SOFIA (BG) - ZOOM's black building had to weather a few local storms before being accepted.
A small, four-storey apartment building stands in Sofia's city centre, a block away from one of the city's major landmarks, the National Palace of Culture. It is surrounded by older residential buildings, most of them dating back to the 1950s and '70s. The new building adheres to the proportions of the surrounding buildings, but departs from the monotonous architecture of the past by employing new devices and materials.
The young architectural practice ZOOM Studio designed the building with purity of form and detail, and the functionality of a modern lifestyle as their guiding principles. The architects had to cope with a number of challenges related to the reality of downtown Sofia – the lack of effective infrastructure, parking spaces, greenery, and the rundown state of the surrounding buildings. Making the property affordable is another serious concern for most real estate investors in Bulgaria, and this often leads to compromises in quality. Not in this case, however, where African Jatoba wood was used in the facade. The architects found a way to reduce costs without sacrificing their vision – instead of expensive stone cladding, they used a double layer of insulation painted black. The patterns excised in the second layer create a raster reminiscent of exposed concrete.
The building's footprint is quite small – just 280 m2 – and the south-west side of the building is a blind wall – another circumstance beyond the architects' control. With three facades left to work with, the designers made the most of the task. By alternating solidity and permeability, by breaking the facade down into the 'coolness' of plaster and glass on one hand, and the warm feel of the African wood on the other, they have spurned inconspicuousness and made this the perfect dwelling space for creative business people and discerning residents alike. Initially, in what was a standard, market-driven decision, the building was supposed to have shops on the ground floor and apartments above. The second, third, and fourth floors are indeed residential with two apartments on the second, and one each on the third and fourth. There is also an underground car park – a real luxury in downtown Sofia. But in the event, the building proved to be quite flexible. An advertising agency moved into the ground-floor 'retail' space, and enjoyed the space and the image it projected so much, that it quickly acquired the first floor of the building as well. The managers of the advertising agency ('Agilvy') were smart enough to turn to ZOOM Studio for the interior design of their offices. Thus the exterior flows into the interior not in any 'copy-paste' of materials and details, but in an integrated way – the vivid colours reflect the agency's identity, while the purity of form naturally welcomes visitors. The Jatoba wood of the facade continues on the inside surfaces. The lavish spaciousness in a city as densely populated as Sofia is a breath of fresh air.
It is necessary to understand that Bulgarian architects have been forced to become 'handy' – the facade specialist is not a phone call away and the companies supplying materials do not care to do much more than supply them. An architect in Bulgaria must be present from start to finish if he wants to see anything close to his initial conception come into being. But presence is no guarantee of quality or originality, of course. Here, ZOOM Studio has achieved both.
But inconspicuousness and luxury have their price: in this case a couple of rather conspicuous blotches on the facade, the result of the not-so-silent protest of a couple of elderly neighbours unhappy with the unorthodox 'blackness' of the building. The two ladies anxiously followed the construction work, wondering when the building would finally be painted a more agreeable colour – a shade of yellow, a touch of beige, or maybe a pale green. Soon enough people started moving in and it was clear that the black was here to stay. The neighbours decided on action, choosing eggs and semi-rotten fruit as their ammunition. Fortunately, the building suffered only minor damage. Ruffled spirits soon settled.
Four years later the building still stands, and it is still black. In the end, the uproar it caused was but a storm in a teacup. A healthy storm, though, in a city where few people are willing to cause any kind of ripple. After all, there are no waves without wind.
March | 2007 | Bulgaria | Milena Filcheva