The Strawberry House: When Reconstruction sounds like Destruction of a Fairytale

Once upon a time, behind these crystal glass doors an aristocratic family lived in a fairytale. The Strawberry house was constructed in 1927-1930 for the banker Dimitar Ivanov and Nadezhda Stankovich. It was planned by the Bulgarian architect Georgi Kunev, who studied in Vienna and Karlsruhe. The aristocratic owners spend afternoons with the highlife of Sofia all gathered around a musical stage. On the beautiful balconies, the housewife and her children enjoyed homemade strawberry jam, which neatly served in silver plates, complemented their morning tea. They slept in five royal bedrooms and had a huge cabinet for work matters. During the winter they would lit up a fire in the massive fireplace, made from red marble and decorated with reliefs. In an underground cellar they would keep the finest dessert wines. They also had rooms, especially reserved for their servants. The banker family mostly preferred furniture made by the finest artisans from Central and Western Europe.

The family lived joyfully in the house until 1944, when the house was nationalized. Between then and 1989, the Strawberry house served as headquarters for a group of Soviet advisors and later as a Romanian Embassy. Dimitar Ivanov’s inheritors received rights to the property back in the 90’s. In the meantime the building had received the status of cultural monument which complicated any plans for reconstruction, or repurposement. In 2004 the Zlatev family, owners to Lukoil Petroleum, acquired the house. After that, it was left to the elements for another 11 years and the Zlatev family does not take care of it, even though it’s obliged by Law.

Today, the windows are broken, the facade is peeling and the garden is not taken care of. For many years now around the Strawberry house no actual strawberries grow. Rather, ugly darnels and weeds embrace its stairways. The house has been left to the forces of nature to deal with it…to suit it for a purpose.

On October 9th, information leaked from the Ministry of Culture reporting that plans for the reconstruction of the property were approved. This stirred tensions around the population of Sofia inspired a petition signed by around 9000 people. The local authorities responded by delaying the release of any decisions. A new evaluation for the condition of the property was ordered by mayor Fandakova.

While we are waiting for the final decision, it is hard to disregard the major questions which the destruction may cause. Like many other cultural monuments in Sofia, the Strawberry house is not a viable investment for businessmen due to restrictions imposed by the current law on the prevention of cultural heritage. Simultaneously, the house is emblematic for the architecture of the downtown area. Like its other secession siblings, it adds a flavour of prestige to the amalgamation of early communist grandomanie buildings and modern apartment complexes. Zlatev has announced plans to reconstruct the house to its original self. The value of the property itself is too great, however, for us to trust that the businessman will hold to his  word and restore the house. It seems likely that if the Strawberry house comes down, another, less amiable albeit more functional structure might replace it.

The conflict over the Strawberry house is, thus, also a face off between the significance of urban heritage and functionalism to the city landscape. Globally, trends in architecture point to restoration as a means to conserve the authentic look to urban centers while providing their populations with diverse inside spaces. However, restoration and repurposement require large financial resources and support from the state. To preserve Sofia as a melting pot of Eastern European architecture from the 20th century, requires utilizing our rights as citizens. Whether protesters against the demolition of the Strawberry house were rightful in their demands or not, is uncertain. However, those protesters’ active role in the processes that shape our capital’s urban landscape should certainly inspire us all to stand up against injustice.

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