Sea, Sun and Socialism: Croatia and Bulgaria in a Cross-perspective

While being the first of its kind, the volume edited by Elke Beyer, Anke Hagemann and Michael Zinganel, Holidays after the Fall: Seaside Architecture and Urbanism in Bulgaria and Croatia (Berlin: Jovis, 2013) is also a long-awaited publication. Indeed, seaside architecture and urbanism in the former communist bloc have stirred attention and debates in recent years (there have been a few papers presented at various conferences and Michael Zinganel chaired a session on this subject at the 2nd EAHN Conference in Brussels, 2012), but this is the first time that a book is dedicated to the topic. This is an additional reason to welcome Holidays after the Fall as a much needed expansion of the historiographical field on Eastern European architecture.

Conceived in an almost symmetrical structure – a general introduction looking at the seaside architecture from a brief historic perspective (targeting mainly the interwar years) and two sections, each treating one of the two case studies – the book offers the reader a complex framework for understanding its topic. This complexity is the result of a cross-reading on multiple levels. The first level is the geographic one, based on an intelligent choice – Bulgaria and Croatia (as part of the former Yugoslavia): “orthodox” state-socialism versus non-alignment and the “third way”; the closest satellite to the Soviet-Union versus the closest socialist country to the Western world and to capitalism. (Focusing on Croatia, as the inheritor of most of the Adriatic coast, pushes this striking parallel further, since, historically speaking, the region was the closest to Western thinking and production before 1945 within the entire Kingdom of Yugoslavia.)

A second level of cross-reading is represented by the quasi interdisciplinary analysis of each of the two sections that mix architectural history with politics, economic history and sociology. Hence, the phenomenon of seaside architecture and urban planning is looked at in a larger context, which helps to understand its particularities (and helps as well the Western reader to situate him/herself within the unfamiliar universe of the former communist bloc). Moreover, the cross-perspective is expanded chronologically – and this is the third level – allowing to grasp (again, very briefly) the mutations and consequences of the socialist system after 1989.

Aside from all this, the book proposes eventually a visual reading of the seaside architecture on socialist shores through the two series of colour plates that open and close the volume. Their presence parallels the written discourse, by adding a supplementary dimension to it (not discussed in the text), while reminding one that the project at the origin of the book (“Holidays after the Fall: Urban and Architectural Transformation Processes of South-Eastern European Leisure Peripheries”) resulted also in two exhibitions (Graz 2012 and Berlin 2013) The first set of plates stage, through period postcards, the idealized image of the 1970s Adriatic coast: if the pictures reflect the political propaganda of the time, they also speak about what the citizens of socialist regimes were aspiring to. At the end of the book, the photos of Bulgarian resorts, taken in 2012 by Nikola Mihov, illustrate the drift of these ideals and, more generally, the disenchantment with mass-society values: the end of the season is a metaphor of the fallen system and its broken promises. Not only the architectures of the socialist years are derelict, but the harmonic principles that ordered them have disappeared, being replaced by uncontrolled sprawl, megalomaniac scale, and bling aesthetics.

The separation of the two case studies, which is responsible for the symmetrical construction of the book, indicates that the authors privileged a contrasted presentation, in spite of a synthetic approach. The significant differences between the two examples were certainly a strong argument in favour of this structure. But most probably, this was dictated also by the unbalanced documentation and historiographical work related to Bulgarian and Croatian architecture. It is true that Bulgaria, together with Albania, is the least studied country within the recent scholarship on Eastern European architectural history – hence the merit of this book in choosing it as a case study. Still, one could have benefitted from a more substantial parallel drawn in between the two examples, however different they are.

The general introduction, written by Michael Zinganel and Elke Beyer, sets the larger frame for looking at the phenomenon of seaside architecture before 1945. The text focuses on the interwar years, insisting on the economic background and the political aspects of leisure during that period. The choice is operated in order to trace the roots of tourism as developed within the socialist regimes, identified by the authors as a successor of both the Fordist conception of leisure and its political instrumentalisation. The reader is reminded of the role played by modernism in its attempt to find a response to the new needs of mass leisure (see the 5th CIAM in Paris, 1937), which was understood in terms of not only providing new spaces for escaping the city (and its daily pressures), but also rethinking the territory as a whole. It was precisely this facet of social reform that turned tourism into a powerful tool of political propaganda, as it was used by the totalitarian regimes of the time (and here Beyer and Zinganel list the seaside facilities built in the USSR, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy).

Looking at what happened after 1945, when tourism gained a mass dimension, the authors propose a rapid East/West overview, pointing out both the general lines of evolution and the major architectural typologies. As they state, this cross-perspective makes it possible to track the presumed distinctions between the two blocs, while revealing also an existing porosity, at the origin of the circulation of (social) ideas and (architectural) models. (And I would add here, at the origin of a certain paradigm of consumerism, as well). Though too briefly developed – one gets the impression that this short analysis is there only to require a more in-depth look at the larger topic – their text makes an interesting point presenting socialist regimes in a better position to fulfil the needs of mass-tourism. While this comment could sound like evidence that a planned economy could better respond to such requirements, one could foresee, reading in between the lines, the hidden importance of this statement: namely, that seaside architecture could be seen for many reasons as a major topic within the field of architectural history of the former communist bloc. One important reason is the quality of the architecture built here to serve as a testing-ground (as politicians encouraged architects to experiment the ultimate tendencies in their field), which engendered two important consequences – an attempt at matching what happened in the Western world and a high politicisation of tourism and all its derivatives. Second, an interesting feature of this architecture is its capacity of producing a parallel space, a space of escape in the (tightly) politically controlled socialist societies.

All these points are treated, in a greater or a lesser measure, in the two sections dedicated to the littoral development on the Adriatic coast and on the Bulgarian Black Sea. Hence, in spite of the important dissimilarities between the two countries, there are common threads to follow, especially in terms of politics (realpolitik and politics of architecture, more than ideology) and architectural analysis. What is lacking (but I will go back to that at the end of my comments) is a more solid cultural (and even anthropological one might say) interpretation of all this complex phenomenon of seaside architecture.

Following the distinctions between the two examples – from the geographical particularities and political settings to architectural approaches and forms of ownership – the two sections adopt different methods and perspectives in order to deal with their case study. The Bulgarian section (authored by Elke Beyer and Anke Hagemann) presents a history of postwar seaside architecture and urban planning structured around the resorts (or edifices) considered emblematic for a certain period of this evolution. The approach is an artful manner of palliating the meagre bibliography on the topic, while giving a rather good overview (though a bit schematic) of the entire period. One should note the minute documentation accomplished by the two authors, who often use period sources (especially local, but also from outside Bulgaria). Like in the case of the former Yugoslavia, the focus is on the importance of tourism for the local economy, before and after 1989, a point of view which is analysed by Beyer and Hagemann through the prism of politics and policies concerning tourism, from its initial social targeting to the ulterior mass development.

The reader learns thus how the Bulgarian socialist vision of the “tourist product” (that is, a completely organized package, comprising accommodation and three meals per day) anticipated the successful “all-inclusive” formula of the postsocialist years. While the pre-1989 politics corresponded to the social goals of the government, it also massively served its visibility (and acceptance) abroad, as well as reinforced the local economy through significant hard-currency gains. The interest to attract foreign tourists remained a priority after 1989, but was deprived of a planned scheme of development, resulting in chaotic if not conflicting operations. The five distinct examples of hotels and resorts covering the entire period help to understand the architectural and urban materialization of all successive policies: the Druzhba resort speaks for the 1950s and the beginning of the planned development, in between a latent Stalinism and a liberated modernism; Golden Sand, with its modern hotels demonstrates “the new polyglot playground for the world” at the beginning of the 1970s (in 1972, Bulgaria hosted the 11th Congress of the International Union of Architects, hosted in this booming resort); Albena is looked at for its 1990s (almost successful) mutations of modernist socialist structures; Sunny Beach is taken as an example for the chaotic (and eclectic) growth of the second boom of mass-tourism in Bulgaria, after 2000; finally, the most recent years are reflected through the diversification of the commercial logic, encompassing hotels, but also apartments for individual purchase. As for the Croatian section, the presentation of the Bulgarian case ends with ten examples of buildings, from the 1950s to nowadays and from the big structures to the rehabilitation of a peasant house near the coast.

The Croatian section is the object of a more in-depth (and more nuanced) examination, comprising a general view (by Michael Zinganel), an architectural and urban analysis (by Maroje Mrduljaš) and a final text (by Norbert Mappes-Niediek) dealing with a particular form of ownership, workers’ self-management, developed during socialist Yugoslavia but still active today. Zinganel lays the foundations for a further understanding of the Yugoslav case, insisting on its particular condition of “in-betweeness”. If the concept was forged in the 1990s by specialists in history and cultural studies, it was recently adapted to an architectural reading by Vladimir Kulić, Maroje Mrdulaš and Wolfgang Thaler, who edited Modernism In-Between: The Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia (Berlin: Jovis, 2012). Starting from these premises, Zinganel analyses how much this in-betweeness contributed to a larger absorption of the Western model, but also to what extent the “Yugoslav difference” led after 1989 to other forms of exploiting the seaside heritage than those adopted by the “classic” former socialist countries. The in-betweeness of the former Yugoslavia (and today the Republic of Croatia) is reflected in the high interest paid by foreign tourists to the Adriatic coast, which was during the entire 20th century a privileged destination. This special condition of the littoral combined with the political specificity of the former socialist state led to distinct forms of urban and architectural developments. Like in Bulgaria, the local specialists were very keen to preserve the coast and to draw master plans in a tight dialogue with nature; but here, the difference was made by the historic connections the Croatian architects had with the top Western modernists (they were the only group of the region that was part of CIAM), as well as by the way the Yugoslav government went about integrating its own aims within the larger international picture (both in terms of environmental policies and architectural tendencies).

Hence, foreign experts collaborated on a rather constant basis with the local teams for the design of certain architectural objects as well as for developing the different master plans (the Adriatic project benefitting from international UN consultants). Mrdulaš provides a thorough investigation of the architectural ground, showing the cross-influences while discussing the different typologies. If these typologies were already rather diversified in socialist Bulgaria, on the Adriatic coast they embraced a larger (and often more spectacular) array of expressions, from the purest post-1945 modernism to structuralism and different kinds of regionalisms. While following the development of the coastal resorts, the reader is also offered quick glimpses into the architecture of socialist Yugoslavia as a whole, which helps him/ her to get a finer sense of this production. A finer understanding of the context, but on a different level, is also provided by Mappes-Niediek’s chapter on ownership and the tribulations of the privatisation that ensued after the 1989 mutations.

By covering all these rich materials and themes concerning seaside architecture, Holidays after the Fall makes an important contribution to the current scholarship on Eastern Europe. Starting with its hot topic – architecture on socialist shores – which is today on the verge of developing into a rewarding subfield. At the beginning of October in Bucharest, for example, an exhibition opened on the Romanian case: Enchanting Views: Romanian Black Sea Tourism Planning and Architecture of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, curated by Kalliopi Dimou, Sorin Istudor and Alina Şerban. Another strong point of Holidays after the Fall is its transnational East/West perspective, which is more than valuable for reforming the current architectural historiography. By doing so, the book is advancing the approach developed in the past few years by other authors working in the field.

In terms of this cross-perspective, I would like to mention again the chronological extension, including bits of the post-1989 period and which greatly helps us to understand the dynamics of the former communist bloc and its consequences in the present. Nevertheless, the richness of this book turns in a few instances into a weakness. Its hybrid approach (and cross-disciplinary references) creates an imbalance in the quality of the analyses: the parts treating the post-1989 situation lack a certain rigour (because they lack a certain distance and documentation, as well), while the “collateral” reading of architecture (in spite of a good documentation) remains sometimes schematic.

What is missing in this analysis of intersecting points of view is a more substantial look at the imaginary valence of the seaside space. The authors do not ignore it; on the contrary, they mention the production of space related to seaside tourism; they define the littoral resorts as “architectures of global longing” (Zinganel and Beyer), or as “affordable Arcadia” (Mrdulaš). However, they pay little attention to the imaginary: it is precisely this feature of a “suspended” space that explains why modernity (as an attitude based on the idea of rupture but also of authenticity) cherished so much the seaside as a locus of perfect escape, projecting onto the architecture erected there both the sense of the place and a radical abstraction. It is this feature that explains also why during the socialist period, the space produced here enhanced its escapist valencies on many levels: the political (the rigour of ideological control was traded for a commercial logic), the architectural (through the absorption of Western models and tendencies), and the social (the lambda socialist citizen could believe, or pretend to believe, that the world he/she was inhabiting was perfect). In the new resorts of different socialist shores, East met West, which was good news for everybody: the state, the architects, the population. If this connection between the East and the West is at the core of the book, as I noted before, (in both directions, since the authors acknowledge the influence of the socialist examples on Western initiatives in the early 1960s), it lacks an analysis of its consequences on the local population before 1989. All the authors mention the presence of foreign institutions/organisations on the Adriatic and the Black Sea coasts, some of them detailing the architectural structures invested by those, but they do not take the time to see what effect this cohabitation produced. It is true that this could be a different research project (much in the sense of that developed by David Crowley and Susan Reid on “socialist spaces”) and that Holidays after the Fall could constitute a good start for it. In any case, this insight could have been a plus, but its absence does not diminish the valuable contribution of this work.


Carmen Popescu is an independent art and architectural historian. She has been involved in numerous research projects and holds teaching positions in France and Romania. She has been invited to lecture in Universities in Belgium, Great Britain, Slovenia, United States and Turkey. She is affiliated since 2008 with Paris I-Sorbonne, where she teaches History of Architecture as an Adjunct Professor. Her research focuses on three main axes – identity, politics and historiography. Her work on Eastern Europe combines all three directions, which she has developed in publications and conferences. Her recent publications include At the Peripheries of Architectural History – Looking at Eastern Europe“, Artlas Bulletin, vol. 3, issue 1, spring 2014, pp. 14-23; Behind the Iron Curtain: architecture in the former Communist bloc, between isolation and fascination, guest editor, Journal of Architecture, February 2009

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