There are more than half a million large panel and reinforced concrete dwellings in Bulgaria, their exterior rehabilitation (known as sanirane in Bulgarian) being subject to public policies from above and business initiatives from below. These relations of interdependence could be either in conflict or in agreement. The conflict goes deeper than it seems because the state provides mostly for the normative regulation of the process, whereas the financial burden is carried by the flat owners sharing floor ownership of the building. This is all specified both in the European and in the national legislative framework, and will be further elaborated in a comprehensive set of sublegislative acts. The lack of agreement has produced visual effects in the urban space, particularly in its periphery.

The present article is focused on this very deficiency and its specifics, and attempts to present the social and aesthetic effects of the so-called “rehabilitation”1, characteristic for the post-socialist individual tactics of improving one’s housing conditions, intensifying increasingly in the last decade.

The rationale behind this popular trend of thermal insulation could be sought in several directions: in the first place, it is perhaps the economic one – the increased (or decreased) financial resources of the households (increased resources for making a one-time investment in renovation or decreased resources for meeting regular payments of the growing heating costs); Bulgaria’s pre-accession negotiations for EU membership and the measures that followed on a national scale.2 It could as well be seen as some sort of a fad that has to do with the idea of Europeanization which is of major importance when considering the problem in its social and aesthetic dimensions.


The profession of an “alpinist” in its self-created context (Photo: Yana Gergova)

The practice of “rehabilitation” is to be facilitated by a centralized economic scheme, known as the REECL Program3, which is in fact a credit mechanism providing for the full or partial covering of the insulation costs. This mechanism is linked to the business sector which is offering the service along with intermediation for the so called “Energy Efficiency” credit. Nevertheless, most rehabilitation activities stay out of any centralized scheme and remain individually organized and financed. A great number of small insulation teams are in operation, whereas most owners are skeptical about getting credit and paying it off, and would rather pay by themselves the costs incurred.4 Furthermore, cooperation among flat owners who have opted for the cheaper and more efficient way of insulation (which is insulating parts of the building, larger than one’s own flat) is rarely to be seen.

The latter observation highlights the evolution of a complex process of individual coping with the housing arrangement, which has started off with the birth of the large panel residential complexes.

Building “Rehabilitation”: Causes

This form of building rehabilitation (sanirane) is new as a visual, not as a social phenomenon. Making exterior alterations to the dwelling is quite common and has not drawn attention until the dwelling itself became part of a larger common space, such as the block of flats. The house owner is free to alter, extend, or even pull down the house, but when it comes to a flat that constitutes an integral part of an ensemble, such undertakings are thought to be at odds with the rest of the co-owners.

In Bulgaria, large panel blocks of flats, and residential complexes respectively, are associated with the period of socialism, and are regarded as its imperishable “monuments” (unlike the memorials which disappeared in the very first years after the fall of the regime). It is in this vein that the complex process of both symbolic neglect and physical alteration to which they were subjected is to be seen. The panel blocks of flats are situated in the urban periphery; however, as the possibilities for choosing one’s dwelling place increased, social differentiation grew deeper – not only according to residential district but also according to dwelling type. From the onset, panel blocks of flats were inhabited mostly by migrants from the small towns and villages, whereas after the “freeing” of the real estate market, only the most disadvantaged stayed there. Hence, the basic social need for an exterior do-over of the inhabited space to make it look like the newly built blocks of flats (known as kooperatsii5 in Bulgarian), considered elitist and visually outstanding with their bright-colored facades and novel architectural design. In this sense, the do-over achieved through “rehabilitation” is the visualization of one’s aspirations for the desired, but unacquired social status.

This is the typological opposite of another phenomenon which produced similar visual effects – the glazing of balconies. In both cases we are seeing the somewhat failed transition from one dwelling place to another, but in the second case the failure is seen rather on the level of way of life and individual psychology. The glazing, or the inclusion of the balconies in the built-up area of the flat, is part of the overall process of transforming the flat into a “personal home meeting the practical and aesthetic needs and views of its inhabitants” (Ivanova 2006: 18) who are accustomed to the layout of the traditional house and unable to accommodate their ideas of home to the flat. If we follow up on the idea of coping with this discontinuity, the practice of “rehabilitation” could be interpreted as appropriating the space: the heated area of the flat can be inhabited in the most functionally effective way. In order to satisfy the needs of the owner, the limited space of the flat needs to be utilized maximally. This tendency is also attributable to economic factors, such as the rise in the cost of heating, especially central heating, which is most typical for the so-called panelki (slang for panel blocks of flats).


Ignoring the non-functional areas when laying external thermal insulation. (Photo: Lina Gergova)

On the other hand, the practice of sanirane also reflects and feeds on the nostalgia for the lost socialist notion of a “warm and cheap” dwelling, and makes an attempt to restore it. In any case, laying thermal insulation is a moment of transition in the post-socialist appropriation of the space – from the centrally heated large panel block of flats to the new ostentatious kooperatsiya.

If we return to the issue of the balconies’ glazing, we would have to point out an essential difference in the way these two phenomena are socially perceived: while glazing is thought to be “vulgar” and “provincial” (in view of the inadaptability of the new “townsman” to the urban dwelling6), “rehabilitation” is not interpreted in this vein. This is due to a complexity of factors, including the current demographic trends, manifested in the hidden and irregular migration-related population growth and the idea of improving “energy efficiency” as a Europeanizing measure, accordingly – as a marker of Europeanization.

Building “Rehabilitation”: Effects

Although large panel residential buildings were introduced with a primarily practical purpose in mind – rapid construction and large capacity, i.e. large number of households – they could not be completely differentiated and dissociated from the art of architecture. Originally they were invented by the building designers as an integral architectural “ensemble” which, although being composed of individual residential premises, had a stylistically consistent architectural outlook.

Due to various case-specific reasons, motley “rehabilitation” of the individual residential units (the flats) is widespread today, as a result a variegation is created which could be qualified as what is known in the visual arts as “eclecticism”.7 The haphazard and uncontrolled “rehabilitation” of the residential buildings could be interpreted as an abstract form of eclecticism. Its supporters do not share the opinion that what they create, in this case – the flat they live in, is aesthetic only if they comply with the outlook and the style of the collective “work” (the residential building); they hold instead with the assumption that thermo-insulating their “part” would have practical effects – a fact that is largely ignored by the experts in this field.8 In this sense, it is very important to establish whether this is an outcome of the aesthetic taste of today’s townsman or rather a consequence of his understanding of “my own” and “theirs”.9 The concept of the flat as a personal space10 (“my home is my castle”) oftentimes produces traits, characteristic for the free-standing residential building – the house. This is formally achieved by adding architectural elements, not typical for the block of flats, such as cornices above balconies, windows, and thermo-insulated areas, balustrades, permanent sunshades, and flat extensions. Thus the flat loses its characteristics as an integral part of the block of flats and acquires the functions and characteristics of a self-contained architectural unit. The contemporary block of flats can be easily compared to the village on a formal level.


Specific facade layout with a colonnade and additional decorative elements. (Photo: Crazies)


A variety of additional architectural elements made of different materials. (Photo: Lina Gergova)


Completed flat extension, and another one in progress. (Photo: Lina Gergova)

If we were to assume that the motley “rehabilitation” of the residential buildings is a product of the artistic taste and avant-garde thinking of their owners, who might as well be labeled as “artists”, it would undoubtedly lead us to the conclusion that this phenomenon is among the manifestations of a popular culture trend which is on the rise – namely “kitsch”. In this case the term could be used both literally and metaphorically. Its literal translation means “garbage” and designates artworks showing bad taste or a decadent version of a certain style. The term “kitsch” could also denote any work of art which pretends to have something to do with art but in fact only imitates the form and the function of the authentic and lacks its quality. Such work of art is commercial and only imitates the original style. With this in mind, panel blocks of flats could already be perceived as “kitsch” in their original form, but they could also be turned into kitsch later on. By “rehabilitating” the flat every household is striving to get closer to the desired dwelling but eventually only an imitation is created, due to the disintegrated architectural integrity. The outcome is a patchy facade resulting from the subjective views and aesthetic perceptions of the individual owners, finding expression in the variety of colors, textures and materials used for the insulation.11


Laying external thermal insulation in conflict with the composition of the foundation. (Photo: Yana Gergova)

Of course, there are cases in which choosing a facade appearance is not only a matter of the owner’s taste, but also a matter of his resources, since there is a large variation in the price of the materials used for external thermal insulation and plastering, and color is usually a factor in the pricing.12

Thus we have come to the analogy introduced in the article’s title, establishing a correspondence between “rehabbed” blocks of flats and an artwork by Hundertwasser.13 In social respect, this has to do, on the one hand, with overcoming the socialist uniformity (and equality) and moving on to the post-socialist manifestation of diversity on all levels, on the other – with the limited resources of the inhabitants of the urban periphery to break this ubiquitous uniformity.


The post-socialist Hundertwasser. (Photo: Yana Gergova)

1. Rehabilitation (sanirane in Bulgarian) is the integral process of renovation of the building, including efficient thermo-, hydro- and sound insulation, renewal of the electrical installation and of the water sewage system, replacement of the exterior window frames, etc. Throughout this text “rehabilitation” will be used in quotation marks because in colloquial speech and in media talk it mostly implies the external thermal insulation of the flat, as it is perhaps the most visible part of the process.

2. See the National Program for Renovation of the Residential Buildings in the Republic of Bulgaria. As stipulated by the program, the large panel blocks of flats (approx. 360 000) in the larger towns of the country come first in priority.

3. Residential Energy Efficiency Credit Line (REECL) is a program offering credit for energy efficiency to individual households, supported by the European Commission, the International Bank for Renovation and Development, and the Agency for Energy Efficiency of the Republic of Bulgaria, with a budget of approx. 50 million EUR at its disposal.

4. The findings about the attitudes of the flat owners are based on an analysis of online forums where the pros and cons of “rehabilitation” are discussed.

5. Kooperatsiya is a small block of flats built by cooperated landowners. Recently built kooperatsii are usually not built on this principle but the term is used because of the visual similarity between the two types of buildings.

6. The block of flats (actually, the large panel block of flats) appears to be a manifestation of urbanity in the popular imagination. Large panel residential complexes were constructed in many villages right before they were proclaimed towns. In other villages, especially where military establishments or other large industrial units (Vedrare in the Karlovo region, Trud in the Plovdiv region, etc.) were based, the presence of panel blocks of flats and complexes gave an urban outlook and elevated their status on a local level.

7. The term “eclecticism” (from Greek εκλέγω – to choose, to select) in the arts and architecture stands for mixing different styles and elements from different periods in a single artwork.

8. See interview with Angel Minev (in Bulgarian).

9. “I don’t care a shit, I can do the walls of MY flat in green with blue-pinkish dots, if I want to, and I am not going to give anyone an account for it. If someone is not happy with it, let them mind their own business.” (A tale about the happy little balconies of the beautiful panel blocks of flats, an on-line forum, accessed on November 26th, 2009).

10. “I don’t think I should ask my neighbor for permission to insulate my flat. After all, the flat is a private property. Just as they can’t tell me what kind of renovation to do inside, they can’t tell me whether to do a thermal insulation on the outside either, I think. There will always be some neighbor who has no money for rehab and would play a dirty trick on me. Bulgarians are an envious breed. As concerns colors, it is again a matter of personal taste and those with some brains will comply with the color of the building as it is.” (A tale about the happy little balconies of the beautiful panel blocks of flats, an on-line forum, accessed on November 26th, 2009).

11. “I am personally for the different colors and textures of the external insulations because our panel blocks are quite hideous anyway. I am not saying that by making a colorful mess of it, the buildings will start looking like Hundertwasser works, but it definitely carries this kind of spirit. There are a couple of blocks, decorated in this way, that I personally like a lot.” (Crazies, a blog accessed on November 26th, 2009)

“Yeah, it is exactly this colorfulness that we are in need of, but here, for unknown reasons, people are afraid of colors, it seems. Or they use dull colors. Quite often they do their flats in light yellow, reseda, or some sort of disgusting dingy brownish red.” (Crazies, a blog accessed on November 26th, 2009)

12. It needs to be remarked that very often the owners comply with the design and try to apply the original color but this only diminishes the visibility of the improvements made.

13. Friedensreich (Stowasser) Hundertwasser (1928-2000) is an Austrian artist, sculptor and architect, whose work is characterized by mixing styles, combining various kinds of colorful mosaics, flat panels, and rough surfaces. He accentuates on irregular lines, asymmetrical outlines and a multiplicity of colors.