Lumley & Koller

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Bulgarian Vernacular

Our analysis looks at some of the characteristics of Bulgarian vernacular domestic architecture, their roots in historical traditions and their survival into the modern age.

The term “National Revival House” suggests an exclusive Bulgarian claim to this architectural type. At a closer look, however, it quickly becomes clear that it is instead the result of a complex web of cultural influences that point well beyond the national and ethnic boundaries of Bulgaria. To the modern Bulgarian mind, it is a part of the “national” heritage while in terms of its architectural derivation it belongs to the Ottoman sphere. It is, primarily, vernacular.

In this type of building which we may call” plastic vernacular”, we identify a number of design strategies, like the lightness of the structures, the use of overhangs and the importance given to corner features in the composition of the houses. The houses fit into rural, suburban and urban fabrics in a way that suggests a mixture of European and Anatolian principles. This partly explains how the exteriors are viewed as the interplay of volumes rather than as fašade-pieces. The latter, both paradoxically and characteristically, make their appearance in the 19th century, as European influences that were transmitted via Istanbul.

Another curious feature, the curvilinear compositional elements of much 19th-century Bulgarian architecture, attests to a similar parallelism of European (High Baroque) and Ottoman (“Ottoman Baroque”) design principles. A similar situation can be encountered in numerous National Revival interiors which display a range of rural-vernacular, Ottoman (e.g. kiosks) and European bourgeois motifs. The often haphazard and awkward mixing of these elements can be regarded as typical of the Bulgarian vernacular.

The legacy of this architectural tradition which combines simplicity with an extraordinarily high degree of complexity, can be recognised to-day in the infill on the balconies of housing blocks on the outskirts of Sofia or in the treatment of corners of Art Deco and Modernist buildings. The Bulgarian architectural vernacular can thus be understood as an example of the workings of mimesis and translation within an architectural tradition, to be viewed both historically and with reference to the present day. A possible trajectory for the future is that the current hybrid of vernacular and weak modernism, which is nothing other than assemblage and translation, is akin to a mannerist period that precedes a coming vernacular Baroque.