In 1987, I had my first glimpse of the ubiquitous concrete, pre-fab, no architecture required, block apartment complexes that the Communists propagated throughout the USSR and Eastern Europe in a mad drive to house as many people as possible. Driving from the airport in the small yellow Moskvich car that my husband’s family had waited ten years to purchase, I saw a mural nearly covering a side of one of the blocks far from the city center. Inexplicably in English—who could have possibly been the audience?—it read, “From Crude Oil, We Derive Confidence.”
As a visitor, I needed to register my whereabouts with the police. We went to an office near the National Assembly building, in a part of the city paved with yellow bricks. There was a very long line. It moved very slowly. Eventually, my future brother-in-law took me to buy postcards while his mother held our place. I was able to fill several postcards, address them, go to the central post office, buy stamps, and mail them. On our return, his mother had barely advanced in line. Finally, it was my turn and I immediately saw the problem. A lone woman sat at a manual typewriter laboriously hunting and pecking to complete the carbon forms. Clickety clack clickety clack clickety clack as the carriage moved across and then “ding” as she shifted the lever to begin again. I was fairly confident that Big Brother could not have been watching me altogether efficiently.
The enormous pre-fabricated panel concrete block apartment complex where I had to report I was staying is called Druzhba (fellowship). The family apartment is still there and our base whenever we visit. All 199 “blocks” were quickly filled by people like Rumen’s parents fleeing the hard agricultural life of the villages for the capital city, so the government built the equally appealing Druzhba 2. In other parts of the city, there are similar complexes filled with rows and rows of concrete block apartment buildings, each with numerous entrances, each entrance with numerous apartments. Like Druzhba, they often have evocative names like Nadezhda (hope) and Mladost (youth) that belie their drab appearance. Nadezhda and Mladost each sprouted into five like named complexes. All of these complexes have been absorbed into Sofia proper for government purposes, but they function like an American city’s outlying suburbs, with a greater population than the city center and their own bustling markets, small stores, office buildings and small businesses. The blocks have stayed the same as when I first saw them in 1987, but now there is a good deal of development in and around them to serve the multiple generations of residents living in them. Instead of “From Crude Oil, We Derive Confidence” in English, now there is a nearby restaurant with a sign in Bulgarian reading “Pizza Sushi.”
Still, the drab gray blocks themselves are set up in rows, all right angles with none of the curves or organic feel of Sofia’s city center or of the villages— both of which show development that feels more human and more humane. The grid is hyper-organized and all the blocks are built with precisely the same materials and structure. Big Brother’s centralized planning did not extend to the spaces between the blocks; they are entirely undeveloped blocks of “no man’s land.” Druzhba, Nadezhda, Mladost, and countless others are quite literally the Soviet and Eastern European version of U.S. low-income, government-built “projects.” My husband used to say, “Now that they’ve made so many buildings in Sofia, it’s time to introduce architecture.” It’s too late to introduce architecture to complexes built over half a century ago and millions of people live there without the means to buy better elsewhere. And finances aside, it’s not easy to leave friends and extended family after so many decades.
Aesthetics or no, the blocks are home. My husband remembers their excitement at moving to Druzhba after years of living in one room and sharing a common kitchen, toilet and running water with their neighbors. Coming out onto the small balcony of their fifth floor apartment, he was fascinated seeing for the first time from so high a vantage point people on the street below. My in-laws were appreciative not only of the apartment itself, but of the view of Vitosha Mountain. Sofia is in a valley on Vitosha’s northeast foot and even the tallest, ugliest pre-fabricated concrete panel block cannot blot out the mountain’s beauty. In lighter winters, cottony white clouds lie below Vitosha’s snowline, which never fully melts even in summer. The manmade lake is reasonably maintained, with a walkway all around, a bridge, grassy areas, and now restaurants, a new playground, and a fitness center.
Once the 1989 changes happened, the government stopped asking for the nominal rent it had required and instead offered the possibility of ownership through a reasonable mortgage quickly paid off. From that point, the renovations within began as money and materials became available. A few years ago, my brother-in-law renovated the entire apartment down to the floorboards and it now has quite the Scandinavian aesthetic. You can renovate your apartment any way you wish without interference, but the public spaces—the elevator, the stairwells, the exterior walls—these require the cooperation of everyone who lives in your particular entrance.
When we returned to Bulgaria in 1993, it was summer. We frequently went out on the back balcony to water the many plants my mother-in-law tended there, especially the ever-blooming red mushkati (geraniums) that were her pride and which can be seen on block balconies throughout Bulgaria. One day we noticed that the adjacent old three-story, two-entrance block long predating Druzhba was being re-plastered and painted. As the weeks went on, it became clear that only one-half was receiving this treatment. Only the people living in one entrance had agreed to pay for the renovation. By the end of our stay, one-half remained with falling plaster and the other appeared brand new.
In June 1995, we moved to Sofia for a two-year stint. Hanging laundry on the back balcony one day, we saw that the other half of the old three-story block was being re-plastered and painted. Clearly the residents of this entrance now felt they had to maintain appearances with the other. But not all the residents in the entrance felt this way. There was a lone holdout and we knew this because the entire face of the entrance was re-plastered and painted except for a one-sixth square on the first floor. Two decades later, that one-sixth was still untouched. Perhaps the holdout was right since by January 2015 the rest of the building’s façade looked less than fresh, and the line between re-plastered and never touched was barely perceptible. The A4 size nekrolozi (death notices) may proliferate in the block entrances, the uninviting play equipment long consigned to decrepitude, but the blocks themselves solidly—perhaps eternally—continue. With so many people still dependent on them for housing, the only choice seems to be maintaining and improving them. Habitat for Humanity has a program to assist—take a look.