History of Architecture

    Post-Stalinism? Modernism?

     Romanian architectural modernism was a fluctuating presence all because of the political pressure glass under which it resonated. To be more exact, any somewhat more relaxed stage was marked by a return to previous models of local functionalism: the 1960s resumed the architecture of dwelling programs in the austere Bauhaus style or the architecture of the Establishment designed by Duiliu Marcu. The phenomenon occurred in literature, too, when after the period of socialist realism there followed a throwback to the inter-war modernism of Arghezi, Blaga, and Barbu, and an attempt to resume literature from the moment of the break. That was, after all, a maverick gesture of rebellion and return to normalcy as if the stage of Stalinism had to be actually forgotten.
    It is clear that after Khrushchev’s anti-Stalinist speech of 1954 the first impulse was to “look back” in order to surmount the hiatus induced by socialist realism in the east-European discourse. Yet, the sources of this “retrospectivism” varied from country to country. Romania oscillated for a time within the dualism “purged classicism/classicizing modernism”. Meaning the celebrated Carol II Style (see the article with the same name signed by I. D. Enescu in Architectura 2/1939, pp. 4-5). Its champions took inspiration from the “fascist” Italian architecture (Picentini, Michelucci, Libera, Terragni) not lastly for ideological reasons: the Romanians, too, were a Latin people and the identity of origin had to be marked through architecture as well. Architects like Duiliu Marcu and Tiberiu Ricci, who had had a brisk career before the war, designing edifices of the then Establishment, thus got the chance to work again after the relatively brief Stalinist intermezzo. Marcu even became chairman of the new Union of Architects, set up as a result of the Decree dated November 13, 1952 issued by the CC of the Romanian Workers’ Party. We should note here that the decree of April 23, 1932 had similar effects in the Soviet Union. Ricci, who appears to have authored some of the works coming from the Duiliu Marcu workshop, designed after the war the Radio House and Hall (former Nuferilor currently General Berthelot Street) in nearly the same fashion in which the Marcu studio had put up the Administration of Monopolies before the war. The Palace Hall (added to the Royal Palace) reminds of Marcu’s classicizing “palaces” in Victoriei Square though it is more indebted to the functionalist idiom[i] than to inter-bellum models, while the apartment blocks within the area of the new palace plaza hint at the harsh Bauhaus aesthetics.[ii]
A telling example of this “classicizing modernism” is the Romarta Copiilor apartment block, an edifice of dwellings and shops situated across the street from the Central Army Club. In 1954, a competition was held to design the square in front of the Army Club and the façades in the area. Project number 18 won the second place (architect Alex Zamfiropol, Alex Hempel and team). All the designs that received a prize or a mention took heavily from Soviet realist-socialist architecture. Nonetheless, the building was finally raised[iii] in symmetric composition, with pilasters all along the ground floor, a vocabulary that pertains rather to the 1930s than to the Stalinist epoch.[iv]
In Romania, de-Stalinization was not such a sudden process as in Hungary. The switch from socialist realism to the bare modernism of the 1970s came gradually after a period of “cross pollination”. During those years, inter-war precedents – neo-classicism, stripped classicism, classicizing modernism – were resumed, vernacular architecture came again in the limelight, and the limits of the discourse forcedly accepted the naked austerity of Bauhaus. Grigore Ionescu underlined the idea in a different form; during the 1955-1960 five-year plan this reputed historian noted a radical move away from “design methods characterized by an archaic, narrow understanding of the relationship between form and context, both in architecture and city planning.” (1969: 59). Moreover, the period around Khrushchev’s speech represented “a stage preparing the ample city planning and construction activity to take place, on a wider scale, after 1960.” (Ibid.)
The latter half of the 1950s, marked by the 1956 movement in Hungary and an increased social concern shown by the Romanian Workers’ Party, triggered awareness, at official level, of the country’s major problems in architecture and city planning. The RWP plenary meeting of November 26-28, 1958 lambasted against the slow response the construction industry gave to the economic problem (“Let’s build good-quality, low-cost housing!”), and the backwardness of city planning. Gheorghiu-Dej’s address at that plenary meeting resumed the pet theory in matters of constructions and architecture from the Khrushchev period. The huge number of (social) housing put up exceeded by far the capacity of the building materials industry and for this reason also, budgets were often consistently overshot. “THE MAJOR CRITERION IN HOUSING CONSTRUCTION IS THE COST!” (ibid., bold capitals in the original, my note) Gheorghiu-Dej emphatically trumpeted, like a belated echo of the express demands the Soviet leader had aired in December 1956. Nothing new, no local, autochthonous initiative, as Dej’s message obviously arrived a trifle out of synch with its Soviet counterpart.
Prefabs, so dear to Khrushchev, were indeed the key word in carrying out the huge program of altering the environment. The Soviet Union came to Brussels (1957) with a host of standard projects and prefab constructions. There was even an international exhibition of standard designs in Berlin[v] (October 23- November 10, 1957), while several contests were launched in the country to design social standard constructions, and even standard administrative buildings.
As recent research undertaken by professor Nicolae Lascu suggests, “this lag behind” (also) meant that Bucharest continued within the bounds of the legislation and urban practice laid down before the war. Mr. Lascu underlines thus “the absence, until the early 1960s, in the case of most urban localities, of all town-planning scheme (…) The dismantlement/modernization of the towns began, in other words, by isolated interventions, no correlation being possible to make between them” (Lascu, 1995, 174).  The few attempts to draw up a new city plan for Bucharest seemingly failed all along, although all the published projects invoked them insistently, and obeyed them to the letter despite the fact that they were not there!  Two clear mentions exist though: the first is a draft master plan for the development of Bucharest, as presented in 1958, at the Congress of the IUA, in Moscow, on the topic “Reconstruction of cities: 1945-1957” and the other regards the design of a “square” in the historic center, but this too is indirect; both the Lufthansa building on Magheru Boulevard and the two twin towers Eva-ONT across the street are thus fashioned as to enable a boulevard to pass by or between them, respectively. Similarly, part of the same plan is represented by the development of Știrbei Vodă Street in the section going to the Military Academy (although here the major hitch is that we are dealing with the resurrected pre-war plan of Duiliu Marcu himself). Actually, there exist oral testimonies collected during the study according to which the plan drafted two decades earlier was still being used, and this casts a new light on the idea of the continuity between the two moments, that before the war and that right after the Stalinist period.
     The plenary meeting of February 8-10, 1959 lashed out, Khrushchev-style, against “aesthetic exaggerations” that ran counter to “the economic factor” in housing construction. On the other hand, in the same document, when talking about the lack of consistency of urban planning, CSCASx and party officials focused on the situation of big social housing ensembles: the groups of constructions were either too spread apart, or too small, their density was too low and they lacked amenities. In the same year, 1959, stress was laid on the so-called “development of the national territory”. This would become the priority trend in rephrasing the concept of autochthonous environment, ever ampler and more radical until 1989.
     One of the first projects “to meliorate accidental, irrational reality” was the development of the Black Sea coast. Projects in this sense had existed prior to 1954 for Mamaia, Năvodari, and Vasile Roaită. They were coordinated by the one and only Cezar Lăzărescu, the enfant terrible of Romanian post-war modernism, turned head of design teams, of relevant institutions, and on excellent terms with the authorities. The mid 1950s saw the resurrection of the seaside projects and gave them buoyancy[vi], but it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that they would be vigorously implemented, “terraforming” the entire seacoast. A review of the designs for Năvodari, Eforie, Vasile Roaită, Mangalia and later, Mamaia, provides an exact depiction of all the stages undergone by Romanian architecture in the post-Stalin years. From the sheer socialist-realist lines of Năvodari, a resort put up by the forced labor of political detainees in the Danube-Black Sea Canal camp, and the Bucharest Hotel of Mamaia (that could have very well been authored by any pre-war architect, and is actually the work of architects I. and C. Ghitulescu, A. Corvatescu) on the one hand, to the restaurant Perla (1959), the restaurant club of Eforie (1957-58) or the Niemeyer-styled restaurant on the seawall of Mangalia (1959), contemporary with the architecture of their time on the other hand, there is a radical transfiguration in the way Cezar Lăzărescu’s team and the other architects who worked on the seashore perceived architecture. These creators struck free of official topics, of rigid symmetries, and of the classicism that ill met the leisure role, to embark upon modernism, here and there downright radical, and also somewhat inadequate to the small-scale, picturesque image, in cooperation with the environment, which the site presupposed.
     The architecture on the seashore (continued even beyond the period under study here with the projects of Olimp, Neptun, Saturn, and Cap Aurora) is, most likely, the most important and most consistent phenomenon, besides Bucharest and the country’s civic centers, for a better understanding of post-war Romanian architecture; furthermore, it includes some of the most applauded buildings of the period.
     Likewise, vernacular architecture came again in the limelight as a possible “forgotten”, or better said, excessively ideologized source of inspiration. Information supplied by architects of the above-mentioned period for the study in point – indirectly proved by the texts published at that time – indicate that Romanian folk architecture was considered “left-wing”. In a dispute on the way representative edifices were to be erected after the Stalinist period, waged between the Byzantine trend (promoted by architect Simotta at the Patriarchal Palace) and the peasant vernacular one, the latter came out triumphant for ideological reasons, no doubt. While the first source was considered with suspicion, being the architecture of “the exploiting, alien classes” (let us remember that political life after Stalin also had a nationalistic-chauvinistic connotation), folk architecture, i.e. the architecture of the “exploited classes” appeared positive by its very genetic data.
     The vernacular became a possible source of “rationality” (that is of modernity from the viewpoint of the Khrushchev address: efficient use of materials, subdued decoration), and therefore was again likely to hallmark the “urban” architectural discourse that for a while had relegated its natural roots.[vii] The vernacular would be able to explain the propensity for the rational of the new socialist architecture, the “cosmopolitan” theoretical contribution being no longer necessary. Nicolae Porumbescu & his Iași local school, as well as the architectural nationalism of Constantin Joja (cleared of the blame of having belonged to the inter-war extreme right, and “recouped” in order to join the new nationalistic spirit of the Romanian cultural policy) drew their sap from the slogan “vernacular architecture is left wing and at the same time genuinely national architecture”. The rational of the text Radu Crăiniceanu dedicated to the new “folk” architecture of Valea Jiului is amendatory both for the vernacular and the “rational” modern architecture.
Deep down, the vernacular features moral attributes: besides the ancient “apperceptive stock” (N. Porumbescu) – a new name for philosopher Lucian Blaga’s “matrix” –, folk architecture absorbs and rationalizes (making better and more balanced) the influences of urban/cultivated architecture. Farmers do not blindly pursue alien, perishing patterns (that is they have a more critical spirit than city dwellers). There are, of course, influences and renewing trends but improvements are assimilated over generations, as farmers mistrust certain novelties and technological adventures.” (idem). Between 1955-57, minimal dwellings were erected (Mihai Bravu Boulevard, Bucharest, architect T. Niga and team) in a similar spirit – equally modern and archaic, because the archaic was rediscovered as a possible source of the modern. Their justification is twofold: on the one hand, one-room flats would have their origin in “the traditional Romanian house”, and on the other hand that would resume topics common to experienced types of architecture – no specification as to which. But the context shows they have no relation with the socialist camp.
     Is this autochthonous trend a consequence of the already mentioned speech? The answer is only partly positive. The apparent celebration of “the national traits”, devoid of any specific content in order to be able to decorate the socialist type, also permeated the Stalinist aesthetic/political discourse on architecture, explaining, for example, the presence of Brâncovan ornamental details on the Scânteia House and of details from Dobruja on the social, semi-detached houses at Năvodari, also built in that period. Certainly, there are no semi-detached houses in vernacular Dobruja so that the specific traits are reduced to decoration. In Romania, it was hard to invoke any national classical tradition, as it happened in East Germany, where Schinkel hurriedly became the father figure of the new “socialist” style, the local variant of Soviet socialist realism in which the Stalin/Karl Marx Allee of East Berlin was laid out. The Brâncovan architecture – reduced to details – and the little vernacular that could be invoked as a “national’ source lost all identity in the imported “socialist content”.

xState Committee for Constructions, Architecture and City Planning (trans.note)

[i]The authors consistently “pursued the objective principle – the smooth functioning of the entire ensemble (…)”  (Maicu, 1962, italics in the original).
[ii]These are two-room apartments (about 31 sq. m.) summing up 60 percent of the total dwellings, three-room apartments (37-42 sq. m., function of the position in the plan), summing up 35 percent of the surface, and only 16 four-room apartments and 36 one-room apartments (5 percent). It is interesting to put forth the arguments brought in favor of the respective types of apartments: “The design has set out from modern living, which cuts down the kitchen activities of the housewife to the use of ready-mades or ready mixes that can be bought today on the market. Therefore a big-size kitchen is no longer necessary; on the contrary, what is needed is a small, well-equipped one. That is why the kitchens of these apartments have a minimum surface, about four square meters (as to the average of 8 sq. m. in the ‘80s – my note); the bathrooms are also minimal in size and grouped around a prefab sanitary knot. Moreover…an important numbers of flats was already furnished with modern furniture and thus rented to the tenants.” (Maicu, 1962, 8; I have used italics to highlight “modern” elements of architectural idiom, part of them to be found in Khrushchev’s speech).  The “educational” role attributed to architecture and furniture is visible – to which we could add cupboards in the wall, fixed kitchen furniture, Venetian blinds, etc. – in the premeditated, explicit modification of the traditional manner of urban living.
[iii]Architects C. Mosinschi, D. Slavici , and G. Gogulescu, see Arhitectura RPR 10-11/1958, pp. 50-51). This is not a design in the competition but one that merely invokes its tenets as being in keeping with those of the project subsequently built.
[iv]It must be said that the design published still has a Stalinist colonnade on the ground floor and the mezzanine, with stilted arches alternating with rectangular episodes that cannot be found in the much more severe edifice actually put up, being at the same time entirely different from the upper part of the same design.
[v]In point of city planning, the enemy of the exhibition was “capitalist urban chaos’, the eponym of which appeared to be the Hansaviertel project of West Berlin, as Arhitectura RPR 3/1958 tells us (also the whole Interbau project). Hansaviertel is a group of apartment buildings freely arranged in a West-Berlin park near the Brandenburg Gate, designed by 53 exceptional architects of the moment from all over the world.
[vi]On January 15-16, 1957, Cezar Lăzărescu spoke about the stage of the UAR design at the opening of an exhibition on “Spa building on the Black Sea Coast”, a year after Arhitectura magazine had dedicated several pages to the project. The ambiguity of the vocabulary change became obvious: on the one hand there were picturesque samples of classicism, such as the guest house of the Ministry of the Armed Forces in Mamaia (architects Irena and Constantin Ghțtulescu, Adrian Corvătescu) described in detail in Arhitectura RPR 1/1957, reminding of Marcu and Cantacuzino; on the other hand, “thoroughbred” modern projects had already started to come to life.
[vii]“Folk architecture is the architecture of the villages, a product of peasant culture; peasants have an own mentality that mirrors their achievements characterized by common sense and economy. These traits prompt them to address construction matters without the romanticism of city-dwellers whose desires as far as houses are concerned, refer especially to a false stylistic décor.” (Radu Crăiniceanu, “New Houses in Calea Jiului”, in Arhitectura  RPR 9/1957.

Augustin Ioan, 2017