Parallel architecture: Atypically modern, non-modern, and post-modern architects
Beyond the ideologically imbued discourse, both in Bucharest and throughout the country, in the 1970s-1980s, there have been examples of non-modern architecture and occasionally, peripherally, fragmentary, epidermically, also of post-modern architecture. The youth hostels designed by Dorin Ștefan, Viorel Simion (in general by the designing teams coordinated by Professor Emil Barbu “Mac” Popescu) are eloquent examples of atypical vocabularies for this particular time and space. As a rule, they are the outcome of an eclectic cosmopolitanism. Louis Kahn first of all, Japanese metabolism (Kisho Kurokawa’s visit to Bucharest was a hysterical triumph), Stirling and Meier, contextualism and Mario Botta, neo-nationalists and High-Tech architecture, viz. all this formal bouillon, incompletely assimilated and devoid of any other contesting support than the authoritarian ubiquity, have made, in those times, the charm of such architects as Zoltan Takacs, i.e. one of the most revered professors, whose style has been widely imitated in the last twenty years.
The Hariton Brothers, Radu Radoslav, Florin Biciușcă, Viorel Hurduc, Alexandru Beldiman and, in Timisoara, Amur Busuioc, Șerban Sturdza, or the – then – younger Vlad Gaivoronski and Ioan Andreescu (the latter being also an incisive theorist) are only a few of the authors and/or heads of project of some projects and fulfilled buildings - mainly blocks-of-flats - where volumetry is more intricate; the façades of such buildings, (more) consistently decorated, have “post-modern” columns, arches, and frontons (at first, they were rather timid ones). The buildings made in the Arab Emirates by the team of architects coordinated by Professor Cornel Dumitrescu (at that time Rector of the Institute of Architecture) in the mid-eighties, have been samples of “historicist” synchrony. Hotels reminding of the sheiks’ hawk, the emir’s palace and his heir’s palace in Abu Dabi, fantasmagorical blocks-of-flats – all these were post-modernist compensations of young Romanian architects. The most daring of them were Dinu Patriciu, Viorel Simion, Petre Ciută, Francisc Echeriu and Romeo Simiraș.
On a theoretical level, echoes of what was happening in the world could be found in the journal Arhitectura (a series of articles on contextualism, written by Dorin Stefan, or the presentation of some recent achievements are examples in this respect). The journals borrowed from the American Library - where you could come across Jencks, Collin Rowe and Blake - were able to fill the ”black holes” in our information about post-modernism - even if only in a sundry and fragmentary way -, provided we dared to go there, which only few of us did.
The school itself - meanwhile reduced from four faculties in the country to only one, viz. the “Ion Mincu” Institute of Architecture in Bucharest, was the foreground of keen conflicts between generations, converted into “stylistic” conflicts. As a graduate student between 1984-1990, I was a witness of the post-modernist breach, and of its absorption into de-constructivism after 1988. In those times, during the architectural evenings at Club A, Dorin Ștefan and Viorel Hurduc showed us images of Paris, e.g. the competition for Tête Defense (where the Romanian participants had outnumbered the Americans and the Japanese), La Violette park, Boufill’s projects. Those of us who came back from the trips to Western countries organized by Professor Mac Popescu brought slides and showed them to us at the club. Such an example is Professor Sorin Vasilescu, spoiled by his own biography. We were contemplating them with a kind of tense religious feeling.
The whole institutional authority was doing its best in order to prevent the modernist discourse to penetrate and be promoted in this country. The School of Architecture still sheltered a few Stalinist dinosaurs, still active, although their fangs had been taken out. Most of our teachers were hard core modernists. This fact was due not so much to an intimate belief, as to the impossibility of projecting in any other way in that time Romania. There were not many young assistants in the Institute because no young people had been hired for a long time in higher education. Hence an important gap between generations, which also masked aesthetic tensions.
If you dared to flirt with the “last rage” in the West, you were attached a degrading sticker; I wore it with a kind of occult pride, as if it were a yellow star. Some of our teachers were keen to forbid us red columns, historical quotations, ironies, although their assistants were post-modernists. Dinu Patriciu presented us his projects for the Arab Emirates, and several proposals for the Victory of Socialism boulevard, which could have been signed by Richard Bofill and/or by Leon Krier. Being a post-modernist was a sweet subversion, we were eager to plunge in it, and, in this way, to risk our grades at the design exam, and therefore our future jobs. And perhaps it is not alleatory that in the 1980s the first signals of a “change” came from provincial towns. It was timid, epidermal, poor, but it was, still, a change. But soon we became aware that our post-modernism had no connection with reality, and that the demolitions in the center of the city would not entail any consequent and consistent architectural experiment.
Practically speaking, it was only after a certain relaxation occurred in the campaign of building new prefab districts, in order to “solve the dwelling problem”, in the former half of the 1980s, that any change was registered in the pauper physiognomy of mass architecture; up to that moment, the only possible thing was to plate the buildings with “specifically national” elements.
How can this phenomenon be accounted for? The attempt at “ethicizing” architecture is underlined by the more and more nationalist discourse of Romanian communists. The high blocks-of-flats decorated with traditional motifs - torsades, friezes, biforial or triforial windows - are reproduced in a much more degraded version, after 1977, when prefab collective dwellings are built, which have shingle in the attics and traditional motifs from towels and spoons now made of concrete. Prefab dwellings become an obsession. Bucharest suburbs are transformed in acromegallic ghettos. Nikkita Hruschov’s 1954 message addressed to the architects and builders, according to which the only evaluation criterion should be the cost of a square meter of building is now the implicit slogan of communist dwelling.
A theorist like Constantin Joja, whose authentically nationalist opinions were vouched for by fascist antecedents, becomes the forerunner of “protochronistic” opinions, according to which the highly spoken of modernist features have been found in traditionally Romanian vernacular architecture for about 2000 years. According to him, they could be also found in the “true” urban tradition, i.e. the inns in mediaeval boroughs. The roof is not important in vernacular architecture; it is purely functional. The only thing that counts is what is below it, viz. rhythmical, horizontal series of pillars. The only thing to be done, Joja claimed, was to transform the rhythm of archaic thresholds into horizontal serial structures, superposed in as many floors as possible, according to necessity.
The problem of vernacular decoration and its expansion on a monumental scale has been the specialty - meanwhile brought to ridicule - of architect Nicolae Porumbescu from Iași. The “theorist” Joja and the “practician” Porumbescu are at the basis of a whole rhetoric, immediately adopted by the official administration and converted into a dogma; its early, degrading outcome was the minor architecture of prefab districts, as well as its implementation on a monumental scale, which even the neo-Romanian style had failed to do. In Mr. Porumbescu’s “latest creation”, i.e. “the civic center” in Satu Mare, the “Habsburgic” local tradition was neglected in favour of vernacular hysteria rendered manifest in concrete, viz. decorative details used out of context. The campanile (an extremely specific element of Romanian architecture, wasn’t it so?) had to be visible from Hungary! This adventure by means of which modern architecture had to acquire “specifically national” connotations, and (to be added) an ubicuous identity throughout the whole country necessarily implied the suppression of alterity. Regional and local identity, which accounts for the architectural differences (not only in the countryside!) in the historical Romanian regions, was to be hidden and suppressed.
Here are a few provisional conclusions: (a) As we have tried to demonstrate above, the researcher can identify an a-typical Romanian architecture, as well as a non-modern one. The a-typical character of this modernism is established either in relation to the international phenomenon (i.e. “typically national” architecture), or in relation to the mainstream architecture from within the country, i.e. unique buildings with late modern or post-modern echoes. (b) We have not aimed at a manifest, explicit, critical discourse about modernism and the way it had been rendered manifest in the ex-communist space. (c) There was a “post-modern“ decade in the Romanian school of architecture; it was actually simultaneous to the world phenomenon itself. It was illustrated by a handful of (then) young architects like Dorin Ștefan, Alexandru Beldiman, Dinu Patriciu, Viorel Hurduc, Florin Biciușcă. (d) Those buildings which have a post-modern appearance, or which are the outcome of such devices that resemble those typical of the post-modern ones do not actually belong to post-modernism proper, e.g. “the new civic center”. Since such a potentiality exists, it can be retrieved, however, by several devices suggested by the partial inventions of the new vernacular style over the “Victory of Socialism” boulevard. (e) A virtual communist Disneyland is being rendered manifest in Bărăgan open plains. (f) On the contrary, those buildings which do not “seem” to be post-modern - viz. those instances of pseudo-vernacular architecture, from gypsy palaces to Hermes Land, and from dwellings of the newly rich and brand new churches to various strangely flamboyant new shops, have several points in common with American post-modernism, e.g. a perennial ephemerous character (poster façades, cardboard-like scenery), an identikit nature (ceramics “granite”, linoleum “glass tiles”, stucco “marble”), a nostalgic eclecticism, the use of pastiche and evocative quotations, a celebration of folk culture. The still uninfringed vitality of such an architecture is also of an “American” nature; it equally renders manifest a benefic “breach” occurring in the omnipotence of the administrative power, which had been so far the only instance expressed by monumental buildings.
Augustin Ioan, 2017