681 A Memorial that brings everyone together and reveals who we are.
‘Memorial to the fallen soldiers of I Iron Division Sofia’
Soon after the Bulgarian independence of 1878 a decision was made to construct army barracks for the newly formed Bulgarian army. The barracks for the infantry were built on the southern outskirts of the capital Sofia. The buildings were occupied by the I Infantry Division of Sofia and VI Infantry Division of Veliko Tyrnovo. Both of these divisions fought in the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885. In the beginning of the twentieth century, they formed part of the I Iron Division of Sofia during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and in the First World War, 1915-18, respectively.
In memory to the soldiers fallen in war, a Memorial was built in 1934-1936. The Memorial was designed by Alexander Obretenov (1903-1990) and constructed on the three end-walls of the northern most barracks in a symmetrical composition.
Location of army barracks of 1st and 6th Infantry Division, 1917
Memorial plates made of enamelled metal were fixed onto the three stone walls. The composition was completed by a bronze lion holding a shield with a map of Bulgaria based on the San-Stefano Peace Treaty of 1878. The Memorial and its surroundings were used for both ceremonial and recreational purposes.
During the Blitz of 1944, the southern (central) building and memorial wall were destroyed. After the war, the Memorial was left in complete disrepair. The second and third barracks were demolished in the mid-to-late 1960s. In the late 1960s in place of the first missing building the ‘Lada’ fashion house and associated parking were built (left).
During the 1970s the surrounding park was asphalted over. Now just a free-standing west wall remained. The Memorial, however, still gave its surroundings a sense of place and to the local people – a sense of belonging to a particular community.
Perhaps the last photograph of the west wall. The Memorial was about to be demolished to make way for a new grand project – The National Palace of Culture and surrounding parkland. The metal plates were removed and some were stored in the National War Museum.
Construction began on the 25 May 1978. The Palace’s completion was to coincide with the 1300 anniversary of the Bulgarian state. The design team was led by architects Alexander Barov and Atanas Agura, civil engineer Valentina Atanasova and sculptor Valentin Starchev.
‘1300 years Bulgaria’
Since the mid-1970s the idea to build a new cultural centre in Sofia was building momentum. Initially, the area of the old army barracks was designated for a new opera house. An international competition was held but the jury did not announce a winner. The idea fell through and soon after it was decided that a new multi-purpose venue was to be built instead. This was to become the National Palace of Culture. The completion of this project was to also coincide with the 1300 anniversary to the foundation of the Bulgarian state. A new monument named ‘1300 Years Bulgaria’ was intended to further mark the occasion.
At the end of 1979 a competition was announced and soon after a shortlist of three sculptors was formed. First prize was given to the sculptor Valentin Starchev. The theme of the competition was ‘Past, Present and Future’.
Aerial photograph of Sofia with overlayed location of demolished army barracks, 2017
With the 1300 anniversary looming, the monument had to be built quickly. It was never fully finished and in places suffered from poor craftsmanship. The monument and the National Palace of Culture were opened at the end of March 1981 by the then Head of State Todor Zhivkov.
The composition of ‘1300 Years Bulgaria’ consists of three bodies forming a spiral that culminates in a bronze wing. The wing meant to symbolize the flight of the nation towards the future. Each body represented a theme – Tsar Simeon and the scholars, Pietà for the fallen over those 1300 years and the builder who has endured and built the country over the centuries.
The monument was controversial from the start – praised by some and despised by others. It stirred emotions in everyone – be it hatred by those who associated it with the Communist regime that commissioned it or admiration by the cultural and artistic establishment both at home and abroad
After the fall of Communism in 1989, the monument was left in complete disrepair. Water ingress behind the poorly fixed granite panels and their subsequent collapse lead to the fencing off of the structure.
Over the next 20 years the condition of the monument deterriorated further and further. Calls for its demolition to make way for a reconstruction of the old Memorial gained support. A number of ideas for its refurbishment were rejected.
The monument cannot stay in its current condition.
The Monument during the winter of 2017. After a judicial decision for its demolition and removal of the figures to a museum, the end of ‘1300 Years Bulgaria’ is before us. Demolition is scheduled for spring 2017.
A project of this scale and prominence invites multiple approaches. To demolish the existing monument, or to fully repair it to its original form, does little to support a historical narrative of the site. To reconstruct the original memorial, on this site or any other, offers no real programme for increasing public engagement or developing a civic utility. The proposed scheme is one that recognises the historical narrative of the site and original memorial, preserves it, and makes a substantial new contribution to the life of the city.
Major influence to the development of this project was the work of David Chipperfield Architects on the Neues Museum in Berlin:
“The restoration and repair of the existing elements of the building were driven by the idea that the spatial context and materiality of the original structure should be emphasised – the contemporary reflects the lost but without imitating it.”
This became the guiding principle behind the reimagining of the existing monument. What is therefore proposed is the introduction of a new material. A bronze mesh that completes the damaged figures and offers an interpretation of the original third volume. This contemporary element will be clearly distinguishable. It will therefore allow visitors to read the layers of history that make up the monument – from its original volume and mass through the bare concrete structure and bolt-holes to the completed figures and wing. A true physical manifestation of its original theme – Past, Present and Future.
The monument’s grounds will be enhanced and for the first time made accessible to all. A new excavation at the lower level will complete the square of the existing triangulated plan and provide almost three times the usable area. Access to this new area will be through a large opening in the existing retaining wall. The new space will accommodate a 250m2 museum that tells the story of both monument and memorial. In addition, a new 200m2 sunken sculpture court will be located on the opposite end of the plan.
On top of this excavated ground, a new body will be placed. The proposed Memorial park to the fallen soldiers of the I Iron Division. This new room for the city will be accessible to all and will offer a different type of space for commemoration; a garden of remembrance – a quiet place for contemplation, rest and recreation. The original bronze lion will be reinstated in this new contemporary setting. As part of this project, every place and fallen soldier’s name have been meticulously placed and ordered on the proposed 39 stone panels that line the garden.
An additional layer of activity is added by the introduction of archive/office, reception, bookshop and ancillary facilities that are fully accessible.
Finally, it is proposed that the complex is renamed Memorial park ‘681’- a name that takes us back to the beginning without offering an end – just like the wing that symbolised the flight of the nation towards the future. This project is a starting point. Its aim is to open up a conversation and help us re-evaluate what we already have.
‘I love beginnings. I marvel at beginnings. I think it is beginning that confirms continuation.’ – Louis I Kahn
To me this is a beginning – a new way of looking at what we have. It is not a destructive way, but constructive; inclusive rather than exclusive, cohesive rather than divisive.
With the residency of the EU Parliament at the National Palace of Culture in 2018 it is vital to pause for a moment and consider what message we are sending to the world. Are we going to be a nation that pretends the past does not exist or one that examines and learns from it? Is the best we can do to destroy or to build? Are we going to let a monument of exceptional sculptural and architectural quality disappear? Are we a civilised society or just pretend to be?
Having considered the story of the Memorial to the I Iron Division and that of the monument ‘1300 Years Bulgaria’, one cannot help but draw a comparison. History repeating itself. However, it is not down to History what happens with the present. It is down to us. And so we are faced with a dilemma. To demolish ‘1300 Years Bulgaria’ and re-construct a memory out of place and context, or build on their shared story a new Memorial. A Memorial that brings everyone together and reveals who we are.