Critical Regionalism Seminar
On a day close at the end of year 1903 a young architect, who had recently won a competition for a new memorial building in Pleven, Bulgaria, meets his friend, himself a famous painter for his times. At that meeting they discuss the decorative details of the same building, which is soon about to come into construction. The architect is called Pencho Koychev, the painter- Haralampi Tachev. That day Koychev confesses of the problems he had had while designing and the need he felt to consult painters, woodcarvers, sculptors and decorators in the process. He shares his opinion that collaboration between experts of fine and applied arts, which are anyway closely connected in architecture, would be very fruitful.
In 1878 the Bulgarian country regains its status as an independent state after almost five centuries of foreign occupation – times in which to preserve the national identity, spirit and religion was put to the ultimate test. Still, somehow even without a country for so long, the nation kept strong and after reestablishing itself, first direction the young people and builders of new Bulgaria took was to work strictly for the continuation of that tradition and to rebuild an almost forgotten identity. Architecture was led by the same principles.
The period between 1878 and 1940 is characterized with moving away from the oriental influence and coming closer to the contemporary construction achievements and styles of European countries. The prerequisites of this process have been dealt with – these are: independence, economic development, cultural and domestic necessities, graduate specialists, new tasks in the housing construction (tall buildings, large distances between the props). However the process is moving slowly in a few distinguishable steps.
The period before 1860 describes the complete traditional style of Bulgarian building culture. The construction method used was almost entirely rickety construction, one or two story buildings, mostly residential function. The common and most characteristic feature of housing construction during the period of The National Revival (roughly mid18th century) is the marked tectonic constructiveness of the decision, along with the functional and aesthetic determining of every element of the construction. The appearance and activity of the building schools were crucial – in this way were preserved and handed down the traditional, prescriptive, architectural and building skills, and strict control was established. Only in that way was it possible for the traditional and national identity to be preserved for centuries of foreign occupation.
A very interesting element, simultaneously belonging both to the wall and the floor, and which as strong effect on the Bulgarian National Revival architecture, is the bay window. This element is functionally meaningful for it provides a direct visual connection from the interior of the building (which was usually very closed) to the exterior – in often cases the only look towards the street and sequentially the surrounding. The general development, as rule, leads to larger distances between the prop, and light construction decisions (with corresponding risks), as well as an aspiration towards merging spaces (Hall effect).
Further on, as the new country started to reestablish itself, new functions and new requirements emerged. The first period of the transition, the years straight after 1878, is characterized with first attempts for modernization – and sequentially beginning drifting apart from the traditions in building crafts. This phase stands for the first appearance of solid walls and their rash development. Cities started growing, the capital needed strong representational organs. Therefore in the first 20 years after the independence, the greater part of the residential, administrative and representational architecture was conceived mainly by foreign architects – mostly Austro-Hungarian, but also German, Polish, Armenian, Italian and of course Russian. Most of them erected buildings in the country without previously studying the traditions, aesthetic and scale of the region and simply reproducing what was being built in central Europe in the end of the 19th century. This led to changes in the entire architectural gestalt: the bay window became a terrace; pilasters, massive cornices, arcades started to appear. Of course soon afterwards this tendency meets great opposition from a society with very nationalist views. Anyway the “new style” of building in that period still concerns only the public buildings with administrative and representational functions – buildings which anyway didn’t exist in that form before the independence . For the residential and spiritual buildings still the traditional ways are applied, the connection to the revival period is still very strong and plays important role even in the newly constructed buildings. Although there is awareness of the parallel happening architectural processes in middle Europe, there is no sign of any connection yet.
The second period, after 1890, distinguishes a significant advancement in the implementation of solid walls and the beginning use of reinforced concrete. Determining architectural look for the towns becomes the massive single story house. It is in these years that for the first time the traditional approaches are decisively left behind and attention is consciously turned towards middle Europe, although there were also other tendencies to be observed like Russian influences, national style and others.
The first generation of Bulgarian architects, most of who had studied abroad, appear around 1900, in a time when there was a choice to be made – either stick to the traditional “style”, recreate and preserve what has already been done, or actively work in the way they were thought abroad.
Pencho Koychev – himself received his higher education in Brussels, was one of the first architects from that generation. That day his meeting with Haralampi Tachev happens to become historical, for at that evening they decided to form a “circle of the young power” – artists from different disciplines, who would “understand each other” and support each other. The newly established fellowship receives the name “Contemporary art”.
Its goal becomes the creative unity of representatives from different areas of the arts and crafts – architects, painters, decorators and sculptors, supporters of the new art and the free aesthetic. One of its main pursuits is the introduction and popularization of the new art – with its new aesthetics and stylistic. It gathers artists with “new thinking”, different from the traditional understanding typical for the period, who represent the strive for breaking up with the academic manners of the post-revival period. But at its core, the main aim of the fellowship is while studying the deep roots of the Bulgarian national art practice, to recreate them in the spirit of the new, free from academic restrains, aesthetics. They aim to be open for the new and learn from it, but to reestablish it and feed it with national identity. This intention, even formulated written down, draws it very close to the Societe Centrale d’Architecture de Belgique, created 1872, in which program and activity is set the idea for propagating new national style, close to the structural rationalism of Viollet-le-Duc and the formula that “… There is nothing beautiful in architecture, which is not true”. This becomes a cornerstone postulate for the social position and artistic attitude for the “Contemporary Art” society in Bulgaria.
This circle gathers all kinds of artists, under whom are also the architects Georgi Fingov and Kiril Marichkov.
Georgi Fingov was born in Kalofer, Bulgaria on 13. 05. 1874 in the family of Dimitar Fingov. His father, was a highly educated man for those times – he studied in Kiev and Moscow, spoke a few languages, he worked as a teacher and is known to have been a friend and helper of the most prominent revolutionaries of the pre-independence period Vassil Levski and Hristo Botev. After the Independence is announced he is shortly governor of Targovishte, Pleven and Botevgrad, afterwards goes back to teaching, the profession he truly loved.
His son, Georgi, was the best mathematic student seen in the Plovdiv High school at his times. After graduating in 1892 he leaves to study architecture at the Vienna University of Technology. During his studies, Georgi Fingov assists the renown professor Karl Mayreder, works in his office on details of the Karlskiche church, designs of a villa in Hinterbühl and plans for the square in front of the technical university at Karlsplatz (Resselpark). This all happens the same year 1898 when Otto Wagner builds the famous Ubahn Stations- Twins at Karklsplatz, the bridge at Währingerstrasse and the Gürtel.Wagners residential building at Linke Wienzeile 38 is almost completed and is to become a source of inspiration and admiration to the young architect Dimitar. In 1897 Fingov receives his diploma with distinction and stays an year longer in Vienna while working as assisting professor for antic architecture in the Technical University of Vienna. In 1898 he returns to Bulgaria.
His granddaughter, the translator Barbara Mueller, tells stories of her grandfather’s exceptional sense for duty and responsibility – to his family but also to society. She remembers him telling her that we are responsible not only for what we are doing, but also for the things we don’t do. She remembers many interesting things about her grandfather also from her mother, Milka. To Georgi the thought to live and work outside of his country was impossible – coming from Kalofer, a town strongly connected with the revolutionary events from not long before his birth, he was known for his modesty and he insisted that in his family a similar attitude towards life existed.
In this spirit, after leaving Vienna, he goes to Plovdiv, where with the only other architect in town - Valkovich, after a series of fortunes, they open an architectural office.
However, although Fingov was one of the first foreign stundents of architecture to come back and build the “new look” of the bulgarian city, some signs of emerging secession were already visible on the balkans. P. Momchilovs house built in 1899 came as evidence that creative concepts in Bulgaria were in line with the spirit of the time. The beggining aspect of secession in Bulgaria can very well be described as a “historic - romantic” aspect in which a group of architects of the first generation (Petko Momchilov, to some extent Jordan Milanov, Anton Tornyov, Naum Torbov) experimented to some extent successfully was an attemt at interpreting the Neo- Byzantine style lexis in the light of H. Guimard’s concepts transmitted through Viloett-le-Duc. The Mineral Bath in Sofia is definitely the most emblematic example. Having been though several painful design stages, revealing nuances of the Austrian Neoclassicism and the French Renaissance Reival, this building is remarkable for the new `dynamic` principles of interaction among architectural elements, romantic Early Middle Ages hints in the decoration and the stylistic lexis.
P. Momchilov, J.Milanov and A.Tornyov ( in his early works) followed closely the suggestions of the Mount of Athos, Epirus and Nessebar, which gave the impression of a delayed Bulgarian architectural historicism dominated by the decorative. However, the romantic was given not as an archaic reminiscence but in its evolution, translated into the universal language of Secession.
One of the buildings where the national - romantic concept is most organically interwoven with secession is the buidling of Tsentralni Hali ( The central covered market in Sofia). The architect, N. Torbov designed the spacious inner space as a large metal structure with a feeling for the specifics of the material that he shared with V. Horta and H. Guimard.
Back in Plovdiv, Fingov together with Valkovich build the French college for girls. Later Georgi continues his work alone and builds the Protestant church in Plovdiv, the women’s association “Mother care” and a few residential buildings. That first practice lastis until 1902.
The architect also works on the restoration of the “St. Dimitar” monastery in Evksinograd. At this time he wins a series of competitions with arch. Kiro Marechkov. Their joint collaboration continues until 1906.
When in 1903 Marichkov and Fingov complete the building of the merchant Laos Funk, Fingov announces with pride that “this is the first truely secession building in Bulgaria”.
Built as a villa, just outside the noisy city center, this two-story house has ver well played functional plan and without any formalism it provides a perfect setting for a “life cultivating esthetic”, as the merchant had requested. As the floorplan is rather free, space develops dynamicly inside the building and it forms in an organic way the entire house. The multitude of niches, terrases, avant-corps, “bay windows”, the complex behaviour of the roof create different spacial conditions, play with light and shadow and give plasticity to the interior space.
All decorative details follow the concept of natural fluidity and connectivity - maidens faces, floral motifs and geometrical decorations remind of Koloman Moser and Wagner cherish the main entrance and the interiors.
At the age of 28, Fingov goes to Sofia and acquires the position of head of architectural department and the municipality of the capital. Later he also becomes in charge of royal palaces as a Ministry of Public Works and single handedly designed the the Sitnyakovo mountain lodge and the Tsarska Bistritsa royal hunting lodge, both in Rila, and the smaller of the two palaces at Vrana near Sofia. He designed also the interior and the furniture for each one of the buildings.
Tsarska Bistritsa hunting residence is a utilitarian building carrying typical Alpine features, which in combination with the imagery of the art nouveau, proved the perfect style that fit the natural surroundings and made it the highlight of the Chamkoriya resort.
The absence of markedly Bulgarian traditional characteristics in the architectural concept is largely balanced by the interior decoration, executed by the brothers wood carvers Petar and Luka Kunchev. In these early works one can already read the regionalist in Fingov - while greatly using and learning from the forms and dynamic of secession, he applies it in a subtle way - rather in details and ornaments. Readable are similarities in the language, but the materiality is also local - the use of wood as main material and its treatment, the stucco, the stone, the ceramic roof-tiles.
The Tsarska Bistritsa complex provided a new benchmark in the development of modern Bulgarian architecture.
In close proximity to the Borovets resort and the Tsarska Bistritsa palace are located another two estates – Sitnyakovo summer residence and Sara Gyol hunting lodge. Both of them designed by architect Georgi Fingov and built in 1904, they carry architectural features akin to the Tsarska Bistritsa hunting residence – the traditional utilitarian high-mountain construction with coherent art nouveau decorations and interior furnishing. Remarkable is the south facade of the Royal summer residence Vrana, also known as Vila 1, completed entirely out of wood, with skilfully carved details, it reaches back to the roots of the traditional building craftsmanship (executed by specially invited masters from Tryavna - a Bulgarian town, known for its wood craftsmanship) and underlines the connection to the forest. Morphologically it is a perfect continuation of the building, extending on the higher level to create what was typical for the national revival period housing, namely the Bay window.
At the age of 31, Georgi leaves the Ministry and fully devotes to his private practice. Together with the architects Nikola Uirukov and Dimo Nichev later he establishes a joint studio, working on projects mainly for public schools.
Through the years 1906 till 1908 Fingov works also on the designs of his own family house on Shipka street 38 in Sofia. In the year 1913 it is finished. Situated close to the center of Sofia, this small house is said to have taken “the best out of its creator”. Fingov has designed not only the house but also the entire interior and all furniture. The architect recreats the aesthetic comfort and splendour from Vila 1, but doesnt forget the meaning of the buidling. The exterior is rather simple - no decorations were added on the facade - reminding even stronger of Olbrich and Saarinen. Its clearly distinguished features of secession we find in the main organic gestalt, in the connections between the objects in a the whole, the roof formation and the windows. The interior spaces are interconnected with multiple small and bigger staircases, making it a very comfortable to reside. Nevertheless with details such as the wood carved statue-column at the entrance (done by the sculptor Andrei Nikolov), wood claded interior walls,
an interesting morph of the national Bay window, this time extecuted like an attribute of a western secession building, remind of us where that building stands - connect to the traditions and present of the bulgarian city.
Later on he temporary leaves his design work to take part in the Balkan war and later the First World War. In 1919, back in Sofia, he establishes a new office with the architects Dimo Nichev and Georgi Apostolov, whose practice lasts until January 1, 1926.
Dimo Nichev, a university graduate from Graz and Apostolov - the youngest of all in the group, a past-student of TU Munich share a lot of the ideas and ideals of Fingov. In 1911 the trio wins a comission for the design of a series of state schools and universities in Sofia. Therefore the three architects travel to all big cities in Germany, Austro- Hungary, Switzerland to study the typology of modern schools in those developed countries. Only in a few months, they accomplish a tremendous amount of work - they prepare individual projects for eight schools and begin construction works: “Antim 1st” on Oborishte street, “Vassil Aprilov” on Shipka street, “G.S. Rakovski” in Lozenec (currently one of Sofias districts) and so on. In each one of those schools the taste of secession is unescapable, evident in the placticity of the body, the play of light and shadow, the dynamic in the roof.Yet each one of them has its individual specifics.For example at the school “V. Aprilov” we find the stone cladding at the entrances - a rathern northern practice, yet also typical for the monasteries in the Bulgarian mountines, at the schools “Fotinov” and “T. Minkov” - the descrete influence of Vienna in the floral decorations; in school “Graf Ignatiev” - the Barock interventions of Wagner.
After that until 1938 Fingov works alone. At the age of 64 he concludes his most productive years, the reason for that is that he becomes guarantor of entrepreneurs and consequently loses his entire fortune.
The big architect is desperate. At a moment of deep depression he destroys his entire archive with his works. It is known that there were moments when he wanted to put end to his life. At those hard moments the only thing that keeps him together is his family – his wife Raina and his children Dimitar and Milka. Raina comes from an old and famous family from Pleven, yet another revolutionary town. She manages to keep a strong and yet serene atmosphere at home despite the series of tragedies that follow.
Georgi Fingov and his wife were killed in 1944 during the bombing of Sofia in World War II.
In almost 40 years of architectural career Fingov plans over a hundred private houses in Sofia, Plovdiv and the region, 15 schools; banks and municipality buildings, important state buildings in Varna, Burgas, Svishtov, Pleven and Veliko Tarnovo. His creative productivity cannot be compared to that of many of his collegues. And yet, as once said “Fingov turned Sofia into a `small Vienna`” - a deserved statement, but not ful. For Fingovs works are not simply Secession, the way he learned it from his masters - they are Secession the way a bulgarian would build it, the way the region would treat it, the way the locals will use it. And that is where the quality and strength of his buildings lay.
for the seminar “Critical Regionalism” SS2014 with Prof. L.Lefaivre
Chavdar Angelov : “Сградостроителството в България” - ” Housing construction in Bulgaria “ - Prof. Marin Drinov Academic Publishing House, Sofia 2011
G. P. Abraliev : “Строителнин и художествени традиций на българската архитектура” - Държавно издателство “Техника”, Sofia 1977
N. Lazarov : “ Сецесионът и българската архитектура” - Prof. Marin Drinov Academic Publishing House, Sofia 2011
L. Lefaivre, Alexander Tzonis : “Architecture of Regionalism in the Age of Globalization: Peaks and Valleys in the Flat World”
Капитал Light - newspaper : “The small Vienna” by Mariana Melnishka, 16.05.2014
All images and text copyright Elena Krasteva
Header Image by Boris Dimovski