The National Quest: Neo-Romanian Architecture
Neo-Romanian architecture represents, among similar developments in music, literature, and fine arts, one of the dimensions of the emergence of a modern national culture.. Although it follows and it is defined through the confrontation with the first stage of modernity (characterized by the quasi-simultaneous import of classicist, neo-gothic and neo-medieval, eclectic models, 1900s Art style), the expression of the quest for identity does not take initially the form of a crisis, of a genuine challenge of the aforementioned imports. Until World War I, it rather represents another aspect of modernizing the Romanian architecture. The ideas that guide these stylistic searches, devised as an ideological programme in the general European plot of similar attempts in the second half of the 19h century architecture, are supported, until World War II, by the main specialized publication, Arhitectura journal (founded in 1906). At the same time, the efforts of grasping the value of traditional architecture and raising awareness of the historical heritage are also translated into organizing the institutional system of monitoring and securing this heritage: in 1909, The Historical Monuments Committee is established, in which great Romanian cultural and architectural personalities have worked throughout time.
Neo-Romanian architecture, as a rather programmatic movement than a homogenous style, started its development as early as the last decade of the 19th century and it dominated the first two decades of the 20th century, replacing eclecticism in the official preferences. It was especially applied to buildings of the local administration structures (financial administrations, town halls, borders etc.), to public investment constructions (inexpensive dwellings, rural schools, museums, universities, churches – especially the orthodox cathedrals built in Ardeal after 1918), but it was also adopted by luxurious mansions (villas and even real estate) and by some private monumental constructions (banks). The traditional formal repertoire used to create a "national style" was very diverse and blended and it was put into practice by different authors according to their personal selections, in a certain relationship with the types of programme and of syntax. Therefore, there are also significant differences between the individual styles of various artists. Generally, one might search for the capitalization of certain structural and decorative elements taken from the Romanian vernacular architecture (pillars and wooden railings, porches, crucifixes), the Balkan architecture (bay windows with wooden brackets, attics), even from the Mediterranean architecture (loggias, pergolas), the Moldavian and Wallachian church architecture (types of roofs, masonry facings, wooden doors, girdles, frames, ceramic medallions), the Brancovenesque architecture (the alternation between simple brickwork and framings, railings, specific decorative marquetry made of stone etc.), as well as other compositional themes selected from local architecture that became specific compositional elements (the theme of the defence tower, the theme of the turret, the theme of the traditional house with an elevated ground floor etc.). These are placed into the work both at their original scale, as well as in monumental scales, if the type of building requires it. The administrative syntax for the compositions is usually academic for the monumental buildings of a Byzantine style (original or traditionally Romanian) for the cult buildings and quite autonomous, organic, creating picturesque for the less ample buildings. The selection of the specific elements is rarely made in the sense of a stylistic purity dictated by well established rules: generally, they are syncretically used, a lot of times even being intertwined with classic, neo-gothic, neo-medieval, 1900s Art, decorative or structural elements, which sometimes makes difficult the process of stylistically classifying them. Therefore, it can be considered that the syntactic approach is, generally, of an eclectic nature, and the overall image of this stylistic development is syncretised and picturesque at the same time. Very permissive and with an easily understandable language, the neo-Romanian architecture carries a great popularity and it rapidly spreads towards the anonymous urban domestic architecture.
The first of the main representatives, the creator of this movement, is Ion Mincu (the first Romanian diplomat of Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris), whose architecture certainly represents a peak, not only for the neo-Romanian architecture, but also for Romanian architecture in its entirety. His main works are: Lahovary house (1886), "The Buffet" on Kiseleff road (1892, following the plans designed in 1889 for the Romanian pavilion in the Universal Exhibition in Paris), The Central School for girls (1890), in Bucharest, The Administrative Palace in Galati, the commercial banks in Craiova and Braila. The stylistic path opened by Mincu (also titled "Ion Mincu style") is continued by a few architects, among whom there is the Italian Giulio Magni (Mavrogheni elementary school - 1895, the railway station in Curtea de Arges - 1898). Other important representatives of the movement, each of them creating their own stylistic path, are the following: Petre Antonescu (Ministry of Constructions – currently Bucharest’s City Hall - 1906-1910, The Administrative Palace in Craiova - 1912-1913, Marmorosch-Blank Bank - 1915-1923), the building for the employees of the National Bank of Bucharest, the mansion in Stefanesti - Arges etc.), Nicolae Ghica-Budeşti (The Palace for the collections of the Museum of National Arts - 1912-1939, the Greek-Catholic church from str. Polona, Cutitul de Argint church, Rosetti mansion, all in Bucharest, the high school in Ramnicu-Valcea etc.), Cristofi Cerchez (Polizu hospital, various dwellings, including the famous Minovici villa in Bucharest etc.), Grigore Cerchez’ enterprise (the old building of the Institute of Architecture - 1912-1927, the new corpus building of the Royal Palace in Cotroceni and many houses, including the remarkable Disescu house, in Bucharest), Florea Stanculescu (ensembles of inexpensive dwellings, projects of rural dwellings, rurarl schools, borders, The Palace of Agriculture in Braila etc), Statie Ciortan (many buildings of the financial administration in Bucharest and other cities, The Customs Post in Bucharest), Constantin Iotzu (The House of Teachers, Bucharest), Paul Smarandescu (private houses in Ploiesti, Bucharest, Sinaia, real estate), G. Cristinel (the town hall in Banu Manta, Bucharest, the orthodox cathedral in Cluj), I. D. Traianescu, Toma T. Socolescu etc.
After World War I, the neo-Romanian architecture started to lose its modernizing dimension and to rigidify, gradually becoming the main conservatory force, opposed to the modern rhetoric and aesthetics. Even though the increasingly stronger nationalist current of the political context is evidently in favour of the neo-Romanian (the regulations for certain areas in Bucharest specify the obligation to use a "Romanian style"), the architectural achievements become more and more sterile or they merge – sometimes until the point of contradiction – with other types of stylistic elements, in the search for a picturesque dimension that sometimes reaches an uncanny limit.
On the other hand, as an (increasingly anachronistic) reflex of the national enthusiasm characteristic to the 19th century and, maybe, as a paradoxical expression of a marginalization complex, the search for the "national specificity" presents a peculiar continuity in the subsequent architectural development, with strange and recurrent themes, accompanying rather diverse rhetorics (from reasonable doubts towards the modernist radicalism to deceptive lines of the national-communist propaganda) and wrapping into various forms (from elegant syntheses with modernism to the most sterile artificialness, from nostalgic lyricism to brutal primitivism).