Concrete versus nature
Concrete versus nature
BULGARIA - In recent years, all of Bulgaria's big cities have been experiencing a building boom, but the area receiving the largest chunk of the investment pie is the Black Sea coast, which has changed beyond recognition in the last four years.
Ever since the fall of the socialist regime in 1989, Bulgaria seems to have been bogged down in a long transition period, due mainly to the state's ostrich policy of refusing to confront problems. The only economic sector not dependent on the foreign funding that props up the rest of the Bulgarian economy is the tourist industry which is focused mainly on the 351-kilometre-long Black Sea coast. The end of the privatization process, which had seen some state properties given back to their original owners, sparked a building boom in Black Sea resorts that has far outstripped state legislation on development and urban planning.
The owners of agricultural land reaped an unexpected windfall, while grey economy players grabbed their chance to launder cash by investing it in hotels. The state, citing the 'social benefits' of this development, did nothing to guide it or to control the greedy appetites of investors. No one can blame an investor for wanting to exploit a plot of land to the maximum. But the same cannot be said about the state legislature, which should have realized that sometimes 'less is more'. Initially, the large-scale building projects were a response to the demands of the big tour operators for more hotel beds in beachfront hotels with their own swimming pools. But before long the Black Sea coast was being shaped by the demands and tastes of low-cost tour operators, while the government looked the other way.
The Black Sea is the new Abu Dhabi of Europe
The first victims of the concrete invasion were established resorts like 'Sunny Beach', built during the 1950s and the '60s near the 'pearl' of the Black Sea, the historic town of Nesebar. During the past three years many new hotels have mushroomed in the spaces between the older buildings. Every inch of the plots has been used in a 'functional' fashion, leaving only narrow pedestrian walks through the forest of concrete. The scale and proportions of most of these buildings are gigantic. The massive volumes are richly ornamented, with details taken from every conceivable architectural style – Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism, Colonial, Bulgarian vernacular, you name it. The result for tourists is a holiday in a concrete paradise, with an intimate view of the neighbouring kitsch hotel. The trendy large-scale eclecticism of today makes the big hotels of the socialist era look like elegant masterpieces.
By the time local authorities announced last year the that there was no more space for new construction in Sunny Beach, the building boom had already moved on to other beauty spots along the Bulgarian coastline. One can no longer distinguish between resorts and villages; they have melted into a single holiday metropolis with no beginning and no end. Since the whole process was unaccompanied by the development of infrastructure, sewage or filtration plants, many tourists have found themselves accommodated in unfinished four-star hotels with their children playing on a construction site rather than the beach.
For these and many other reasons tour operators started to lose interest in the area. Despite the low prices, the average European tourist does not enjoy spending their holidays in a highly urbanized Disneyland that does not even offer good service. Today, the hotel industry relies mostly on Russians and Romanians, who have experienced similar building booms in their own countries and are not shocked by the hodgepodge of architectural styles. The owners soon realized that running a hotel is a full-time job that consumes a lot of energy and effort. This led to a shift in strategy. The new and more profitable trend is to build apartments, marinas and golf courses. Build dense, sell high is the new-old rule driving the building boom forward. There are signs of stagnation, but so long as there are still plots close to the beach that have not yet been covered over with concrete, investors are unlikely to give up.
Humans versus nature
While the rest of the world is trying to adapt its practices to nature, to preserve it and live in harmony with it, on the Black Sea coast human beings are still fighting nature and trying to conquer it with concrete. Once all the villages and small towns had been exploited to their fullest potential and irreversibly overbuilt, the profit appetites were redirected to the beautiful natural sandy beaches that were (and still are, officially) part of the Strandza national park – places like Irakli, Karadere and Sinemoretz.
The EU-inspired Natura 2000 project was intended to protect the threatened beauties of Bulgarian nature. Yet the Irakli natural beach, a favourite camping site for many young people, became an apple of discord between the Greens and landowners keen to sell or build like everybody else along the Bulgarian coast. The conflict culminated in embittered owners preparing to build on the beach without any building permit.
In September 2008, the Ministry of Regional Planning approved a new masterplan for the Municipality of Tsarevo on the southern tip of the Black Sea coast near the Turkish border. The masterplan covers 490 hectares of land, 92 of which are part of Natura 2000. This is the first masterplan to be approved since the legislation regarding construction on the Black Sea coast, passed as late as 2007, was enacted in January 2008.
Although commissioning a proper plan rather than approving construction projects in a non-transparent process might seem like a step forward, the plan is just another example of history repeating itself, now with an official government stamp of approval delivered in advance. The plan foresees an almost total development of the Tsarevo Municipality, even though a lot of it is within the boundaries of the Strandza nature park. It 'generously' makes two small exceptions – the mouth of the River Veleka and the Silistar region. Appropriation of agricultural land for construction purposes is also foreseen. By approving the masterplan, the government creates an instrument for legalizing illegal developments already erected within the boundaries of current national parks like Gold Pearl.
In response to the protests of the Greens and environmental scientists, the government has promised that mass urbanization will not disturb the habitat of animal and plant species, some of them unique to the region. Ironically, 21.17% of the masterplan's territory is reserved for golf courses, which, according to government officials, are 'equivalent to an ecosystem'. The masterplan gives the landowners an opportunity to profit from their land, but not in a healthily diverse way. Rather than encouraging agriculture or eco-tourism, the plan focuses entirely on conventional tourism practices that have already destroyed the rest of the coast. Instead of eagerly approving controversial and error-prone masterplans and reinventing the wheel, the government should have researched urban planning strategies in other countries. Just because the masterplan proposes a slightly lower density of construction compared to other places along the coast, does not mean that it is justified. It has been prepared without any evaluation of the overall state of the Black Sea region, international tourist interest in and opinion of Bulgaria, and the need for and sustainability of an extra 10,000 beds.
So far Bulgaria has been following the bad example of Spain, where a number of hotels built during Franco's reign have recently been demolished because of the absence of human scale and landscaping, and the declining number of tourists willing to spend money to holiday in a concrete paradise. More and more Bulgarians prefer to spend their holidays in Turkey or Greece where the resorts consist mostly of smaller, unostentatious buildings, leaving the eye free to explore nature's beauty unobstructed.
The world's starchitects are flocking to the emerging East, with its juicy opportunities for real estate investment and the chance to build new pseudo-utopias. The Madara Property Fund has entrusted Karadere – the last untouched sandy beach on the Bulgarian section of the Black Sea coast – to the scalpel of Sir Norman Foster. The megalomaniac Black Sea Gardens project, which, as it turns out, was won through a competition that Bulgarian society was the last to find out about, was announced by the architect brother of the Bulgarian Prime Minister, George Stanishev. To accommodate this 'eco-friendly' development, 219 hectares of natural oak forest (part of Natura 2000 and protected by law) will be cleared. They will be replaced by five fairly densely built villages housing some 15,000 inhabitants, golf clubs, a marina and yacht club, a luxury spa, a sports park, a casino hotel, children's facilities, an outdoor activity centre, a health centre, restaurants, shops and cafés, a beach club, and much more. According to the investors, Black Sea Gardens is 'a carbon-neutral, low density, high quality eco-resort offering luxury sea view apartments and villas'. Fancy Lamborghinis and Maseratis will be kept out of sight in underground car parks while the traffic within the complex will be limited to electric shuttle buses, electric pool cars and bicycles. Other strategies aimed at making the Black Sea Gardens self-sustainable and eco-friendly include using biofuels to provide electricity to the five villages all year round. The plan envisions 'towns that have narrow streets with tight groupings of residences that create environmental benefits such as reduced wind speeds, as well as providing sunny balconies and cool streets. The material palette for the towns is taken from local, sustainable sources that will be key in lowering the embodied carbon of the buildings'. The cynicism of the investors is most evident in the names of the five towns, named in memoriam for the natural environment that will be destroyed for construction: 'Wilderness Village', 'Sky Village', 'Meadow Village', 'Cape Village' and 'Sea Village'.
Foster's utopian vision looks more like science fiction than reality, because in Bulgaria the experience to date is that investors approve green roofs and wind turbines in the visualization stage, but the end result is always an air-conditioning unit on the facade. Every expert would tell you that investments on this scale are unlikely to pay off as planned. All in all, it looks like camouflage for yet another kitschy Black Sea village in a protected zone.
This 'eco-resort' will become a reality regardless of the amounts of CO2 that 15,000 humans will exhale after every breath they take and the amounts of garbage they will produce every day. Is this more ecological than the piece of beautiful untouched nature currently on the site? Doesn't 'eco-architecture' actually mean architecture that is subordinate to nature? Or does that trendy 'eco' prefix really stand for 'ego'? No matter how much it is being trumpeted at the present time, sustainable living is still a chimera for humanity, a vision without any real scientific backing. Black Sea Gardens is hopefully a balloon that will soon burst when the property market reaches terminal saturation and ideas of building whole new towns fade away. All these new developments look like ghost towns during the winter – and sometimes even during the summer.
History has shown that artificial utopias do not function in reality, unless we are talking about the desert landscape of Dubai. In places where nature has been more than generous, cities emerge gradually and at first rather chaotically until a certain critical mass is reached and town planning intervenes to guide future development. As Yona Friedman says, 'We do not make cities as they are, we accept them passively.'
November | 2008 | Bulgaria | Milena Filcheva