High in the Balkan mountains, Buzludzha monument is deteriorating. Designed to emphasize the power and modernity of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Buzludzha is now at the center of a debate over how Bulgaria remembers its past.
Architect Brian Muthaliff wants the building to evolve along with Bulgaria. His master’s thesis on Buzludzha describes a re-adaption of the site to subvert the original intention of the architecture, including installing a winery and a theater.
Unlike architect Dora Ivanova’s Buzludzha Project, which we discussed at length in episode 47, Muthaliff’s plan only calls for a single, museum-like space. In this episode, we use Muthaliff’s thesis as a guide as we go in-depth on what a museum means and discuss the best path forward for this building and for Bulgaria.
Image: Rendering from R.E.D | Reconstruction in an Era of Dilapidation: A Proposal for the Revitalization of the Former House of the Communist Party by Brian Muthaliff
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00:15: Buzludzha Monument
00:45: Brief History
01:45: Brian Muthaliff
02:30: The Buzludzha Project
03:18: "Buildings Turned Into Artifacts"
03:50: Reconstruction in an Era of Dilapidation
05:16: Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia
05:33: Participatory Architecture
05:50: Buzludzha as Winery
06:45: Buzludzha as Democratic Platform
08:11: Bulgarian Horo
08:50: Museum or no museum?
11:32: Muthaliff's Thesis Defense
12:14: The Future
13:10: Read Muthaliff's Thesis
Ever since I visited earlier this year, I can't stop thinking about Buzludzha.
Buzludzha, an enormous disk of concrete perched on a mountaintop in the middle of Bulgaria, celebrates the grandeur of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
Rising out of the back of the disk is a tower, 70 meters high, and flanked by two red stars. The building was designed to look like a giant wreath and flag. During its construction, the top of the peak was blown away with dynamite to make way for the building. Today, it's hard not to see a giant UFO. Bulgarian architect Dora Ivanova says that the building's daring design was, of course, intentional.
Dora Ivanova: It was built to impress. It was built as part of the political propaganda and education as they called it during this time. Its shape looks like a UFO, actually. This is also on purpose because it had to show how the socialist idea is contemporary, it’s the future.
The building is deteriorating, making its futuristic design all the more striking. Buzludzha was completed in 1981, but just 10 years later, the Communist party collapsed. As the regime changed and Bulgaria headed towards a democratic form of government, Buzludzha just sat there. Parts of the structure became exposed to the elements. On the top of the mountain, the building was whipped by strong winds and frozen by temperatures as low as -25 °C. Today, the building has been a ruin way longer than it was a functional building.
Brian Muthaliff: The interiors were everything that I had imagined while approaching it from the exterior, in this kind of derelict state. When on the interior, it was completely dark when we got there. Our flashlights couldn't even get very far, and we were kind of all holding hands, you know, taking the next step carefully. You could see chunks of concrete falling off in certain places.
This is Brian Muthaliff, a Canadian architect who first visited Buzludzha with his Bulgarian fiancée.
Brian Muthaliff: All right. Hi. My name is Brian Muthaliff. I am an architect in Ontario, Canada, who has his master's thesis focused on the Buzludzha monument in Bulgaria, and the re-adaption of it.
Buzludzha is deteriorating. The question is: what should we do about it?
Bulgarian architect Dora Ivanova has a plan to turn it into a museum. We highlighted her work, called The Buzludzha Project, in episode 47 of this program.
The Buzludzha Project aims to repair and preserve the building and interpret what it means. Bulgaria lacks an interpretive museum about the decades of communist rule under the thumb of the Soviet Union. What better place to put that museum but inside Buzludzha?
Ivanova is under no illusions that a painstaking restoration of the building to its original form could give the impression of celebrating the the building’s original ideologies. She thinks that adapting or repurposing the monument would be forgetting or disguising its original intention.
But Brian Muthaliff respectfully disagrees. He wants the building to evolve along with Bulgaria.
Brian Muthaliff: There are two types of museums, I think, that occur in the contemporary world. One, the museum that's built anew to house artifacts. And the second is when buildings get turned into museums as artifacts. Both of them are appropriate in certain circumstances. This is not the case. I think this building speaks to a much broader question than just mere artifact.
Muthaliff also could not stop thinking about Buzludzha after he visited for the first time. He focused his master’s thesis on changing the meaning of the building and what it could be used for in the future -- a process he calls “reprogramming.”
Brian Muthaliff: The moment we left that building there was this kind of lingering thought about this particular monument. It felt like there was a real potential for the building, and faced with the project of figuring out a thesis, this building stayed in mind. And it wouldn't leave me. So, I decided to make it the focus of the thesis. I think the scope's expanded beyond the building at that point, it became a conversation about the culture in Bulgaria, and this building as a reflection of that culture, and how I could tie the two things together. The thesis became about reprogramming the building as a means of reconciling with their past. And beyond that it became about what type of program, then, is appropriate for this project? What type of program could maybe speak to the Bulgarian history, which is centuries long, I think it's almost 5000 years, and communism makes up a very small fraction of that piece. So when we're talking about the nation's identity, what is that identity? And how can a program, and a building, reconciled, represent that, the nation?
This is the good stuff. This is what Museum Archipelago is all about. Should this building become a museum, or something else all together? Bulgaria has plenty of communist era monuments -- listen to episode 25 about the Museum of Socialist Art for a fascinating discussion of a museum where statues of Lenin decorate a slightly overgrown field -- but Buzledga is the only monument that you can occupy. For Muthaliff, this is an invitation for people to participate with the architecture.
Brian Muthaliff: I wanted it to be something that people can still participate in, without having to kind of mentally prepare before visiting the building that actually they are going there to learn, in the very traditional way of learning, which is just kind of, you know, reading or being distanced from the object.
And the means of participation? A winery, of course.
Brian Muthaliff: So the building, in my view in the thesis, ends up being this winery that's open to the public. It cultivates the land. The metaphor there is that it's a productive tool, and production is a kind of means of creating the future. So it's not something that kind of stops, it's not something that you're distanced from, it's not something that you read or that you look at. It's something that you participate in. And through participation, through action, you kind of reconcile your histories. Programmatically, the winery needed to be the thing that draws, that makes the building productive, and then it holds up this kind of shield for the people to sort of celebrate it.
Part of what the redesign accomplishes is subverting the original intention of the building. The building is designed with one entrance underneath to the main dome, which focuses the visitor experience into the grandeur of the building and, by extension, the Bulgarian communist party.
Muthaliff calls for terraforming the peak so it reaches back to its original height before it was levelved off, leaving some of the building underground. What is now a series of enormous windows high around the dome, providing views of the entire county, become entrances, inviting people in from all corners of Bulgaria.
Brian Muthaliff: It meant to remove the type of procession that was intended from the beginning, which is you kind of ascend in to this halo-ed space. And use the kind of elongated windows that band the circumference of the building as entrance points, as this kind of democratic platform that would invite everybody from around the entire country. And that's, by virtue of the way they placed it in the country, dead center … And then these windows in a circle so kind of have a view to every point of the country, and I thought, they are all portals in to the building. And so if we terraform the mountain top to be what it was, to meet that level, so that people could approach it and enter that space publicly, that again was a kind of subversive move to the architecture political agenda of the building, which is this one kind of procession through this space. Now it would be multiple kind of entries, multiple ways of experiencing the wreath. And then finally hitting or ending up in this kind of celebratory space. Which is at the top of the mountain.
I can’t help but be delighted at subverting the original intention of the building. Muthaliff notes that his proposal reminds him of a traditional Bulgarian dance called the horo: it’s a circular dance that starts off with just a few people. As the dance goes on, the dancers develop a kind of gravity, pulling in people from every which way, and then all of a sudden it's this massive circle, and then it's a spiral, and then it's a kind of a crowd of people all circulring. It’s something a Bulgarian grandmother would approve of.
And speaking of Bulgarian grandmothers, Muthaliff’s thesis does leave room for a single museum-like space. In this case, he describes it as another subversive tool.
Brian Muthaliff: Post the fall, post-1989, there was an initiative to collect letters, and memoirs, and autobiographies, and photographs, of people throughout Bulgaria during the communist period. How great is it as a kind of subversive tool to describe this particular history during this time, through the eyes of the people in this building that was designed kind of from top down? And in the ring that they used as a gallery space to block out the sun, to kind of create the halo of the sickle and hammer, like it all just kind of makes sense as an architectural move that would both pull in the sense of life during communism, so it's in a way directly speaking about communism in this communist building, but about things that I think are far more profound than the kind of political agenda of the communist period. In some of the stories it would talk about grandmothers, I guess, that are grandmothers now but they weren't at the time, where they got their food, and I thought these histories were far more compelling than perhaps talking about how the building was built. So these are the kind of things and threads that I wanted to pull on, rather than a kind of topical history of communism. And so I think it made for such a great program as the only type of traditional museum piece in the building. I think in my mind, and again the program of the winery, perhaps there's more appropriate programs that could affect the building, but in my mind, it has always been a gathering space.
I’m mesmerised by Muthaliff’s thesis. As Buzludzha continues to deteriorate, both Dora Ivanova and Brian Muthaliff agree that now is the time to act.
Brian Muthaliff: Dora's approach to moving the project forward is absolutely what the country needs. A lot of people are saying, you know, this is the moment now. This is the time we need to take action and we need to do something, 'cause if the country's not moving, then either people are moving out of it or something, or nothing's happening and things are dying. Everything's always dying, right, and we have to kind of maintain our lives to kind of keep the energy going. And so the energy that Dora's putting in to it is absolutely fabulous, and it's exactly what we need for the building.
As a Bulgarian citizen who is too young to remember the period of communism, I am constantly frustrated by the generall cultural unwillingness to talk about that period. The physical remains of that era and ideology are scattered around the country, but most people I talk to in Bulgaria seem content to quickly move on.
Brian Muthaliff: On an kind of end note, when I presented the thesis to the university, a note that my thesis advisor brought up was that, because I did have an architect on my panel that was critiquing the thesis, that was Romanian. And he was absolutely appalled that anybody would even touch the project. He was more in line with building a glass box beside the building and sipping wine while watching it decay. He carried all these emotions with him, and something that was brought up, there was a young Bulgarian there and then there was this old Romanian architect, and the young architect mentioned that there's been this massive gap, and people, or the country really needs change, and the only people who are gonna do or affect change are us, are the ones responsible now.
I think it all comes down to what we make of museums. Museums shouldn’t be the places where we sip wine and watch objects in glass decay. An interpretive museum could be just as subversive to the original architecture even as it restores it. And there’s no reason why museums can’t be gathering spaces just as engaging as wineries or dance halls.
So if I had a say in the decision, I think I would prefer to build an interpretive museum in the space along the lines of what Dora Ivanova’s Buzludzha Project proposes. But we should take Muthaliff’s thesis, and critique of architecture frozen in time, to heart.
The debate about what to do with Buzludzha continues, and I’m happy to say progress is being made. Just recently a team of experts from the European heritage organisation Europa Nostra conducted a survey of the building. I hope, in my own way, to work on whatever the building becomes.
Muthaliff’s complete thesis, called Reconstruction in an Era of Dilapidation, is available in the show notes. It’s full of fascinating diagrams, well-thought out readings, and intricate renderings. Give it a read.