The public of Plovdiv, and of Bulgaria, woke up on Monday the 7th March—after their national holiday celebration—with a national cultural monument and a key piece of the city's identity on the ground in pieces. The building was one of the standout structures of “Tobacco Town”—a complex of former tobacco industry warehouses. The demolition by its owners began despite a promise made by Mayor Ivan Totev in September that the entire complex would be renovated as an urban art zone as part of the preparations for Plovdiv European Capital of Culture 2019.
Plovdiv, a city in the south of Bulgaria with its 7 hills, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe. The Thracians, Romans, and Ottomans all employed its strategic location, and today it is Bulgaria’s second largest city. The title of cultural capital is well deserved, and perhaps even well overdue. With its arrival, there was hope that major parts of the city's history lying in disrepair may finally have a standing chance, and then this… another building, gone.
Everybody's heart is heavy. They are in disbelief. The questions are the same as the ones that have been asked many times before: “How did this happen?” “Who did this?”
The city officials hide themselves within the confines of their job descriptions. The mayor tells concerned citizens that his hands are tied, that everything was legal. The Municipal Architect says he does not remember when or by whom the document granting permission for the demolition was signed, bringing into confusion, yet again, what exactly a Municipal Architect even does.
Information emerges about a “technical error” where the wrong building, one of lesser cultural value nearby, was protected, instead of the one that so desperately needed the protection. New information then emerges that says the building has always been a part of a larger protected zone, but yet somehow was still demolished.
No satisfactory answer is provided for either who is responsible or how this happened—and so begins the refrain of “така е” (roughly translated: “so it is”).
Without a clear notion of who is to blame, without a clear explanation of how it happened, with all the times that similar pieces of history have been lost before, and with the building already almost completely destroyed, a shrug and a “така е” is how most people cope. Those who are outraged, those who go to the building and to the municipality and demand it to be rebuilt are met with explanations of “така е.” In the face of their bravery, they are told “It will pass. The media will forget about it.” The media itself follows its special report with the newscaster summarizing for all those watching in suspense: “In this country... така е.” And with that, the familiar sense of helplessness sets in and is solidified and the desire to take action is quietly excused.
Could it be that same reaction that allowed this to happen in the first place?
A shrug and a “така е” as the architects took the commission and designed an angular, 10 story, tinted glass international hotel among a collection of ornate 5-story, turn-of-the-century tobacco buildings and cobblestone roads? A shrug and a “така е” as the permission documents passed through all legal levels of the municipality without much question, deeper investigation, or an alert to the media or public? A shrug and a “така е” as the construction company took the job, started it on a quiet Sunday after the long holiday, failed to post the required signage, and let their workers carry on without helmets or masks?
How is “така е,” said only with disdain and disappointment, an explanation, an excuse, or a reason?
Bulgarians are so beautifully proud. They know their history front-to-back and are eager to share it. Thanks to this, as well as their impeccable hospitality, throughout the years I have received many history lessons over their homemade plum brandy and their shopska salads fresh from their gardens. From the Thracians and their painted tombs filled with treasures, to the oldest skeletons and the adventures of the Bulgarian “Indiana Jones,” to the Roman Empire and some of the best preserved Roman ruins in all the world, to the Bulgarian Tsars, to the Ottoman Empire and their forts, and yes, even to Communism and its concrete architecture. It is all a part of Bulgaria's rich and colorful history that they have shared with me throughout the years.
I wonder, with so much pride how do fancy hotels continue to eat up natural coastlines, and how do multi star ski resorts continue to pummel mountain forests, and how can faceless, generic, and shoddily-constructed buildings continue to replace buildings of great styles and traditions, steeped in cultural significance? In all these new developments, the only shred of Bulgarian culture you can find is an overpriced, factory made shot of plum brandy and a soggy tomato and cucumber salad. Yet when I ask this question to a person that just spent an hour expressing the greatness that is Bulgaria, they look at me, shrug, and say “така е.”
06.03.2016 Тютюнев склад / Tobacco cityPosted by The Plovdiv Project on Sunday, 6 March 2016
Every time it is said, and every time it is heard, this phrase tells people that it’s not worth standing up for what they believe in, for their country and their history, which they know is great. It tells them that the power of the citizen is nothing against the officials that are elected to represent them. And worst of all, it is an invitation for these offenses to happen again and again.
We will be forced to answer the same question of “how did this happen?” until we answer it differently.
For the people that gathered in front of the building to be sure no more destruction could be done, to the citizens that went to the municipality and humiliated the officials into action, for the chamber of architects and their demands for the building to be rebuilt, to the people who continue to write and share articles, comment and make this a conversation, thank you for not thinking or saying “така е.” More importantly, thank you for not listening to the others around you who say it, and comment it. Keep it up, do not let down, you are changing the answer, even if you are doing so by posing another question:
“How do we fix this?”
Now in the aftermath, it is important to understand the intricacies of this question will likely take time. But we are listening and we are watching, we will not let it pass, not let it be forgotten, and not allow this building to not be rebuilt. We are waiting to be called to action in whatever form that may take. “TOGETHER,” the slogan of the European Capital of Culture 2019, has now taken on a new and citizen-driven meaning.
Until then my request is this: before you say it or you type it in all its many forms, please carefully consider the damning effect—to you and all those around you—of the simple phrase “така е.”
This situation is not unique to Bulgaria. All around the world, preservation and cultural heritage groups race to legally protect buildings before the developers move in. Bulgaria is just becoming known as a destination. A country as large as the state of Pennsylvania, it holds 4 diverse mountain ranges and an incredible black sea coast that goes from red cliffs to silky sand beaches. In a glass building that looks as though it could have fallen from the sky, all the interwoven architectural layers telling of the multiple empires and movements that shaped the culture and the people are erased for an International Hotel, presumably to be filled with visitors coming to experience that same unique culture that was demolished in its construction.
As architects, it is important that we understand our responsibility. In creating the spaces that answer the modern needs of society and culture, we are capable of protecting and preserving the monuments of the past, and we should. Adaptive reuse has been practiced since the beginning of building. This is especially pertinent in a city that has been inhabited for the past 6,000 years.
A Facebook group calling for the reconstruction of the Tobacco Warehouse can be found here.
Megan Lueneburg, an American architect, first arrived in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2009. Living in a village for 2 years as an environmental development volunteer, she filled up on homemade wine, rakiya, and sirene, and traveled the country taking in all treasures and the incredible hospitality of the people. In 2014 she returned on a Fulbright Research Scholarship looking into the way Bulgarians filled their panelkas with their traditions and their spirit. Ever since her first project undertaking in the country, she has been waging a war on the phrase “taka e.”
A version of this article was previously published in Bulgarian on banitza.net.