On the occasion of the work-in-progress exhibition "Networks of De-institutional Architecture: Bulgaria", we publish Ivan Bonev's research on de-institutional architectures that balance the public, the commons, and the private. The study, a follow-up to his extensive research from 2017-2019 on Tokyo's de-institutional architectures, applies the same approach and methodology to select and analyze the local context, turning its attention to a few extraordinary spaces, such as The Pit in Varna, TAM in Veliko Tarnovo, and Chitalnyata in Sofia. The text belongs to a more in-depth study on local approaches of establishing new urban commons.
Common spaces used to be a resource that had an important role for traditional historical societies. For example, the meadow at the outskirts of a village was a place where everyone could herd cattle, pick herbs, or hold festivities. In the 19th and 20th centuries, urbanization of this collective resource resulted in its distribution among public and private institutions that industrialized and capitalized it. This process led to the elimination of traditional common spaces where people gathered to share activities. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, their absence was filled by neighborhood organizations, interest clubs, and social businesses that established the contemporary common spaces. These social practices distanced themselves from outside influences by self-organizing within their members. In this way they managed to remain independent and as a result formed the new urban commons.
This phenomenon has been well documented in Western Europe, North America and Southeast Asia since the end of the 20th century. Since the beginning of the 21st century, conscious efforts have been made to sustain its presence in contemporary cities. For example, Berlin was one of the first European cities to embrace the concept of common spaces as a tool for urban regeneration: in the 1990s, abandoned industrial sites, railway tracks and the grounds of the recently demolished Berlin Wall were occupied by community projects that reclaimed the city's “vague spaces” (Fig. 1). These were some of the first experiments in the search for a sustainable balance between the public, the commons and the private, and the place of independent initiative within them. Their success has echoed around the world (Fig. 2).
Fig. 1 Urban Pioneers: Temporary Use and Urban Development in Berlin, Jovis, 2007.
Fig. 2 Diagram of the commons, Tokyo Commons, Tokyo Institute of Technology, 2019.
SUSTAINABILITY OF DE-INSTITUTIONAL ARCHITECTURES
What defines something as independent? The most general definition would probably be based on autonomy of existence. It could be expressed territorially, financially, institutionally, morally - in any material or immaterial way. The issue with this construct is that it is easily constrained within the barriers of the concept of ownership to the resources needed for practicing independent activities: public resources are subject to the agendas of the public institutions that manage them; private resources are subject to the agendas of a private interests that are not necessarily shared. In the dichotomy between public and private, the common exists between and around them, freed from the barriers of ownership. This is not to say that the commons are dispossessed, but rather that the responsibility and privileges associated with a common resource are shared by a group of people, rather than being locked into a particular public or private institution.
Their relationship to the common resource is a major argument for their independence, hence de-institutional architecture.
Precondition for the formation of de-institutional architectures in the family of new urban commons is the presence of a shared activity that unites a group of people around a resource, which they use to carry out that activity (Fig. 3). Their establishment is also a product of suitable urban planning policies, initiative and creativity of the members of the community. Initiative, because sustainable de-institutional architectures require members' commitment to its initial build and maintenance. Creativity, because vacant urban resources, such as rivers, lakes, empty building stock or residual infrastructure spaces, are usually difficult to equip with the necessary architecture. In addition, if the used resource is public then de-institutional architectures should not only use it for their own purposes but also contribute to the resource’s better accessibility for the whole society.
The concept of de-institutional architecture is based on an analysis of highly urbanized cities in developed democratic societies that have a tradition of fostering civic initiative (Fig. 4). But how do different urban, societal or cultural contexts influence independent initiative and the sustainability of de-institutional architecture?
Fig. 3 Tokyo Playpark Setagaya and its playhouse made of repurposed wooden electrical poles. Fig. 4 Networks of De-institutional Architecture: Tokyo, Ivan Bonev, 2021.
THE BULGARIAN STUDY CASE
Civic initiative in Bulgaria is in the process of re-establishing itself after a difficult historical period in the second half of the 20th century. During the totalitarian regime in the country (1945-1989), the trinity of public, public and private was completely obsessed with political values and political agenda. In this context, the independent manifested itself as secret talks, musical and literary evenings without the possibility of being present in the public life (and space) of the country. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the socialist extreme was replaced by a capitalist one - businesses fragmented society by appropriating many public resources that were thus once again inaccessible to civic initiative.
As a consequence, de-institutional architectures in Bulgaria emerge in a still difficult social context.
Some of them have been established as exceptions towards the end of the totalitarian regime, others are a product of a young generation of initiative people with new social vision.
One of these de-institutional architectures emerged in the coastal city of Varna during the totalitarian regime and still exists today. In the late 1970s, several geothermal wells were drilled in the city, bringing hot groundwater to the surface for public use. Since then the hot water is utilized as a resource for both recreation and heating. One of the boreholes is on the Coastal Promenade - it heats the nearby Palace of Culture and Sports and the Nikola Yonkov Vaptsarov Naval School and is then returned to the sea for discharge. Thus, in 1979, a 350 mm diameter pipe appeared in the central part of the Coastal Promenade, pouring out 57°C water onto the rocky Officerski Beach. A group of enthusiasts saw potential in the infrastructural facility, scattered beach stones around its discharge pipe and formed a small hot water pit where they "soaked like buffaloes" (Fig. 5).
The site brought together a community of regular visitors. One of them, a docker at the harbor, used a service forklift to shape the basin as a natural stone pool 7-8 m in diameter in which about 20 people could already gather. "The Pit" or "The Hot Water" as the informal pool has become known, was used for spa treatments, conversations and quiet parties under the cover of the steam from the hot water. It was kept clean and quiet to avoid conflict with the totalitarian regime's law enforcement. It remained so until the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The Pit acquired a strong social function in the 1990s. Political, banking and grain crises of this period created marginal communities that used the pool as the only place to maintain hygiene. At the end of the 1990s, The Pit social value was recognized by private patrons and the municipality of Varna, which sponsored the building of a concrete pool in place of the stone one and equipped it with showers. It exists to this day (Fig. 6, 7).
Numerous rituals have define The Pit as de-institutional architecture that clearly stands out among the bars and restaurants of the Coastal Promenade. The freely accessible “spa” with hot underground and cold seawater is a primary activity. Conversations and parties are now popular, not secret activities. Temporary furnishings with benches, tables and chairs allow people to relax, read books and play chess, backgammon and cards in dry, comfortable surroundings. Visitors come from all walks of life - young and old, working and retired, poor and rich, unschooled and well-educated, locals and tourists. Routine maintenance activities are shared by a regular group of visitors – an informal friendly collective for whom the pool has no commercial alternative. The Pit is emptied and cleaned weekly with a power washer, brushes and detergents. Finances or materials are collected when necessary to replace broken showers and changing rooms. Patrons from the country and abroad continue to donate for the maintenance of the pool.
Fig. 6 The Pit during the 1990s. / Fig. 7 The Pit in 2018. Both: photo © Filmuniversität Babelsberg / Johannes Greisle
NETWORKS OF BULGARIAN DE-INSITUTIONAL ARCHITECTURE
The Pit is part of a network of de-institutional architectures in Bulgaria that use shared resources for the common benefit. Shelters on the mountains like the Blue Arrow on Vitosha are such spaces for the climbing community. Peripheral beaches such as Karantinata in Varna host fishermen's bungalows who fish traditionally and train children in this vanishing craft. Meadows on the city outskirts and empty plots in their residential neighborhoods are sites for urban farming - for example, Sofia's neighborhoods are home to several collective gardening initiatives such as the Garden for Druzhba and the Shared Vegetable Garden. Abandoned buildings and infrastructure are spaces for the independent cultural, artistic and sporting community. We find these in most major cities in Bulgaria, such as Chitalnyata in Sofia, TAM and the Yantra beach in Veliko Tarnovo, and ReBonkers in Varna.