Friday, July 1, 2011

Even ugly parks find friends

Always, the more you learn about a place the more you realize your first impressions were off-kilter, or incomplete. The large park in downtown Sofia known as Bulgaria Square (or now, Youth Park), that I had supposed would be underused because of its unattractive design – the National Palace of Culture building in the middle of the park (see photo) is like a bad nightmare of Brasilia – was in fact well-peopled. Might it have had more visitors? Probably. But on the June evening I visited, it had a heckuva lot more people in it than many Charlotte parks would have. Being in the center of a large, high-density and walkable downtown does help a public space overcome bad design.

Bulgaria Square is the site for which a group of local architects, 2020 Sofia, have engaged a planner from New York's well-respected Project for Public Spaces in hopes of devising a plan for enlivening the park and – what I think may be even more important – for getting a lot of community involvement in helping plan and manage improvements. Here's an overhead view of the park, taken from the terrace of the Sky Plaza Restaurant on the top floor of the National Palace of Culture. (The restaurant itself seemed a relic of the 1980s – so dated as to almost be fashionable again. And the cream puff cake was outstanding!)
There's an ugly sort of monument, barely visible in the upper right part of the photo. PPS planner Elena Madison told the conference that at the PPS workshop on the park, some participants had suggested it become a site for rock-climbing. My Lonely Planet travel book noted that the "Monument to the Bulgarian State," built in 1981, has been walled off because it has been falling apart for years. The book recounts: " ' Be careful there,' one local warned. ' You can still get hurt by communist society!' "

Another piece of hideous Modernist-style design, the Tsar Boris Park, holds the controversial Monument to the Soviet Army, which had recently been – take your pick of terms here – defaced, vandalized or graced with guerrilla art. Here's a link to a photo and article. Someone with a good sense of humor sneaked in by night and painted the Soviet heroic figures in the colors of Superman, Santa Claus, the Joker, Ronald McDonald, etc.  Some people were outraged, in part because of a general lack of upkeep throughout Sofia has made graffiti both common and pernicious. Hooliganism. Vandalism.  Or maybe social commentary? You be the judge. Whatever the case, a private group cleaned the monument up within a few days, leading to grumbles about why no one could clean up all the graffiti just as quickly.

The park containing the defaced-then-cleaned monument seems to be a semi-formal skateboard park. There are skateboard amenities, and the afternoon I visited a reasonable number of kids looking to be ages 12-18ish, clambered on the monument and swigged from what looked, from a distance, to be a large plastic bottle of Sprite.

The conference was sponsored by the Johns Hopkins International Urban Fellows Association, and drew about three dozen planners, architects and academics from around Europe, plus New Zealand. The topic – management of public spaces in Sofia - is of course one without any simple answer or conclusion.  But, as I wrote, it's one that's by no means limited to former Communist nations in Eastern Europe.


Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

I have to say, that is some of the coolest graffiti ever! Bravo!

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