Dimitrovgrad. An Industrial New Town in Bulgaria develops its ambiguous (...) - INTI - International New Town Institute

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An Industrial New Town in Bulgaria develops its ambiguous cultural heritage.
article by Aneta Vasileva
Der Richter der Gerichtete, John Heartfield. Source: 

There is one famous photomontage of John Heartfield for a November 1933 issue of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ). 

A courtroom in Leipzig. An enormous Georgi Dimitrov is looming over a small, hands-on-hips Göring, who is angrily spitting words at him. This montage addresses the Reichstag fire trial of which the Bulgarian, then a Comintern functionary and leader of the Bulgarian Communist party, was accused, but walked away acquitted and as a world famous anti-fascist hero. This is a poster which every Bulgarian child before 1989 knew by heart. 

After settling in Moscow, Georgi Dimitrov was appointed head of the Comintern in 1934 by Stalin himself and entered his inner circle. Dimitrov lived through the Great Purge and the Great War and returned to Bulgaria in 1946 after 22 years in exile to become the first communist leader of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. In September 1947, just 2 years before his abrupt death, Prime Minister Dimitrov issued a decree that a brand-new socialist city bearing his name would be established in the Thracian Valley, some 200 km to the south-east of Sofia, on the banks of the Maritsa River. 

The Youngest City
The date 2.IX.1947 still adorns the coat of arms of the city as the birthday of Dimitrovgrad. It is the first city in Bulgaria built almost entirely from scratch and the only city in Bulgaria built by the “brigades” movement. Thousands of young volunteers realised the city and many of them (nearly 15.000) remained to live there.

By the end of World War II, Bulgaria was a mostly agricultural country with less than 35% of its population living in cities. The country was spared severe war destruction and only the capital Sofia was seriously hit by Allied bombing in 1943/1944, though not to the extent of many other European and Asian cities. However, Bulgaria fell within the Soviet sphere of political influence after the war and was subjected to rapid modernization including industrialization, urbanization, development of public facilities along with post-war reconstruction and redevelopment.

Dimitrovgrad was the ultimate propaganda showcase to outline this transition from rural to urban society and a flagship example of the rapid modernization efforts which coincided with the official introduction of the aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism in 1948 and thus formed a specific genre of proletarian luxury. 

This was a town built in its entirety over a very short period of time (late 1940s - early 1950s), based on a unified plan and a single goal - to accommodate rapid industrialization not only by providing factories and railway stations, but also by building housing worthy of the working “hegemony class”. [1]

Young volunteers - “brigadiers”, 1940s. Source: ATRIUM Archive

The territory, developed before the war as a mining region, had already started to become an active industrial region after 1944. All the pre-existing mines had been nationalized and the new nitrogen-fertilizer plant, the cement plant “Vulkan” plus one of the biggest power plants in the country were under construction. New settlements had already started to appear close to the new industrial complex by the Maritza River. And then the decree came in 1947: the first socialist city in Bulgaria was to be built at this location, benefitting from the already existing railway system, the favourable natural setting and the river. Dimitrovgrad united the pre-existing villages Rakovski, Mariyno and Chernokonevo with a brand new central urban zone. It was decided that construction works would be carried out by young volunteers. The first builders started to arrive in May 1947 and by the end of the grand construction effort their total number had reached a staggering 50.000. 

Two architects, two plans
Dimitrovgrad’s urban design is associated with the names of two architects - Lyuben Tonev and Petar Tashev and their two consecutive urban development layouts. Both the plans and the architects were rather different. But only at first sight. 

The first plan was prepared in 1947-1948 by the team of Lyuben Tonev and introduced a system of satellite “villages” connected to a central core and preserving most of the already formed settlements around the different industrial zones in the region. The centre was planned to occupy the existing railway station square, the public zone - to be developed in East-Western direction and the railway station itself - to be relocated by the river, on the northern border of the city core. The town was planned for a population of around 30/35.000 people. Buildings were low (2-3 stories high), building density was equally low and greenery was abundant. [2]

Tonev himself had studied in France before the war and graduated in Paris first as an architect (1929) and then as an urbanist (1930) under the supervision of André Proust, Jacques Greber and Auguste Perret. In the 1930s he was head of the newly formed Urban Planning Service at the Sofia Municipality. With his distinctly leftist and antifascist political views, Tonev managed to preserve his position after the change of powers in 1944 and was appointed Director of the post-war Sofia Architecture and Urban Development Directorate. His Dimitrovgrad plan was influenced both by the popular late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century ideas for garden cities and satellite cities and also by the 1938 new Sofia city Masterplan, prepared by the German professor Adolf Mussmann. [3] The so-called “Plan Mussmann” envisioned green wedges reaching the centre of Sofia from its outskirts, a low density on the periphery and a modernist, functional approach to the old, unhygienic urban fabric. And though not immediately realized because of World War II, the ideas of the “Plan Mussmann” proved very influential on Bulgarian urbanists at the time. Many of them were ultimately realized though under a different political system. [4]

Plan Tonev, 1947-1948. Source: ATRIUM Archive

In the next couple of years following the preparation of the “Plan Tonev”, the construction of the satellite villages around Dimitrovgrad had started, but not yet of the town centre itself. In 1950 the Council of Ministers suspended Lyuben Tonev’s plan and a new team led by architect Petar Tashev was ordered to prepare a new plan. 

Now, Petar Tashev was younger, graduated in 1940 in Belgrade and was far less influenced by pre-war urbanist utopias. He was more loyal to the socialist-realist paradigms of the time. His plan presented a compact, axially symmetrical composition with far greater density and building height and with a prospect for an increase in population up to 75.000 people in 1970. The “Plan Tashev” was vividly decorative, producing a urban ornament developed along one large representative central axis (in North-Southern direction) organizing all the main public spaces - the Railway Station Square (Tashev preserved the station at its old place, thus dividing the town in two), the Theatre Square and finally the Central Square with the Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters and the House of Soviets (Dom Sovetov) which were obligatory part of every proper Stalinist town planning. The axis was naturally continued by the central alley of the newly designed “Recreation and Culture Park” along the Maritsa River. 

Plan Tashev, 1951. Source: ATRIUM Archive
Plan Tashev. (top left) Plan of the central part of Dimitrovgrad. (top right) Model of the central part of Dimitrovgrad. (bottom) Recreation and Culture Park. Source: Archive of “Arhitektura i Stroitelstvo” / “Architecture and Construction” Magazine

A series of secondary perpendicular axes were also developed in East-Western direction to connect the different districts of the town. Those residential areas were organized following the principles of the Soviet microrayons as culturally and socially independent districts, divided by city roads, with residential blocks, grouped around park spaces.

At first sight, the “Tashev Plan” is firmly crossing out all the “bourgeois utopias” for garden cities and is strictly applying the urban principles of Stalinist socialist realism in its most “orthodox” Stalinist form. Petar Tashev himself did this not only by his drawings, but also by vocally criticizing his predecessor in the professional press. In his 1951 article, published by the influential Arhitektura i Stroitelstvo (Architecture and Construction) Magazine, we read:

 “The grandeur of the era of Dimitrov, which is to be monumentalized by the new town of Dimitrovgrad, cannot be reflected in such low-rise, scattered and almost rural settlements. Former planners are in vain trying to justify this by the ideas of the so-called “garden cities”. But we should not understand the term in the spirit of the English “Garden City” or the French “Cité-jardin” which were once created to fit the tastes of petty bourgeoisie and the demagogue ideas of the so-called “municipal socialism”. Today the garden city is an ideal for the working class, but this term has a complete new, socialist meaning both for us and for the Soviet people.” [5]

Indeed, the “Plan Tashev” is urbanistically and architecturally following the visual code of socialist realism, which today remains easily discernible only along the centrally located grand boulevard. This axis is flanked and formally outlined by 5-6 story buildings with neoclassical decorative facades. They form closed quarters with angular buildings flanked by towers and ground floors enriched by large covered colonnaded passages. And though some of the architectural “highlights” of this composition have never been realized, such as the Theatre and the House of Soviets, the boulevard has a distinctly representative and stylistically homogeneous character. 

Tashev Plan. Archive perspective drawing. Source: ATRIUM Archive

However, a short distance from the central axis the situation is very different. The height of the buildings is gradually lowering and the perimeter blocks are disappearing, “disintegrated” into suspiciously modernist free standing structures amidst lush greenery. 

The final result
Despite the fact that the “Plan Tonev” was rejected, the parts that were built according to it have been preserved and are well used. For example, parts of the first satellite “villages” are today well included in active urban districts. [6]

And the “Plan Tashev”, despite its grand axes flanked with representative buildings, is actually not as dogmatic as the surfaces and the facades suggest. In fact it combines the inescapable visual side of the omnipresent Stalinist socialist realism with many town planning ideas of modernism - functional zoning, free standing buildings in large green areas, a division of residential and industrial zones by parks, etc. 

Archive photos of the city, 1950s. Source: Archive of “Arhitektura i Stroitelstvo” / “Architecture and Construction” Magazine

There is a story how in late 1980s the local journalist Dimitar Beremski made a bet with a fellow colleague from Deutsche Welle that wherever you live in Dimitrovgrad, you live in a park. The German did not believe him and… lost the bet. [7] Indeed, one can walk the town from north to south and from east to west only through green areas and parks. All the residential blocks, even the much later additions of prefab districts are placed within generous green spaces with mature trees, flowers and pedestrian alleys. 

Today, ironically, Dimitrovgrad is perhaps the only non-stop garden city in Bulgaria. 

Dimitrovgrad today. Top View. Source: ATRIUM Archive

First again.
Stalinist architecture as cultural heritage

For years, the Dimitrovgrad Municipality has been making systematic efforts to promote their city as a unique tourist site: the “youngest city in Bulgaria”, the “City of the Future”, the “City of Dreams”. 

In 2007, a big campaign was initiated for Dimitrovgrad to be listed as immovable cultural heritage. This campaign was supported both by architects, urbanists, journalists and researchers, and also by Dimitrovgrad’s own residents and local authorities.

Three years later, Dimitrovgrad was selected “Bulgarian Building Site of the Century’’ after a Bulgarian National Television campaign and a SMS voting. On April 18th, 2010, on the occasion of the International Day of Monuments and Sites, a large scientific conference was organized in Dimitrovgrad in the presence of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria to discuss options for preservation and protection of the city’s architectural cultural heritage. 

Finally, in November 2010 three sites in Dimitrovgrad - the boulevards Bulgaria and Dimitar Blagoev (in the central part of the city), the square in front of the Hristo Botev House of Culture and Maritsa Park were declared cultural property of national significance with great urbanistic and landscape value. The National Institute for Immovable Cultural Heritage (NIICH) determined the boundaries, protection zones and preservation regimes of the protected areas. Thus, Dimitrovgrad became the first city in Bulgaria to have declared and protected architectural ensembles from the period of socialism as cultural heritage. 

“Bulgaria” and “Dimitar Blagoev” Boulevards protected area. Source: Dimitrovgrad Case Study File. ATRIUM Archive
Square in front of “Hristo Botev” House of Culture protected area. Source: Dimitrovgrad Case Study File. ATRIUM Archive

One city, three identities. Dimitrovgrad today. 
Yet socialist architecture is only one of the three overwhelming identities of present-day Dimitrovgrad. Two of them are distinctly post socialist. 
Dimitrovgrad is indeed the young socialist “City of the Future”. 

Restoration of colonnade and sculptural elements. Central pedestrian area, Dimitrovgrad. Execution of the restoration and source of the image: Creative collaborative Nikolay-OM

But it is also the place with the biggest open market in Bulgaria (some say even in the Balkans). 

The Market from above. Source: Dimitrovgrad Municipality

The so-called Nedelen (Sunday) market gradually started developing in the late 1980s and exploded in the 1990s as an ad-hoc informal place for all kinds of formal and informal commerce. It used the city’s favourable geographical position and its strong transport connections with both Turkey, Asia and Western Europe. It also used all the cracks in the chaotic world of early post socialist economy and managed to exist on the periphery of all regulations. At the same time, with the steady decline of heavy industry, the Market (with capital M) was the place providing the daily necessities for many of Dimitrovgrad’s residents. 

The Market. Source: NOVA TV
The Market before the start of the school year - 15 September 2021. Source: Parvomai.net

Dimitrovgrad is also the symbol of the music genre “chalga”. This peculiar mix of oriental pop-folk motives reached an increased popularity in the 1990s and became notorious as some kind of guilty pleasure which every Balkan country enjoys and is ashamed of at the same time. 

The stars of Planeta Payner. Source: Planeta TV

Dimitrovgrad is the Bulgarian “capital of chalga” with the biggest record company “Payner” residing there. 

Planeta Payner Club it the centre of Dimitrovgrad. Source: Planeta TV

But, as the cultural anthropologist Velislava Petrova points out: “What makes Dimitrovgrad intriguing is the ability of its imaginary to combine the shameful and the glorious, from its past and present, and in such a way to stand apart from other Bulgarian cities”. [8]

Socialist realism has always been the shameful, foster child of socialist architecture, labelled as the “kitsch” period and opposed to the “heroic” return of the so-called “socialist modernism” of the 1960s and later. It was burdened with ideology, linked to the hardest time of Stalinist repressions and rejected vehemently after the death of Stalin and the Thaw under Khrushchev in 1956. Its visual characteristics were rediscovered, however, in the late eighties with the postmodern agenda. In the words of Boris Groys, it turned out that “the art of socialist realism has already bridged the gap between elitism and kitsch by making visual kitsch the vehicle of elitist ideas, a combination that many in the West even today regard as the ideal union of “seriousness” and “accessibility”. [9]

Post socialism added the layers of multiple identities and managed to form hybrid and actually inclusive cities.

Dimitrovgrad is the ultimate Bulgarian example. 


[1Pavel Popov, ‘First Again’, Abitare (14) 09/ 11 2011: 74-84. Sofia, p.75

[2Lyuben Tonev, Architecture in Bulgaria. 1944 - 1960. Sofia, 1962: Bulgarian Academy of Science, p.30-31 (Любен Тонев, Архитектурата в България 1944 - 1960. С.: Издателство на Българската академия на науките, 1962, p.30-31)

[3Ljubinka Stoilova, Totalitarian versus Authoritarian Urbanism: Politics and Design of Sofia in the 1930s - 1950s. EAUH 2008 - Ixth International Conference on Urban History; D. Zheleva-Martins, Y. Furkov, ‘Town planning evolution (1878-1938)’ in: A. Popov, a.o. (Ed.): Sofia. 120 years as capital of Bulgaria, Academic Publishing House Sofia, 2001, p.474

[4D. Zheleva-Martins, Y. Furkov, ‘Town planning evolution (1878-1938)’ in: A. Popov, a.o. (Ed.): Sofia. 120 years as capital of Bulgaria, Academic Publishing House Sofia, 2001, p.474. Grigor Doytchinov, Alexandra Đukić and Cătălina Ioniță, Planning Capital Cities: Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia. Graz: Verlag der Technischen Universität Graz, 2015, p.111

[5Petar Tashev, ‘The New Urban Plan of Dimitrovgrad’, Architecture and Construction Magazine (2-3) 1951, p.11-14 (Петър Ташев, „Новият градостроителен план на Димитровград”. Архитектура и строителство (2-3) 1951, p.11-14

[6Shomov, Plamen and Mriankova, Kamelia, ‘Dimitrovgrad - between procedures and emotions’, Arhitektura (5) 2010, p.37-38. (Шомов, Пламен и Мрянкова, Камелия. “Димитровград - между процедури и емоции”. Архитектура (5) 2010, 37-38)

[7Pavel Popov, ‘The Liveliest Architectural Monument - Dimitrovgrad. It is Never Late to Find Your Place’, Kultura 27/ 2731/ 13 July 2007 (Павел Попов, “Най-живият паметник на архитектурата - Димитровград. Никога не е късно да си намериш мястото”. Култура (27/ 2731/) 13 юли 2007)

[8Velislava Petrova, ‘Dimitrovgrad - Very Ancient or Very Young’, Seminar_BG (16), 2018.
(Петрова, Велислава. 2018. „Димитровград - много древен или много млад?“, Семинар_БГ, бр. 16., 2018) Available at: https://www.seminar-bg.eu/spisanie-seminar-bg/broy16/item/526-dimitrovgrad.html

[9Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992, p.11

Aneta Vasileva is an architectural historian, critic and publicist, based in Bulgaria. She holds a Ph.D. in architectural history and theory, specializes in postwar architecture and preservation of architectural heritage and teaches at the “History and Theory of Architecture” Department of UACEG - Sofia. 

Aneta has been a contributor to the international EU Programme ATRIUM (Architecture of Totalitarian Regimes of the XXth Century in Urban Management), to the Trans-European Research “Competition Culture in Europe” and most recently to Buzludzha’s Conservation and Management Plan, funded and organized by Getty Foundation and Deutsches Nationalkomitee von ICOMOS. Aneta is a member and secretary of DOCOMOMO Bulgaria and co-founder of WhAT Association, GRADOSCOPE and New Architectural Heritage. 

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