By Scott W. Briggs, AIA, Senior Associate
As our world faces the current global crisis, our communities are coming together to persevere and look forward to tomorrow. Just like many of you, our staff finds themselves locked down at home right now, unable to travel much further than the local grocery store and daydreaming of far-away places, wondering when life might return to some sense of normalcy and we’ll be able to journey out into the world at large again.
One destination in particular holds a special place for many at SKOLNICK: Bulgaria. Over the past eight years, our studio has worked with the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF) on three projects including: Muzeiko, Pirogov Children’s Hospital, and the renovation of Auditorium 272 at Sofia University. We are fortunate to again be working with ABF, this time on The Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis, an extraordinary project that has involved many months of travels to Sofia and Plovdiv and collaboration with a large team of international specialists, experts, designers, and fabricators.
Plovdiv, Bulgaria, known for much of its history as Philippopolis, is one of the oldest European settlements with evidence of habitation dating back to the 6th millennium BCE. During its evolution from a late Stone Age camp to a modern city, it has continuously served as an important gathering place and an economic and cultural center for southeastern Europe. Owing to its strategic location on seven hills, the city has also been a much-coveted site for the various invaders and conquerors who have controlled this part of the world over the ages – settled by Thracians and subsequently overrun by successive waves of Persians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Goths, Huns, Bulgars and Turks.
Aerial photograph of the Bishop’s Basilica excavation site © Elena Kantareva-Decheva
Today, Plovdiv is modern Bulgaria’s second largest city and an important economic, transportation, and educational center for the country. It is also home to an amazing array of archaeological sites, religious structures, and cultural remnants associated with its long history. The Bishop’s Basilica is an early Christian church dating from the 4th century AD, and one of the largest discovered in the Balkans. It was built shortly after the Roman Empire recognized Christianity as an official religion in 313 AD. First uncovered in the mid-1980s under a traffic roundabout, lack of funding and capacity within Bulgaria led the site to remain dormant until 2014. At that point, ABF began supporting efforts to uncover and conserve this archaeological treasure with its exquisite floor mosaics, and to preserve it as part of a visitor center for future generations.
Interior of the future Visitor Center © America for Bulgaria Foundation
Realization of the Bishop’s Basilica project has involved an international effort. Our initial work on an interpretive plan for the center evolved into the creation of all the exhibits for the facility, working closely with a design team consisting of the Plovdiv-based architect, heritage architect, and landscape designer, Atelie DUO. The archaeology work on the site has similarly involved numerous Bulgarian archaeologists, historians, and specialists in fields such as geology, epigraphy, religious scholarship, architectural conservation, and forensic anthropology. Exhibit development, graphic design, video and software design, and fabrication and installation have been realized under our creative leadership by teams from Bulgaria, the UK, and Hungary.
Installation crew working on the Discovery Zone exhibit © Scott Briggs
Since ancient times, this site has continuously served as a place of reverence and religious importance. Today, we continue to find meaning in it, celebrating it as a place of beauty, of understanding past cultures, and making connections to our own spiritual lives. As the citizens of Philippopolis past faced constant threat of invasion, famine, Black Plague, earthquakes, and other harsh difficulties through history, they came together era after era with a concerted effort to persevere. With the current global crisis creating stress within our society, this sacred site of continual renewal has brought people together once again to create something inspiring and significant. Building and finalization of the project continues, albeit at a much slower pace than in recent months, due to restrictions on travel and construction brought on by COVID-19. This is just another challenge in the extraordinary effort toward realization of this new visitor center complex. Coming together with our colleagues around the world at this gathering place fills us with a sense of expectation and focus on the future. We look forward with great anticipation to our travels to Plovdiv to celebrate the opening of the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis once completed. And we imagine many of you are dreaming about new destinations to discover with a renewed appreciation for the freedom of global exploration as well.
The Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis Visitor Center designed by Atelie DUO © America for Bulgaria Foundation
Scott Briggs, AIA has led several exhibition design projects for SKOLNICK including the Discovery Zone at the Florida Museum of Natural History, 911 Tribute Museum, and the Royal Alberta Museum Children’s Gallery and Bug Gallery.
Header image courtesy of the America for Bulgaria Foundation