Bulgarian Architects’ State-Sponsored Whimsy
By Danny Hakim
The New York Times
Delcho Delchev came back.
For many of his generation, this is commuting against the tide of emigration from his native Bulgaria into the rest of Europe. But Mr. Delchev, a 34-year-old architect, is one of the founders of a nonprofit group called Transformers that has been trying since 2009 to brighten up this former Soviet outpost with low-budget civic art and design projects.
A few years ago, he returned to Bulgaria, turning down an offer to stay in France, where he had been studying. In some ways, Sofia might not seem like the most inspiring place for an architect. Rows of Soviet-era buildings stack up like dominoes along the landscape, many crumbling. Sculpture from the Communist and czarist eras dominates public spaces, unemployment has been rising sharply, and for months protesters have been gathering in the city’s streets to denounce the latest government, which is viewed as corrupt and out of touch.
But Sofia is also a city with parks and green spaces, and one can see the younger people chafing to break free of aesthetic homogeneity. In a central park downtown, a giant sculpture depicting Soviet soldiers has had run-ins with various graffiti artists. It was recently covered in pink paint, and the name of the Notorious B.I.G., a rapper killed in 1997, is scrawled on one side.
Mr. Delchev decided he liked the broader and more open canvas offered by Bulgaria.
“I thought I would find more fields to work as an architect here than in Europe, because, already there, the situation was very overcrowded,” he said in a recent interview, referring to the wealthier countries of the European Union. (Bulgaria became a member in 2007.)
“New buildings were very rare, so I prefer to be in developing countries. Probably because of my soul, I prefer to organize life as I want, rather than just to go to some place that is very arranged and I have less to do as a creator.”
Transformers, a group of more than 20 architects and architectural students, has its work sprinkled around the city. They are perhaps best known for whimsically painting over large and unsightly outdoor electrical boxes: One was covered with an abstract figure with fish eyes dancing against a bright blue sky, another a cartoonish criminal posing for a mug shot, a third featured a smirking cat. The project was so popular that imitations began springing up around the city, like one electrical box painted to resemble a cassette tape and stereo.
“Now we are seeing new painted boxes, and the people are thinking Transformers did this, but we had nothing to do with it,” Mr. Delchev said, laughing.
Transformers also designed a playground in a neighborhood of the beleaguered Roma minority and created an ambitious map of the city’s cultural institutions and promising abandoned sites. Some of the group’s projects are experiments in interactivity, like a stand built at a city marketplace where passers-by could offer ideas about how to improve the market’s design.
In another project, the Transformers built a “wrench bench” with ends designed to fit precisely around the large hexagonal flower pots that dot the city and resemble giant concrete screws.
“I saw the flower pot and thought, ‘Let’s make something with a sense of humor,’ ” said Valeri Gyurov, 31, another of the founders. “We try to transform bad things or normal things or boring things into something fresh, so people can appreciate them, have fun with them and start using them.”
For Mr. Gyurov, Transformers was a lifeline out of a dull job. He had designed two government buildings for his previous employer, but neither ended up being built because of the financial crisis.
“Each of us, we were working at different architectural studios on so-called normal projects, but none of us was happy or fulfilled by this work, and we wanted to do something alternative,” he said. “It was a hobby at the beginning, but then it became a full-time job and a profession.”
Not that it has been easy: Raising money is a persistent challenge. The group receives grants from a variety of foundations as well as the municipality of Sofia, though the relationship with the city is not always easy.
“They are making huge operations rather than trying to make small things,” that would “be more human scale and understood by the people,” Mr. Delchev said.
Mr. Gyurov did credit the city for working with Transformers.
“We criticize the municipality a lot, but they try to learn from their mistakes,” he said.
Recently, the city hired Transformers to assist other groups in creating Sofia’s entry in the Mayor’s Challenge, a design competition sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies, a foundation created by the former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that offers grants for urban projects..
The America for Bulgaria Foundation is providing a grant of roughly USD 60,000 this year to Transformers, specifically to fund a workshop the group has set up for architecture students. Nadia Zaharieva, the foundation’s director for arts and culture, said the group represented a more open way of operating in a city where civic projects are often awarded with little transparency.
“The Transformers has been trying to change the status quo,” she said. “They pick up small projects — sometimes they are very small — but through small steps, they try to change the stale environment.”
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Delchev could be found working on one of those small projects. He was assembling a park bench made of two connected sewer pipes for a municipal competition, designed to look like the wooden fighting sticks used by ninjas.
Its reception was not universally positive. While Mr. Delchev put the tubes together, an 82-year-old retired electrical engineer, Vasil Tsankov, walked past and did a double take.
“Who can sit on this?” he exclaimed in bewilderment, perhaps not grasping the jovial spirit of a ninja bench.
Mr. Delchev seemed amused by the feedback and offered Mr. Tsankov an apple from a crate stuffed full of them that was sitting in the trunk of his hatchback amid power tools.
Then he coaxed a couple of reporters into helping him haul his bench to its destination across the park.
For Mr. Delchev, at least, this land in transition is the perfect setting.
“Reality in Bulgaria,” he said, is “more provocative and challenging.”
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