Few days ago – Sunday evening I think – I was walking with a friend on the old little streets well hidden in Cotroceni, one of the nicer quarters of Bucharest (on this map, look for Botanical Garden, headquarters of the Presidency, School of Medicine, Military Academy). Most of the houses, small blocks and villas date from the early 1900s. A few of them are nice example of modernist architecture, and these ones seem to be in the worst condition.

The situation, by no means exceptional, is somewhat curious – this too is not exceptional. Eclectic as it surely was, early 20th century – and especially interwar – Bucharest showed a strong preference for modernism, from small scale private projects to city planning. To my amateur eyes, the remains of such avant-garde inclinations are all but gone. The buildings in question were deprived of their identity by the mass of socialist architecture, and not only by sheer quantity. The grey of all ”blocks’ numbs any sense of distinction. Unless they are in quarters such as that mentioned above – where they tend to be smaller and hidden by the remaining islands of the garden-city (another way to think of older Bucharest) – these buildings are in a poor state, masked by advertisements and shadowed by socialist developments. No wonder they look ugly, no wonder they are ignored and perhaps assimilated to the barbarism which swallowed the city during communism.

sollygold

[Solly Gold building source]

I see them, I should say, as always part of a quasi-fictional city. A counterpart to the immune reaction that in literature resulted in absurdism and dada. As was the fate of the people involved in the latter movement(s), I imagine these buildings as somewhat alien, even in their heyday, eventually forced into emigration or withdrawal. Resistance to fakery doesn’t pay off in these lands. French-style palaces and even the giants of the 1980s Civic Center are easier to adore.

bucharestmodern

[source]

I am perhaps too pessimistic. The quasi-fictional city has – as it had then – very real inhabitants. Here’s for example a very nice initiative that celebrates the legacy of Marcel Iancu.

vilareich

[Reich Villa source]

I wouldn’t have written these lines had I not seen a book today, while taking a tour of the libraries. The volume in question is Romanian Modernism. The Architecture of Bucharest, 1920-1940 by L. Machedon & E. Scoffham (MIT Press 1999). Too bad that the google book that I linked doesn’t include the photos. I only had time to browse through the volume (buying out of question at about 50 euros), and I would pay little attention anyway to the bits of politics that it includes. The pics and the history however seemed quite interesting.

bdmagheru_bucharest

Here is an echo from one review of the book:

The modernism of Bucharest avoided political involvement or participation in the ideological confrontations of philanthropy or social revolt. Since it was the product of a European-minded intellectual elite, modernism was quickly incorporated in the modernization strategy of the Romanian environment. Moreover, a dynamic middle class spawned by the rise of liberal capitalism was able to evaluate precisely the potential of modern architecture as a visual message of its separation from patriarchal tradition, and it invested confidently in modernistic buildings. Even though a dramatic dividing line between modern economic initiative (and the architectural expressions associated with it) and a backward-looking social (and structural) environment marked by chronical underdevelopment survived the pressures of innovative initiative, the Romanian society of the twenties and the thirties was daring enough to embrace a fundamentally abstract, rationalised idiom which was quite different from the established formulae of constructive tradition and to give to its capital city a genuine twentieth-century urban experience.

Perhaps “revolt” is not the word, but isn’t separation a kind of resistance? Anyway. One of the authors (I prefer to look through the eyes of strangers) has a paper here. An extensive quote:

The mood of modernisation after national unification in 1918 Romania, gradually identified with the tenets of the international Modern Movement. It identified with a desire to suppress nationalistic tendencies in the aftermath of a traumatic war and to embrace international values which united, rather than divided; which sought co-operation rather than conflict. Yet in retrospect, the most distinctive aspect of Romanian Modernism was one which united both desires: the desire to join international modernisation and progress and to be free of the past, with the desire to maintain cultural values and to adapt the new ideas to specific contexts. This double-edged approach, it seemed, sought not to develop another style with which it might identify and be identified. On the contrary; because it responded to the specific contexts of location and to localised social and economic programmes, it was able to convince the society it was at pains to transform, that the transformation was what they actually desired. The evidence for this is contained in the extent of modernist development throughout Bucharest during the 1930s. This phenomenon was compounded by that fact that it was almost entirely built by private enterprise, using money held in private hands for housing speculations in which the majority of the people of Bucharest came to live, presumably at prices they could afford. This contrasts dramatically with modernist housing in other countries, where, apart from some isolated private speculations, the vast majority was financed by the state to satisfy a national housing need, or by industry to provide housing for its work force. The occupants of these tied housing schemes had rarely been free to choose their houses, even less to decide where the house should be or how the interior might be arranged. As such they were guinea pigs for the new ideas, rather than having made a conscious choice that the new ideas were what they desired, as was the case in Romania. It might be assumed from this that the housing market place of Bucharest during the 1930s was more affluent than in other European cities; that the cost of developing a house was smaller in relation to average incomes than elsewhere, or that there was no great disparity between the rich and the poor. There is no evidence to show that this was the case; but there is ample evidence to demonstrate the power of property speculation during the progressively politically unstable years of the 1930s.

One of the contributing factors was undoubtedly the history of urban development in Bucharest. The fact that Bucharest had not experienced a dramatic population expansion as a result of the industrial revolution during the nineteenth century, meant that it was a relatively rural city, with large areas of open space and houses with individual gardens, unconstrained by historical boundaries and with a dispersed, poly-centric structure. It was already a garden city, before the Garden City movement, during the early years of the century, sought to remedy the congestion, insanitation and pollution of the industrial city by introducing light, air and trees. As a result, inter-war development compacted the fabric of a city which sprawled amid an agreeable garden; people did not need to move far to their new homes; little commuter transportation was involved, one of the principal factors which added to the inter-war suburban sprawl of western cities. Accordingly, Bucharest was able to create its plan and to devise its controlling policies, substantially in the image of the times. The Master Plan of 1934 was a unique document in the manner in which it so rapidly embodied the ideas of the Charter of Athens of 1933 and of other modernist manifestos, into a practical working tool[12]. As such it was far ahead of many city plans of the period and by comparison with later urban planning policy documents elsewhere, which attempted to embody modernist ideas in both radical and conservative manner, Bucharest’s plan had already done so with disarming practicality. As an urban evolution, Bucharest was some fifty years behind its European counterparts in 1918, but by 1939 it seemed some twenty years ahead of most of them.

More photos here (scroll down) and here (great blog in Ro).

And one example of disappointing rebuilding:

bucharest1940s

[source]

DSC08396

[my embarrassing photo – today]

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