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Toplocentrala: from vacant industrial space to arts laboratory

Toplocentrala is a buzzing interdisciplinary dialogue centre, a laboratory that creates and presents performative as well as visual and musical arts. This magnificent cultural venue is a successful example of bringing life to a formally disused space. The centre is based in the former heating plant of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia at the cente of the city, which became disused in 1983. The renovated venue began to host performances in November 2021 and had its official opening in April 2022 as the Centre of Contemporary Arts. It builds exchange between the local and the international arts scene through workshops, residencies and co-productions. The Toplocentrala project is a joint initiative between a group of artists from the independent art scene, the Sofia Development Association and the owner of the building, Sofia Municipality. It is one of the ten pilot projects of the AGORA project that Eutropian has joined to equip participating cities with better knowledge, better governance and innovative administrative policy instruments for the reintroduction of vacant/underused space into the productive urban value chain.

A former heating plant, now a vibrant cultural hub

Toplocentrala was constructed in 1981 at the South Park near the National Palace of Culture as the massive cultural venue’s heating plant. It only served this purpose for 2-3 years, until central heating was installed in the venue. After that, Toplocentrala had been standing abandoned in a beautiful, central area in Sofia, next to a small river and well-connected with the rest of the city through grand boulevards surrounding the South Park.

In 2014, a group of artists and organisations formed an initiative to transform the disused building into a centre for contemporary arts. The process was a difficult and arduous one, requiring the support of stakeholders, citizens, as well as departments in the local municipality. In June 2020, the actual reconstruction of the building began, and the centre officially opened in 2022. Today, it operates as a cultural venue, with exhibition rooms, rehearsal halls and even residencies for artists. 

Breathing new life to Sofia’s cultural ecosystem

Toplocentrala aims to empower the independent/free artistic producers and performers of culture. Each year, new graduates emerge from educational institutions, most of them finding it difficult to gain opportunities to exhibit and explore their unique and peculiar voices.

In this interview, Sevdalina Voynova from the Sofia Development Agency lays out the goals of the project, which include sustainability,  regeneration of an urban void, claiming heritage, and public engagement.

By providing them an innovative place to experiment and perform, connect with citizens and procure their works, the centre is filling a much needed void, and will hopefully establish itself as an example of “best practice” in the arts sector. Another important aspect of Toplocentrala is that it values international cooperation and brings in international talent to exchange with and co-create alongside local talent. Therefore Toplocentrala not only provides a modern, well-equipped venue, the international exchange strengthens Bulgaria’s contemporary art scene by providing networking and learning.  

Last but not least, the impact of Toplocentrala on the neighbourhood cannot be overstated. The project will attract streams of visitors to the area, triggering future regeneration projects, serving as a model and inspiration to other potential renovation projects in Bulgaria via arts and culture.

A participatory model

Converting and activating the formerly disused building to provide a platform and space for arts and culture in Sofia was a result of a process that took years, and is still in the works. A key aspect of the sustainability of the project is the involvement of stakeholders at each step: the project aims to include all segments involved in the process, from the municipality to the artists themselves, making sure their visions and wishes are heard, and that they take part in the decision-making processes. This is not only ensuring the survival and longevity of the project, it is also creating a pilot case for collaborative regeneration projects in Bulgaria. 

Photo (c) Toplocentrala
Financial sustainability

There is a desire to create content that is appealing to the wider public who would provide a steady income for Toplocentrala through ticket sales. The Toplocentrala is aware that without support and financial contributions from the public, it will be dependent on funding schemes, which are precarious and can change depending on the shift in political power and goals.

Yet, this doesn’t discount the fact that financial support is necessary from institutions, and their involvement should not be discounted or dismissed. This balanced approach, one that combines a business model with an artistic outlook and culture work, is what will ensure the endurance of the project. 

Sofia Urban Regeneration Agenda

The Sofia Urban Regeneration Agenda is inspired by the Urban Agenda for the EU Partnership on Culture / Cultural Heritage, as well as the efforts of Agora partner cities to have a strategic approach towards urban regeneration for and through culture.

The Agenda is designed to:

  • strengthen the participatory approach by building trust and cooperation among different stakeholder groups;
  • benefit from the best practice examples in this area involving stakeholders in a co-creation process;
  • support documentation when applying with project proposals for other financial mechanisms at national or European level;
  • define priorities for the municipal grant-making programmes;
  • serve as an inspiration for developing similar development strategies on different topics.
Take a tour of the Toplocentrala!

Toplocentrala’s creative director Veselin Dimov is mostly known as a director and actor. He’s busy managing and overseeing the centre these days. Excited for what the future holds, he takes us on a tour of the newly renovated building. Let’s follow him as he shows us around and describes the activities and uses of space in and around this historic structure.

AGORA is an Interreg Danube project equipping ten cities in the Danube Region with better knowledge, better governance and innovative administrative policy instruments for the reintroduction of vacant/underused space into the productive urban value chain.

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