The Campaign to Save Buzludzha

Here’s an update for anyone interested in the ongoing project to preserve and protect the Buzludzha Monument. Myself and Dora Ivanova – the Bulgarian architect with a plan for the monument’s restoration – have just finished writing a full application for support, which has now been submitted to the World Monuments Fund.

According to their website, the World Monuments Fund “is a private nonprofit organization founded in 1965 by individuals concerned about the accelerating destruction of important artistic treasures throughout the world,” who sponsor: “an ongoing program for the conservation of cultural heritage worldwide.”

In particular, “The World Monuments Watch, a global program launched in 1995 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of World Monuments Fund, aims to identify imperiled cultural heritage sites and direct financial and technical support for their preservation.”

The following Q&A application is rather dense, and it won’t be a quick read – but I thought I’d share it here, in case anyone is interested to read it. The text below is going to be the most comprehensive and up-to-date record you’ll find as to the current state of the monument, and the challenges it faces.



1. Site History

Provide a brief history of the site, including information about the historical context of its creation and a chronology of the most important developments and modifications at the site over time. Please provide exact dates if possible.

Buzludzha Peak first gained historical significance in 1868. Bulgaria had then been occupied by the Ottomans for almost five centuries, and an ill-fated campaign led by revolutionary Hadzhi Dimitar met its end on the mountain. Afterwards, the location became symbolic of heroism and self-sacrifice in the name of freedom.

In 1891, the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers’ Party was founded on Buzludzha Peak and held its first congress there. This group would later evolve to become the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party.

The peak saw conflict again during WWII, when in 1944 anti-fascist partisans clashed with Nazi forces at Buzludzha.

The Buzludzha Memorial House was built to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Party’s foundation. It was the idea of architect Georgi Stoilov, a former Sofia mayor, to finance the construction with public donations – with the intent that it would become a nationwide cause rather than a burden on state budget. The project took more than seven years (January 1974–August 1981) and over 6000 people laboured on the monument; including some of Bulgaria’s finest architects, artists, sculptors and engineers.

During the monument’s eight years of use, it was visited by more than 2 million people: serving as a political museum and ceremonial venue.

After the political changes in 1989, the new democratic government felt no inclination to protect the monument. In 1992 it was nationalised, and the last employees were released. A subsequent 25 years of looting, vandalism and neglect to the elements, have delivered it to its present, derelict condition.


2. Physical Description

Provide a brief description of the physical features of the site. This description should also include information about the site’s physical context (for example, the site is in a rural valley, in an urban setting, etc.), and its construction typology.

The monument is located on a mountain peak at an altitude of 1432m, in the Central Balkan range of Bulgaria.

Its spherical body, 60m across, symbolises a wreath; while the 70m tower represents a flag and was decorated with the world’s largest illuminated star. A total of 70,000 tons of concrete, 3,000 tons of reinforced steel and 40 tons of gilded glass were used in the construction.

With its iconic architectural style, advanced lighting system, unique acoustics and more than 1000m2 of storytelling mosaic panels, the building represents a remarkable synthesis of architectural and monumental art. It is a unique engineering achievement, featuring a 60m free-spanning steel roof, and a main body suspended at three points on 20m support structures. The materials used – fair-faced concrete façade, white marble, granite plates and red velvet interiors – contributed to the strong impact of the monument.

The surrounding area boasts a colourful and fast-developing industry of cultural, historical and ecological tourism. The monument is located close to some of Bulgaria’s most beloved destinations, including the Freedom Monument in Shipka Pass, the Valley of Thracian Kings, the Rose Valley and the Architectural-Ethnographic Complex at Etar. The area also offers hiking routes, ski slopes, springs and caves. Infrastructure in the region is relatively well developed.

Ironically, the iconic Buzludzha Monument is more widely known outside Bulgaria than any of these other local attractions – despite its complete lack of official recognition, and the resultantly illicit nature of all tourist visits to the site.


3. Cultural Significance

Describe the cultural significance of the site, including its historical/artistic, social/civic, spiritual/religious, research, natural, economic, and/or symbolic/identity values. Please note any periods of primary significance and associations with particular cultures, groups, or events. Emphasis should also be given to how communities currently engage with this heritage site and why the site is important to them.

The Buzludzha Monument represents an outstanding example of ideological architecture, a triumph of national art and engineering, surviving now as the most iconic artefact of Bulgaria’s socialist era.

In addition to preserving this one site of unique world architecture, however, preservation of the monument would be a major step towards reframing the other neglected artefacts of Bulgarian history. Several hundred smaller monuments lie scattered across Bulgaria, largely abandoned and decaying since the fall of the Bulgarian Communist Party; they are refugees of a period that is not discussed, taught, or remembered by Bulgarian museums and schoolbooks.

This lack of open discussion and appraisal regarding communism allows for speculation, political manipulation and deep social polarisation. A preserved Buzludzha Monument would become a useful and important tool for contemporary political education – celebrating the achievements of national art and architecture while relegating the associated politics to museum status. Addressing this monument will be an important start to the healthy reassessment of Bulgaria’s difficult heritage.

The contemporary Bulgarian Socialist Party still associate themselves with the place, and hold annual celebrations in a field beneath the monument. However, many other Bulgarians have moved beyond political associations. Local communities remember the construction project, the engineering achievement, while many young Bulgarians (and particularly those with no memory of communism) are able to look at it without any political associations.

It is for the younger generations that this monument needs to be preserved: to leave them with a site of unique historical, artistic and cultural significance.


4. Challenges

Describe the major challenges or risks that are threatening the site or preventing community engagement. Such challenges may vary in nature, and may include: physical degradation or loss of fabric, physical encroachment, lack of resources (financial/human/technical), planning and management constraints, education or training needs, competing interests, development pressure, limited public awareness or limited stakeholder interest, limited public accessibility, etc.

Time is the greatest challenge, as the monument is currently abandoned to decay. Every day the cracks in the concrete are deepening, the roof is collapsing and the mosaics are falling apart. Winter is particularly damaging – wind, snow and rain enter through the gaping holes in the roof, causing dramatic destruction to the artwork inside. The monument drips moisture all year round, due to the huge amount of trapped water inside.

At first glance the monument appears to be structurally sound, but it’s difficult to gauge the level of damage to the concrete – or the state of the steel inside it. The costs of preservation will depend on these structural conditions. Estimating these factors will require constructive laboratory expertise, and it is difficult to find the funding to begin this process.

Another challenge lies in the confusion regarding responsibility and ownership. The monument is national property, maintained by the regional governor of Stara Zagora province. The building is not listed and is not protected as a monument; as a result the Ministry of Culture is not responsible for its preservation. This also means that the Buzludzha Monument cannot apply for European funds, as the target program is intended only for monuments with national designation.

Moreover, contemporary political instability in Bulgaria is a major obstacle. The Bulgarian Socialist Party had an interest to obtain the ownership, but never did, due to the unaffordable costs of reconstruction. Their continued interest however, for some, reinforces undesirable political associations.

The political crisis in Bulgaria from November 2016 until March 2017 delayed any potential talks about the monument even further. Without a stable government, a decision about this monument cannot be made.

Limited public awareness presents a further challenge – as many Bulgarians are so used to seeing Buzludzha as a socialist ruin that they fail to understand its international value as a cultural, historical and architectural site.


5. Opportunities

Please describe the key opportunities facing the heritage site that would benefit the public at large or specific communities of stakeholders. Such opportunities may also vary in nature, and may include: fostering civic engagement, improved stewardship, enhanced quality of life and community development, professional development opportunities, pathways to policy reform, contributions to sustainability (social, environmental, or economic), etc.

Foreigners often describe the Buzludzha Monument as one of the most impressive things to see in Bulgaria… and for many, it’s the only reason they visit.

In 2015 the monument received a ‘Certificate of Excellence’ from TripAdvisor. In the last few years, photos of Buzludzha have also appeared on the front cover of best-selling books about abandoned places. Meanwhile, many of the largest worldwide news outlets have at some point featured a story about the monument: CNN, The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Mail, Der Spiegel, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, The Economist, VICE Media, and so on.

Around 100 people visit the monument on a typical summer day, and yet its massive tourism potential is ignored and even denied by local officials. The doors have now been welded shut to prevent access to the building, a move that prompted many potential tourists to cancel upcoming trips to Bulgaria.

Instead of deterring this lucrative stream of tourism, a preserved Buzludzha site would allow Bulgaria to capitalise on it.

First: Buzludzha will not only generate new tourism revenue, but will also support local businesses in this economically poor, yet culturally rich, region.

Second: the preservation of Buzludzha will recognise the many Bulgarians, their parents and grandparents, who either worked on the project or supported it through donations. A restored monument will acknowledge their contributions, while providing a venue for contemporary cultural events to enrich everyday local life.

Third: the conservation of Buzludzha will be a crucial first step toward opening dialogue about Bulgaria’s recent past. An honest and open forum allows the country to move beyond shame and anger, personal nostalgia or bitterness; instead to explore the facts, in a place set aside for historical education and discussion.

Finally, a restored Buzludzha Monument offers the promise of potential preservation to other currently neglected artefacts from Bulgaria’s socialist period – and opens the door for a policy of reassessing difficult heritage in terms of education and reuse.


6. Stakeholders

Please describe the stakeholders associated with the site (individuals, groups, institutions, government agencies, communities, etc.) and briefly explain the interest that each of them has in the site. Such interests may be viewed as positive or negative from your point of view, and may contribute to the challenges and opportunities described above.

Bulgarian Council of Ministers: able to decide the future of the site (setting a budget for conservation, opening it to private investors or ordering action from relevant authorities). The last prime minister, Boyko Borisov, expressed interest in preservation.

Ministry of Culture: could appoint monument status, and organise the site’s preservation.

Regional government in Stara Zagora: currently responsible for site maintenance. The last regional governor did not consider Buzludzha a worthwhile cause, however is due to be replaced following the election on 26th March 2017.

Municipalities in the region could apply for European funding. The monument is located in the territory of Kazanlak Municipality, while the primary municipality in the region is Stara Zagora. Both these mayors support the ‘Buzludzha Project’ preservation initiative.

The building’s architect, Georgi Stoilov, still possesses the author’s rights and has expressed interest in working on the reconstruction project.

The contemporary Bulgarian Socialist Party still associate themselves with the monument, though while they are keen to see it preserved they are unable to help with funds. Their involvement in the project might also be read by many as an undesirable association.

The Union of Bulgarian Architects and Artists could support, guide and monitor the process.

The National Historical Museum in Sofia could administrate the renovated monument. This would bring Buzludzha national monument designation and protection.

The Buzludzha Project Foundation is currently working towards convincing all stakeholders of the value in preserving this monument; before connecting them, in order to begin the necessary dialogue.


7. Plan of Action

Please outline a proposed or existing plan of action for addressing the challenges and opportunities at the site. Discuss the goals, strategies, and feasibility of the plan.

Although much of the groundwork has already been done, it will need to be readdressed with new personnel following the election on 26th March 2017.

The first step will be asking the Bulgarian Socialist Party for a final signed statement clarifying their interests in the monument and its ownership. Next, the Bulgarian Council of Ministers must decide if the state will preserve the monument, and if so, propose a budget. It must be decided which institution will administrate the process – the Ministry of Culture, a local municipality, the nearby Park-Museum Shipka-Buzludzha or the National History Museum. If the state takes no action, then it should allow private investors to consider the monument; or approve other methods of third-party fundraising.

Meanwhile a full architectural scanning of the building (already planned) is required to provide a realistic review of the structure. The original construction documents are available to use as a reference, but these must be updated to account for the building’s advanced state of decay.

After that comes a full building survey, evaluating the current condition of the structure. This could be financed by the State, a political party or by municipalities in association with local business. Alternatively, fundraising options could be considered – online donations, or promotional events.

With these elements in place, a business plan can be developed to assess a financial strategy towards raising the total cost. If funding has not already been met through domestic institutions and outside donations, the project can apply for European and international funds – or market to investors.

Independently from this whole process, accessibility at the site should be reconsidered. Currently it is closed against all visitors, but supervised, paid visits could be organised to help in raising funds. There is already enough tourist and media interest that, correctly managed, the building could be generating income right now. This in turn could help with improved stewardship, on-site security, and beginning the process of closing the monument against damage from the elements.


8. World Monuments Watch

Please explain how inclusion on the 2018 World Monuments Watch would contribute to the implementation of the plan of action outlined above and/or to leveraging additional support for the site beyond this plan of action.

So far, in leading the initiative to preserve Buzludzha, I have received positive feedback and support from almost all stakeholders and authorities. However, no real preservation actions have yet been taken. After numerous exhibitions, roundtable events, discussions, presentations, meetings and media conferences – over the last two years – it is clear to me that the preservation of Buzludzha requires urgent outside help. I believe the World Monuments Watch could provide such help.

Each stakeholder understands the potential of the building, but still won’t take the initiative for its preservation. Many are still afraid of the former communist associations, and the public and political reactions these may provoke. The World Monuments Watch, as an independent, authoritative outside body, is well placed to break this cycle of inaction.

Furthermore, the involvement of the WMF will serve as clear insurance for Bulgarians that the project is more than simply political manipulation; but rather an apolitical scheme concerned purely with the protection of meaningful heritage. International acknowledgement of this building’s value is exactly what Bulgaria needs now, in order to aid in the de-politicisation of this site – before it has decayed beyond hope for salvation.

The raised awareness that would come through association with the WMF is also likely to help in our efforts to motivate stakeholders, as well as in seeking third-party investors for the project. It will help us to assure the high quality of conservation work, while helping us to engage local communities and raise awareness of the project within Bulgaria.


9. Watch Day

Sites included on the 2018 World Monuments Watch will have the opportunity to dedicate a day to raising awareness with activities that celebrate the importance of the site to the local community and beyond. Please indicate the potential for such an event to be hosted at the site.

In preparation for Watch Day, a clean-up could be organised ensuring free and secure access to the main hall. Guided tours would allow entrance for visitors while fully informing them about the building’s past and present. A discussion about the monument’s future could be held inside, with informative exhibitions displayed in front of the building.

The field beneath the monument offers the perfect conditions to host large events. The Bulgarian Socialist Party organises its annual celebrations there, for example, sometimes hosting up to 50,000 attendees. In front of the existing stone stage, there is a field shaped like an amphitheatre allowing for perfect visibility. The site has electricity, parking spaces, camping options and accommodation facilities on offer.

Prominent and local musicians could be invited to perform, helping to present the cause to a wide public audience. This will likely have a powerful impact, demonstrating how the place is able to transcend its former political affiliations. The suggested budget could be used to rent stage equipment as well as arranging bus transport to and from the larger Bulgarian cities.

Preliminary talks with prominent musicians and the responsible authorities – Kazanlak municipality and the Park-Museum Shipka-Buzludzha – indicate their willingness to assist. This Buzludzha Concert, celebrating the importance of the site and its nomination to the World Monument Watch, would also gain a great deal of local and international media attention thus further boosting the project’s visibility. It will also make an excellent opportunity to gather donations towards the project.


10. Site Activation

Sites included on the 2018 World Monuments Watch will be invited to think about innovative artistic, cultural, or social programs that can activate hidden qualities of a site, reach new and expanded audiences, and attract additional visibility. Please indicate the potential for such programming to take place at the site. This is a new component of the World Monuments Watch program for the 2018 cycle.

The Watch Day events could be developed to promote on-going and sustainable activation of the Buzludzha Monument. Concerts could become annual festivals, while guided tours become regular events. The informative exhibition could become permanent, or travel between museums across the country. This way the monument might be incorporated into the local cultural calendar, and promoted as such.

Buzludzha has already provided creative inspiration for a wide range of international projects, and these should be actively encouraged and promoted. To date these have included a downloadable virtual reality tour of the monument, a forthcoming Buzludzha app, and a 3D-mapping initiative; Buzludzha has provided the setting for a sci-fi short film, it has appeared in documentaries, and even as a villain’s lair in a recent Hollywood film. Several bands have filmed music videos inside. Photographers use the monument as a background for fashion and wedding shoots; and it’s a popular destination for skating, parkour, climbing, extreme photography and even base-jumping from the tower.

At present, these creative projects exist in spite of an official prohibition against visiting the Buzludzha site. If such restrictions were lifted however, and if creative projects were supported and welcomed, the activation and promotion of the site would occur quite organically. The location has proven to be incredibly media-friendly, both inside Bulgaria and internationally; should we manage to overcome current prohibitions, then building widespread publicity for the renovation project would not be a difficult task.


11. Project Description

Describe in detail a proposed project within the plan of action for the nominated site. If possible, please explain who will carry out each proposed activity, the timing and resources required, and potential obstacles to its implementation.

Buzludzha needs a new function in order to be preserved; a new usage that would unite the varied and sometimes contradictory perspectives within Bulgarian society, in order to focus efforts on preserving the site for its historical and cultural value.

The conceptual design ‘Buzludzha: Memory of Time’ suggests a potential new life for the monument as a forum for history and art. The multifunctional hall with its 400 seats would serve as a venue for meetings, events, school trips, historical lectures, and so on. The rings around it, meanwhile, will host exhibitions on different historical periods of the country. A panoramic glass elevator will give visitors the opportunity to explore the open deck on top of the 70-metre tower, revealing breath-taking views out over the Balkan range.

The conceptual design proposes a conservation of the monument in its present condition, with only minimal architectural intervention – as opposed to a full restoration. There are several benefits to this approach:

First, it allows us to protect the monument against further damage, while leaving the effects of time and decay visible to the visitor. The atmosphere of ‘beautiful decay’ that pervades the site now should certainly not be overlooked as a motivating factor for many visitors.

Secondly, such a scheme would cost considerably less to complete than a full restoration would.

Thirdly, a partial conservation – rather than a full reconstruction – will lesson the likelihood of critics reading this project as a celebration of the original ideas expressed by the monument. The political situation in Bulgaria is such that if we began painstakingly recreating communist murals, the project could quickly attract negative responses from some quarters.

The conservation initiative has many challenges to address, but our core, guiding belief is that the Buzludzha Monument should be restored as a place that celebrates life, culture, art, and Bulgarian history.


12. Project Timeline & Budget

Please provide an outline of the estimated time and resources required to undertake the proposed project. If possible, please present a phased work plan with associated costs detailed for each phase.

The project can only begin after all administrative and financial questions are resolved. For this reason, we’re still at the very earliest stages of estimating the time and cost required for conservation.

Construction work at the mountain peak can be done from April to October only, due to severe winter weather conditions. At least two years will be required for the on-site work.

During the first year the structure must be assessed, repaired and sealed, with the addition of new roof coverings and windows (depending on the results of the structural survey, this process might take longer still).

During the second year the interior work will be completed: including mosaic conservation, surface renovation and the creation of exhibition features.

The minimum cost for the conservation will be roughly €1.3 million, not including the constructive consolidation work. A breakdown of this is as follows:

Roof – €250,000
Main hall and corridors – €150,000
Glass elevator and panorama terrace – €200,000
Ground level – €40,000
Underground – €50,000
Heating and lighting systems – €200,000
Isolation – €50,000
Planning and analysis – €100,000
Exhibition – €60,000
Others – €200,000


13. Project Administration

Which organization or government agency would manage the proposed project at the site? Has that organization or agency carried out any comparable projects at the nominated site or other sites in the past? If so, please briefly indicate sites, projects, and associated costs.

The project could be administrated by the Ministry of Culture, providing the building is given its national monument status. However, due to the vast number of cultural artefacts scattered about the country, the ministry typically prefers to give these objects to their local municipalities. In this case the administrator should be Kazanlak Municipality – though another option would be to pass it on to Stara Zagora Municipality, the largest municipal institution in the region. Due to the scale of the project, perhaps even a union of several municipalities might be considered.

The Park-Museum Shipka-Buzludzha and the National History Museum are also potential administrators of the project. Both fall under the direction of the Ministry of Culture.

The project could also have an independent administrator, if the government allows it; and the Buzludzha Project Foundation would be ready to assume this role, if approved.


14. Project Resources

What financial resources, if any, have been committed to the project by the organization or agency that will implement the project? What additional funding has been secured from external sources? What additional funding will be sought from other sources or has been sought but not yet approved? If financial resources are sought from World Monuments Fund please indicate which aspects of the project and of the total budget would be covered by that funding.

The Buzludzha Project Foundation has been slowly collecting donations towards its own promotional activities, so far aimed at raising awareness about the monument’s current condition and future potential. These donations have been used mainly for the organisation of exhibitions and discussions. There are no other financial resources yet committed to the project.

The conservation project could be funded by the government with national or European funds, or by the relevant municipalities using local funds. Private investment interest is also an option.

As the project is still in its early stages, the World Monument Fund might be able to help finance the building’s architectural assessment, scanning and surveying. This would certainly give the project a powerful kick-start, which national authorities would then be able to continue.