Sofia is the capital and largest city of Bulgaria, a EU member country since 2007, and the 14th largest city in Europe. The city is built west of the Iskar river, situated in the Sofia Valley at the foot of the Vitosha mountain, in a culturally relvant area of the Danube Region. It is home to over 1.2 million people.
The city’s landmarks reflect more than 2,000 years of history, including Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Soviet eras. Medieval Boyana Church has 13th-century frescoes. Built by the Romans in the 4th century, St. George Rotunda Church has medieval and Ottoman decoration dating to the 10th century.
The city is located 586 Kilometers to the Southwest of the Danube River.
Toplocentrala is based in the former heating plant of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia and the site of the Agora Pilot Project in the city.
Until 1949, 13,114 buildings were constructed and between 10,000 and 20,000 in each following decade. This makes the architecture of Sofia very unique. It exhibits traits from all eras, combining a wide range of architectural styles. These vary from Christian Roman architecture and medieval Bulgarian fortresses to Neoclassicism and prefabricated Socialist-era apartment blocks. A number of ancient Roman, Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian buildings are preserved in the centre of the city.
The Communist Era Heritage sites are quite prominent. One building from the era, also serving as the focus point for the AGORA project, is the very unique and promising urban regeneration project: The Regional Center for Contemporary Arts, or known locally as the “Toplocentrala.“
When the National Palace of Culture was built in 1981, Toplocentrala was constructed in the near South Park as its heating plant. It only served this purpose for 2-3 years, until central heating was installed. The plant had been constructed in the Park across from the Palace of Culture, transporting the heated water via pipes.
Since then, Toplocentrala has been standing abandoned in a beautiful central area in Sofia, next to a small river and well-connected with the res to ofthe city through big boulveards sorrounding the South Park .
In 2014, a group of artists and organizations formed an initiative to transform the disused building into a center for contemporary arts. The process was a difficult and arduous one, requiring the support of stakeholders, citizens, as well as departments in the local municipality.
Today, it operates as a cultural venue, with exhibition rooms, rehearsal halls and even residencies for artists. The cultural offer of Toplocentrala completes and enriches the cultural offer of and the National Palace of Culture and the city of Sofia.
Toplocentrala’s creative director Veselin Dimov, who was born in 1976 in Sofia, is mostly known as a director and actor. He’s busy managing and overseeing the center these days. Excited for what the future holds, he takes us on a tour of the newly renovated building. Let’s follow him as he shows us around and describes the activities and uses of space in and around this historic structure.
The facilities provide space(s) for exhibitions, performance halls, a small stage for readings, a cafe for socializing and events, and even artist-in-residencies for artists to live and create/perform on premises. Veselin Dimov tells us all about it…
In this interview, Veselin Dimov takes us on a historical journey of how the Toplocentrala project came into being.
Following the threat of being forced to evacuate because of the interest expressed in the building and site by investors, the group used their international connections to create visibility in the media and among the locals, and used this visibility to advocate on behalf of the establishment of a cultural center. He outlines the strategy they employed and how they navigated difficult waters to make the project become reality.
Toplocentrala is located on the verge of the Sofia downtown area, “hidden” in the outskirts of South Park. This unique location makes it both central and secluded at the same time. It’s neither a park feature – being hidden behind artificial slopes and the neglected river bank, nor connected with the residential area: the adjacent school and blocks of flats.
The regeneration project includes holistic renovation and refurbishment of the building for artistic purposes, based on an international architecture competition. Within this regeneration process, AGORA aims to bring a new culture of participation in culture and cultural governance.
The goal of the project is to give the space a strong meaning for its surroundings, integrating it with its adjacent environment – the park, the river and the residential area and its citizens
Have a look at the map to the left (click on it for more detail), to obtain a better understanding of where it’s situated, in relation to the city and the surroundings.
Better yet, have a view of the videos below, to see for yourself, the busy highway seperating the building from the city center, the idyllic and serene park it’s located in, the creek flowing next to it and the high-rises on the periphery surrounding the location. You’ll also notice the scenic mountain slopes in the distance.
This clip shows The South Park and the green and idyllic setting the Toplocentrale is located in, a far cry from the busy beltway adjacent to the site.
Toplocentrala is located on the verge of the Sofia downtown area, “hidden” in the outskirts of South Park, thus both central and secluded at the same time. This clip shows the busy beltway serving as a disconnect between the park the Toplocentrala is located in, and the grounds of the national palace of culture.
Have a look at the area from above: Our drone flies over the beltway and makes its way towards the park, in which the Toplocentrala is located. The high-rises surrounding the park stand in stark contrast to the idyllic greenery, which provides a much needed breath of fresh air and relaxing space for citizens.
In this interview, Sevdalina Voynova from the Sofia Development Agency lays out the goals of the project, which include sustainability, regeneration of an urban void, claiming heritage, and public engagement.
Sofia Development Association is an independent organisation – a resource centre for research, analyses, innovations and experiment, which creates conditions and encourages the constant dialogue between civil society, business, Sofia Municipality and academic institutions.
The aim of the regeneration and repurpose of the former heating plant is to serve the needs of the artistic community in Sofia, the region, and the general public.
Activating the building and converting it into a central location that provides a platform and space for arts and culture in Sofia, was a result of a process that took years, and is still in the works. The goals of the project are thus crucial in not only ensuring the survival and longevity of the project, but also in creating a pilot case and example that can be replicated throughout Bulgaria.
A crucial aspect of the sustainability of the project is the involvement of stakeholders at each step: the project aims to ensure all segments involved in the process, from the municipality to the artists themselves, have a voice that is heard and play a role in ensuring the continuity of Toplocentrala. The participatory model this sets to empower and involve all stakeholders in the decision making process.
Another key aspect, which makes the project unique, is the desire to create content that caters to citizens and is appealing to them. The Toplocentrala is aware that without support and financial contributions from the public, it will be dependent on funding schemes, which are precarious and can change depending on the shift in political power and goals.
Yet, this doesn’t discount the fact that financial support is necessary from institutions, and their involvement should not be discounted or dismissed. The project also aims to develop ideas and plans for the integration of Toplocentrala – all of its 4 895 м2 area – into the park and residential environment.
This balanced approach, one that combines a business model with an artistic outlook and culture work, is what will ensure the endurance of the project. The goals can thus be listed and described as follows:
The initial goals of the project are as follows:
In this interview, Atanas Maev (Chief Executive Officer at Derida Dance Center and Derida Stage) lays out goals of the project from an artistic perspective as well as in terms of community outreach:
…to connect with younger people and help create habits that can create a change in the youth of today.
Toplocenterala is to become a new space for art and culture in Sofia, with a broad spectrum of contemporary artistic, educational and social offerings. The strategy will be to integrate it efficiently with the park and residential environment, as well as surroundings, causing a positive regeneration effect on the whole surrounding district.
According to Anatas Maev, Toplocentrala needs to ensure a sustainable model, one which connects with citizens and creates revenue through social businesses and local support, beyond state and local funding. Politics can be precarious, and the landscape quite fluid, so in order to survive, the center should also incorporate alternative streams of revenue according to him. View the interview and his views on this matter in this clip.
There are many challenges facing Toplocentrala.
Generally, institutions seeking to break the confines of traditional culture and to create, promote and initiate change are facing similar challenges.
One of the biggest challenges is of course, lack of finances. The fear is that access to sufficient funds might be limited and jeopardize the much needed preparatory work taking place.
What’s more, time constraints are also highly challenging; different aspects of the project such as reconstruction, refurbishment, integration into the environment, testing models, are conducted at different speeds, putting pressure on the process and challenging the pre-planned timeline.
Toplocentrala will be fulfilling and providing solutions for a much needed purpose in the community where partnerships between different types and levels of government is also viewed as being a crucial and key element of providing diverse means of support for the initiative.
Since the establishment of Toplocentrala as a centre for contemporary art created significant expectations on behalf of the independent artistic sector, the demand for the space is so high that its programming is very challenging. AGORA will contribute to the establishment of an innovative participatory way of programming which will contribute to managing expectations, conflict and securing high artistic quality.
In the South Park district, next to the Regional Centre for Contemporary Arts Toplocentrala, the Perlovska River flows in its natural bed, full of wild vegetation. However, the landscape is not developed and the river is cut off from the Toplocentrala. In addition to the participatory planning of cultural actitivies, AGORA will contribute to improve the link between Toplocentrala and the adjacent Perlovska river (and more generally – with South park as a whole), by broad participatory process of ideation, solution building and citizen jury/feedback.
Finally, one of the biggest challenges facing social initiatives is the commensurability of impact: how does one measure and report impact on communities, individuals and groups? An ongoing participatory evaluation and the demonstration of success based on predefined criteria is key in this regard, and something various stakeholders are investing time and effort into.
Veselin Dimov expresses his thoughts on how the center will impact performing arts in Bulgaria. He highlights how the center will be providing much needed space for experimental, peculiar and unique performances by artists who otherwise, wouldn’t be able to find a venue among the options currently available in Bulgaria. He feels the impact of the center will thus, be significant in filling a much needed void.
Listen/view the interview snippet to obtain more information on the(possible) impact the Toplocentrala.
Toplocentrala aims to empower the independent/free artistic producers and performers of culture. Each year, new graduates emerge from educational institutions, most of them unable to obtain an opportunity to exhibit and explore their unique and peculiar voices.
By providing them an alternative place to experiment and perform, connect with citizens and procure their works, the center will be filling a much needed void. It will also hopefully establish itself as best practice that can be replicated throughout Bulgaria through this process.
Another important aspect of the center is that it values international cooperation and brings in international talent to exchange with and co-create alongside local talent. In this regard, it strengthens contemporary art by not only providing a modern venue, but opportunities for international exchange, networking and learning.
Last but not least, the impact of the center on the neighborhood cannot be overstated. The project will be triggering future regeneration projects as a good example, and curate streams of visitors to the area. Consequently, Toplocentrala hopes to serve as a model and inspiration to other potential renovation projects in Bulgaria via arts and culture.
Organizations and institutions, or places such as the Toplocentrala play a key role in ensuring practitioners find stages where they can meet with new audiences, experiment and connect, according to Maev. More importantly, he’d like to see the concept replicated throughout Bulgaria, to not only provide opportunities for young artists, but also culture culture and art is more accessible to local populations.
Listen/view the interview snippet to obtain more information on the(possible) impact the Toplocentrala.
Sevdalina Voynova – Director of Programmes at the Sofia Development Agency, describes their approach to setting up a successful urban regeneration model and their “test before you invest” concept.
Other actors are: