History of Architecture

    Cățelu District

     Stalinist architecture, just like the political, social and economic juncture that engendered it, cast a shadow, at least in the countries of the former socialist camp, on both the periods of taking up Stalinism (1945-1948, in Romania’s case), and of abandoning Stalinism (violently, in 1956, like Hungary, or gradually, starting in 1953 as was the case of the USSR and of other countries). There are, in connection with architecture and city planning, several “borderline” phenomena where patterns, often reductive, imported from other domains fail to apply rigorously. Massive investigation in the vernacular architecture of the 1950s and even the attempts to produce patches to mend the break caused by Stalinism through more or less explicit references to pre-war autochthonous architecture are two such curiosities in the east-European story of architecture, and the slogan alone “art that is national in form yet socialist in content” does not fully explain them.
     Right after the Romanian Stalinist moment, out of the Romanian communists’ reflex to step away from Moscow, architects started, one more time, to court vernacular architecture (which was, more precisely, excessively ideologized) as a possible source of “forgotten” inspiration. Information supplied by architects of the time whom we interviewed during the research – indirectly buttressed up by texts published in the respective period – shows that Romanian folk architecture was considered “left-wing” architecture. The dispute on the way representative edifices were to be erected after Stalinism, having to choose between Byzantine architecture (of the type promoted by architect Simotta on the Patriarchate Palace or the modern spirit of the team that designed the Bucharest Polytechnic School), and the peasant vernacular, the latter got the upper hand for rather ideological reasons. While the first source was regarded suspiciously, being the architecture of “exploited and alien classes” (let us remember that political life after Stalin would also have a “nationalist/chauvinistic connotation), folk architecture (i.e. of the exploited classes) emerged positive by its very genetic data.
     The vernacular became a possible source of “rationality” (that is of modernity from the vantage of Khrushcev’s speech: efficient use of the materials, restrained decoration) and therefore could be able, one more time, to influence the “urban” architectural discourse that had for a moment forgone its natural roots.[1] The vernacular explained the propensity for rationality of the new socialist architecture, without necessitating any “cosmopolitan” theoretical contribution. Nicolae Porumbescu & his Iasi autochthonous school, as well as Constantin Joja’s architectural nationalism (cleared of the guilt of having belonged to the inter-war extreme right, and recouped to the new nationalist spirit of the Romanian cultural policy) claim affinity with the phrase “Vernacular architecture is left-wing architecture and also genuinely national architecture”. The logic of the text Radu Crainiceanu dedicated to folk architecture in Jalea Valley is equally “amendatory” as concerns the vernacular and “rational” ( i.e. modern) architecture.
     Deep down the vernacular also features moral traits: besides an ancient “apperceptive” stock (N. Porumbescu) – a new name given to Lucian Blaga’s matrix – folk architecture also absorbs and makes rational (better and more balanced), the influences of urban/cultivated architecture. Peasants do not take risks with fantastic, perishing models (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 they mistrust certain novelties and technological adventures.” (Ibidem)
     The minimal housing put up in district Catelu (Mihai Bravu Avenue, Bucharest, architects T. Niga and team) between 1955-1957 showed a similar spirit – equally modern and archaic because the archaic was rediscovered as a possible source of modernism. This text pleads for conservation of this small district of social, so-called “emergency” housing (close to Mihai Bravu Avenue in Bucharest) out of a sense of wonder at discovering, after decades, a complex of Romanian architecture less flat that we were tempted to believe before and right after 1989. History is written by victors and the massive body of Stalinist buildings, overwhelming, a sort of re-modernization getting even, could, for a while, tumble Catelu district to the status of just a little note in the architectural textbook of the time. Memorial literature[2] produced by distinguished architects who grew up in such districts, marginal both properly speaking (in relation to the geography of the city) and figuratively (in relation to the mainstream phenomena of the age), as well as the rediscovery of the plurality of modernism prompt us to start a new discussion of value – doubtless, today – of this sketch of best quality architecture. Strange at the time, they prove nowadays their trans-ideological “normalcy”.
     In the switch from Stalisnism to re(modernism) after 1956 architecture was produced which, on the time’s economic and political standards could be considered “experimental”.  Preserving today the ensemble of Stalinist architecture must have as corollary the maintenance of the “departures” (even if relative) from the dogma be it only for nuances if not for their quality, today trans-ideological. Now Stalinist architecture is visited either by the blessing of political correctness (the restoration of the Stalin-Karl Marx Allee of Berlin made in places with materials that are superior to the original) or by an a posteriori disfiguring fury  (the case of Scanteia House, Bucharest, the “communist” decorations of which have been violently removed in the late 1990s). Whereas structures like those remembered here are visited solely by unjust oblivion.
     Tiberiu Niga, a distinguished architect of the inter-war period, put in the Catelu project an interest, never betrayed, for Romanian folk architecture, turned palpable at the time thanks to the invoked left-wing character of the vernacular which released it, at least for a time, from the stigma of nationalist trends, still deemed right-wing, if not downright fascist. The justification of the Catelu/Mihai Bravu district is twofold: on the one hand the one- and two-room apartments are supposedly based on “the traditional Romanian dwelling”[3], and, on the other hand, they resume topics common to more experienced architectures (we are not told which but we gather that not those coming from the socialist camp). Design would have made it “human architecture”[4] with all the acknowledged traits of the modern canon: simplicity of forms, sincere expression of function, also identified as proper to “Romanian traditional architecture”.[5] The conclusion of the entire scheme put forth by the chief architect and mastermind of the Catelu ensemble is that modernity is identical in substance to “the very character of our architecture.”[6] This idea, extremely puffed up by the contribution of the political, was, in a matter of two decades, put into theory by Constantin Joja as an attribute of  “Romanian national specific traits”: that of having invented modern architecture. There was still a long way to go, though. Suffice it to mention here the commentary Grigore Ionescu made in connection with the ensemble, which he found “markedly autochthonous,”[7] although we should note that in local vernacular architecture you can hardly find “porticoes, loggias, galleries and covered exterior flights of steps”[8] to be invoked as precedent. This can be said in relation to the regular blocks within the ensemble which, actually make references to the urban architecture of south-Transylvanian towns, if we must necessarily find a local reference. Nonetheless, corner houses remind indeed of Wallachian hill houses or Oltenian reinforced mansions, with their ample porches and roofs flatter than the quoted “originals.” Proportions close to those of old Romanian architecture[9] are indeed to be evidenced if we compare this small district to the projects already elevated in the center of the city where on Magheru Boulevard post-Stalinist blocks already rose to pre-wear proportions of eight to ten stories. In fact, subsequent architecture, which closed the district of Catelu like in a reserve or fortification, features the same huge sizes that render the above-mentioned ensemble mignon by comparison, further enhancing its picturesqueness.
     Then, in conformity with the new directives put forth in 1954 Khrushcev’s speech on constructions and architectural activities, and the related address by the local leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, the stress is laid first of all on the economic nature of the plot. When presenting the design to the communist authorities, in order to make it acceptable, architect Niga gave as argument the very efficiency of building this ensemble with about the same means as those devised initially for makeshifts, temporary housing to accommodate the Bessarabian population who had taken refuge to Romania in 1941.[10] Small prefabs, the use and reuse of scaffolding, cheap finishing materials – all these were perceived as arguments that, in the end, the “autochthonous” character was not necessarily incompatible with the requirements of modern constructions.
     Unhappily, the contemporary state of the district no longer matches that in its beginnings. Private property took possession of massive parts of the ensembles community space, barred intra-ensemble passageways, furtively crossed by armies of kids of the original tenants – the Bessarabian émigrés – and, worse, altered the original architecture. Putting the district of Catelu on Bucharest’s architectural heritage list and therefore conserving it would be not only a noble gesture prompted by its unquestionable twofold quality, urban and architectural, but also an opportunity to stop its further degradation.

[1] “Folk architecture is the architecture of the villages, a product of peasant culture; peasants have their 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 Crainiceanu, “Case noi in Calea Jiului”, in Arhitectura, no. 9/1957.
[2] Florin Biciousca, Experimentul Catelu, Bucharest, Liternet/Paideia (ebook and printed book), Poverism series sponsored by the Habitat and Art in Romania Foundation, 2005.
[3] Architect T. Niga: “A district of minimal housing in Bucharest”, in Arhitectura RP.R.,  no. 2/1957. The detailed presentation of the ensemble is to be found on pp. 3/11 of the same review.
[4] Ibidem, p. 5.
[5] Ibidem, p. 5.
[6] Ibidem.
[7] Grigore Ionescu, Arhitectura pe teritoriul României de-a lungul veacurilor, Bucharest, Publishing House of the Academy, 1980, p. 643.
[8] Ibidem.
[9] Ibidem.
[10] According to Florin Biciusca it was exactly the compact Bessarabian population, of humble low and medium extraction, that gave flavor to the little district, while the drama of the  refugees’  eventually generating uprooting sutured the human composition and the extremely close relations of collaboration between the inhabitants.

Augustin Ioan, 2017