Stara Zagora, Bulgaria

Away from the city center full of historical buildings, maybe castles, fortresses, old churches certainly, cafés, shops, stand the monolithic, massive, blocks of concrete. From afar they look sinister, quietly waiting, daring for people to come closer. Up close they are dizzying, their symmetrical patterns of windows and balconies a play on the eyes; the occasional AC breaks it, and the clothes left hanging to dry are a splash of colors against the grey. Beautiful, ugly, whatever; one can’t help but wondering, how is it like to live in there, up there? To call this place home? To literally reside in a box? To look at these apartment blocks and see, beyond the style, the legacy, the decay, a loved one waiting, a meal to be cooked, a comfortable bed, endless plumbing issues?

Behind the grey prefabricated facade (yes, that was the way of constructing buildings as fast as possible… but still not enough to meet the needs) that outsiders see, are years of good, discouraging, strong memories of dwellers that had to adapt. Personal insights from former and current residents give precious information on how they coped with their life in these designated and planned spaces. The mazes shaped by the blocks, the paths linking them, the abandoned fields quickly turned to urbanized places, are strong spatial aspects of this life.

The fast pace of construction and the need to house people rapidly led to some technical problems such as the fact that, in some cases, electricity was installed only a few years after dwellers moved in, or that the quality of the construction was not the best. People brought their rural habits to the cities with them, by creating gardens in between blocks and re-creating communal spaces to gather and gossip. Against the carefully designed interior by the state, that was meant to optimize and promote the prescribed urban life, people reorganized the space, used balconies as food storage, living rooms as bedrooms, kitchens as the heart of the home.

Stara Zagora, Bulgaria

The situation was similar in others Eastern bloc countries. See here for an example of the variety in Moscow’s suburbs standardized apartments.

People personalized their living quarters in a way that did not just filled the apartments with furniture, but gave the blocks a soul, a role that was different from the equalizing (no social classes… in appearance!) and urbanizing housing plans of the state. See here how each identical apartment of a block is personalized (pictures of post-socialist occupancy), despite the egalitarian goal of the socialist regime.

I consider myself lucky to have had mailing addresses in such brutalist blocks. My experience, certainly biased by my fascination of them, felt like time-traveling to the 1980s, or at least an image of this period in my North American mind. But for other local residents of today, and some that reside in their flat since before the political transition, this is their everyday, normal life, and I was happy to try to fit in the mold and have a part of this boxed life.

Brașov, Romania

My apartment in Romania was not very welcoming, with its rusted gate blocking the front door. Some windowpanes in the stairwell were missing, which was fitting for the Romanian heatless winter’s narratives. Electric wires dangled from suspicious places. Each month, I had to go to another block’s attic in the neighborhood, to pay a maintenance/cleaning fee to an old lady who was managing the sector… and I had never seen anyone come and clean the common area. When I entered in the shower, it was a surprise if the water was hot. I could fill a book with stories about my oven, who had a will of its own. Of course, this is probably not the norm for all apartments today, as some of them were renovated and kept up to date (see here to learn more about the deceiving brutalist look of Tashkent’s refurbished blocks), but I wanted the full authentic experience. And I loved my block for it, the space full of memories of many others before me, the view of the city from above, the cozy nights I spent cuddling with the radiator. Because, in my opinion, socialist apartment blocks are not just pieces of molded concrete, they are the guardians of a fading way of life, the protectors of stories from a previous era, and the unfortunate carriers of an old ideology’s legacy. Their inhabitants gave them a purpose. And that is why the question of destroying, replacing or preserving them must be handled carefully. It has emotional and historical implications on top of the economic and urban planning side.

Stara Zagora, Bulgaria

5 commentaires »

  1. Not welcoming indeed, I thought it was the entrance of the prison in Brasov.
    I have 2 or 3 good brutalist style adresses in our very hometown where you could go to build good memories, even in this pandemic ‘no travels’ time.
    Maybe Vincent would be game too, who knows ?

    Someone else, mettons…Geoffroy ! 😬


  2. I like how you mention that despite these buildings’ appearance as “soulless” blocks, they were reconfigured into more welcoming abodes by residents. It is truly a testament not only to people’s creativity, but to their ability to utilize space in unconventional ways to suit their everyday needs. Your post made me think that while communist systems are radically egalitarian, they will never be able to stamp out the uniqueness and individuality of those who live under it. On a personal note, there are some brutalist buildings that I like – I especially think they look good when they are juxtaposed next to some greenery or dense foliage.

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  3. Morgane – your take on brutalist architecture is utterly fascinating, and I find your love for the style to be so compelling! I must say I’ve never had much interest or admiration for buildings in this style, and I was curious about your fascination with brutalism, but reading how eloquently you describe these spaces has convinced me otherwise. And beyond whether or not one likes or dislikes the style, I think they do occupy an important space (literally) in the historical record. In particular, I found your point about how despite the best efforts of these governments to construct and dictate the lives of their citizens with such rigidity, specificity, and homogeneity, the personal styles of the occupants inevitably transform the spaces behind these monotonous exteriors. Perhaps there is insight there about the failures of these regimes as a whole – the ultimate unwillingness of a nation and its people to completely surrender identity, individuality, and traditional ways of life, despite appearances from the outside.

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