In this interview with Slava Savova and Ivo Strahilov, we discuss the significant changes in cultural heritage protection policies in recent decades. In recent years, international and national strategies have been created and changed with the aim of integrating cultural heritage and regional development policies. They often lump together conservation objectives and those of increasing tourism flows. Immovable cultural heritage is being increasingly subject to market rules and is seen as an economic resource, but it is local communities that are being left out of the debate.
This is a process that, despite unfolding on the pages of thousands of different documents, ultimately turns out to be surprisingly uniform, facilitated by standardized expert practices for documenting heritage. Through a series of examples, we will discuss these processes. The questions are posed by Viktoria Draganova.
What is our traditional understanding of cultural heritage and how has it changed in recent years?
Ivo Strahilov We used to perceive cultural heritage as something tangible – for example, a monumental old building whose value seems to be self-evident and does not raise questions. This dominant understanding of heritage, however, is very limiting and is largely related to the work of experts who explore, identify, document, study, and categorize heritage and, alongside this, decide what and how should be preserved for the future. However, heritage is also a process; it is always in motion. It is a process of selecting particular sites, memories, narratives, or practices and proclaiming them as heritage. Here the link to the past is very clear, but just as importantly, this selection takes place in the present in relation to the current agenda, and very often with an eye to the future. Heritage, therefore, accumulates conflicts and emotions; moreover, it is originally composed of contradictory readings. The constant controversies that arise around many monuments or buildings from previous historical periods are testimony to precisely this.
Today, the substantive and temporal boundaries of heritage are very visibly expanding, with more and different social actors engaging with it. In this context, the last decade has seen the development of new or critical heritage studies that attempt to capture this dynamic and diverse sphere, focusing precisely on areas of contradiction, on asymmetrical power relations, on the heritages of local communities and minorities that have long been neglected or silenced.
Alongside such an expansion of the substantive and temporal boundaries of heritage, how does society participate in these processes?
Slava Savova We are seeing more and more grassroots initiatives mobilized around specific cultural heritage sites in need of preservation. This process is certainly facilitated and intensified by connectivity on social media, which helps campaigners catalyze greater support as their voices can now reach diverse and distant audiences. Such initiatives, however, can be traced back to much earlier processes at the turn of the 20th century, when civic communities mobilized as a reaction against the drastic changes brought about by the industrialization and modernization of cities and their surroundings, and the subsequent loss of the familiar urban and natural landscapes. The 1970s saw a new wave of citizen mobilizations in response to ambitious urban planning schemes that literally tore through the fabric of cities in order to clear the way for traffic infrastructure and new administrative centers. In Bulgaria, such mobilizations are a recent phenomenon, triggered by the need to protect specific monuments at risk.Some very recent examples are the Central Market Hall in Sofia, the railway station in Nova Zagora, the Sofia Theater (unfortunately now lost to a renovation project), and the Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria (demolished in 2017).
Ivo Strahilov I will add that fruitful partnerships between citizens and experts are also possible. In this regard, we can point to the initiatives to save the Cosmos Cinema in Plovdiv from demolition, as well as the efforts of the subsequently formed Cosmos Cinema Collective. The example of the Central Mineral Bath in Sofia, partially transformed into a museum, is also emblematic, as it brings together many specialists in different fields whose work could serve as a basis for an informed decision on the future of this important building and the management of mineral water.
But the local authority has been rather reluctant to engage sustainably with such collaborations, even though it sometimes seems to recognize them.
Ivo Strahilov There is a discrepancy. On the one hand is the already mentioned ever-expanding understanding of heritage, which is entering new territories and encompassing previously unsuspected properties and themes. Heritage can be appropriated and domesticated, it can be made 'one's own', i.e. it is not only valuable for and according to experts but can be recognized as valuable by a specific community or even individuals. The image of Venus de Milo, for example, sculpted in the famous marble statue in the Louvre in Paris, exists simultaneously as a decorative element in the fence of a house in Velingrad. Heritage often accommodates parallel understandings that reflect certain emotional connections to it. Together with its different versions and interpretations, it can also refer to current issues and debates in society.
On the other hand, the institutional understanding is rather limiting and in recent decades in Bulgaria, it seems to have been reduced to turning heritage into a resource, into a commodity. It is appreciated specifically because of its potential to be used in some economic activities and mainly in the tourism industry. That is why the initiatives mentioned above appear as a necessary corrective to the actions of politicians and institutions.
Which processes are taking place in the field of cultural heritage in Bulgaria?
Ivo Strahilov The Bulgarian case is particularly characterized by the entry of new business actors who have included cultural heritage in their spheres of activity. This is very much true in the immovable heritage sector, where we have seen the whole country filled with restored, reconstructed, and often entirely new heritage sites. The interventions in intangible heritage are no less significant. Here, the cohesion policies of the European Union and their priorities and financial instruments have a key role to play, as does their implementation at the national level. This has led to increased investment in tourism and related infrastructure, as it is assumed that this will promote local and regional development. The state functions thus as an intermediary that redistributes some funds to businesses, whose powerful entry into the sector, in turn, pushes institutions and experts to the periphery of decision-making. Relationships are changing, with specific partnerships and dependencies emerging between public authorities and businesses.
It must be said that commercialization is not a new phenomenon, and it is itself contributing to the strengthening of the aura of heritage, but we should also bear in mind how these processes are affecting heritage and its communities. Being subject to market principles, cultural heritage is gradually losing its social and cultural meanings. Approaches to its management, preservation, and socialization are becoming increasingly uniform, leading to the transformation of cultural heritage into tourist attractions. However, the economic effects of this are rather controversial at this stage, and the question of the risks of tourism is generally not raised.
Slava Savova The homogenization of preservation projects is largely due to the standardization of the established methods of surveying and recording heritage sites, and architecture seems to play an important part in this process. And to be more specific, I would like to refer to a particular tool called “measured drawing” that is used to document existing buildings, usually for the purposes of preservation. In the late 19th century, these drawings recorded not only the actual building being surveyed; they also very often provided a detailed account of the building’s context. In the following decades, however, the production of “measured drawings” was streamlined and their focus was narrowed down to the surveyed buildings only, leaving out the environment either as a blank space or, at best, marking the presence of adjacent volumes with a thin contour. This is true of all types of drawings – plans, sections, elevations; even site plans include limited data regarding the context.
We’ve talked about how architectural vocabulary also standardizes.
Slava Savova Yes, architectural vocabulary also tends to standardize the ways we describe heritage sites and this is very much the case with the Bulgarian preservation discourse. A brief look at the archives of the National Institute of Immovable Cultural Heritage in Sofia is enough to gather a collection of very abstract, often repetitive, but nevertheless much-loved phrases, such as “great architectural and artistic value”, “original style”, “expressive volumes”, “possessing a very strong spatial sense”, “exerting a powerful spatial and colorful effect”, and so on. It is paradoxical that such vocabulary is still being used nowadays, and even more so when it comes to describing architectural heritage from antiquity. The theoretical texts on architecture from that period – those by Vitruvius, for example – are rather laconic and concise, and they are built upon detailed knowledge of the elements of the surrounding environment within which a given architectural intervention is to take place.
Aren’t we focusing too much on the technical aspects?
Slava Savova I’d say not only. All heritage sites exist in a complex relationship with their environment, they are in constant interaction with it and, at the same time, the environment co-constitutes them. The tangible and intangible context, however, is usually reduced to a blank space in the process of documentation and the actual monument is recorded as a free-standing object, stripped of any relation with the existing physical environment, surrounding processes and actors. By the time a monument “ends up” on the desk of a given expert at a given administrative unit dealing with preservation, its connection with its surroundings has already been severed, with the aid of the established methods used for its surveying and recording. And there is another side to this process: the blank spaces of measured drawings have their own abstract potential – to absorb new interventions, new meanings, and even new histories.
A recent example: the Thermal Bath at the resort of Stara Zagora Mineral Baths. A concept for the conversion of this Ottoman bathhouse into a luxury spa center is available at the National Institute of Immovable Cultural Heritage in Sofia and shows in a series of diagrams how a set of new functions will enter its spaces – exclusive spa procedures, event spaces, a restaurant, etc. Currently the bathhouse is very affordable, it offers balneological procedures only, and while it is also visited by those staying at the resort, it seems the majority of its visitors come from the city of Stara Zagora (12 km away). It also serves workers from local industries, including those from the Maritsa-Iztok mining complex. The bathhouse’s connections to these communities could easily be mapped, yet that seems to have been left out of consideration. What co-constitutes this Ottoman bathhouse today has simply been reduced to a blank space.
Rather than context, what are the blank spaces in architectural plans filled with?
Slava Savova Depending on the type of monument, these could be filled with different things, such as heroic historical narratives, reconstructions of all kinds, contemporary tourist infrastructures, or simply an overgrowth of the weeds of poor planning.
Ivo Strahilov Expert prescriptions emerge to replace the previous context. We see them in many projects, but also in regional and municipal tourism development strategies. The problem is that the external consultancy firms that prepare these documents commissioned by central or local governments often do not keep local specifics in mind. Although they claim to be 'innovative' and 'creative', in practice we are witnessing the introduction of one-size-fits-all solutions – building an information center, designing an exhibition or multimedia presentation, and introducing attractions such as archery or a potter's wheel. Usually, the focus is on some infrastructure or renovation works, which also consume a significant part of the budget of the project. The sustainability of such interventions is a separate issue, as we also see how some of the recently restored fortresses are already crumbling, while the adjacent attractions have stopped functioning.
You both have specific observations related to the bathhouse buildings in Bulgaria. What is happening with them?
Slava Savova Today the original function of the bathhouses is often considered discordant with their architectural merits, due to its utilitarian nature. This is one of the main reasons why many public bathhouses in Bulgaria have been converted into museums. At the spa resort of Burgas Mineral Baths, for example, a 16th-century Ottoman bathhouse functioned as a public bathhouse and also served the needs of the nearby Specialized Hospital for Rehabilitation until 2006. Subsequently, however, the building was transferred for gratuitous use to the tourist complex Aquae Calidae – Thermopolis. The bathhouse was then converted into a museum and today the former presence of water is represented by a projection of blue lights into empty wash basins. Ironically, the most visited place in the tourist complex is the last remaining place providing unobstructed public access to the thermal waters – the water fountain.
Ivo Strahilov In the strategic and planning documents there are at least two trends, which are often intertwined – the museification of the baths and their transformation into a luxury place that would have a positive 'image' and attract wealthier tourists. The dominant idea of exploiting the tourist potential of the sites and the establishment of the market discourse are 'pushing' the water out of the baths, but together with that they sometimes erase the whole context. The decisions being taken throughout the country are effectively eliminating mineral water along with the local communities and other people who use it. The imperative to turn baths into a 'spa' or 'wellness center' erases both the historical layers and the traditional practices that are still alive. Moreover, it implies a restriction of access to a common resource, since the aim is to offer healing and recreational services to more solvent visitors.
Slava Savova The presence of water becomes symbolic. At the Stara Zagora Mineral Baths, the göbek taşı – the heated marble platform that once stood at the center of one of the hammams – has now been moved outside and has become an exhibit in the park. In fact, there is a danger that some of the functions of this bath, too, will be taken out and turned into history.
What is happening with Sofia’s Central Mineral Baths at the moment?
Slava Savova The Central Mineral Baths building is, as ever, the subject of heated debate, this time related to Sofia Municipality’s plans for its renovation. In 2020, an Open Call brought together more than 30 experts from different fields, who devised three independent strategic development concepts, each containing a set of detailed recommendations for the renewal of the building. These concepts became the basis of a general Renewal Plan that outlined the necessary steps to be taken by Sofia Municipality as part of the renewal process. Sofia’s Municipal Council, however, did not vote on the implementation of this plan, and a year later a proposal was submitted that it be cancelled and replaced with a new one without any public consultation. One of the key differences between this plan and the newly proposed one is that, if the latter is approved, the Municipality will delegate all its responsibilities to a private investor. At the moment we are trying to engage several institutions with this case, while seeking further information about the proposed changes. We are also trying to raise awareness of what the risks are if the Municipality delegates the execution and management of the project to a private entity, without any civic participation.
The thermal water spring in the center of Sofia has been known and used for healing and bathing for at least two millennia. Various infrastructures were built around the spring over the centuries to facilitate access to its waters. And what we know from the available archival sources is that bathing there was accessible to all, including the least privileged. Today this continuity, however, has been interrupted by the recent closure of the Central Mineral Baths – the thermal waters are now only accessible at the water fountains nearby.
Ivo Strahilov In connection with the turmoil surrounding the Central Mineral Bath, and other baths in Sofia, and the growing civil and public concerns about their fate, it is important to recall the need for Bulgaria to ratify the Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society. Among its founding principles is the participatory governance of heritage.