History of Architecture

    Romanian Civic Centers: A Showcase of Nationalism under Ceausescu

    New urban and architectural programs emerged during the communist regime in Romania (1949-1989), mainly as a result of the dramatic change at the top of the communist leadership. Thus, in 1965, Ceausescu replaced his late mentor, Gheorghiu-Dej, and that move also triggered a doctrine touch-up inside the Romanian Communist Party. The country’s new “civic centers” are the built-up outcome of causes that must necessarily be presented here in order to fully grasp the particular traits of communist architecture after 1965. And first all the political side needs descanting upon, alongside the hardening of the system; all this may lend a certain amount of logical consistency to the “apotheosis-like” finale of the process that triggered the massive razing of Bucharest’s center (450 hectares) and the construction instead of the ultimate civic center (150 hectare all in all, of which 4.5 km for the Victorious Socialism Boulevard and the Republic House).
How to investigate the history of communist architecture?
From the vantage of the research method, to present only the edifices without the attached aura of political decisions, speeches and laws, without making references to analogue phenomena prior to the communist era would offer a mutilated vista. In fact, we are dealing here with multiple-form phenomena, not (just) constructions, no matter their sizes or looks. Moreover, it is difficult to probe into the wealth of official references, actual data lacking as everything is wrapped up good in the time’s slogans.  “Kremlinology” might have been a useful method to sift the communists’ “wooden” parlance, yet in the case of official architecture we should consider things more circumspectly. Practically, none of the important players of the time left convincing testimony that could offset this lop-sidedness of information. With the exception – debatable, too – of the person directly involved in the demolition of the Vacaresti Monastery in the southern end of the capital city, (an incommensurable and irretrievable loss for the medieval treasure of the Balkans), none of the architects who worked at the People’s House managed to come up with other than pathetic “defenses”. (Anca Petrescu, the chief architect of the People’s House ran for mayor of Bucharest in 2004 on a ticket that glorified exactly the said appalling foundation.) The refusal to grant interviews, the dodging manner of these characters – authors or “just” witnesses to Bucharest’s tremendous demolition and that of the great edifices related to the razing of the historical center – turn even more difficult all investigative work that in this case becomes purely detective.[1]
Nationalism: Excavated and built up
As part of the new rhetoric of Romanian communists the ever more obsessive quest of a new identity within the space under the Soviet umbrella triggered effects that a decade earlier would have downright flabbergasted. The escape – be it only skin deep – from the sway of the Big Brother in the east presupposed a debate at home regarding the national identity at various levels of  political, and consequently, cultural decision making. Its assertion (through multiple operations of reconstructing pre- and post-war identity myths) was, in itself, a rebellious move for the period. The rehabilitation of the personalities of Romanian culture before and after the enthronement of communism (who, for political reasons had fallen into disgrace and had even been imprisoned) represented a first step along this line. Making again official (that is, recycling and adapting to the contemporary ideological commandments) the previous (re)sources of “Romanianism”, of “national identity” became a continuously brisker process. To reconstruct a national identity after two decades of systematic communist sabotage, was no easy feat. The foremost rhetoric, mirrored by the manner of selecting past references, allowed for, besides the basic “socialist realist” tone, the Soviet thesis regarding the relationship between form/content. Art, and especially architecture had to be national in form and socialist in content. As to the form, in this limited context “Romanian” could be the architecture of the oppressed classes (with the stress on peasant architecture) or part of the medieval architecture since at that time Slavonian was used in the Orthodox Church of the Romanian provinces (see in this sense the restoration of the monasteries in northern Moldavia).  Such references can be found, limited to the level of the decorative vocabulary, on the Scanteia House, erected in the early 1950s in Bucharest – a building relatively high, of the same mettle as Moscow’s towers and the Culture Palace of Warsaw. It was only towards the turn of the 1950s that modernist architecture ventured a comeback that implied the classical and monumental corollary recuperated from the architects who had been at work in the inter-war period. With it a longing for a Latin spirit (linguistic and architectural) also returned. The Palace Hall (an auditorium finished in 1960, added to the former Royal Palace of Bucharest) reminds of Roman arches in a way similar to that used twenty-five years later by C. Lazarescu when remaking the National Theater, and has a (pseudo)dome. The dome was an architectural shape clearly banished from the realist-socialist idiom on account of its religious connotations.
The most important political and administrative decisions that bore the most pregnant effect on the Romanian cities are those referring to the country’s administrative-territorial reorganization. This happened in several successive stages. After the establishment of communism one of the emblematic gestures of juridical taking into possession of the country’s territory was the introduction of the Soviet-style administrative division into regions and districts. For a time, there even existed an Autonomous Magyar Region of Mures in Transylvania, made up of the former counties with pre-eminently Hungarian population.  Its dismantlement gave a first signal that the political discourse was turning more national. So, Ceausescu’s decision to resume the former pre-war division of Romania into counties (with modifications – some significant – in name and/or limits as to the “original”) could represent a move of Romanian dissent with the USSR.
The reference to the  Roman “ancestral” ethnic descent and Latin linguistic origin of the Romanians (whom the official propaganda held to be the outcome of the ethnogenesis following the occupation of ancient Dacia by Roman emperor Trajan after the wars of  A. D. 101-102 and 105-106, respectively) constituted a Romanian state politics topic in the seventh and eighth decade.[2] How to bring again into discussion the Roman-Latin reference? How to resume this topic, wielded also by the official politics of the 1930s and 1940s when there was talk about Latin ethnics (and variants: blood, race, language) and Byzantine faith (i.e. Orthodox)? Obviously, the nationalist, right-wing inter-war idiom could be married only with difficulty to the communist political slogans, supposedly left-wing. Therefore, the first steps in this direction were very prudent. The major measure was to change toponyms. The capitals of the new counties became municipia, and the center of each such town-municipium was redesigned by successive demolition and reconstruction sprees so that to integrate what would be subsequently known as “civic centers” or forums of the new counties.[3] Toponymy also meant resuscitating the big cities’ ancient Latin name: Napoca for Cluj (which, to this day has been called Cluj-Napoca), and Drobeta for Turnu Severin (which is still called officially Drobeta-Turnu Severin).  Awaiting anniversary events when the symbiosis between the ancient and the modern name could have been made, other names were unofficially used (for instance Aegyssus for Tulcea, one of the country’s new municipia, newly established in the Danube Delta.)
Another manner of reviving the “Latin” origin of the Romanian people was to step up archaeological digs in areas known to have sheltered Roman camps. Sarmisegetusa Regia/Ulpia Traiana, the capital of the Dacian state and then of the Roman province of Dacia, was dug up and restored. In 1976, an anniversary of the year 106 brought about the full reconstruction, from ground up (not just a restoration) of the Adamclisi mausoleum, known as Tropaeum Traiani, designed by Apollodorus of Damascus. The story is telling not just for the “Latin”-style nationalist policy pursued by Ceausescu but also because Tropaeum Traiani happened to be the object of reconstruction proposals envisaging a mausoleum for WW1 heroes.[4] The official connection between the inter-war and the direct reference to the Roman source, also celebrated by the political and cultural ideologists before WW2, is omnipresent. It is obvious that the “civic centers” drew hugely from the precedent of Mussolini’s Italy. It was in the 1920s and 1930s that fora were implanted in medieval towns. (Piacentini did it in Brescia, to mention only one name.) Then Augustus’ Mausoleum of Rome was brought to light following violent demolition, pursued by Mussolini, of the city that had organically grown upon it. In 1977, the monument marking the union of the province of Dobruja to the motherland was remade and again the Roman name of the Danubian citadel Tulcea, Aegyssus, resounded in speeches and original documents, and its archaeological vestiges were gathered in a museum situated right on the building site, on the Hora hill of the present city.

[1] Until 2005, for instance,  almost everybody ignored that the Republic House (so-called of “The People”, and officially the Parliament Palace) also featured a center of physical-therapeutic recovery with a swimming pool that was completed after 1989 without the knowledge of Parliament. It was only in 2004 that the press had the opportunity to see the intricate underground corridors, resembling the collective subconscious of the Romanians, where a brisk activity of removing debris and garbage was underway.
[2] The 1980s meant a further push of nationalism into the ancient past. The Dacians were also celebrated (for instance, in 1980, 2050 years were marked since the creation of the first centralized Dacian state by King Burebista).
[3] Only later on the term in itself became a fixture of the official and specialized jargon. Curisnschi-Vorona (1980, 362) still called them “new common centers” or “pedestrian agoras” (368) a few years before the start of the big urban works of Bucharest, which his volume also anticipated (368 and the fol.)
[4] Spiridon Ceganeanu in “Tropaeum Traiani and the Mausoleum of the Heroes” in Arhitectura – Revista Societatii Arhitectilor Romani, 1943-1944, pp. 52-3 is against the reconstruction of this mausoleum in Bucharest, in Carol Park, as a monument of the heroes. He also makes the common sensical remark that neither the full reconstruction on the original location is a serious choice since many of the decorative pieces of the original got lost during the two thousand years elapsed. He believes though that the mausoleum could be a source of inspiration for a mausoleum of the heroes fallen in war. The reasons for this choice are interesting in themselves, bespeaking the mentality of the time’s architects. “The Mausoleum was erected only after the triumphant conclusion of the Dacian wars, therefore the final subjugation of the Dacians, and not during the flares-up. Emperor Trajan wanted this monument to represent a commemoration and at the same time a constant reminder of the Roman strength against the barbarians’ invasions.” In other words, the analogy between the Roman conquests with the stop put to the barbarians and the situation in the early communist era, when Romania was battling the USSR for “similar” purposes made the monument very topical. More, to quote the Roman mausoleum meant “to give us back a mausoleum of the Romanian soldiers, as Apollodorus of Damascus gave a Tropaeum for the glory of the Romans.”

Augustin Ioan, 2017