Buildings denote space. They give it meaning and fill it with function and life. Interestingly though, sometimes buildings come to describe not only space, but also time. They become symbolic for the people and the events they lived through. Breathing in history firsthand, buildings sometimes mean so much more than their function and design. This story is a part of a series, dedicated to such buildings and the fascinating way in which they remember, inspire and describe us.
In the 1920s Bulgaria’s export of tobacco and cigarettes was the third largest in Europe and about 40% of the entire production was focused in the city of Plovdiv. Midst small residential buildings, halfway between the city center and the main railways station, rise a few blocks of massive 5-storey monumental buildings – the Tobacco Factories. Designed in times when the country eagerly rushes to reach the western european countries in development, the buildings have facade details that remind of central Vienna, open plan interior structure and generous scale. After the change in 1946, when Bulgaria becomes a socialist country, the buildings receive a different status. Serving as inspiration for the novel “Tobacco” by Dimitar Dimov, the Tabacco Town of Plovdiv is immortalized in the pages of the book as a symbol of hard work, which drains the soul from life and feeds sick ambitions. The novel establishes itself as classic in the national culture until today.
Walking through the streets of the Tobacco Town one can’t help but feel this unique romantic of the place. Since the republic turned to democracy in 1990 the factories have been abandoned and in the last years have been refurbished to fitness studios or offices. Nevertheless, after all the years of production, the smell of fresh tobacco leaves is still soaked in the thick walls, painted in the same dark yellow colour as the plant. The enchanting smell of the ghost buildings whisper the stories of love and innocence, of lust for power, egoism and greed from Dimovs novel and weary look upon yet another generation of change.
In 2016 the next chapter of their existence began. Right after turning to democracy, in one of many dirty political deals, four of the most beautiful buildings are sold off for little to a local business man. As a result, 25 years of careless decay later, the owner decides to build a profitable hotel on the spot and therefore destroy the existing buildings. In the last moment the fact of the privatised ownership of the monuments finally becomes known to the public and severe protests against the destruction follow. Until one night when exactly those four buildings burst into flames. As heartbroken citizens watch the architectural massacre with horror, responsibility for the fire is put on a mentally ill homeless man and explained as an accident.
The story of the Tobacco Town is in many respects the story of Bulgaria – the way work, life, love and trade happened in the last century of many extreme political changes. Nowadays the factories are not anymore the highest or the most prominent buildings of the city, but they surely are a large part of its charm and character. As they await the next chapter of their story, our job is to fight for their future and their memory. Unlike people, a building can testify for the continuation of time, but it is still on us to curate that special link.
The featured image is from the move “Tobacco” 1961 by the book of Dimitar Dimov.
“Историята на тютюневите складове в Пловдив”, Mediapool.bg, 9 March 2016