Silent Symbols of a Forgotten Past in Sofia

Photographer Stefan Giftthaler documents the slow-burning atmospheric feeling that oozes from Sofia’s communist era architecture.

With a complicated history and a society that has undergone drastic changes over the past few decades, Bulgaria, like many other former communist countries, has had its fair share of struggles with its own identity. Sofia is often overlooked by many in the west, but under the golden sunlight, the Bulgarian capital exudes a calmness and tranquility that has come to characterize Eastern Europe.

“There is something coming from the East through this silence, something that has not adjusted to the modern rhythm of life, almost like an atmosphere from another time,” photographer Stefan Giftthaler tells LYFSTYL. “Next to the strong aesthetics of these high buildings, you can feel the possibility of a quiet, more tranquil way of living.”Stefan Giftthaler

Rather than the peaceful and ordinary feeling brought on by suburban areas, however, Sofia feels sleepy, with its residents, infrastructure and public spaces resembling more so a haunted ghost town. The communist-era architectural heritage had long been the subject of interest for Giftthaler, but as he moved through the hollow streets, he felt like something was missing, as if the city has had the life sucked out from it.

While the imaginary Iron Curtain between Europe’s East and West no longer exists, its lasting impacts seems to remain prevalent to this day. Many of the communist monuments, constructed to commemorate and glorify the Bulgarian state, that once soared through the skies overlooking Sofia were dismantled after the fall of the totalitarian regime in 1989, though remnants can still be found to this day, often ransacked, vandalized, or at the very least, neglected.Stefan GiftthalerStefan Giftthaler

No matter how you slice it, exploring modern Sofia is walking in the former communist regime’s tracks, from the hollow architecture to the propagandistic art and monuments, the sleepy feel seems to seep into all aspects of life. Despite this, however, Giftthaler was pleased to notice that a number of these communities in particular are home to a heightened sense of community. “I found many Soviet blocks and buildings and I was happy to see that these parts of the city are very lively,” Giftthaler observes. “People on the streets going to work, shopping, chatting, children and grandparents in playgrounds.”

The Brutalist-like architecture, in typical Soviet fashion in which endless concrete towers blocks dominate the cityscape, were initially designed to exude a moral seriousness and unpretentious honesty. From these once dull blocks, Giftthaler was excited to now see a new sense of community and livelihood. “These neighborhoods are very green, full of trees and parks,” Giftthaler mentions. “There still is a very calming silence all around. Older couples sit quietly on benches looking at the trees’ leaves changing colors.”Stefan Giftthaler

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find an inherently laid-back attitude of many locals. Sofia is big, but nowhere near what could be considered a sprawling metropolis. The recent pickup in modern and with many youth starting to become more progressive and daring, and Sofia’s sleepiness just might pique your interest. Hell, it might even be your cup of tea.

Words by Braeden Alexander – Learn more about Stefan Giftthaler here.

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