The ultimate civic center: Bucharest, The Communist Disneyland
Was this “the amplest post-modern manifestation in Europe”? The “Victory of Socialism” Boulevard and the “House of the Republic” were the outcome of this kind of urban activity which aimed at “rationalizing” and monumentalizing the organically developed cities[i] in Europe. Such artificial urban implants in mediaeval tissues are made after the utopic projects of the French Revolution and of the Enlightenment everywhere, can be found especially in inter-war Europe. Important Italian cities, including Rome, then Berlin, Moscow (1935) and Bucharest (1932-1935) are “monumentalized” not only as far as their “new” projects are concerned, but - partially - also in reality. The plan designed for Bucharest stipulated the creation of a new civic center. Where? Surprisingly enough, on the Arsenal Hill, viz. on the very site which had been suggested in the 1930s[ii].
The composition devices - the already quoted[iii] assembling of classical/eclectic elements discharging an evocative/aesthetic function[iv]; the use of identikits, a praise to the urban façade[v] - are, undoubtedly, analogous to those celebrated by post-modern architecture. However, several essential ingredients are lacking, e.g. irony, double encoding, code directions supposed to indicate the concessions meant to flatter the kitsch mass culture. Robert Venturi once analyzed the failure of modern monumental buildings, which want to “talk” by means of an inadequate vocabulary. He called such buildings “dead ducks”. The “new civic center” in Bucharest is such a dead duck; unfortunately following the example of the Soviet dwarf, it is the biggest dead duck in the world ...
The palace which, together with the mutilated surrounding area, has been the object of the architectural competition entitled “Bucharest 2000”, has changed its name after the revolution in 1989, and has become the pet child of Parliament members. The results of the competition might very well make no impression on our members of Parliament; on the contrary. They are not the only ones to believe that, beyond political differences, the building is a remarkable expression of the constructive genius of the Daco-Romans. “The House of the Republic” is also an international smash-hit. This kind of architecture is appealing enough not only to Romanian newly rich, but also to diplomatic circles. The building hosts international conferences with participants from all over the world. Various “joint ventures” are organized on the spot: one-season “presidents” of republics, members of phantom organizations speedily cross Bucharest in a roar of noise, enjoying both their power and their round bellies. The old headquarters of the absolute power has become, by an indirect way, exactly what it ought not to have become, i.e. the peak headquarters of the new power. The slight amendments are only superficial, i.e. in the old hall called “Romania” (now called “Cuza”) there is a concert hall; the basement houses an art gallery, at the entrance of which (like a row of columns) there are several rows of anti-terrorist soldiers; the official character of the edifice is further cultivated by the manipulation of the inner space and by the symbolism of collective identity. If the president’s headquarters were to move there, Ceausescu’s urban will would be fully fulfilled. The best example in this respect is the fact that it was quite forbidden to discuss the function of the House of the Republic (viz. of the Parliament Hall) during the competition which had aimed at “re-writing” the area.
The “Bucharest 2000” international city planning competition, the most comprehensive ever organized in Romania, has already become a fact. More than 500 ha in the Southern part of the city, viz. the area most brutally mutilated in the eighties, is waiting for the architects’ ideas in order to be converted, (through turning to value its huge development virtualities) in another Défense, now placed in “the little Paris of the Balkans”. Like in the case of La Défense, (the district of architecture/city planning experiments in Paris), as a consequence of a project which will win the competition, this mutilated city area might regenerate in a few decades.
The reframing of this area has been on the agenda of the Architects’ Union ever since 1990. A national competition was organized as early as 1991 with a view of reframing the area of the Parliament Hall. The projects presented then are still fairly interesting; even those ideas which could never be put into practice. First and foremost, they are worth mentioning here, because they are preeminently post-modern ones. The solutions suggested by the competitors were to entrust the children with painting the buildings in this area - in this way a pompous architecture was to be covered by grafitti, according to an American model. The pseudo-journal Miine (Tomorrow) edited in view of the competition by the architects Florin Biciușcă and Dan Adrian, announced the results of a “national referendum”, namely that 85 % of the population of Romania had decided that the edifice was “beautiful”. As a consequence, a “decree” was given. The Arsenal Hill was to be symbolically re-used, by transforming the place in a grave-tunnel of the house, only the last register of which was to be left visible. Naturally, the house was to be further used as an underground bunker. Since it is quite impossible to administer this space even while at the surface, it is hard to imagine the hypothetical cost in case more than 18,000 sq. m. would have been covered. Another project suggested to cover the façade of the edifice by a huge glass triangle. Besides hiding the horror behind, the purport of such a project was quite obvious, viz. to achieve the Great Pyramid in the Little Paris. The reference to I. M. Pei’s pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre was transparent enough. The big prize was awarded however to a de-construction of the area, the architecture of which was to be, once again, divided by the old narrow streets.
Unfortunately, all these projects are punctual and pre-eminently “utopic” suggestions which do not solve the basic problems in this area, i.e. the traffic and communication, the mutilation of the street tissue, the breach between reality and the project. On the other hand, no solution has yet been given to the impossibility to ever finishing this huge building, otherwise than superficially. As for the parliamentary leaders, who are in love with their building, they go on advancing important sums for finishing the building. The inauguration of the huge art gallery facing Izvor Bridge is part of this program. Inaccessible to anyone else except the political and the financial élite, the gallery is consequently deprived of its function. A similar status has the parliamentary restaurant, where wedding and christening feasts can be organized. In this way, the house becomes a privileged site for the rites of passage, this phenomenon should be a topic of reflection for anthropologists.
For obvious reasons, Romania’s capital city undergoes, from time to time, surgical transformation; nearly always the latter are radical ones. In the last century, earthquakes and fire have destroyed almost all important previous buildings, except for religious ones. In her study “Bucharest - a city between East and West”, the late researcher Dana Harhoiu speaks about this martyrdom suffered by our own urban memory. Although the city’s first documentary reference dates back from 1459, the oldest existing buildings were raised in the latter half of the 16-th century. The urban constructions in the Kingdom, which have conferred an eclectic aspect to downtown Bucharest, were raised on the ruins of the old mediaeval inns and streets. Magheru Boulevard, which represented the first consistently modern avenue of the city (in those times it was a European priority and raised the scale of the patriarchal city) had replaced, in its turn, other pre-existing buildings. The Simu Museum, a cozy temple-like museum, collapsed in order to make room for the twin blocks-of-flats above Eva shop. Carol II and his architects were planning a Bucharest which was not unlike the ideal city dreamt by the pre-war literary critic Călinescu; it was heroic, neo-classical, made of marble. Only time prevented them from transforming Bucharest into yet another fascist EUR’41.
Bucharest is therefore a permanent “palimpsest” (as it was characterized by architect Alexandru Beldiman); its ages are stratified in an almost geological way. As a consequence, its building fronts are discontinuous. Calea Victoriei is a privileged example in this respect. It is this very alternance of styles, cornice heights, squares and piazzas which confer personality to Calea Victoriei. Perhaps that is why, in the midst of dense building fronts of Budapest, the recent trade center raised by Buick respects the alignment, the height, and the registers of the neo-classical neighbourhoods, even if it is a high-tech building. In the meantime, in Bucharest, architects can propose - and, of course, the authorities can allow - the construction of a huge “American” tower, bearing no connection to any other building, to the history of the place, to the suffocating traffic, in the very vicinity of the Athenaeum.
Discontinuity, fragmentarism, eclecticism - these are the stickers which could be applied to downtown Bucharest. That is why consistent guidelines must lie at the basis of the future urban development of the area which is now in ruins. If such outrageous projects can be materialized in an existing area of the historical center, one could hardly imagine what might happen in the absence of a coherent urban vision, in places which are now empty. The competition for a center of the 2000 is therefore a risky enterprise, on the thin edge separating a savage Bucharest, full of a-cephalos towers, not unlike Hong-Kong or Singapore, from a well articulated European capital, which can easily be quite fluid and intelligent, from an urbanist perspective. The participant teams are still competing. However, this competition will be soon influenced by financial policies; at that moment urbanism can have only an indirect impact.
Practically, the urban and architectural remodeling of the Romanian towns reached its acme with the “new civic center” in the Capital. Bucharest is a city where competing development projects violently replace each other. On over one hundred and fifty years the city emerges a palimpsest, (A. Beldiman), or “an unfinished project” (A. Ioan). In other words, the intention of turning it monumental, in step with the pretences of one regime or another, predated Ceausescu’s age. In the 1930s, in a manner similar to the fever of recomposing cities (Moscow, Berlin, Rome), King Carol II decided to turn “his” capital monumental, cutting straight and imposing axes in the still medieval urban texture. Ever since then the Spirii Hill was targeted for a new administrative palace for reasons of being central to the city’s contours, and having a resilient soil. Thus, the world, at least that of architects, showed little surprise when, after the devastating 1977 earthquake that revealed to Ceausescu the transitory nature of architecture and whetted his appetite for grandiose foundations, it was decided to build a Republic House. This implied massive demolition of heritage architecture stretching over 450 ha, to be replaced by a complex of representation spaces, administrative and political. In 1984, when the razing of the area had been completed and part of the foundations had been cast for the new mega edifice of communist power, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife signed parchments which they placed, with resplendent ceremonies, in genuine “time capsules” laid at the foot of the building. In 1993, I traced the entire process with the help of period footage and put it on film, Architecture and Power.
It is still unclear how a debutante architect, Anca Petrescu came to be picked up for the job. A communication held in May 2005 by one of the participants in the Collage Bucharest colloquium, also a member on a team taking part in those “domestic competitions” in the early 1980s, presented a few of the designs that entered an exhibition for Ceausescu and his henchmen. One still lacks quotable, written testimonies from those involved, and Anca Petrescu continues to claim that, with nobody to support her, she was chosen for the quality of her project alone. Anyway, no matter what the facts looked like, the design put forth by her team incurred major alterations on the way. The fact that the building site was subject to state secret rigor explains why we do not yet have access to the designs of the edifice, provided final complete designs actually exist. Surely, the characters involved in the business have no interest in reopening this nebulous episode of their past.
There were “domestic” internal contests within certain state design institutions, in which teams from them and the Ion Mincu Architecture Institute (at the time the only school in the field) participated. In some of the interviews that I took after 1990, the subjects mentioned as source of inspiration the pompous, historically inclined postmodernism of Ricardo Bofill (especially the Antigone ensemble of Montpellier and those near Paris). At the time and a little afterwards the process started by Ceausescu was expected to produce finally the amplest urban post-modern project in Europe. A parallel has been drawn between Grand Projets in Mitterand’s Paris and the huge edifices of Ceausescu. But can we actually speak of a postmodern endeavor? And, furthermore, it is something that, by resisting a single interpretation, opens itself only to postmodern/fractured diagnoses?
The composition types and ornaments, the assemblages of classical/eclectic elements discharging an evocative/aesthetic function, the use of identities, a praise to the urban façade – are, undoubtedly, comparable to those celebrated by postmodern architecture. However, several essential ingredients are missing, e.g. irony, double encoding, code directions supposed to indicate the concessions meant to flatter kitsch mass culture. The complex is a starch set of buildings, designed to be taken quite seriously, although they are hilariously kitsch, just like the former Securitate secret agents, dressed in black suits, with dandruff specking their collars, and wearing white cotton socks in black lacquer shoes. This is an instance of unintentional humor, and the laughs come from the critics, not the authors; from interpretation, not creation. Robert Venturi once analyzed the fallacy of modern monumental buildings that “talk” by means of an inadequate vocabulary. He called such buildings “dead ducks”. The “new civic center” in Bucharest is such a dead duck; unfortunately following the jocose example of the Soviet dwarf, it is the biggest dead duck in the world ...
The palace which, together with the mutilated surrounding area, was the object of an architecture competition entitled “Bucharest 2000” (1995-6), had its name changed after the 1989 revolution to Parliament Palace, and became the pet location of the new/old political elite. With the Parliament already in (in 1995 the Chamber of Deputies moved to the precincts; in the fall of 2005 the Senate has changed address and also joined the Palace). And if the presidential headquarters were to move here, too, Ceausescu’s urban last will and testament would be fully fulfilled. The Republic House/Parliament Palace, the second largest building in the world, was destined to be, and it finally became, the ultimate political edifice in Romania.
The Ultimate Edifice and, setting out from it, the Boulevard of Victorious Socialism (or better said the anti-urban phenomenon officially called “the new civic center”) have been interpreted lately in connection with their various fields of significance: from their conception, construction to their use in the communist period, before 1989, and now. Any attempt to set them in order should start from two premises: 1)The respective edifice resists any unique, “holistic” interpretation that could exhaust meanings in matters of production and destination. 2)There are important distinctions between the modalities of explaining the building from the threefold vantage of its spaces: its exterior space (the city), the exterior space of the building (“its close vicinity”, to use the ankylosed language of eastern post-Soviet politics or the huge halo of influence exercised by its monstrous structure), and naturally, the outer space. In the absence of verifiable data, exclusively oral studies (unfinished and unpublished yet such as those of Gérard Althabe from EHESS Paris) and legends recounted by eye witnesses or just by former “initiated persons” (like the one-time rector of IAIM Bucharest, Prof. Cornel Dumitrescu) on the imaginary, mythical dimension of the tidal wave of petites histoires appended to this colossal project are the only ones to account for the nearly “occult” nature of the biggest urban operation in the history of Romania.
The most valuable interpretations, even if partial, are to be found not exactly within the architecture-urbanism discourse but rather in socio-human sciences, political science, history of mentalities, anthropology of the peri-urban (slum), and not lastly, in psychoanalysis. The various projects of sense that those interested laid down in connection with the Republic House after 1989 vacillate between two extremes: the minimum limit speaks of “recuperating” the House in a strictly professional jargon of architectural “expertise”. This has been used not only by architects but also by diverse interpreters of the house, and guides who show it to mesmerized foreigners. We are dealing here, on the bottom line of the bottom line commentary on the Republic House (as poet Nichita Stanescu would have put it), with quantities, sizes, forms of design, special structures and so on and so forth. On the upper line of the bottom line we can approach “the postmodernism” of the House and of the Boulevard of Victorious Socialism, its “Bigness” (Rem Koolhas) as well as other concepts that could prove useful at a certain moment. The “higher” aspect (in the strict sense of ab/use, of excessive investment with meaning) is taken by discussions about the House as an epiphany of the heavenly Jerusalemite temple that happened to be elevated here, in Bucharest, in view of a second coming also to take place on the spot...
 Architecture and Power, Agerfilm SRL, Bucharest, 1993, director Nicolae Margineanu, script and commentary Augustin Ioan. The film received the Grand Prix at the Festival of Architecture Films FIFAL, 1994.
 The first blocks-of-flats on the Boulevard of Victorious Socialism, opposite the ones placed on the front side of Unirea Square, are inspired, at the suggestion of Ceausescu himself (or so it seems) from the flamboyant building designed by Petre Antonescu in the Senate/United Nations Plaza. Why they did not take after the adjoining building designed by Nicolae Cucu, a construction both severe and majestic ? We will never know.
 Anca Petrescu, Ceausescu’s pet architect, used to say she was quite proud to have “saved” the friezes of Vacaresti Monastery by reproducing them in the decoration of the Republic House.
 The interior planimetry of the dwellings on the boulevard is relatively independent from the succeeding rhythm of voids on the façade. There are interior walls that “fall” into the field of windows; other disharmonies between the inside and the outside are also obvious.
[i] Nevertheless, somewhere deep down, many of the “spontaneously” developed ancient and mediaeval cities are based on “ideal” and/or sacred geometrical plans. One of the causes of this phenomenon might be the Roman inheritance, i.e. the fact that mediaeval cities have developed on imperial sites. The nature of foundation rites, as well as their urban expression can be helpful, too. The researchers in Bucharest’ architecture might be surprised to learn the conclusion reached by the late Dana Harhoiu, who demonstrated that the city of Bucharest is much less chaotic than we had been accustomed to believe. On the contrary, it seems that its sacred places are concentrically developed around the Patriarchal Hill, which, together with the old church of St. George - the “center” of the city - and the church Mihai-Voda, make up a triungular matrix of the old borough. The bisectrix of this angle, the vertex of which is the old church of St. George is Calea Mosilor, the old commercial road coming from Moldavia.
[ii] Various stories spread about by the characters of the drama which took place in those days give a much simpler description of a phenomenon which, otherwise, might have taken only God knows how crooked an interpretation. It seems that, at Ceausescu’s demand of proposals for a new administrative center of the town, architect Jugurica had taken out of the archives the inter-war plan, and presented it to the dictator. Of course, the differences between the inter-war plan and the tragi-comical nonsense achieved in communist times are really dramatic.
Oral history proves helpful to the investigation of the processes behind the totalitarian façade, were it not taken into consideration, one would fall a prey of all sorts of apocalyptic interpretations, such as the fatal character of the demolitions in Bucharest, as long as, beyond any ideology, the Arsenal Hill was, anyway, meant as an ideal site for a major edifice. Useless to insist here on the internal vices of such a line of argumentation.
[iii] The first blocks-of-flats on the “Victory of Socialism” boulevard, opposite the ones placed on the frontal side of Unirea Square, are inspired, at the suggestion of Ceausescu himself (or so it seems) from the flamboyant building designed by Petre Antonescu in the Senate/United Nations Square, Why didn’t they take after the adjoining building designed by Nicolae Cucu, which was a building both severe and majestic? We will never know.
[iv] Anca Petrescu, the Ceausescu’s pet architect, used to say she was quite proud to have “saved” the friezes of Vacaresti Monastery, by reproducing them in the decoration of the House of the Republic.
[v] The interior planimetry of the dwellings in the boulevard is relatively independent from the rhytm of succession of gaps on the façade. Interior walls can be found, which “fall” into the field of windows; other disharmonies between the inside and the outside are also obvious.
Augustin Ioan, 2017