Tsarigradsko shose 9 km, 1186 Sofia


By Petar Yokimov, Lyubinka Stoilova

In 1888, Nikola Lazarov, a recent graduate of the gentlemen’s high school in Plovdiv, arrived in Sofia and started working as a draftsman in the Public Buildings Directorate. The acquaintance with Arch. Friedrich Grünanger, Karl Heinrich, and other foreign specialists, who have proven themselves professionally in Bulgaria, affirm his enduring interest in architecture.

In the fall of 1890, with his savings and a one-time financial aid granted by the Ministry of Education, he left for Paris, France. He enrolled as a full time student at the École Spéciale d’Architecture. In 1891, he became a scholarship holder in the list of alumni of Prince Ferdinand Civil List with the obligation to work for three years in the Prince’s Quartermaster Office after his graduation.

On November 10, 1893, Nikola Lazarov graduated with a project and an independent task for a surveying of the Church of St. John in the Rila Monastery. Lazarov drew the drafts in the colour wash technique and attached a historical reference about the master builder and the church construction. He received the Grand Prix de Rome. On his return to Bulgaria, he submitted a written report to the Quartermaster Office, enclosing the diplomas and certificates of appreciation he received [Avramov 1983, pp. 15-16]. In 1894, in the Magazine of the Bulgarian Engineering and Architectural Society, he published research data on the Rila Monastery, the Hrelyo’s Tower, and the Church of St. John, together with a plan, two facades, and a longitudinal section of the church.

In 1894, Nikola Lazarov is appointed Architect at the Directorate for Maintenance and Repair of Government Buildings in the Principality, headed by Friedrich Grünanger. Lazarov is instantly assigned to assist the Swiss Architect Heinrich Meyer in the final stage of construction of the Prince’s Summer Palace in Euxinograd near Varna by 1897 (after the design by Arch. Victor Rumpelmeier) [Jokimov-Stoilova, 2008, p. 76]. His participation is mostly in the interiors furnishing. [Avramov, 1983, pp. 16 17]. At the same time, in 1895, Lazarov collaborated with Friedrich Grünanger in carrying out his project for the northeast wing of the Prince’s Palace in Sofia (1893). He reviewed the decoration of the Grand Hall (1895) by the Frenchman Henri Barbier (a royal miniature artist in Paris), in connection with his letter to Ferdinand I of December 1895, challenging his payment fixed by the Ministry of Public Buildings, Roads, and Communications [in French, Central State Archives, Fund 3k; Stoilova 1998].

In mid-1897, he established the first private architectural practice in Bulgaria, located on the cross of Targovska and Lege Streets in Sofia. In August 1898, the Church board of trustees of the Sofia Cathedral of St. King (St. Nedelya) commissioned the private bureau to reconstruct the church. They carried out the reconstruction [Magazine of the Bulgarian Engineering and Architectural Society, Issue 4-6 / 1899, p. 110] in three years without interrupting the church services. Lazarov reconstructed the main corps of the National Revival church designed by the Russian architect L. O. Vasiliev (1882-83) while supplementing a massive bell-tower to the west of it. Following the extensive regulatory measures taken during Dimitar Petkov’s mayoralty, the church remained settled on a terrace. Lazarov fortified and connected it to the surrounding square by wide stairs – from the west, north, and south [Temelski, p. 55].

In 1898-1903, Nikola Lazarov completed the construction and furnishing of the new building of the Officers’ Assembly / Military Club in Sofia (a design from 1895 by Adolf Václav Kolař dying December 30th, 1900). He approached this task with caution because of the clear awareness of its public significance and expected visits by senior military and palace circles.

In 1899 the Architect designed and built the Royal Stable Garage in Sofia, on the cross of Ferdinand I / Vasil Levski and Knyaz Alexander Dondukov Boulevards. Due to its technical nature, the building does not distinguish by exceptional architectural features. However, it imposes by the elegantly fashioned cast-iron lattice doors in the yard facing Knyaz Al. Dondukov Blvd. and Panayot Volov Street (preserved to this day) [Central State Archives, fund 120, inventory 1].

The mentioned commitments constitute quite a small share of Arch. Lazarov’s full annual volume of professional activities. In 1899, the BAES Magazine reported that the Architect had designed 22 buildings: fifteen one-story with a total built-up area of 1649.74 sq. meters and seven two story with 542.31 sq. m. total area [BAES Magazine, issue 4-5 / 1899, p. 110] and “three more buildings of 265.77 sq. m.” [BAES Magazine, issue 8-.9-10 / 1899, pp. 214].

The energy invested in the preparation and implementation of projects gets rewarded by the trust gained among various social circles. Lazarov receives assignments across the country, for officers assemblies (Shumen, Sliven, Plovdiv), churches (Bulgarevo, Seidol, Chamkoria), monuments (Svishtov, Ruse), headquarters of cultural and professional associations – local community centers and other club buildings (Kazanlak, Pazardzhik, Svishtov, Karlovo, Lovech, Gabrovo), theaters (Sofia, Stara Zagora, Varna), hotels, factories, a considerable number of residential buildings. The experience gained, various contacts, and professional achievements, along with the pioneering mission of a private practicing architect, very quickly made Nikola Lazarov a genuine public authority. Arch. Lazarov’s involvement in the most significant Bulgarian architectural contests until the First World War is full of emotions.

The first bill on the disposition of important government buildings in the capital city dates from 1899. In the period after 1900 of the country’s economic growth, a series of competitions took place, and a concept gradually evolved for the structuring of a representative urban center. The key one is the competition for the square around the Church-Monument of St. Alexander Nevsky (1903), which gave impetus to the ensemble’s artistic approach to urban planning in Sofia, developed theoretically by the prominent Austrian architect and urban planner Camillo Sitte. Through Orhaniyska / Moskovska Street, a connection lays out with the square around the Levski’s monument and the ring Ferdinand I Boulevard (now: Vasil Levski Blvd). Along the longitudinal axis, it connects with Oborishte Street, and in parallel, Shipka Street – with the complex of the Military School and the adjacent residential areas. The oval configuration formed of green grounds called “exedras” by the author, with the Church-Monument located in its geometric center, is a solution nearest to the crown layout of the square. “I also aimed to point out from everything I group on this square–museum, an idea that is easily grasped and understood by every passer-by… This idea is the spiritual and later – political liberation of the Bulgarian people.” [BAES Magazine, 1904; Stoilova, 24.11.2014].

In another version of the same project, probably the result of his work on the concept for a monumental Sofia layout (1907-12) [Central State Archives, fund 120, inv. 1; Stoilova 1998], Lazarov positioned the pavilions of the future Sofia University [Avramov, Iv., 1983, p. 86] in a way very similar to the proposal of the Frenchman J. Bréançon. His design for the Rector’s building had won the international competition from 1906-07 and later developed in the construction at the intersection of Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd. and the ring Ferdinand I boulevards. [Stoilova et al., 2016, pp. 51-54]. On this basis, some authors launch the claim that in 1910-11 Lazarov assisted J. Bréançon in the Rectorate’s design, but so far, it is not clear what other documentary evidence they refer to [M. Vezneva et al. The National Institute of Cultural Monuments’s Proposal, 1977, p.94].

At the same time, Lazarov won third prize in an international competition for the Judicial Chamber in the then empty neighborhood opposite the Officers’ Assembly on Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd. (1907). After winning the first prize in the contest for the District Governance Palace in Sofia in 1911, in 1912, he prepared a working design and terms of reference, and in 1914, he signed a construction contract. The realization (with the construction supervision by the Architects Iliya Popov and Naum Torbov) achieved the powerful result of one of the most remarkable public buildings in the capital city to date, even if the style of late eclecticism was considered outdated at the time of completion by 1924.

The already mentioned urban planning concept for the complete design of the Sofia downtown is being developed intensively (1907-12) around the proclaiming of Bulgaria’s Independence (1908) by several architects, including Nikola Lazarov. The planned renovation of the capital city of the new kingdom is promoted in a Europe-wide publicity campaign, apart from the layout of monumental public buildings. Several international architectural competitions are held – for the royal palace, courthouse, and national museum-library in Sofia [Trendafilov 1914]. Foreigners are summoned for jury members in all three contests. As involved in the overall process of the capital’s urban planning, Lazarov gets some advantage, which is evident in the first of them [Stoilova 2009].

The contest for the Court Palace (1912-14) in the neighborhood between Alabin, Vitosha, Positano, and Lavelle Streets (where the building is today) is the first to launch. Out of 35 participants from all over Europe, the first prize went to the design by Lazarov, in collaboration with the decorator Stefan Badzhov, sent from France. Like most proposals, this is in the spirit of L’École des Beaux-Arts.

The contest for the Royal Palace for the plot along Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd. in front of the Prince’s Botanical and Zoological Garden between Ferdinand I Blvd., and the Eagle Bridge took place in 1914. In style, the future complex should resemble Belvedere Palais in Vienna [Stoilova 2009] per the official guidance casting the mainstream character of the results. They featured a classic palace complex with the main volume located parallel to the boulevard and representative axially symmetrical compositions with a deep park. Among the awarded, Lazarov’s project, again with Stefan Badzhov, was deservedly awarded the third prize.

In the competition for the National Museum with a Library on the empty plot opposite the Officers’ Assembly (1914), announced by the Euphoria of Evlogi and Hristo Georgiev, the design of Lazarov’s won the fourth prize – redemption [Kovachevski–Yokimov, 1978, p. 212, 215, 224].

Due to the Balkan Wars, the judging of all three competitions ended in 1914. The designs get on display to the public in a spectacular exhibition of 713 boards at the Royal Palace, 392 – for the Court House and 139 – for the National Museum-Library arranged in the Prince’s Manege grounds, and widely covered by the press [Avramov 1983, p. 38]. The ensuing world war thwarted their realization. Nikola Lazarov presents an album with reproductions from his participation in the contests to Prince Boris of Turnovo with a personal dedication of a “graduate of the Civil List of His august Father” [Central State Archives, fund 3k; Stoilova 1998].

As early as 1912, the devoted scholarship holder of Ferdinand I’s Civil List drafted a creative response to the recently declared independence of Bulgaria and the triumph of the royal dignity of the ruler in his design for a large summer palace in the Vrana manor near Sofia (also known as Villa 2).

According to some sources, the design gets shaped with the direct involvement of the King. The resulting powerful plastic volume combines – in the Art Nouveau spirit – neo-Byzantine inventions of medieval churches and residential towers with national-romantic reminiscences of Revival bay windows, wooden loggias, eaves, and sloping roofs.

A picturesque accent fetches the cylindrical volume of dominating height with the chapel to the east, with a façade imitation of alternating horizontal belts in opus mixtum, crowned by Lombard arches and a hemispherical dome. In the central avant-corps facing the park, even if monochrome, parallels with the Rila Monastery’s residential wing can be felt: the typical proportions and plaster decoration of the two-storey loggia ending with a triple arch and a powerful wooden roof.

Most prominent contemporary artists contributed to the furnishing and decorative layout of the interiors. The plaster decoration is the work of the Austrian decorative artists Andreas and Edmund Greis. Haralambi Tachev designed the stained glass windows. The wood-carved elements and furniture sets are made in the carpentry school in Ruse after the designs by the Austrian master-ebeniste Josef Wondrak – the winner of special awards at the exhibitions in Liège (1905), Milan (1906), and the Balkan Exhibition in London (1907). [Inventory of documents about the furniture, 1913. Central State Archives, f. 3k, inv. 7; Stoilova 1998, pp. 16; Stoilova-Stern 2006, pp. 192-193].

Construction in Vrana finished in 1914. Here is how Albert Levenson describes the palace and its adjoining annexes:

“This is a monumental building, richly furnished, with apartments for the Royal Family, ground floor halls, offices, dining rooms, utility rooms. In 1923, this palace valued at BGN 4,100,000, and the furniture, tapestries, and paintings – at BGN 1,500,000. Separately, there are rooms for servants and guards and modernly facilitated businesses – cowshed, pig farm, barns. The mansion is connected by a narrow-gauge railway to Kazichene station, located 3 km far, where the royal stop is. It also has its power plant. The palace is famous for its rare decorative park, created under the leadership of King Ferdinand. During his travels, and through other demands, he transferred and planted here specially selected specimens of deciduous and coniferous trees, tropical planting (!?), rare plants, various kinds of flowers. The park is strewn with several beautifully built rockeries, afforested (!?) with Balkan, Central Asian, African, South American plants, there were even Chinese flowers. Several flower gardens (conservatories!) have been created, of which the most imposing is the tropical greenhouse, with flowers and plants unknown to our conditions. Among them, the giant water lily, which grew only along the Amazon River, was holding the reward”. [Albert Levenson, Strokes to the Portrait of Tsar Boris III, Book 1, 1992, pp. 144-145 – quote from Diko Dikov].

One of the air-raids in 1944, aimed at bombing the Vrana mansion, brought to burning out the two upper floors of the building. Thanks to the fire brigades’ efforts and personally to Prince Kyril, the furniture and paintings are rescued. [Albert Leverson, Strokes to the Portrait of Tsar Boris III, Book 2, 1992, p. 134 – quote from Diko Dikov].

Vrana was the favorite place of the royal children, by and large, because of the miniature train on rails, built by King Ferdinand (the narrow-gauge railway to Kazichane), which he personally and later his sons could ride around the park [Stefan Gruev. Crown of Thorns, 1991, p. 41]

After the wars, Nikola Lazarov gradually withdrew from active design undertakings and devoted himself to public activities. One of his causes is the ennoblement of Chamkoria (Borovets) to a resort. He is trying to attract prominent villa owners to an initiative committee to promote the idea and raise funds for its implementation. In the complex socio-political and economic conditions, the task turned out to be difficult, but as we learn from the memories of the financier Marko Ryaskov, Arch. N. Lazarov worked tirelessly for this in 1934-1935.

“Architect M(L)azarov, an old Chamkorian, made the plan and undertook to manage the construction for free. We also considered the simultaneous construction of an outpatient clinic in the churchyard. The Samokov Municipality allocated a very nice, spacious place for this purpose. The newly established “Building Committee at the Church of Holy Transfiguration in Chamkoria” had to be in charge of the clinic’s construction either. A very nice small church was built up in a suitable style, with a separate premise for an outpatient clinic […] On December 14, 1935, the Church board of trustees at the Church of Holy Transfiguration addressed to us a very heartfelt letter of gratitude.”

As a municipal councilor (1937-41), Lazarov assisted the uptake of the Larger Sofia’s General Urban Plan designed by the German urban planner Adolf Mussmann. During the discussion of the plan by the Sofia Municipal Council on May 18th, 1938, he stated:

“The plan drawn up by Professor Mussmann is an excellent and appropriate urban planning work. He has fulfilled his task with great diligence and success. From now on, with the implementation of the plan, Sofia will become a genuinely prosperous city. “

In 1938 Lazarov visited Stuttgart with a Sofia Municipality delegation, where he had a meeting with Prof. Mussmann. Next year he defended the supplemented version of his Plan before the municipal councilors:

“First of all, the anarchy that has been reigning so far is coming to an end, although the outputs of it will hurt the souls not only of the Sofia citizens but of every Bulgarian for a long time to come. I approve of the Plan in its wholeness. And our young architects and engineers will still have to show their talents, fully complying with the way of life of the Bulgarians, with our reality, and with our modest resources.”

[Avramov 1983, 74], with which Arch. Lazarov contributed to its approval by an Ordinance-law of the National Assembly [SG, issue 80 / 12.04.1938, as amended and extended in SG, issue 135 / 19.06.1940; Stoilova et al. 2016, 72-74].

Architect Nikola Lazarov is one of the greatest artists in Bulgarian architecture from the early twentieth century. The result of his exceptional ability to work is his participation in over 20 international and national architectural competitions (in seventeen, he received awards, eight of which first and four – second). He designed over 150 elite houses and tenement houses, and several dozens of large public buildings throughout Bulgaria. A graduate of the French school of architecture from the late nineteenth century, he remained faithful to French academic architectural Historicism throughout his career, despite the attempts (mostly successful) to capture the spirit of Secession. Extremely elegant in the form and composition of the volumes, a perfect master of detail, Nikola Lazarov is one of the most easily identifiable Bulgarian architects.