Dimitar Kambourov

Sofia: Large City Sofia: Little Apple

Sofia: Large City Sofia: Little Apple
title: Sofia: Large City Sofia: Little Apple
year: 2006
editor(s): Alexander Kiossev
publisher: East-West
ISBN/ISSN: 978-954-321-584-3
language: english
author(s): Dimitar Kambourov
source: Interface Sofia, 2006, Sofia: East-West, ISBN: 978-954-321-584-3
supported by: relations, the German Federal Cultural Foundation

It grows but does not age
Sofia City's motto

Weep! There, near the edge of Sofia town
Stretches – I saw it – a dismal gallows...
“The Hanging of Vassil Levski” by Hristo Botev

City of granite, gigantic city,
Sofia, sorrowless woe,
Sofia, rickety cart,
And you, raven, cursed bird ...
“Sofia” by Donnow Hum

A house on its last legs, ready to go...
My mom's saying about the place we lived in

If I have eventually chosen to voice my views on the issues surrounding the city of Sofia, it is because, in the increasingly frequent debates on the city's current condition and the measures to be taken for its improvement, my thesis, which was seen as extravagantly useless and inconsequentially arrogant, found no supporters. The present text is an attempt to unfold and elaborate it, so that I could consolidate and promote it.

I do not know much about city planning or urban construction. Nor have I traveled so much as to have a reliable basis for comparison. Still, I could claim that the capitals and cities which I have been to, and which are representative of the Western hemisphere1 fall into two broad categories. One contains cities which have their own physiognomy, a memorable face, an image that springs to mind along with the name and the idea of the particular location; a schema that is commonly perceived as a symbol, as a representative and overarching synecdoche of the place. Such cities are Paris and Brussels, San Francisco and Amsterdam; likewise, Prague and Vienna, Athens and Rome, as well as Strasbourg and Cologne, Chicago and Krakow; and, in spite of their derivative nature, Budapest and Saint Petersburg. All of these leave an imprint on one's consciousness through a visual image, which splits into symbol and identity. These cities all have a face that epitomizes their character. This trait – a peculiar architectural feature, an individual building, a unique view – crystallizes into a solid schema. Along with their physiognomy, they assume the aura of cities with a past and with a charisma, whether they are judged as beautiful or ugly. The consensus surrounding their being endowed with a face is, incidentally, a more reliable basis for their success as tourist destinations than their supposed beauty, which is seldom universally agreed on. Thus, I may not like Budapest or Brussels, but I can hardly deny them their “personal face”, just as others, who do not find Athens or St. Petersburg beautiful, would not deny these cities this tautological label.

The other category contains cities that are, rather, impersonal. Whether spiritual or endowed with an excessive bodiliness, these cities deposit themselves as an emotion, an atmosphere, a mood, rather than positing themselves as a visual image, an architectural style or another schema. Whereas the cities in the first category depend on a phenomenology and a hermeneutic appropriation, those in the second seem to lack phenomenological solidity. They do not crystallize into a recognizable and memorable schema, do not prompt an indelible vista, yielding universal messages. These cities function at a more fundamental structural level. Because of their impersonality and lack of human measure, beauty and its sisters do not become them. These cities could be either sublime or disfaced; in other words, “terrific”, “awesome”, “smashing”, or alternatively “ugly”, “awful”, or “disgusting”, in the vernacular language.

The most impersonal of all large cities in the world is probably Los Angeles; its shapeless facelessness and its sprawling low-rise bulk make it sublime in a tremblingly ugly, awfully frightening Burkean manner. In contrast, New York is sublime in a Kantian manner, even though it takes its Manhattan some effort and hesitation to discard the enticing mask of beauty. London is schizophrenically split between the two patterns, with connoisseurs choosing the vibrations of its factory-like fiber over its slick patina; the Tate Modern over the Tate. More categorically lacking in physiognomy are Moscow and Warsaw, Istanbul
and Bucharest.

It is possible for cities endowed with a physiognomy to be plain by virtue of their pitiable dysfunction or malformation, resulting from the incommensurability between an inherent parochial measure and an assigned representative function; such cities are, for instance, Belgrade and Washington D.C., which put on airs, but are aware of their true scale. The opposite is also possible: cities with a physiognomy could lose face, to the point of sublime ineptitude, by virtue of the traditional function they have been stripped of. This is the case with the otherwise dazzling Istanbul, which recalls that fabled beast in Aristotle's Poetics, divested of aesthetic and mimetic relevance because it was 20,000 stadia long. But physiognomic ugliness could not be mistaken for the ugliness of the complete shapelessness of disfigurement and defacement; the latter borders on the inhuman, which is even more frightening when the traces of the sometime face now only bear witness to

Where does Sofia belong? It well fits the requirements for a faceless city: it is a disfaced and a defaced city, ugly rather than sublime, and yet, for this very reason, not really inhuman. On the contrary: it is human, all too human. This becomes evident when a citizen of Sofia has to show around a foreigner whom he or she values. His good will's labour's lost. Sofia is no city of sights: it does not have much to offer to the amateur tourist or the common-or-garden lover of beautiful or singular architectural forms. A self-appointed guide will face the dismay at how little he or she has looked at and seen his or her own city, and how few are the sights that appear to be potentially attractive. Such a guide is about to find out how scanty are the places worth seeing. Bulgaria's capital, rather, seems to subvert our efforts to pass for an exotic tourist culture. A single day will suffice to make the sightseeing experience repetitive.

Sofia is faceless in a manner reminiscent of a careless, uncouth palimpsest: a succession of copyists scrub and scrawl upon their predecessors' work, without bothering to first scrub out the predecessors' dead bodies, nor their own fingerprints, and bothering even less to build these bodies or their shadow into what is being erected in their place. Sofia looks like a city that has been built and refashioned by a peculiar tribe, unable to experience guilt or history, and yet resentful. It is as if the tribe in question was a somnambulist or a drunk, who at night digs up corpses and buries fresh ones in their place without remembering a thing in the morning, but knowing that he has good reason to feel out of joint. Sofia is a city built, as it were, by folks who fail to see the wood not for the trees, but rather for the tree where their own hollow is. The way the city was built reveals how, on the strength of a certain modernity, Bulgarian individualism transformed material into spiritual destitution. Sofia is a mark of the new Bulgarian's endemic ineptitude to work for the community as an engine of his or her own fulfillment and overall prosperity. The city's emergence seems to have followed the pattern of spawning in confusion and haste. The scant traces of any planning, order and statesmanship are gradually fading. The spirit of the Parliament building, bearing the motto Unity makes strength, emanates no less from Radisson's tables right opposite, bustling with the racket of wheeling and dealing, than from the abandoned M.P. benches in the Parliament itself.

This city lacks not only glamour and beauty; it also lacks ambition and self-respect: so dilapidated and filthy is it that it looks like a ghost city.

Filth feels at home and at ease in Sofia, as if it were an inherent property. Through filth the city displays its superiority over its ghostly residents. Its people appear to be lulled into a habit by the power of disintegration and decay. Sofia is among the few cities which do not even make a half-hearted attempt to transform these forces into patina; the city never reaches for the tarnished sheen of an enduring past, or for the discolored luster of nostalgia. Sofia lacks the face, the self-esteem, and the ambition to even simulate an urban environment with a past. Wretchedly deprived of feminine virtues and wiles, this city is also deprived of the dignity of old age, as, incidentally, its motto proclaims. In a monstrous, moronically infantile way, Sofia truly “grows but does not age”: it does not grow up, does not mature, does not grow wise.

Sofia looks, rather, like a patched-up premature ruin, caught up in the mindless hustle among shame, oblivion and inebriation; a city that has abandoned all illusion before its own gallows-gates, a city that lives from hand to mouth, and, in a state of permanent drunken haze, never ceases to recreate the enervated institution of an endless, careless feast into the mundane reality of an “all-day masquerade”. The blurred eye, the poor vision – into the space around, backwards into what has been, forwards into what is to come – is the very prerequisite for the city's survival.

So, Sofia is an ugly city by virtue of its original construction, of its palimpsestic re-construction. The Sofia mentality, a combination of nonchalance, oblivion and habit, makes the city into a haven and shelter for peeling and cracking, for crumbling and caving in, for ailing collapse, for swarming sores, for blistering decay. This is a city without a past and without a future, as well as without a sense of the present. A city of no resident community; a city of toughened ghosts. A city of mindless inebriation, of oblivion and blindness, of the quotidian trapped in the jail of the festive. A city of mould and greenish facades, covered in boils and blisters, of roofs falling in, of wheezing basements and sturdy lichen; a city of bursting clammy carbuncles and bloated stucco, of balconies wobbling in their iron braces like teeth wobbling in receding gums, a city of tumescent decay without decadence, of decline without occidental declination.

What, then, can be done about the appearance of a city like Sofia? The most effective solution would seem to be razing it to the ground and rebuilding it as a modern city that has shed its obsessions, pretensions or illusions, as well as its self-conscious inhibitions and nightmares. In the hysteric building spree that has taken over the city, there seem to be signs of such a modernist impulse of destructive substitution, of radical gesticulation, of constructive forgetfulness. But this hectic building is just as blind to a possible shared horizon, just as careless of correlations, ensembles or unities. And how could a city's character, atmosphere and mien change if the people inhabiting it are still the same: small-time, piecework profiteers, blinkered small minds, ignoring the fits of urban decay in the comfort of their sovereign homes, their castles. Yet the city's life creeps in under their doors, makes its way through their windows, falls down from their chimneys, seeps in as a stench from the sewer, leaks from the tap, comes in with the gust through cracks and crevices, stares at them through their neighbors' brutish eyes, begging for alms for themselves and pleading for mercy for their blind, ferocious and famished dogs.

What are you to do with a city like Sofia? If you are rich, you'd better escape or seek shelter from its life in the oases of the untouchables, in those exclusive residential areas at the foot of the Vitosha Mountain or even farther? And if you are poor, there is nothing for it but to appropriate your city without taking notice of it; to efface it from your eyes and mind, to replace it with frequent trips or with the interiors of material or spiritual comfort, with your imagination or with a fixation on the last remnants of life, nature and good weather in a park squeezed between parking lots, in a green spot huddled between office buildings and apartment blocks.

The lines above were supposed to exude a sense of dispirited irritation, and at the same time suggest a certain exaggeration, heightened colors, excess. This is the case because such bitterness betrays a jealous blindness acquired when your gaze is too focused on whatever is above and to the west. As a matter of fact, Sofia is not in the least remarkable, not even as a bad place to live or as an ugly city. Cities like Sofia – dilapidated, decaying and faceless; shoddy, trashy and tawdry – undoubtedly far outnumber both those cities that have their own physiognomy and those with an atmosphere of sublime and ecstatic inhumanity. Sofia is like countless other cities which can be defined by the mild euphemism “night cities”: cities of night life, night beauty, night entertainment, the night.

Sofia is a night city: ugly in the daylight, it becomes beautiful, or at least acceptable, passable and attractive at night. Rubbish-like in the daytime, the city puts on the mantle of Sofia by night, when the faint outlines of its arousing repose overflow into a brazen bliss and a panting, slutty submissiveness. At this time Sofia reveals itself as a city of crevices and crannies, of pliantly permissive interiors, stretching around a mass of scantily-clad bodies under prickly lights and eviscerating sounds. Sofia, which can hardly make ends meet in the outdoor daylight, is in a festive mood in the dark indoors.

So the only solution that sounds feasible when it comes to the improvement of a city in a state of sustained social and spiritual poverty, moral collapse and national cultural disintegration, is to illuminate Sofia in the right way: the light should reveal it as a big barefaced brothel, where pop-folk star Azis's infidel icon rubs shoulders with national hero Levski's monument, where the bare-assed girl in the Gimoka coffee ad grins at the crypt in which the Gioconda was slashed, and where, in the headlights of the cars, the Church of St Sofia looks like a dissolute widow roaming the backstreets. Sofia needs to be illuminated in a way that would make us see how under its ragged skin organs are twitching inside, liquids are flowing and embryos are growing with that bewildering nonchalance of innards which, when operated on, keep functioning even though they are on display.

Sofia – innards outside, organs without a body. An underground city.

1. To some extent Istanbul and Moscow (but not Saint Petersburg) are exeptions to the case.

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Vector. ICA-Sofia: Motives, Analyses, Critique is a project by the Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia.
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