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Tilev Architects - Seuthopolis, Bulgaria (Copyright Tilev Architects)
In Bulgaria an ancient city is about to reappear from the bottom of a lake. The city is called Seuthopolis and dates from the fourth century before Christ. Back then Seuthopolis was the capitol of a country named Odrissia. It was the city of the Thracian king Seuthus the third – hence its name.
The remains of the city weren’t found until 1948 during the construction of a new dam. When the lake filled up in 1954 the city disappeared under water, twenty meters of water.
Anno 2008 fundraising has started to ‘excavate’ Seuthopolis with a circular dike measuring 420 meters in diameter. The idea comes from an office called Tilev Architects and is supported by the local authorities. According to the architects, parties from all over the world are interested to invest in the enterprise.
There are for instance parties from the Netherlands willing to participate, not all surprising considering the experience in the low countries with dredging, dikes and polders. That’s basically what it is: a small polder.
I suppose it is the most expensive polder ever imagined. The design by Tilev Architects requires a huge dike, to dredge a relatively small area. The height of the dike has the side effect that the water pressure will be significant. The water level in the ground drops from the dike on, but as this polder is so small the level doesn’t drop that far towards its center. This basically means the polder will be filling up with water constantly.
With a pair of pumps the problem is obviously solved. A pair of windmills could power the pumps. It is bandage on bandage for an, in its core, unsustainable layout. I wonder if it wouldn’t be cheaper to get rid of the dam that sustains the lake, or to simply displace the remains of the old city to dry land.
That however would be neither here nor there. The proposed ‘recovery’ of Seuthopolis is not about pragmatism, nor about archeology. It is about realizing a powerful image, about creating a tourist machine. It is a polder as spectacle.
In this case the small size of the polder is its advantage. With their design Tilev Architects create a ‘hole’ in the lake. In the First Testament Moses splits the water, anno 2008 we have the technology do it ourselves. It is a miracle!
The architects enthusiastically write that during the approach by boat you can’t see the city. Only when crossing the dike the view opens on the city twenty meters lower. Looking from the twenty meter high dike, you can see the remains of Seuthopolis in its entirety. It’s an extra asset of the polder.
The effect is comparable to the circling ramps at the Mercedes-Benz Museum of UNStudio: from the ramps you see the cars from a different angle that you are used to. In the case of Seuthopolis the ‘helicopter view’ is functional too. As no building still stands up, the main attraction is the layout of the walls and streets, and that is obviously best experienced from above.
“The ring is a border between past and present, history and contemporaneity, land and water, high and low“, Tilev Architects say. On the dike they propose a series of pavilions with café’s, restaurants and leisure facilities like bicycle rentals and a service center for fishing. Inside the dike, in its upper level, there is room for a museum, a conference hall, a hotel and offices.
For a seamless experience, the elevators are thought to be panoramic. To thicken the spectacle five of the structures that are the most complete are to be rebuild. How ‘real’ the rebuild structures would be after 2400 years is an open question. The’ Jurassic Park’ movies though proved to be a great accelerator in the knowledge of our ancient ancestors.
In Western Europe the rebuilding of ancient architecture got off the table when Modernism entered the room. In the nineteenth century Eugène Viollet-le-Duc could still inventively ‘completed’ Gothic churches and cathedrals throughout Europe that hadn’t been finished in the Middle Ages. Backed by the government in Paris there is almost no Gothic structure Viollet-le-Duc left untouched.
Under the influence of the Modernist idea of time in the twentieth century the practice of Viollet-le-Duc would become instantly unthinkable: keep the past to history, here is the now. We still have books titled ‘Architecture Now’. The ‘now’ and the ‘past’ no longer intertwine.
I am not sure whether or not that idea is currently changing, has already changed, or is never going to change. Projects like the Caixa Forum in Madrid or Kraanspoor in Amsterdam are built with the old artifacts, but keep them to the past. A little different is the strategy applied by Peter Zumthor is his redoing of Kolumba. There the past echo’s in the new structure, but it is still far away from the rebuilding proposed for Seuthopolis.
What if the speculative additions to the ruins are constructed to be reversible? What if Peter Zumthor was asked to redo the structure of Seuthopolis? What if Rome would adopt the strategy and would start rebuilding the Roman palaces?