"Public space is becoming sexy."
Things in Sofia are beginning to change. Slowly, but surely, public spaces are becoming more vibrant. Once claimed only by the regime, citizens are now starting to claim public space as part of their lives and a place to express themselves. However, it is not an easy process, city makers and architects Antonina Ilieva and Hristo Stankushev from DontDIY Studio have experienced. They explain what it’s like to get something off the ground in Sofia, and what their challenges and motivations are in their job as architects and makers of change. We also talk about the transition they see in Sofia, from a passive dwelling in, to an active claiming of the public space.
“People are slowly becoming more active.”
So what do you do exactly?
“We combine the architectural and design activities that correspond directly to our educational and professional background with many other things – outside-the-box educational projects, like Architecture Meets which explores the perspective of different professionals on contemporary issues in city environment; interdisciplinary collaborations on projects in the public sphere, like the recent heating plant to contemporary art centre redevelopment project; and city-making activities relating to the development of holistic strategies on city-development, related to the work of the NGO we are a part of. In terms of our professional work, one could say everything we do has some kind of architectural feeling about it, so when we design a chair – which is what we have been trying our hand at for a while – furniture design, and setting up a furniture brand from scratch, you will see that it has been designed by an architect. The architectural logic is always there. We are not really product designers, so we are not taking ourselves too seriously either. That is why our furniture brand is called Almost – a table is ‘kind of a table’, a chair is ‘kind of a chair’ – we do it with a sense of irony. Our architecture and interior design studio which provides our main financial income, is located in betahaus | sofia, a co-working space where many start-ups also reside. Working in such a multidisciplinary environment thriving with good ideas and professional ethics has inspired us to make multidisciplinary collaboration the root of many of our projects, but especially all the projects we do in public space. Going about a project in the public sphere in this multidisciplinary manner is a new way of collaboration between professionals and the municipality.”
“The public space has not been that open for a long time.”
What is an example of a project on multidisciplinary collaboration?
We really try to stimulate young architects to collaborate across professions and fields. Project Mirame offers multidisciplinary education to architectural students, who are the next generation. They need a clear view where they stand in the big picture of the city; they are not just architects, they will collaborate with different people after they graduate, so it’s important to us. But we are also part of Fragment.”
“Fragment is an NGO named after the fragmentation that we see in Sofia that also works on projects with the municipality. Everyone is part of a different community and has something to offer, and we are trying to be active in that development. We work with 8 people from different disciplines and approach public space from different angles. This new model is necessary when it comes to area development. For example, in the redevelopment process of an old marketplace, we reached a dead end pretty quickly because the company didn’t really want a proper redevelopment of the market, they just wanted the put the document on the shelf and never read it again.”
What kind of model are you using and why is it necessary?
“We developed a theoretical model to do projects in the public space in Sofia, and to evaluate the projects initiated by the municipality. Most projects are done by some people somewhere, and mostly you don’t even know the owner of the project. You can’t really ask them: why did you do it? The municipality doesn’t consult the people on the projects they do in advance, but starts putting up fences around the new site, until everyone asks what’s going on. The lack of communication between the municipality the people has been a problem we try to tackle. The municipality should ask for people’s opinion.”
“It’s a very slow transition and we are probably not going to see a clear moment that the one will turn into the other.”
So the people have more of a say in project plans?
“Well, people are slowly becoming more active. It’s still not looking good, but there have been changes over the last decade. Even though people tend to be more on the reactionist scale, they are slowly going towards actually planning in advance instead of reacting to what’s happening.”
What inspires you?
“Everyday situations, just walking around the city and seeing things that look more honest or well suited to people’s lives. Also, there is a great amount of work to be done in the public, aesthetic, and educational field. You just wake up in the morning and start doing the job day-by-day and bit-by-bit. It’s a great challenge, for sure.”
“In a way Bulgaria is the land of infinite possibilities.”
Can the challenge be inspiring too?
“There’s really a lot of work to be done. Here we never had a revolution from communism to democracy. It’s a very slow transition and we are probably not going to see a clear moment that the one will turn into the other. Things are slow. It’s good because we didn’t have many people killed, but it’s painful to see this change unfolding so slowly. But then again, the general thing that Bulgarians have about slow change inspires us to move faster.”
Are there any obstacles you have to deal with?
“In Bulgaria, things are not really professionally structured. If you want to change something by the power of sheer will, you could. You could find people to partner with and you would be able to make it happen, so in a way Bulgaria is the land of infinite possibilities. But there is also certain feeling that you cannot change things at the larger scale, so it has two sides. Also, most people of our generation have a different mind-set. People here are very conservative in many aspects, which doesn’t combine well with change. People don’t like to change and it’s a very common thing here to see supermarkets or candy shops that are not well run but are still used because they were popular 20 years ago. In a normal economy it would stop existing in the first year of not doing well, but here certain models are repeated over again. Nobody thinks: why am I buying my shoes at the same shop I bought them 20 years ago?”
Do you have an example of that?
“A few years back, when Starbucks came to Sofia, research showed that people tended to keep to the old cafes and the old shops, bakeries. Only 10% of the people only actually knew that Starbucks had opened. 5% went in only to see what it was. So 95% of the people were not even interested that a global company had come to Bulgaria because they have their traditional things – they don’t care about it.”
What has been the main transition you brought about?
“We have been able to open up the city to the people, and make the public space more inviting. The community is starting to see that the public space is theirs; they’re starting to become interested in it. Many people are now organizing discussions about the public space, and individuals are also starting organizations and discussions. Their participation is becoming more organized and active. The reason why public space in Sofia was not recognized by people as their own up until quite recently? The feeling that the communist regime left lingering in people’s minds long after the actual change of regimes is that the public space solely belongs to the government – to make use of, and also to take care of. Back in time the public space in Bulgarian cities mostly equaled large open spaces mainly used for celebration of political power. Whatever you said about the government could be overheard in the public space, so the only place people could truly relate to was the private space – home, but after 25 years, thanks to the persistent exposure to the beauty and potential of public spaces initiated by active city-makers, people are starting to recognize the public space as their own. Public space is becoming sexy again.”
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