30 years have passed since the end of the socialist era, but housing in the Balkans seems frozen in time. The cities can be mapped with the relevant historical periods written in architectural styles. The center, with beautiful and restored Austro-Hungarian or German buildings, for example, mixed with the very few Ottoman houses and more abundant minarets, might be standing on antique ruins, as cities in Southeastern Europe are among the oldest in the world (Plovdiv, Bulgaria, claims the title of the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, with remains that date back to 4 000 BC). The suburbs are easily recognizable with their grey concrete more or less high towers. Ghettoized population might live on the outskirts, in temporary houses that have become permanent (the subject of Roma populations that were moved out of cities and housed in temporary buildings deserves its own blogpost for later). And now, in the last years, modern-looking buildings here and there complete this mosaic of periods in cities.
Plovdiv is a good though somewhat staged example, as it is a popular destination for tourists, especially since it was a 2019 European Capital of Culture, which allowed for a clean-up of the displays. The different historical periods are easily observed through a sightseeing tour that includes a Roman theatre (still used!) and Roman ruins underneath the main street, old typical Bulgarian village houses, a flair of the 1800s in the Ottoman district, and buildings with elegant facades. All the charming elements are regrouped, and the further apartment blocks can only be seen from the top of a hill.
Roman remains, traditional or medieval houses and castles, impressive Renaissance buildings are preserved and protected across Europe (and the world) because of their historical significance of course, but also, let’s face it, because of their beauty. Who would want to tear down a fairytale-like castle that housed an important figure and that attracts tourists? Or an ornamented building where an important treaty was signed? These are examples of architectural treasures that locals are proud of.
But what about grey blocks? They are ugly, bland to the quick eye, and remnants of a period to be forgotten for most. The last years have been about overcoming the wrongs of socialism, and such blocks are a plain and rather imposing remain. They don’t hold the fascination of antique ruins nor the poise of an old church. They were ordinary buildings for ordinary people living ordinary life, and they still hold that same purpose.
They were built quickly and not with the utmost care due to a lack of time and money. And they were not carefully serviced for the same reasons. Today this translates into buildings that are decaying, to the point where some become dangerous. So the need for restoration is blatant, yet lacking, and demolition threatening.
In all of the former Eastern block, urban planning raises the question of what to do with them. In Moscow, there are projects of demolishing blocks from the Krushchev era and replacing them with modern housing, even though it means displacing thousands of people.
In practical terms, apartment blocks should be preserved and restored, like other architectural heritages are, because it would be more expensive and longer to tear them down and build new modern ones, and because people are already living in them. In fact, in echo of the community feeling that socialist blocks fostered (perhaps one of their few positive achievements), some residents are trying to raise themselves the money needed for restoration.
The heritage dimension also brings a reason as to why they should be protected instead of demolished. As mentioned above, usually, architectural heritages are elements of pride. In this specific case, brutalist blocks are also a heritage, by their style, the context into which they were built and the socialist dream associated with them. But they are not a pride, and they are not money makers like an attractive castle would be. The reality is, they are slowly decaying, and only a few brutalist lovers who appreciate the peculiar beauty and respect the importance of the cultural and historical legacy of socialism interlocked in them are advocating for their preservation (upcoming post!).
Socialism may not be something to be celebrated, and I am not here to start a political debate on its merit and today’s nostalgia, but it should be remembered. People that lived through it and are still living in its remnants deserve recognition for their boxed lives. It is not just grey towers, it is construction projects meant to advocate for socialist values, it is a dictated use of space, and how dwellers tinkered with it, it is an architectural style that immediately triggers a reaction. It is a legacy of a political parenthesis and should be protected. Altered, renovated maybe, but preserved in its essence.