Cartographies of Global Power

 

Guéorguy Stoilov’s Buzludzha Monument in An Emerging Atomic Age (1945-1969)...

Preparing for the first plenary session of the Potsdam conference, in the afternoon of July 17, 1945 President Harry Truman received a Top Secret telegram from Washington D.C. indicating the results of the first test of an atomic weapon. The coded telegram indicated that the flash of light could be seen and heard two hundred fifty miles from the Trinity test site. Later that day, reversing policies of passivity, Truman used the successful nuclear test as a stern negotiating tool with Joseph Stalin. Historically, the Potsdam conference would prove to be the seminal moment in the geographical formation of the Iron Curtain - a cartographic division of space between Eastern and Western geopolitical ideologies. Beyond mere historical document, this research contends that post-WWII political and architectural space stem from specific historical conjectures of geographical power struggles. Is it possible that architectural space can be both a symptom of changes in geopolitics while also instantiating changing power structures? Guéorguy Stoilov’s Buzludzha Ideological Monument in Bulgaria is the site of this investigation. 

During the late-1950s and 60s, hundreds of memorials commemorating World War II called ‘Spomeniks’ were built throughout the Balkans. Striking monumental sculptures, these memorials were commissioned to commemorate sites where WWII battles took place. Today they are largely neglected and unknown. The Buzludzha Ideological Monument in Bulgaria, albeit different in intent, follows the lineage of these monuments. 

Immediately following WWII Europe and Russia spend enormous resources on urban reconstruction with little architectural merit - in particular large scale housing. Furthermore, the Kremlin banned individual artistic expression in architecture with the exception of government assembly buildings. We don’t see, therefore, the emergence of significant architectural design in this region until after the death of Stalin in 1953. Soon after there is a sudden rise of memorials constructed, which reaches its climax in 1981 with the Buzludzha Ideological Monument. 

Buzludzha is Bulgaria’s largest ideological monument to Communism. Designed by architect Guéorguy Stoilov, more than six thousand workers and twenty leading Bulgarian artists were involved in its seven year construction. The building was unveiled in 1981 on the 1300th anniversary of the foundation of the Bulgarian state. One of the last of its type, the Buzludzha Monument is entrenched in a geopolitical global power struggle. While the United Nations Assembly and the Palace of the Soviets have solidified their place within the cannons of architectural discourse, Guéorguy Stoilov’s Buzludzha Ideological Monument has largely been ignored. Relatively unknown and understudied, its importance lies as a symptom of a geopolitical cartographic representation. 

While the Buzludzha Monument celebrates a political reification of Soviet ideologies, it is moreover an architectural space representative of an emerging global construct. What does it mean to indicate a particular design - or architectural form - anticipates a broader social change? To claim so presupposes a possibility of architecture being before its time - or out of time. How can architecture operate accordingly? 

Stemming from radical changes in geopolitics immediately following WWII, architecture became a means of mapping geographical context cartographically. Similar to Henri Lefebvre’s theory of social space, which indicates that architectural space both produces and is produced by political space, this dissertation contends that a new global space emerged coinciding with the end of WWII in 1945. The global powers of Russia and the United States came into direct contact at national borders of Europe and Asia - such as the Berlin Wall or the 38th parallel in Korea. Bulgaria itself, however, is a geopolitical border. Its geographical location in between Soviet Russia and NATO Greece make it the perfect case study for such an architectural inquiry. What was the perception of Soviet Russia in mid-twentieth century Bulgaria? What were attempts to resolve the conflicting dilemma of a political construct which supposes soceity of the masses and one that practices oppression and enslavement? 

Although the time period immediately following WWII has been chronicled historically, such as Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, it has been little understood architecturally. The few mentions one finds of an architectural history of this time period focuses mostly on provocative endeavors such as the Situationists and the spectacle of Guy DeBord and provocations by Archigram and Superstudio, while leaving serious architectural constructions undiscussed. There is, therefore, a void in the discourse at this time period, which incidentally, marks a seminal moment between modernism and the atomic age - visible in the emergence of new types of geopolitical states such as the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.

Borrowing from Lefebvre’s spatial historicism, which claims that social space originates from and simultaneously produces political economic conditions, the post-war atomic age of the mid-twentienth century enabled new types of projects such as the United Nations and the Buzludzha Monument. With the emergence of the atomic age and its accompanying fear of annihilation, coupled with the new geopolitical allocation of Europe and the remainder of the world, in 1945 we see the full realization of global geopolitical space. As German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues, this new spatial conception was made possible only after the geographical developments of WWII. 

A period of flux and transition, 1945-1969 offers a unique spatial conception of the world that is further altered with the social revolutions of 1968, Apollo moon landings, and accompanying Earthrise photograph. Politically, this time period sees the coeval existence of two seemingly disjointed ideologies. On one hand we have an era of optimism for global peace exemplified most accurately by the United Nations, but on the other a fear of instant annihilation brought forth by nuclear weapons. It is our claim that the ostensible optimism of the era merely as a veil for a fear of complete annihilation - made most evident in the architectural space of the Buzludzha Ideological Monument. 

Architecture reifies context.