architect doctor Lyubinka Stoilova who has been doing research and making publications for years.

MD: Tell us about the exhibition you organized. What new information did you find in the process of compiling and organizing it?

T. K.: The exhibition integrates our more general goals – promoting this style and our desire to make it popular. In every town where we take it we learn a lot of things about “the audience” itself. I am already an optimist about the future because I have seen how fast and easy people’s attitude to modernism can change. Everywhere the exhibitions are combined with presentations and tours. I can see that it is not difficult for people to feel the style and the specifics, to identify beauty in modernist buildings and to experience pleasure. Friends we have made in the process of organizing the exhibition often say: “I look at buildings in the city much more often now” or “I see more things now than before.” This is the aim – people should feel happy and comfortable with the environment they live in and they should try to improve it.

MD: Your work is similar to the work of detectives. Which forgotten buildings and architects do you consider to be your best findings?

V. M.: I think that what is really important is that we managed to make popular the name of the Sofia-based architect Vasko Vasilev. Until recently his name was associated with just three amazing apartment buildings. We managed to get in contact with his daughter-in-law who told us a lot about his life, showed us other buildings he had created. These buildings are characterized with his typical style – the focus on expressive oval forms, huge windows, symmetrical facades with unobtrusive classical slant but essentially extremely modernistic. We found out about the existence of a number of valuable buildings around the country such as the Market Hall in Kurdjali, the Mineral Bath in Yambol, the Hunting Villa in Oryahovo and others we are planning to study in detail.

MD: You often enter the buildings you collect information about. What did you learn from the meetings with their owners?

T. K.: We could write a book based on our visits and meetings with the people. Their stories are completely different. The thing that I find really important is the fact that in most of the cases the owners are people who remember their past and try to take care of their inheritance. Thus, unintentionally, of good will but due to ignorance they intervene inadequately. In other cases because of financial difficulties or because they are aware that the procedures that have to be followed through the Institute for Cultural Heritage are extremely slow they simply give up taking care. Over the past three years we met some very caring people. The fact is that we often hear about demolition of buildings and ridiculous reconstruction and restoration activities but we never hear about the small everyday care that people take of their buildings. I dream about our society – private individuals, businesses, non-government organisations, municipalities, the state – to start noticing these people, to try and find ways to support them by understanding their needs and showing personal attitude which will make the preservation of our cultural heritage possible.

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