UK Architect Alexander Daw: Bulgaria Shows Weak Approach to Design
Interview with Alexander Daw, Senior Architect/Director at Oscar Group, Oscar Architects.
Oscar Architects is a partnership of European Architects, (Juri Ljubomirski - Bulgarian, Alexander Daw - English and Eduardo Rifa - Spanish) established in Bulgaria since 2004 with a client base consisting of major funds and local government. www.oscararchitects.com.
You and your colleagues have had experience all over Europe including during the Barcelona Olympics development. How does working in Bulgaria differ from elsewhere in Europe?
It differs a lot. There is a strong approach to the technical aspect of architecture here in Bulgaria, but a weak approach to the design. This is certainly improving and there are practices in Sofia producing good work, however it is not yet accepted culturally that good design improves lives and the quality of living. This is not just a question of culture, but an issue of education as well.
A question we get asked more often than most is 'Why Bulgaria?'....The locations, the architectural heritage and the variety of projects make Bulgaria an attractive place for us to work. It is a place where we can, and hopefully have made a difference by bringing extensive European experience to a relatively undeveloped architectural and urban design industry. There is so much to be done here, in our countries everything is mostly done already.
Have you noticed a decrease in foreign investment coming into Bulgaria since the start of the global financial crisis? How has this affected you personally?
It has certainly affected us, nearly all our major projects that were due to start have been put on hold, mainly due to a lack of finance rather than a lack of will. For me the problem lies with the blanket lending practices of the banks that refuse to offer business to projects based on location and merit. This is understandable of course, but if the banks here start lending again in a responsible way I feel Bulgaria is still in a very good position.
What do you think of traditional Bulgarian architecture? Do you try to incorporate this style into your modern designs?
We have to and if we did not we would not produce good Architecture. A lot of our work is here in Veliko Tarnovo and having been here for four years our passion for the potential of the town has grown and grown. When I first met my partner Eduardo, he described Tarnovo and Arbanassi as an uncut diamond that needed cutting and polishing.
Every project should be carefully considered in its context and this means incorporating as many influences as possible into a simple solution. From the surrounding architectural styles to the situation of the plot itself and its impact on the local environment and the town itself. Everything should be considered. It is however not about copying what has gone before, but re-interpreting styles and influences in a modern, rational context. This is how towns stay alive and develop naturally. Of course there needs to be very strict guide lines about this, but they need to nurture good design through consultation and debate. Bulgaria has a unique and fantastic Architectural Heritage and it should be protected at all costs, but the answer is through design not through replication of old designs with modern building techniques.
How do you think planning regulations should be changed to improve the look of Bulgaria's cities? What can be improved upon to allow Bulgarian city architecture to ‘move with the times'?
The problem is the whole system, in the UK and the rest of Western Europe we go through different stages of planning .We start with outline planning which gives us the parameters of the project, we then have the "planning" stage and this is about the design. At this stage we are not talking about anything technical, but it is the most important part of the process. Here if it is a large scale project we would have public debates, appeal processes all set to agreed time scales and so and so forth. But out of this comes the agreed project. The technical side is then a matter of process and making sure the building adheres to the regulations, nothing more.
In Bulgaria there is very little attention paid to the design unless you are dealing with historical areas or monuments and when you are it is down to one or two people wether or not it is a suitable solution. The design generally is a fairly irrelevant part of the permissions process and of course this leads to problems later on with regards to how cities look. The hardest part here is the recognition of responsibility from the institutions that require documentation. The process of documentation is so complicated even Bulgarian architects struggle to fulfill the criteria. The amount of documentation needed for a simple house is very expensive to produce and a lot of it is unnecessary. It makes putting a project together an often unaffordable business for the average citizen.
What would you like to ask the new center-right GERB government to do to improve the business climate in Bulgaria and specifically to make your life as an architect here easier?
I am glad I have been asked this question. Firstly it is great to see a government in place who have the momentum to actually change the status quo. The Planning system and the land law are the two things that really need addressing. Old buildings and monuments that are left to fall down because owners are not in a position to repair them, or there are too many owners to take action, should be fully protected under municipal law.
The bureaucracy in the planning systems stifles business development and foreign investment that should be encouraged especially in terms of developing and restoring the cultural centers in Bulgaria. The institutions exist, but they are under funded and poorly managed. There also seems to be a serious lack of commitment to Urban design and an unwillingness to approach external professionals for consultation. In Veliko Tarnovo in the four years we have been operating nothing has changed to improve the urban experience for the pedestrian. There are projects waiting for funding approval that will help, but there is no cohesive, global plan that connects them. In our opinion this is a potentially very dangerous situation and could damage the towns Urban Fabric creating different areas and elements that have no underlying link and therefore causing a disconnected experience of the town.
Has Bulgaria lived up to your personal expectations? What are the main negatives and positives that you have encountered since living in Bulgaria?
The positives are the people I work with, the work we are involved in and the diversity of the country itself. The country has enormous potential in all sorts of areas. The only negative is the corruption, although we stay well clear of it, it is an omnipresent issue and a constant concern to the ability to work on a level playing field.
What makes your architecture company different from the competition? What projects are you currently working on?
We hope that we bring a combination of European Experience for our Bulgarian clients and a commitment to quality design that is not normally practised. For our foreign clients we provide a dedicated service and an established bridge between the cultures, and the minefield that can be Bulgarian bureaucracy. We are currently working with the Veliko Tarnovo municipality on an urban renewal project; we have a hotel and a couple of mixed use developments that are under construction. There is also a large housing project in Sofia that we are planning to start very soon. These are some of the projects on the table and the drawing board, we feel that things are picking up slowly and look forward to a growth in confidence over the next six months.
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Baba Nellie ''Architecture is not just about good design, it is about materials and methods of construction. It is also about structural integrity. It is also about value, or getting value for your money. Each structure can be a Cadillac or a Ford. If you can get by with a Ford, why spend the money for a Cadillac?''
What nonsense, babo Nellie. An architect is commissioned to prepare a design which meets a clients expectations which will usually include such factors as a construction budget. The structural integrity of any design is the responsibility of the structual engineer and not the architect and on many occasions architects have to be reigned in from their fantasy worlds to chage their designs so it is actually buildable.....You would be much better off boiling up your samovar and making chai for the junior architects in the tin-pot practice where you work rather than commenting on matters you clearly have no understanding about.
Whilst Oscar Architects may admittedly have produced some aesthetically uninspiring designs, many of which fly in the face of their claim that ''the answer is through design not through replication of old designs with modern building techniques'', they are correct when they state that ''there is a strong approach to the technical aspect of architecture (in Bulgaria)'' apparent by the legions of Bulgarian structural and civil engineers who ply their trade for many of the worlds largest multi-disciplinary consultancies.
Architecture is not just about good design, it is about materials and methods of construction. It is also about structural integrity. It is also about value, or getting value for your money. Each structure can be a Cadillac or a Ford. If you can get by with a Ford, why spend the money for a Cadillac?