History of Architecture

    Civic Plazas

     Between 1968 and 1987 (the year when the last and most flamboyant of the civic centers outside Bucharest was inaugurated in Satu Mare, as designed by the most important architect of the relevant program, Nicolae Porumbescu), the project approached most diverse architectural expressions, all sharing a few characteristics, though: 1) the prevailing edifice was that of the political and administrative power, i.e. the County Committee of the Romanian Communist Party and the municipium city hall. From an architectural vantage and as an urban structure, the most representative building of all the civic centers housed the headquarters of the RCP. It necessarily became the dimensional yardstick of monumentality in town and the landmark for the future development of the communist establishment all around.
     An office building, the headquarters of the communist power over the country never featured a “simple” architecture: this ranged between late-Corbusier-style[1] “lyrical functionalism” and “the national specific architecture” pushed to delirious shapes[2] by N. Porumbescu with his last edifice at Satu Mare. Among them, only the first projects hesitated to veer to architecture parlante: again at Focsani the architectural discourse reminds rather of Hensellman and his Stalin Alee by the Schinkelian modernism it promotes. Always eclectic, the sources of this “identity” architecture borrowed directly (in a pastiche that implied a switch to a different material and/or a different scale) or allegorically from prestigious references of vernacular architecture (porches, ridged roofs, decorative motifs proper to wood architecture or even to the utensils of daily peasant life.) The culture house of Satu Mare is a collection of constructive combinations of the small wood house of Romanian peasants, turned to a monumental scale and made from reinforced concrete. At Ramnicu Valcea, the last levels of the building clearly refer to Dionisie’s Belfry at Horezu Monastery close by. References to monumental Orthodox religious architecture can  be seen in other works as well (especially in Moldavia, again as a preference of N. Porumbescu) since the only existing forms of monumental architecture in the “Romanian” past that could be invoked as prestigious models were churches and monasteries.[3]
     As the regime was turning chronic, and “working visits” more and more institutionalized, the new official buildings acquired an official rostrum from where Ceausescu and the local central party leadership addressed the throng compulsorily gathered beneath. As a rule, thus came to be a “piano nobile” containing the office of the first secretary, his private council hall and, further down to the plaza, the rostrum of the leader, the only user of the respective space. A high was again touched at Satu Mare, where the rostrum, plunging into the plaza, is intensely decorated with “folk” motifs, including “the underneath face”, the one actually visible to the population in the plaza. Its daring silhouette introduces it as a deliberately oversized element of composition as related to the tower from which it is detached, reminding thus of the designs for Mussolini’s rostrum within the contest for the Fascia Palace on the Via dell’Impero in Rome. This genre of false “opening” of the building to the plaza actually simulates the “popular” character of the regime that dialogued from above with the masses but actually refused proper entry into the edifice of local power. In other words, the interior area of the building was accessible only to the initiated, those who ministered and administrated power, while the public space, “the civic plaza”, was exclusively exterior, subordinated to the edifice and devised not as a space of interaction between equal parties but for the controlled and manipulated aggregation of listeners. The panoptic nature of the dipole civic plaza-edifice was thus achieved and it is no accident that, from this point of view, in the Brasov unrest of 1987 and especially during the 1989 revolution, rebelling meant first of all “taking” this building and, using the balcony/rostrum, cleansing it of insignia, slogans and books reminding of the abhorred regime. In counties as well as in Bucharest, the very creation of the new local power presupposed a significant number of “balcony scenes”, the only moments when communication with the people, spontaneously gathered in plazas otherwise empty, was two-way.
     All the RCP county headquarters readily exude nostalgia for an ancient/Roman or medieval/regional or local past. None fails to flatter at least one prestigious precedent among those that could cast an aura of authority over the socialist present. From this vantage none of these buildings is at least contemporary with its time, let alone does it foreshadow a communist future imprinting the period’s speeches. A token of power in and over the territory, the RCP headquarters dominated the city, the county and the community. At times, the invocation of the local, regional  or “Romanian” (that is national) specific traits took disconcerting forms. At Tulcea, the buildings downtown with their covered galleries were pulled down to be replaced by a new civic plaza, by blocks of apartments with covered galleries…on the ground floor. The disappearance of the historical original to make room to a present copy is surely a process worth a more encompassing disquisition than this one. Anyway, it denotes the artificial, elaborated nature of “the national specific traits”, which removed the real past in order to replace it with a caricature of an imaginary, ideologically infested past.  Reconstructed by the propaganda and erected in concrete, these “specific national traits” invoked – while removing all concrete physical presence – every identity-giving local and regional elements that could have engendered attachment and resistance to change. The alteration of toponyms, of the known streets and urban centers, of historical edifices was a deliberate, time-consuming process resulting in a nearly completely different urban built-up environment. Architecture and the urbanism of the new civic centers represented the most repressive tools of conscience manipulation by the regime.
     2)The civic plaza in itself was a huge space, exclusively pedestrian, by its orientation and sizes subordinated to the political-administrative edifice. It was meant to gather crowds, forcefully rallied to celebrate Ceausescu’s “working visits in the respective county”. Owing to their official nature, the plazas stayed empty for the rest of the year. The citizens of each city did not come together spontaneously in these civic plazas but in 1989, for the revolution. After the violent demolition of the old architecture and after reconstruction, the full remaking of the city was supposed to ensue from this point of irradiation: the civic center. That today many such structures and major edifices (including the meridian Bucharest case) seem to have remained outside of or without obvious connections to the city preceding them it is because the old was doomed to vanish completely. In other words, the ancient settlement was “fallacious’ and had to be put in order, in a new kind of order. The civic center and the yardstick edifice would have engendered the communist city’s new rationale of urban articulation. This can be observed in the towns that succumbed to the “contamination” coming from the new center to the suburbs (Slobozia, Alexandria, Galati). Just as we can notice that in towns with a rich architectural heritage and/or in the cities with a powerful geographic identity the new civic centers ran into violent conflict with prestigious public spaces and even with the geography of the place (Satu Mare, Tulcea). Some medieval cities, like Sibiu or Brasov, and especially Sighisoara [4], managed to preserve their old centers relatively unaltered until 1989. And paradoxically, Cluj managed to escape completely such a new structure.[5]
     3) Other constructions, alternatively present in the plaza, also looked ceremonial: the culture house of the trade unions, for instance (another new project emerged after the enthronement of communism in Romania), a supermarket, a theater, dwellings for the local elite of the regime and occasionally a hotel to be used by official delegations. In other cases, part of these edifices (particularly the culture houses of the trade unions which, as a program, precede the civic centers) can be found in squares articulated or not to a central civic plaza, trumpeting further in the town the message of a complete rewritten urban texture (Tulcea, Botosani, Suceava).
     The design rule was almost invariably the same: the building of political-administrative offices gave the height dominance to the ensemble, and the culture house of the general store introduced that of built-up mass. There existed few exceptions to the rule, which occurred in time: for example, at Focsani, the hotel prevails over the political-administrative edifice in the plaza; or the representative building looks like a horizontal blade with just a vertical accent on the campanile type (Vaslui, Galati).
     In the absence of complete documentation about Romania’s civic centers only partial conclusions can be drawn in any discussion on the matter. With the exception of the rather suspect, necessarily appreciative references to be found in  a few encomiastic books of the 1980s, there are no historical studies and, naturally, no critical notes on the relevant ample urban interventions. Notwithstanding the fact that they represent the showcase of Ceausescu’s architectural nationalism the studies made after 1989 did not address the matter either. The fact that many of the masterminds of these projects are with us, some even working, could suggest that there is still time to investigate all their ramifications, starting from the political command, going through the conception, approval and construction stages, down to the current stage. The last fifteen years changed their destination and architecture, sometimes decisively. Embarrassing monuments vanished, and others cropped up instead, just as awkward. Bucharest’s new civic center earned considerable attention and an international architecture contest. And yet, the Republic House itself remains perpetually under construction and repair, while the area around appears utterly derelict.

[1] References to Chandigarh are often obvious in town halls and the near-by culture houses, such as that of Ploiesti.
[2] Oral anecdotes recounted by his collaborators explain the elevated campanile tower (and inadequate) shape of the RCP headquarters by two of Porumbescu’s theories: the reason why Romanian architecture does not feature campaniles is because the Romanian people had to defend Christianity from the Turks, and therefore had not time to build monumental structures. Second, a lofty tower could be seen from neighboring Hungary.
[3]     From this point of view things reached a perverse high in Bucharest where Anca Petrescu claims that she used decorative motifs from the  Vacaresti Monastery to adorn the Republic House, putting the biggest Christian Orthodox church in the Balkans, demolished in the 1980s under the umbrella of the same mega-project of Ceausescu’s.
[4] The case of Sighisoara, a medieval Transylvanian Saxon citadel, still inhabited, is extremely relevant since the project of  a new political-administrative “agora” was masterminded by Anca Petrescu, chief architect of the Republic House in Bucharest. Discussions for and against this project, completely ready in 1989, continued long after that date since it enjoyed the support – paradoxically, we would say today – of the local post-communist authorities, who wanted to destroy their heritage in order to have their own version of a Grand House and plaza for parades.
[5] Worth mentioning is the fact that although dormitory districts were massively put up in Bulgaria, too, the medieval centers of the towns stayed relatively intact so that today Bulgaria has a head start in the cultural tourism competition compared to their Romanian counterparts.

Augustin Ioan, 2017