Episode 101

101. Buzludzha Always Centered Visitor Experience. Dora Ivanova is Using Its Structure to Create a New One.


January 23rd, 2023

19 mins 48 secs

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About this Episode

Since it opened in 1981 to celebrate the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party, Buzludzha has centered the visitor experience. Every detail and sightline of the enormous disk of concrete perched on a mountaintop in the middle of Bulgaria was designed to impress, to show how Bulgarian communism was the way of the future – a kind of alternate Tomorrowland in the Balkan mountains. Once inside, visitors were treated to an immersive light show, where the mosaics of Marx and Lenin and Bulgarian partisan battles were illuminated at dramatic moments during a pre-recorded narration.

But after communism fell in 1989, Buzludzha was abandoned. It was exposed to the elements, whipped by strong winds and frozen temperatures, and raided for scrap. Buzludzha has been a ruin far longer than it was a functional building, and in recent years the building has been close to collapse. Preventing this was the initial goal of Bulgarian architect Dora Ivanova and the Buzludzha Project, which she founded in 2015. Since then, Ivanova and her team have been working to recruit international conservators, stabilize the building, and fundraise for its preservation.

But Ivanova realized that protecting the building isn’t the end goal but just the first step of a much more interesting project – a space for Bulgaria to collectively reflect on its past and future, a space big enough for many experiences and many futures.

In this episode, we journey to Buzludzha, where Ivanova gives us hard hats and takes us inside the building for the first time. We retrace the original visitor experience, dive deep into various visions for transforming Buzludzha into an immersive museum, and discuss how the building will be used as a storytelling platform.

Image: Dora Ivanova by Nikolay Doychinov

Topics and Notes

  • 00:00 Intro
  • 00:15 Buzludzha has always centered the visitor experience.
  • 01:00 “A Tomorrowland in the Balkan mountains”
  • 02:40 The Original Visitor Experience
  • 03:02 Dora Ivanova
  • 03:15 Museum Archipelago Episode 47
  • 03:35 Entering the Building
  • 04:25 How to Stabilize the Roof
  • 05:58 New respect for the Buzludzha thieves
  • 06:25 The Inner Mosaics
  • 07:26 Narrated Light and Sound Show
  • 08:25 Moving from Preservation to Interpretation
  • 09:34 Ivanova’s New Motivation
  • 10:20 Buzludzha as a Storytelling Platform
  • 11:10 How Buzludzha Was Built
  • 12:30 Acting before memory becomes history
  • 13:00 Buzludzha’s fate as a binary
  • 14:05 The Panoramic Corridor
  • 15:00 The Care For Next Generation and The Role of The Women in Our Society
  • 16:02 Some Personal Thoughts about a future Buzludzha Museum
  • 17:20 The preservation as proof of change
  • 18:05 “Buzludzha is about change”
  • 19:15 Outro | Join Club Archipelago 🏖

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 101. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Welcome to Museum Archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner. Museum Archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums. Each episode is rarely longer than 15 minutes, so let's get started.

Buzludzha has always centered the visitor experience.

Opened in 1981 to celebrate the grandeur of the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party, Buzludzha is an imposing building, an enormous disk of concrete perched on a mountaintop in the middle of Bulgaria. Rising out of the back of the disk is a tower, 70 meters high, and flanked by two red stars.

Dora Ivanova: It was built to impress. It was built as part of the political propaganda and education as they called it during this time. Its shape looks like a UFO, actually. This is also on purpose because it had to show how the socialist idea is contemporary, it’s the future.

Visiting the site, you can still see the care that went into the sightlines – the approach from a winding mountain road, the drama the first time the building comes into view, the photo opportunities of the still-distant building flanked by smaller sculptures. There’s an eerie similarity to some well-designed corners of Disney theme parks, using scale and space and sightlines to transport the visitor – a Tomorrowland in the Balkan mountains.

But the original visitor experience didn’t end outside the building. In those first years during communism, the building received tour groups by bus every four hours. Visitors entered Buzludzha through the front doors underneath the cantilever of the disk. Once inside, they were led up the stairs and into the belly of the building, which makes up an impressive amphitheater surrounded by colorful mosaics of Marx and Lenin, and a variety of Bulgarian communist leaders. At the center of the domed ceiling is a hammer and sickle mosaic whose tiles spell out the words, “Workers of all nations, unite!”

But visitors haven’t been able to officially enter Buzludzha for many years. Those front doors are locked and grated with metal bars – the worn concrete covered and covered again in graffiti, like the words “Enjoy Communism” written in the style of the Coca Cola logo and the all caps motto “forget your past”. I’ve visited Buzludzha many times over the past few years, but I’ve never been inside. Until now.

Dora Ivanova: In the beginning it was open to everybody, but we had to register in before. So it was not open to individual tourism. It was open just to groups who had registered before like a school was coming to visit or the local factories coming and seeing the monument. People will come here and then , they'll go first down the staircase to leave their coats and bags, so you cannot go with them up. And then you'll put something on your shoes because you cannot go on the bright, perfect white marble with your dirty shoes from outside.

This is Bulgarian architect Dora Ivanova, founder of the Buzludzha Project. When I first met her in 2018 – and presented her story on episode 47 of Museum Archipelago – she was working on a proposal to save this monumental building. But since then, the scope of her work has increased significantly.

Today, after more than three years of work recruiting international conservators, stabilizing the building, and basically running a fundraising and PR campaign for the monument, Ivanova hands me a hardhat, unlocks the grate, and leads me inside.

Dora Ivanova: click “And be very careful with the staircase and that you don't fall somewhere.”

Because there’s no perfect bright white marble underneath visitors' feet anymore. After communism collapsed in Bulgaria in 1989, Buzludzha just sat there, exposed to the elements, whipped by strong winds and frozen temperatures. The regime changed, Bulgaria headed towards a democratic form of government, and people started stealing anything they could from Buzludzha – the glass from the windows and from the red stars, the copper roof and marble sculptures which were sold for scrap, and the perfect white marble perhaps used in a bathroom remodel.

Ian Elsner: Buzludzha bathroom!

Dora Ivanova: Yeah, many people have it, I’m sure.

Buzludzha has been a ruin way longer than it was a functional building and that’s why Ivanova and her team's efforts have been focused on stabilization.

Dora Ivanova: As I was walking on the roof, I was thinking, it's like a very ill person who can still get better. And can still be saved and it can still function. And I think if we started this whole initiative like five years later or 10 years later, there'll be very little less of the building to protect.

Protecting the building is a complex process, which requires a lot of coordination between technicians, and a deep understanding of the structure. Ivanova jokes that she used to think saving Buzludzha would take just a month of hard work.

Dora Ivanova: At the beginning I was thinking, okay, this month I didn't manage to save the building, but next month I'll save it! laughs

Today, the blue sky is clearly visible through the roof of the amphitheater, sunlight streaming through the scaffolding erected to preserve the hammer and sickle mosaic on the ceiling. It’s only now that we can safely walk around with hard hats.

Dora Ivanova: So metal sheets like this will fall down and a big pieces of wood like, like this there and bigger will fall. And this is why, on the first place, this building is not safe for visitors because anytime something can fall down, and that's why our task was to, we're thinking could take down only what is needed, but it turned out that everything is unstable and you can just touch it and everything's moving. and also this is like not stopping the water in any way. It's not helping the building because we have just like a metal sheet here, but it, the water falls from the three sides of the metal sheet, so you're not stopping kind thing.

Dora Ivanova: We had a ceiling out of aluminum, with rings, many rings, which are missing, which was completely stolen from the very beginning. And the top covering was this copper sheet, which was also stolen in the nineties in a very professional way, by the way. This is absolutely hard work. Now we know it.

Ian Elsner: You have new respect.

Dora Ivanova: Well, I'm very respectful to the thieves. It was very hard!

Surrounding the amphitheater are colorful mosaics– this is the inner mosaic circle, we’ll get to the outer mosaics a little later. Yes, here we see Marx and Lenin, but there’s also a mural called The Victory of September 9th, 1944 – when the new Bulgarian communist state was declared, and another called The Fight depicting workers with pitchforks defeating a fire-breathing beast.

Dora Ivanova: There was a partisan fight, anti-fascist. And then the idea is that three generations are gathering at Buzludzha and that the fathers were working or fighting for freedom. And then the sons were fighting for socialist freedom. And so they wanted, that's absolutely propaganda stuff. So they connect to the history, which is very well acknowledged and which is very well perceived by the public and show that communism is the final best stage of the entire Bulgarian human history.

Dora Ivanova: So something like this. So that they were using everything on the way to make their point.

Visitors to Buzludzha in the 1980s would have stood in the amphitheater and watched a narrated light and sound show projected onto the inner mosaics, lighting up certain figures at dramatic moments in the story.

Dora Ivanova: So the people will be watching this show of light and sound. They were standing, they were just watching from here, the mosaics. They were also not going to the mosaics to see them up close. So this was the place to experience the building. So there was a voice and there was lightning on the different spots and they were telling for different images.

Ian Elsner: And the computer equipment to play this recording. That was all stolen soon after?

Dora Ivanova: Yes, absolutely everything, yes. we don't have the video and we don't have the text as well.

But Ivanova thinks that it’s only a matter of time until these types of details surface. Up until now, ensuring that the mosaics don’t fall any further and the ceiling won’t collapse has been her team’s main concern.

Dora Ivanova: I'm sure over the time we may might get to this information as well. But this is again connected to the topic of interpretation. Until now we are very focused on the structural integrity of the building if it stands and if the music falls. And we had all our attention on those first topics, and I'm sure that's when we dig deeper into the story that we can find information like this.

Dora Ivanova: I'm not sure we'll find all of them but we had a lot of archives, mainly drawings and mainly construction papers. So not really a lot about the mosaics or the artwork because it was a private archive and not so much about the visitors' experience.

Dora Ivanova: There are three tour guides, who were working here who are telling the stories. And one of the lady who wrote down everything, she knew it until today. Like, all the words and how it was and what. So we have a little bit from that.

These tour guides, using the building as intended, would have been reading from a script that the communist party approved – that version of history where communist bulgaria was the end of history.

But Ivanova and her team realized that the preserved building could host the stories of the people in the audience, presenting as many narratives about communism as there were lived experiences.

Dora Ivanova: In the beginning it was different. In the beginning I was thinking, so now we go there and we preserve this building and it'll go very nice and I'll be very happy because the building will be preserved. But with the time I realized it's actually not the motivation line and the purpose line a nd the idea of the whole thing.

Dora Ivanova: Of course, we want to preserve this building. But the goal is not the entire purpose of the journey. So the journey is the purpose.

Now she recognizes that protecting the building isn’t the end goal but just the first of a much more interesting project – a space for Bulgaria to collectively reflect on its past and future, a space big enough for many experiences and many futures.

Dora Ivanova: What we really want is a storytelling platform and that's the building tells stories and this is the best place to tell these stories and to allow the different views, to allow the criticism to allow different points of view.

Dora Ivanova: I mean, for some it was the labor of their life, and of course they're touched in some way to it. For others it was the most terrible time. And that's okay. And both things are okay and they can live simultaneously in the same world. So we don't, doesn't need to destroy the one or the other narrative.

Collecting stories from all over Bulgaria conjures an interesting symmetry with Buzludzha’s original intent – as a celebration of Bulgarian communism, the idea was that all of Bulgaria would contribute to the construction.

Dora Ivanova: There are so many different actions that they did in order to make it a national big initiative. So first it was funded by the people. So it could be funded by the party.

Dora Ivanova: This was not a problem for the party, but they decided everybody should participate. Not everybody can work on site, so everybody should donate. So it was not really a choice, but I think everything back then was working more or less like this. Yeah. So it was from the one side ordinary thing, but from the other side. Yes, it was, mandatory donation or just taken out from the people. And I even know that some children were collecting paper and selling it for reuse, like to recycle paper so that they can get the money and donated for Buzludzha.

Dora Ivanova: And the second thing is that there were 6,000 people working and out of them 500 were the, solders so there were military forces which constructed it., there were many people who were craftsman. But there were also a lot of volunteers. Again, “volunteers.” laughs

Of course, the critical difference is that this time, while anyone can contribute, nobody has to. Ivanova and her team have been gathering interviews, oral histories, and anything that could be presented in a future interpretive center. And like stabilizing the roof of the building, the team feels an urgency to act before memory becomes history.

Dora Ivanova: We have to take the stories before the people are gone. And do have this entire big project, I'm sure with this interpretation and analysis and historical research. But we don't have the time because we have to take the stories now. That's why we are doing this oral history campaign and those will be major stories that we are going to tell inside of the future building.

But it’s critical that the storytelling platform provided by the future interpretive center doesn’t end with the collapse of communism in Bulgaria – because that narrows the focus and complicates the politics of preserving Buzludzha in the Bulgarian context. Before Ivanova started the project, the building’s fate was presented as a binary: destroy it as a symbol of the collapsed communist government, or restore it to its former glory as a rallying cry to reinstate the system that built it. Charting a different path means acknowledging the decades since the collapse and the need for a space to reflect on the communist period. That’s why the team is also carefully documenting what happened since – including the graffiti.

Dora Ivanova: The general idea is definitely that the graffiti will be saved. And if all the graffiti or not, it's a matter of further discussions. But I think this is also something nice on the way that we don't have like a super fixed idea. This is how it's going to be. And this is exactly the target. Is exactly the function. This is exactly the way it's going to look like. But this is, again, a process and it develops according to needs, ideas, functions, people,partners, and interests.

After the original visitors watched the narrated light show, they would have climbed stairs to the outer walkway around the amphitheater, called The Panoramic Corridor. Here, with giant windows facing the rest of Bulgaria, visitors would have contemplated what they just watched and connected it to the familiar landscape. It’s windy out here since there’s no glass anymore, but the views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are beautiful – almost like a real life background to a propaganda poster. Opposite the windows are the outer mosaics. Unlike the inner mosaics of Communist figures and dramatic battles which were dyed with artificial paints to make them colorful – there’s a lot of red as you might imagine – the outer mosaics are made of natural colors from Bulgaria’s rivers – they have a grayscale dignity to them. Here the titles of the murals are things like The Care For Next Generation and The Role of The Women in Our Society.

Dora Ivanova: So not only the people had to donate their time and money, "voluntarily" but also the nature. So the mosaic stones from the outside mosaic ring are from all the different rivers in Bulgaria, so that the nature gives it's gift and participate in this project. So this is The Care For Next Generation. This is the name of the mosaic and it's actually even the name of the entire, project for preserving the mosaics because this is the also our idea care for the next generation. So we have the mothers and the children. There's one very pretty chicken there.

Dora Ivanova: Yeah, so this is one of the unpolitical mosaics: this is The Role of The Women in Our Society – a very nice mosaic. So we have the woman with many hands because she has many roles and has to do many things. So she's concerned. The woman lover and the woman caretaker. And the woman everything possible.The woman who wants to run from all this stuff cuz it's too much.

It’s so easy for me to imagine this Panoramic Corridor as part of a future museum at Buzludzha. The connection between the past inside the building and the future of the country, spread out beyond the windows, makes me shiver – not just because of the wind. Even though I didn’t choose to become a Bulgarian citizen until a few years ago, I can feel the potential standing in front of the open windows pointing in all directions.

My mom is Bulgarian, but I was raised in America. My choice to connect with Bulgaria was future-looking – I’m interested in where Bulgaria is going and I want to help where I can. But I’ve been struck by the general cultural unwillingness to talk about the communist period that defined the country until fairly recently. The physical remains of that era and ideology are scattered around the country, but for many Bulgarians, they remain in the background – overgrown and unmovable – a kind of cynical proof that not much will change.

Which is why what Ivanova and her team have done is so impressive. She says that the visible signs of recent preservation has actually gotten people to pay attention for the first time – to think that there is movement, and this physical proof has made people more likely to come forward with stories or offer to help.

Dora Ivanova: You change people's ideas and you involve people and people find motivation and inspiration and, and they multiply, multiply the, the effect. So, I think that the building is the tool to create this impactful processes in this site. But I think this is also the only thing that can keep you motivated

While there is a brutal finality in what Buzluzdha was built for, a way to present the final triumphant stage of history – a finality that turned out to be brittle, the way that Ivaona and her team are approaching it gives it the flexibility to mean whatever Bulgarians will find important.

Dora Ivanova: And so at the end of the story, I think, it's about values, it's about change. I think even mostly about change. It's about the changing nature of everything which is related to humans and to humans, beliefs and human understandings. It's such a powerful place to tell these stories. And also with the traces of time, with the traces of, if you want to religious somehow communist ideology, but with all the graffiti with all the comments of the people, with the time, with all the artwork, which was created already here, which will be created here in the future. When you have this visibility and the, especially, this is a very visible thing. We cannot deny it. Yeah. And I think somewhere that is the motivation and the meaning for me.

Thanks to the efforts of Ivanova and her Buzludzha Foundation, you’ll soon be able to go inside Buzludzha. Exactly what you’ll find inside is still being worked on, but it will all be in a future episode of this show.

This has been Museum Archipelago.