A Century Of Our Past And Our European Identity Are Being Destroyed

Armenian Church; St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Cathedral; Stirbey house on Calea Victoriei
excerpts from the debate organized by Ileana Foundation for Contemporary Fine Arts and Modern Architecture in Romania, hosted at UNA Gallery on May 12th 2008

Nowadays, the oldest – the 19th – representative century of Bucharest’s laic architecture, which still holds the charms of the Orient, but also attests the European identity of the Romanian capital, is disappearing fast in front of our eyes. Dozens of houses with obvious architectural and historical value are being demolished because they haven’t been added to the list of historical monuments. Not that these historical monuments have a better fate; recently, Assan’s Mill, emblematic of the Romanian industry of the mid-19th century, was destroyed by fire, probably intentionally. On the occasion of local elections, the Ileana Foundation organized the following talk to which representatives of the main political parties were invited. The German attaché, Mr. Thomas Weithöner attended the event. The speakers invited were: Professor Dinu C. Giurescu; Professor Andrei Pippidi; a postgraduate doing her doctoral thesis, Luminiţa Batali; Professor Architect Doctor Peter Derer; Lecturer Marina Theodorescu; Ludovic Orban – the Minister of Transport, the National Liberal Party candidate to the Mayoralty of the capital; Lecturer Doctor Dragoş Dincă, the National Liberal Party candidate to the Mayoralty of Sector 2; Secretary of State, Doctor Teodora Bertzi, the National Liberal Party candidate to the Mayoralty of Sector 3; Gheorghe Udrişte, general director of Bucharest’s City Hall; Architect Monica Mărgineanu-Cîrstoiu; Professor Doctor Constantin Prut; Professor Doctor Ruxandra Demetrescu, Rector UNARTE; Professor Doctor Corina Popa; Professor Doctor Dan Mohanu; Professor Doctor Alexandra Titu. The final conclusion reached was that there was a need for immediate change of the Law for Historical Monuments, which, through its imperfections, leaves Bucharest an easy prey to the pressure for building land. Professor Dinu C. Giurescu, president of Ileana Foundation: When, on 26th December 1989, the Council of the National Salvation Front annulled the 1974 decree regarding land and urban and rural localities systemization, I thought that, though already late, we were returning to normality. In fact, it was only a break. Over the past years, particularly between 2005 and 2008, the steamroller went on and things actually got worse. Not by use of the bulldozer, as in the 80’s, but by construction of tower blocks and through systematic house demolition. Everything started next to the Armenian Church, a historical monument. A 20-storey block towers over the church; when its foundations were laid, the wall of the monument cracked. Then, in Charles de Gaulle Square, a 70 meter tall cylinder appeared. Further on, in Victoriei Square, on the corner with Ion Mihalache Boulevard, the 87 meter tall BRD building was erected! The worst thing happened only 10 meters away from the ‘St. Joseph’ Roman-Catholic Cathedral, another historical monument. Cathedral Plaza should have 22 floors and 4 underground levels. The building, almost the tallest permitted, was stopped following legal decision. It is, probably, only temporary. Public opinion and laws don’t matter. Money does. The project of ‘re-arranging’ Revolution Square with several tower blocks provoked such a scandal that the post-revolutionary systemization investors temporarily stepped back. On Georges Clémenceau Street, behind the Hilton-Athénée Palace Hotel, two buildings disappeared: until 1947, one had been the quarters of the Peasants National Party, led by Iuliu Maniu, forcibly made illegal in July 1947. Now, there is a free space several dozen meters long. There might be erected there another tower block, somehow symmetrical with that on Academiei Street. This way, the assault on Revolution Square would be led from both sides. The law for free access to public information doesn’t work when it comes to big financial interests. The new planning officials work behind closed doors, without any real debate in authorized forums. Public opinion simply doesn’t matter. Nor do the specialists when they dare to oppose these money-spinning moves to the investors’ pockets. The key to this ‘financial engineering’ in the Capital’s buildings is in the Area Urban Plans (the famous PUZ) which are more powerful than the Urban General Plan (PUG). Such moves – probably dozens, if not more – are possible with the signatures and the complicity of people who work for the Capital’s City Hall, the sectors’ municipalities, in ministers and other institutions. This is how the signatures which give apparent legality to all sort of big money manipulations, are obtained. The effacing of our history, begun by the communist systemization, is still going on today. Professor Andrei Pippidi counted in Traian Street, between numbers 75 and 208, 38 houses built at the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Buildings which are typical of the city’s profile. Calea Moşilor disappeared in the 80’s under the siege of the bulldozers brought by Ceauşescu’s ‘systemization’. Now, Traian Street will share the same fate. The architects’ guild of Romania launched, in March 2008, the Cluj declaration, from which we quote: ‘Romania’s inhabitants have a right to architecture and landscape, as they have a right to health and justice’ and so do Bucharest’s inhabitants: they have the right to keep and enhance their city’s architecture, their houses’, just as they were built in the 19th century and up to the 1940’s. Luminiţa Batali, postgraduate doing her doctoral thesis, director of Ileana Foundation: In a June 2007 issue of The International Herald Tribune, there was a sentence about the new countries in the EU which don’t do what they should, and could be thrown out. We don’t know whether that sentence included us or not, but an effort to keep and enhance our capital’s European identity would give us a firmer feeling of belonging and of not being the last to arrive. After all, the 19th century Bucharest generations, with their efforts and stylistic choice of embracing western European architecture, made a clear statement about the geo-political area to which they wanted to belong and our roots are in these efforts they made. Unlike other countries, we have very little laic architecture previous to the 19th century and that is why every tiny piece which speaks of our European past should be carefully preserved, as well as for the political statement it makes. French and Romanian architects expressing the French school, Austrian and German architects, too, built here, in the 19th century and, destroying these creations, the European patrimony as a whole would lose too. Through their acts, similar to those of the Taliban who bombed the ancient statues of Buddha, the mayors who indiscriminately sign to the loss of our past and of ‘historical energies’ (as the Viennese Alois Riegl put it) take away from us our most precious goods. We are teaching students about ‘corporate identity’, where history and its values mean such a lot of money to the multimillionaire companies, and meantime we see our history disappear in front of our very eyes. And, as writer Nicolae Prelipceanu put it, it is not just the 19th century disappearing. Now, methodically, the noble cosmopolitan imprint of modernism is being deleted. Professor Andrei Pippidi:As it has been said here, I think we all agree on the measures to be taken and which, unfortunately, do not depend on us, but I have the feeling that lately, Bucharest’s inhabitants are beginning to take notice. That is, at least what we have called, for some time, with a borrowed expression, ‘the civil society’, this shapeless, but living creation – although after many years of efforts made to draw its attention to this heritage – is beginning to react, to become aware of the city’s past, which, as it has been said here, is so short and so poor, that every loss is extremely painful. Unlike other European cities, Bucharest doesn’t have churches from the 12th century and houses from the 14th or 15th centuries. As a matter of fact, there was one single century, the 19th, when this city had organic development and the prestige that made it the biggest and most beautiful city in the Balkans – geographically imprecise, but Europe considered we belonged to it – a strong indication of the general atmosphere and the character of the Bucharest generations between 1820 and 1900. The fight we are in, different from the one Professor Giurescu was fighting during Ceauşescu’s years, is not against state authority, nor against a single enemy; what we can see now is that the city centre is being ‘bombed’ at the same time, from various sides. These are the effects of land speculation. Other Balkan capitals had this ‘childhood disease’; I’m thinking of Athens and other Greek cities which, in the 1950’s, were devastated by initiatives which destroyed their Ottoman past and their modern Greek history in order to make room only for financially profitable blocks of flats. So, let us now see who and where the guilty ones are. I will start, if you wish, with the Historical Monuments Commission, because I can see here personalities who were members of this commission. When we used to work together, though not always in the best conditions, I had the feeling that our work was not in vain. That a word said there could decide for the better or for the worse – that depended on the result of the voting – but from then on, I have the feeling this commission is simply formal. And it is not about my personal frustrations, but about the fact that another institution, important to this country, becomes, just like others, an ineffectual body. I cannot leave out the fact that, on the other hand, the guilt is also of those owners who, when eventually they see their dream come true and get back the fortune they have been deprived of for years, instantly sell it to someone they know for sure that will demolish their ancestors’ house to replace it with a block of flats, ‘a beehive where the biggest number of bees could enter’. There is a similar situation very close to where we are now: the Stirbey Palace, which should now be called Popescu Palace because it has a different owner. I have the painful feeling, I admit, its previous owners found it very difficult to part with the only royal palace Bucharest still had. What will happen now is utterly foreseeable: on the piece of land it has behind a huge building will be erected, which will change the whole profile of the area. And in such cases, nobody would talk of ‘property rights’. There has been someone who said that specialist commissions hinder owners from taking hold of the rights the Constitution gives them. But they, in the light of these particular rights, shouldn’t break the law, such as the Law of the Patrimony, which defends the buildings we are trying to protect. The law, which is the result of years of negotiations, is not perfect for all the purposes it should serve which is why we could not classify as ‘historical building’ all the houses built during the reign of Carol I. We made choices and the result is that any building without an official qualification to protect it is doomed. That’s why, sooner or later, instead of those houses with historical or architectural value, blocks of flats will be erected which will change the city and lessen its traditional identity until we will feel strangers in the very city we were born in. Professor Architect Doctor Peter Derer:I do affirm that there is quality in Bucharest, not everywhere, but there are several places that are worthwhile. The thing is we have a huge mixture. Lipscani is not the only historical centre. There are also some streets, special streets that foreigners, in particular, appreciate. A lot has been written about these aspects. But the administration does not recognize their value and does not have the concept of the city as a work of art. I dare say it is not even aware they are managing such great unique values. Andrei Pleşu said somewhere that you need to feel these things. And then, a suggestion for the coming administrations is to create offices for implementing the Urban General Plan – as far as cultural values are concerned – and history and urban aesthetics offices whose task would be to plan the development. I really think Bucharest is unique. In fact, this is a recurrent theme that Romania is unique and so on, but this city really is. Because it is a mixture of East and West. You won’t find any other city like it. Professor Doctor Corina Popa:In the September 2007 issue of Our Europe a very generous presentation of Petrograd was published – a city where it was very difficult legally to stop the impetus the estate agent business would have taken, helped by the prosperous Russians. In just one area – on an island – the extraordinary project of a great English architect was allowed and accepted. Istanbul is another case: a recent project proposes building on the peninsula of medieval Constantinople, that is in the heart of Byzantine Constantinople, tower blocks which would destroy the historical profile of this famous city, changed in any case by some Turkish buildings and by the architecture of some blocks badly integrated in the urban structure, lacking harmony with the surrounding buildings. A similar thing happened in Athens. So, there are similar dangers in other places – which doesn’t comfort me at all, on the contrary, it distresses me, particularly if I consider the comments of a British architect who was part of National Heritage staff and one of the designers of the traditional cultural landscape or of the harmonious combination between new and old. He said that it is, in fact, very difficult to fight this tendency because the tower blocks have become a sort of symbol of prosperity. A city is perceived as prosperous if it has 20-storey hotels or similar office buildings. Is this the message of the banners promising us to transform Bucharest into a ‘European’ city? Let us hope that this will happen neither in Istanbul nor in other cities. Ludovic Orban, Minister of Transport and vice-mayor of Bucharest:Investors interested in making money try to increase the surface on which they want to build and this is done by improving the Urban General Plan parameters through the Estate Plan for the urban area, so that the Coefficient of Terrain Use, the Street Plan and the height of the building may be increased. Romanian legislation has it that any person can ask for an Estate Plan and because this is an approximate legal stipulation, this Estate Plan would be made for an area which is not clearly defined, and then anyone can actually make a plan for an individual building. This is how all these curiosities appeared, such as the tower in the Charles de Gaulle Square. I have to say that in this, for instance, our general councilors were fooled. Because what it said on the agenda was ‘prolongation of the validity of an estate plan’ and, in fact, it was a change in the estate plan agreed on 5 years ago. At a certain point in time, we didn’t consent to any individual estate plans at all. For a while, so that they could eliminate any opposition, they would put several estate plans under just one issue on the agenda – which would only have one vote in the General Council. Relaying on the fact that people from different political parties had a private estate plan, they forced the vote. Then they managed to eliminate – by changing the Law of Public Administration, an extremely serious thing to do – the obligation of having two thirds of the votes necessary to adopt an estate plan. Now, if you have the majority plus one you can do as you please. It doesn’t matter if the project is against common sense… A law change is necessary, but also a change of the Municipality’s attitude and the Commission’s which is actually the body of specialists – the Technical Commission of Urbanism and Territorial Development, which shouldn’t approve of the projects that don’t observe certain norms; and a change in the Chief-Architect’s and the General Councilors’ attitude, so that this inter-party brotherhood where everybody promotes their own project would disappear. Personally, I wouldn’t allow individual estate plans and, above all, I wouldn’t allow the elaboration and the initiation of an Estate Plan without the approval of the Capital’s City Hall. Dinu C. Giurescu:So, Minister, this means there are solutions. Ludovic Orban:Of course there are! For instance, I will tell you that the investigation regarding the tower block next to St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Cathedral was made by the State Inspectorate for Buildings on my own initiative. The document, which served legally to stop the building in question, was the one concocted after the Inspectorate checked it. This document offered evidence of a lot of incongruence related to land ownership, the building contract, the way in which the estate plan had been voted and other things. Professor Doctor Alexandra Titu:I understand your position: you don’t want to accuse anybody, because it’s risky to accuse people, but as far as there are no assumed responsibilities for illegal actions, there will never be a law to stop all these demolitions. Signatures should be traced down, those who signed found out and made responsible for their acts. That is the moment when these people would be reluctant to sign so easily for destruction. It has been noticed this difference between the political and the cultural vision. This means, on the one hand, that the cultured part of the society has no access to power and on the other hand, that the political class has no access to culture and that, between the two, there should be a third party which gives coherence and which does not presently exist, the social perspective. As a city loses its identity, it stops being a place for living and becomes a garage for cars to live in. Perhaps this is another reason for which Romania has become such an easy place to leave.Observator cultural 426, June 2008Translated by Maria Bebis

by Ileana Foundation