Sofia is a city of historical complexity that could be really exciting when handled adequately and without holding a grudge to previous historical periods. It is greatly located at the foot of a mountain, well equipped with parks and public spaces, and, although not coherently planned, encompasses a wealth of buildings and infrastructure whose narrative stretches all the way from antiquity, through early industrial era architecture, a cute local reading of Modernism, ambiguous socialist-era architecture, tacky late Postmodernism, all the way to the more recent hesitant attempts at contemporary architecture.
This eclectic blend creates a tension that could offer a lot to the exploring mind and eye, but to a civic society in a state of major transition, the relationship between the city as built environment and people is not an easy one. The outdated dichotomous state of cities, where private and public, and nature and architecture are considered polar opposites, is a concept all post-industrial societies struggle to advance beyond. While this challenge is even greater in cities like Sofia which underwent major political, economic, and social shifts within the last two decades, it is safe to say over the last 5 to 10 years there has been a positive development in citizens’ mentality.
So what is it that changes the mind of citizens from an apathetic belief the public city environment is solely shaped by the government and businesses to a growing interest in city locations and an enthusiastic desire to appropriate and change them? ‘Experiential knowledge of the city’ seems like the most likely answer. Over the last decade, culture festivals in Sofia have become instrumental in unveiling the potential of existing spaces, buildings and infrastructure in the city, and in inviting citizens to reclaim and re-inhabit them. Reclaiming long stigmatized or ignored territories, raising awareness of their potential as reservoirs and generators of culture, and reconnecting them with people, often against all odds of a clumsily administrated city, these place-making initiatives are all worth the honorable mention we would like to give them here.
One Architecture Week (former Sofia Architecture Week)
Among the largest in scale and impact on the list, One Architecture Week is an annual international festival for architecture and city-making organized by EDNO platform for contemporary culture, launched in 2008 as a two-day conference on architecture in Sofia, and ever since evolved into an important over-a-week-long public event stimulating a broad professional and public debate on sustainable social and architectural practices. Over the years, the festival has notably been able to open to the public a series of generally hard-to-access buildings and spaces in Sofia, such as the Office House of the National Assembly (Former House of the Bulgarian Communist Party) and the Sofia Public Mineral Baths, the National Palace of Culture in its entirety, and in a clear statement against centralization has gradually moved the better part of its extensive program to the city of Plovdiv, 150km to the south-east of Sofia.
One Design Week (former Sofia Design Week)
Also run by the EDNO platform, One Design Week is an annual international festival for design and visual culture, running since 2009 and highly successful in highlighting sustainable and sensible practices in design from around the world through a vast array of educational and interactive events aimed at design professionals, citizens, and children alike. Its contribution to urban culture is further magnified by the fact each year the festival took place in no less than 50 locations around Sofia, ranging from hard-to-access institutional buildings, through derelict locations with potential, to minute private galleries and art shops, and expressly encouraged visitors to explore all 50 locations through a design prize game.
The longest running on the list, the international performance art festival Sofia Underground is a contemporary art event, founded in the 1990s as a reaction to the social crisis of that time. Apart from a legendary status in Bulgarian contemporary art circles due to its prominent sensitivity to public processes and the dynamics of the local art scene, the event has also become famous for bringing little known venues in the city into the discussion on art, culture, and society, its latest issue notably taking over the underground power control centre of the National Palace of Culture.
A collaborative initiative of international artistic organizations, the festival has been running ever since 2006, uniquely inhabiting an abandoned water tower – a beloved but little known landmark hidden among contemporary residential buildings in the Lozenets district of Sofia.
A more recent addition to the scene of place-making culture festivals, DOMA Art Festival has been on a mission to increase public engagement with culture, and city spaces, one might add, since 2013 each year presenting a different country’s notable contemporary art and culture phenomena throughout artistic media, operating in a number of underground art venues in both Sofia and Plovdiv – small-scale place-makers by their own right. The 2015 edition of the festival focused on Nordic culture and notably appropriated the grounds and abandoned sections of the refrigerator production factory in Sofia.
Sofia Disha (translates as ‘Sofia Breathes’)
Running since 2009, by now for five consecutive weekends in the summer, the initiative has rapidly evolved into a beloved getaway from every-day city life for Sofia citizens, by closing to traffic some of the busiest streets in the city centre to give way to pedestrians to explore the city as they have never seen it on a week-day, enjoy art performances, local food and beverages, and shop handmade design.