Sveta Nedelya Square is a place of centuries` cultural strata inherited.
Spatial value is created through cumulative cultural process. Long paths of history, structural integration, survival of spatial identity through times of destruction. The place accumulated the might of all that had happened here, integrated the meanings of past events and people. The place was remembered, acknowledged and became a symbol. The place and its inhabitants belong to each other and contribute to each other`s identity. The place is unique.
Space is an architectural value. Created. Structurally defined. It is rationally structured, evolving through a definite structural model, integrating architectonic elements within unity through binding rational rules. Space is an abstract intellectual creation. Space can have its creator, its author.
Sveta Nedelya Square holds possession of both values: a place of cultural belonging and a space of unique architectural and urban design elaboration. Every local living in Sofia has got personal evaluation of the place, each architect professional (must) have deep understanding of spatial and architectural value, and more. The challenge before any forthcoming project intervention in Sveta Nedelya Square is to integrate both values, of place and space, successfully and completely, without replacing or excluding almost anything existing. It shall be a project of the future and a shared cultural event of long-lasting effect.
The place of this square is a historical stage. It has a symbolic meaning for Bulgarian history, also for its predecessors, as city life here is older than national belonging. The historic quality of the square is much stronger because it is not proclaimed in overtones, it is discreet, sometimes not voiced at all. Most of the other emblematic locations in the Capital`s center are more likely confined to their limited historical period and ideas. Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Sofia University and the National Library and Arts Academy, the Royal Palace, then Gallery, the National Palace of Culture – all of them exhale a definite message, deep and strong, but confined to limited historical theme. Sometimes their message is a reflection of propaganda, state ideology of one time or another.
That is not the case of Sveta Nedelya Square. It has got complexity, multitude of layers, contains contradictions and pluralism more than any other. Its history is rich, but multifaceted. It does not emit simplified, one-sided messages of state inspired architectural achievement, does not impose greatness, but possesses cultural richness and variety. Part of the square`s history was not much spoken for long. The terror attack in the older Sveti Kral Church back in 1925 was only briefly mentioned in historical schoolbooks, authors as if hasted to skip this moment and go ahead. True history falls not into line with temporary convenience. But it is the complexity of history that produces the real cultural importance of the place. Not only the good stories are told here. All the stories in history.
A Late Antiquity stela found near Sveta Nedelya square bearing the haut relief images of people and animals is often interpreted as a sort of announcement for the Games that took place here. Public amusement in roman style, attraction performed for the people (probably including also bloody action). Under the square`s pavement lies archaeological treasure, a hidden Pompeii, most likely the most significant, substantially preserved architectural complex from antiquity within the whole area of Serdica-Sredets archaeological reserve. At least since the early 20th century and until today this complex has continuously focused the attention of specialists, as well as the public, and has become the target of scientific hypotheses and virtual reconstructions. Since the earliest discovery in mid 19th century, the underground passages running within the depth of the ancient walls have been rediscovered several times over the course of decades, and part of them even entered and studied by speleologists. In one of the passages an antique helmet was found… Curiosity, anxious research: what was this building used for in its time? The ancient complex demonstrates high architectural and engineering standards, ceramic air vents in the walls, a floor hypocaust of more than a meter`s height, solid number of luxurious facing fragments discovered. The scientific reconstructions gradually evolve into virtual projects of their respective authors, so much is the energy and creativity invested in them. Even if those reconstructions and interpretations do not prove realistic according to more recent study, they possess their own value as a genre of history-inspired architectural work as well as a document for the cultural climate of their respective times. During one of the several shifts of the tram railway route from one to the other respective side of the square, in the early 1980-ies, the late antiquity structures in the southwest part of the square were rediscovered partially. For decades the idea for a Praetorium and a Forum, located respectively in the southern and northern halves of the square dominated over professionals minds, specialized literature and academic teaching (Prof. Arch. Sava Bobchev and others). Recent archaelogical study (2016-2017) showed that the building complex encompasses not only the southern, but also the northern part of the square (Dr. V. Katsarova), so the formerly proposed location of a spacious roman forum started to shift northwards and out of the contemporary Sveta Nedelya square, where there is no hope to find it preserved because of deep engineering excavations carried out repetitively since the late 19th century. And then again, the probability for the ancient complex to be interpreted as roman thermae, which had been long ago rejected, arose to be mentioned. The engineering and architectural might of the structures underneath was proved again by recent studies. After each rediscovery, excavation or study over the course of decades the ancient building complex has always impressed researchers and the public, starting with the first discovery in mid 19th century at the start of excavations for the construction of the revival period church of Sveti Kral. The traces of fire and materials for coin production found in the 1980-ies gave motif for the hypothesis that part of the supposed praetorium was later used as a coinage workshop (M. Stancheva). Contemporary interpretations integrate this hypothesis with the fact that the city of Serdica was a significant center of coinage.
Holiness is the topic, introduced here by Christianity in the Middle Ages. The Bulgarian identity of the place dates back to medieval times also. In vicinity of the contemporary Sveta Nedelya square, most likely near Positano Street, the holy remains of St. Ivan Rilski, the Bulgarian Patron Saint, were kept for a considerable period of time.In this church, shelter, protection and respect was given to the body of Serbian king Stefan Miloutin Urosh II, a relative to Byzantine Emperors, the Bulgarian Komitopouli dynasty, as well as the protorenaissance Doges of Venice and even the Kings of 18 АРХИТЕКТУРА 3/2019 France. That gave to the church its former name Sveti Kral (Sacred person of a King), which was used until the 1920-ies. In the Middle Ages the center of importance was defined and maintained since today – the place of the church building amidst the square. The temple, whose building was reerected many times, was always located over a slightly elevated mound, a stylobat of its own kind, the ruins of the ancient building serving as the hidden pedestal underneath. This medieval reuse and transformation of the remains of a roman public building is not a rare case in larger context and can find many analogies Europe wide (to some extent like Teatro Marcello in Rome), or elsewhere. In the period of Bulgarian National Revival (esp. 1850-ies) a new church building was erected, whose shape, style and dimensions were similar to other churches in Sofia dating to the same period – the demolished Sveti Spas in the vicinity and the preserved Sveti Nikola Novi Sofiyski in the so called Yuch-Bounar area.
The name that this square was given right after the Liberation of Bulgaria (1878) was Saboren ploshtad. It can be interpreted in two ways: either the Russian name for a church square or a place for gathering, and especially for lining up the military troops. Probably the first version is the more likely. In the period of temporary Russian government a bell tower was erected at the square that served for the church but was a separate architectural piece, standing amidst the southern part of the space. A bit frivolous, but not at all unlikely analogy reminds of the similar position of the bell tower in Saborniy square in Moscow Kremlin. Probably that falls into line with the name of the square, which did not last, but shifted and remained as a name of the neighboring Saborna street.
The post Liberation modernization of the city requested the necessity for levelling of the square. The architects involved, first Nikola Lazarov, then later the tandem Tsolov-Vasilyov gave a new architectural shape to the remaining part of the elevated mound, thus creating a representative access pedestal to the church. After the church was bombed in a terror attack by the military wing of the communist party in Easter week`s Thursday in April 1925, the demolished revival period church building remains to be remembered by old newspaper photos and post stamps issued for the occasion with the view of its ruin, as well as in the memories a generation already gone. According to a family saying, at the event of the explosion, the flying boards and rafters and the lead sheets from the dome (its upper part was a light wooden structure) were seen from far away parts of town. The new church was built in 1927-1933, a chefd` oeuvre of architects Tsolov and Vasilyov, integrating modernity with classics and even elements of art deco. In terms of architectural quality it far surpasses the lost revival period building.
The square has changed continuously over the course of the twentieth century, intervention is sometimes radical, especially in the northern part and to some extent in the eastern side of its surrounding architectural frame, where the (pretending to be) sumptuous entrance of the palatial building of Balkan hotel seems to intervene, its authors related also to some of the above mentioned earlier structures there.
In spite of the changes, the southern part of Sveta Nedelya square retained a preserved urban fragment which in its scale, architectural styles, cultural complexity and contemporary vitality is a uniquely precious piece. This surviving living urban fragment in fact tells a story of how the rest of Sofia historical core could have been developed if it had not been torn down and replaced in the period of post war planning radicalism.
Dialogue of concepts
Cultural pluralism is a term actively engaged in the vocabulary of governance, but the understanding of it sinks into the excessive political vernacular and often becomes a cliché. On the other hand real cultural pluralism, integrated into architectonic and urban structure, gains not so much popularity and understanding neither in public debate nor among planning professionals. The rare mention of it rises the doubt whether its value is truly appreciated. But if a value is not appreciated, then it is threatened. That is why it is worth discussing about Sveta Nedelya again and again, to rise the awareness of the real value. In the square and its surrounding structure the physical documentary lies not only for the city`s development, but for the evolving of architectural and urban concepts since the late nineteenth century until today (that is only above ground, then we must add archaeological heritage). And no stage of those documented here has a lesser value. Precious emblematic architectural fragments participate in the square, each of them bearing a trace for a different (and potentially possible) concept for the city, a trace for a different Sofia. It is a different Sofia from the brief but florescent Bulgarian Belle Epoque, Sofia of the early modernists, Sofia of the neoclassic 1950-ies (a reflection of the Soviet, in its turn influenced by the 19th century American neoclassic), one devastatingly modern Sofia a la Corbusier from the 1960-ies, and even a post modern Sofia (at the example of Bulbank building). All those different concepts have their potential holistic projects for the city, none of which developed to form a substantial district of homogeneous style. In Sofia there are no spacious homogeneous structures, created and preserved as one whole, that could give evidence fully and extensively for one period, one architectural generation or one cultural mood. There is not a 16th arrondissement of Paris here. Urban concepts shift before they fully develop. External influences come from many directions, their cultural impulse often contradictory. Holistic projects have remained confined to intellectual reality, they have been realized only in part, and their richness, yet to be revealed, requires a cultural reading beyond their physical architectural result. Over time, the ideas of architects and planners created valid architectural and urban concepts, but realization was limited to separate elements, luckily often they are the key fragments. This is the source for the complexity and value of the cultural landscape of the city. One more value is to be discovered here – the integration and coexistence of different urban concepts. This is a dialogue of concepts, that do not replace each other but accumulate in a unique manner exactly at that location. The interaction yields the value, it also causes crises and contradictions, that the future has to decide.
The concept of Center and Periphery
One of the most ancient concepts of a central city district includes a vast spatial interval (a square) in which the most significant building (dedicated to power or religion) takes its solitary position. It is only this element that is in fact common for real cities and the ideal ones (the utopias). It is a city center bearing the physical metaphor of authority and institutional importance. Besides the fact that for the moment it seems less likely that we shall discover a roman forum exactly here, the place still has kept for ages the role of a central element in the city. Along with the repetitive shift of the surrounding blocks and the architectural environment, spatial codes have remained untouched. The Temple is the center, unchanging, even at the necessity of its rebuilding on certain occasions. The square gives courtly representative approach to the Temple, a distance from the structures of the profane day-to-day activity, that is subordinate to its authority. Around the central unchanging element several sub-spaces are created. They are subordinate to the accentual element of the Temple, but each one of them developed an identity of its own. These subspaces are popular with their different climate – the Piazzeta in front of the Theological Faculty exhales renaissance serenity, the vibrant western part of square has a lively series of retail and services (including restaurants, but also ministerial offices), preserving the early modernism of the building of the Ministry of Health, the postmodern experiment of Bulbank, the northern part, until recently, full of parking lots… Very few remember the noble mission of “Vseh skorbyashtih radost” society of Yordanka Filaretova, that located once substantial part of its activity here.
The model of Higher and Lower city
The ancient topography of the place shows a distinct slope from south to north. From the southern gate of Serdica the ancient water main enters the city with a distributive facility (water coming from Vitosha mountain, as it happened 1800 years later with Boyana pipeline). To the north, towards Vladayska river, the ancient sewerage collector is running. The inhabitants of Sofia in the 19th century used parts of it as their cellars for wines and pickles (R. Kostentseva). Archaeological layers in the southern part of Sveta Nedelya square are located at much lesser depth than those at the area of Largo and former central universal store (TSUM). Today, after modern planning and levelling has decreased the slope, if one observes the view from the north unused entrance of the church towards the mosque, a distinct inclination of the ground surface is still visible. The topography of Sofia valley contains two main terraces, the north one lower and the south part elevated. The boundary between the two terraces is seen to the west part of the city in the area of Kriva reka river, then between Ruski pametnik and Zona B5 area, then it is less visible in the center, then to the east side it shows again more dramatically between the levels of the side streets of Dondoukov Blvd. Thus an elevated Acropolis of its kind is created for the Church of Sveta Sofia, now also Sveti Alexander Nevski. A key point that makes the connection between the two terraces is Sveta Nedelya. Sveta Nedelya is the hinge between the two plains.
Cultural processes over time have transformed the terraces, existing in natural topography, into enclosures of particular social identity. The southern part of Serdica even in Late Antiquity was already regulated and planned in a roman pattern, while the northern has a free structure esp. fragmented around the rivulet in the NW part (Zhenski Pazar). Over the course of 141 years history of the modern Bulgarian state the southern terrace of Sofia center concentrated the biggest institutional/state projects (starting with the reconstruction of the Turkish administration seat – Konak, into Royal palace, including the National Theatre and even the National Palace of Culture). The northern terrace, on the contrary, is until today a melting pot of small ownership, retails and petit investment, and the pluralism of private sector prevails. The traffic junction but also the integrating element between the two is again the public space of Sveta Nedelya square.
The Roman principle – coordinate system of axes
The universal role of Roman urban model is valid for Sofia. Sveta Nedelya church turns the main street axis in the “road that leads to the Temple”. Vitosha Blvd. has two main panoramas that remain in the memory of every citizen of Sofia – the peaks of Vitosha mountain to the south and the silhouette of the church cupolas – to the north.
The axial structure of the square is further developed in the above mentioned sub-spaces, that are part of the square. Some of those sub-spaces esp. those encompassing buildings of institutional importance develop their own axial structure. The best among them is the space in front the Theological Faculty. It is situated in full accordance with the compact shape of the square dating from the late 19th century. The architectural romantic of its Byzantine style, evoking images from the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, esp. the horizontal articulation of the façade with rows of brickwork reflect the architecture of former church Sveti Kral, that used to have the same detail. Thus the building of the Theological Faculty is subordinate to the main accent – Sveta Nedelya Church. But at the same time, because of its own institutional importance, in its own sub-space, the Theological Faculty building develops a clear axial structure with the main entrance, marked with big columns – guardians with capitals, the protruding central volume as well as the beautiful dome (not restored after WWII bombardment) whose silhouette produces a long visual axis in the whole eastern half of the square.
In the same sub-space a miniature perpendicular axis is developed by the small church in the plot of the Synod. That is an example for pluralism of elements integrated in the architectural whole. If Sveta Nedelya Church was the only key element, the space would evoke elementary authoritarian feeling.
The classical Concept of 19th century European square
The late 19th century is a time of change when the former Ottoman province is transformed into a modern European state – the times of the so called Bulgarian miracle. Sofia is subjected to radical reconstruction, to be reborn as a modern Capital, esp. at the time of Bulgarian Haussmann – the Mayor of Sofia Dimitar Petkov.
At that same time the spatial principle of this square was established and it was not denounced until today – a rectangular , similar to Renaissance square of harmonic proportion and clear shape, defined cornice height, orderly classic architecture, surrounding structure of rectangular blocks…
At that time this square was not an exception in the city center, it rather was the rule. In close proximity several more public spaces were arranged according to the same principle, with clear architectonic shape and medium height of buildings. They are emblematic, cozy urban spaces – the triangular Sveti Nikola passage and Trapezitsa square (elongated rectangular place of commerce).
The triangular shape of Sveti Nikola passage is a result of three historically defined street axes. Two of them are the Roman cardo and decumanus. The third one was Targovska street, that inherited the pattern and orientation of former Ottoman buildings of the public center, situated along the mosque whose mihrab orientation is towards Mecca, thus defining the direction of both the building and its parallel street. The 19th century plan of the city integrated this street direction in its structural system of streets, living and functional, that was erased not before the construction of the Largo ensemble.
From the former Trapezitsa square only a short street bearing the same name is left, as well as several buildings (the so called “Iron hands” cooperative building and the neighboring), that shaped the square from the north. Now they are part of the block, famous for the furniture and interior retail center Yavor (form the 1970-ies), and they must give northernmost limit of Sveta Nedelya square and Todor Alexandrov Blvd. The architectural and urban design qualities of the Largo ensemble suggest state authority. In those spaces visitors are present in their common belonging as citizens in the event of parades, protests, etc. But the real vitality of every day life, its variety, complexity and richness are situated in humbler spaces of human scale, accepting pluralism and uniqueness of each of their inhabitants. In spite of the fact that Sveti Nikola passage and Trapezitsa disappeared before decades, the southern part of Sveta Nedelya square still preserves a piece of the cityscape of the young Capital from the times before the two world wars. This fragment must be cherished and developed in a contemporary way, not replaced. The responsibility is crucial.
The concept of “Flowing space” and “Free plan”
The modernists` seeking for continuous and integral spaces found its interpretation in Sveta Nedelya square, esp. in competition proposals from the 1940-ies till the late 1970-ies. In contrast to elsewhere, the modernist transformation did not reach the stage of replacing the whole of the existing structure. In the southern part the experiment to open up the shape of the square are mostly positive because they are not radical. The demolition of the block located to the north of Positano street (1940-ies) gave spatial inclusion to the Inns of Court building within space of the square. It even introduced one additional sub-space connected to the square. The diagonal view from the Theological Faculty piazzeta towards the Inns of Court building falls into the best angle to perceive a prismatic volume according to Renaissance perspective.
This view performs one of the best architectural perspectives in Sofia. The spatial effect is beautiful, and the design of architect Pencho Koychev is perceived from a rich and dynamic aspect, not only in the official conventional frontal image. The imposing image of the Inns of Court building evokes the suggestion of a work done by one Bulgarian Schinkel. The suppositions that the Inns of Court building is in need of a big square in front of it are not necessary, and they would cost a substantial demolition in the block in front of it, where Targovski dom passage is located as well as many valuable heritage buildings. In fact, the dynamic diagonal view towards the classical architectural volume of the Inns of Court does not compromise it, but does introduce a modern aspect into its perception.
On the other hand, in the northern part of Sveta Nedelya square modern radicalism was rather devastating. As it became recently obvious through published photo documentation (P. Kolev), many of the bombed buildings in Sofia center were beginning to be restored by their owners immediately after the war. The military devastation was not the only reason for the total urban transformation of the city center undertaken, but rather the shift of attitudes and shifts in property structure, nationalization of private properties. The state property and attitudes connected to it prevailed over the private pluralism. Positive architectural and urban design achievement is a fact, but there are also substantial drawbacks. The loss of memory is the most substantial among them. The project for the center dating to the 1950-ies, in its turn, was not completely finished, and the later proposals were not put to realization. The western part of the Largo ensemble remained unfinished, where a large public building was formerly proposed. A longlasting result is the opening up of Sveta Nedelya square to the north. Thus a possibility was preserved for spatial development of the western axis also. Later projects for a couple of decades proposed some pedestrian developments to the west. Finally, at the dawn of the 21st century, a transportation diameter was introduced there – Todor Alexandrov Blvd. Besides the trauma of the dividing transportation element, the northern part of Sveta Nedelya square achieved also positive opportunities that have to be recreated now as contributing value. Open space was achieved as well as potentially complex structure of integrated spaces, place was made for monumental art, though sometimes it was burdened by temporary ideological extremes. It became later necessary to hastily replace the sculptural and monumental fabula: the statue of Lenin gave way to the more long-lasting symbol of the city – Saint Sophia, the Godly wisdom. The presence of this eternal symbol must be confirmed and integrated in the system of public spaces in the city center.
We may consider that the space of the Largo is already finally shaped with the triad of administrative buildings to the east and the monumental statue of St. Sophia to the west, positioned against a background silhouette of the restored Catholic cathedral.
In the perpendicular axis, positioned south-north, a wide panoramic cardina must be created between Sveta Nedelya church and Banya Bashi mosque. The space for it exists but it must be yet developed in terms of urban and architectural design. An inventive task that is posed today is to tackle the problem of the transportation divide. The successful achievement depends on future projects.