A Puzzled City

Bucharest is a city that is difficult to describe, and "difficult" is a term that tends to suggest the word "impossible". Many of us have probably at least once in our lifetime been in the situation of talking about the city that we live in. And, just as probable, among the words that came to our minds were "chaos", "ugly", "depressing", the more temperate "special", "distinct", "heterogeneous" or the exceptional "beautiful", "charming", "cosmopolitan". Usually all these words are accompanied by a body language that reveals a certain feeling of embarrassment, since we are not able to express something that we are supposed to know so well. The solution for getting out of these awkward moments might lie in trying to focus on a particular point, on an idea that can be developed and explained easily, a piece from the puzzle that is made up by the city. For most of the people there is only one choice: the past. And thus we start explaining how it was "then" and how it became "now". The obvious antagonism between the good that was "then" and the evil that is "now" spares us a more detailed explanation of the state of "now". And thus, this state of fact that surrounds us day by day and follows our day-to-day activities will remain unexplained and that is the first step towards encouraging its continuation and growth. People living in Bucharest thus ignore their city but also love to criticize it. One of the many blogs that talk about it (bukresh.blogspot.com) has a motto that synthesizes the situation correctly: "Bucharest, a city we love to hate". There is an extremely conflicting situation between the city and its inhabitants, which might be surprising at first glance, but turns out to be totally normal after a thorough analysis because in this city "normality" is seldom encountered and nothing happens following a common logical thread. The situation is just as bizarre as Bucharest, because a city is primarily represented by its inhabitants and the frame of their lives is, in turn, the result of human decisions. For the moment we like to blame the mayor or the political parties (that we voted for), history (we all know that all evil comes from the East), the neighbor (any neighbor will do, they are always to blame), Europe (in present-day tendencies it's the leader in matters of "causes"), etc. We never talk about us, whenever we talk about the state of the city. It's always the others. A first conclusion would be the fact that in order to understand and describe Bucharest, we have to decode the inhabitants of Bucharest: they are the ones who populate, use, create the city; they are the pieces of the game called "life in Bucharest". These true actors on the urban scene are the ones who mould the day-to-day reality: they are the ones who use and abuse the city. And here we are talking both about the ones who authorize the boils on the face of Bucharest and of the ones who try to protect it. We are talking both about the ones who spoil it and about those who finally managed to understand the term of "civic spirit", each and every one of them (us) has to take responsibility for what is happening in our (European) capital. This idea is applicable for all the cities in Romania. And Bucharest sums up all the cities in Romania. It is the image of "the inhabitants of Bucharest", a heterogeneous mixture of inhabitants of Romania, attracted by the possibilities offered by economic development. Very few of them have families that can count back three generations of Bucharest inhabitants. The relationship between these actors and their scene is one defined in the first place by perception, influenced by personal sensibilities, culture, education, intelligence and, last but not least, a certain "urban spirit". Because living in a city means first of all living "together" with others, sharing and socializing. That certain something is difficult to see in Romania even to this day, that is, 19 years after the "official" end of communism that was the true religion of "the common" and one of the major causes of the false perception of contemporary urban life. Generally, people live by the principle "each for himself". The idea is perfectly valid in a society of savage consumption that looks more and more like a jungle. The total fragmentation of the living part of the city, made up of several million elements who are all struggling in a direction dictated by the personal interest coincides perfectly with the kaleidoscope-like image that the city reveals to us every day. Those who do not agree with this statement can use a safe method to convince themselves: let them go out on the street, get on a tram or just look out the window. It's amazing how "homogeneous" this fragmentation can be. Not even the great axis of the Socialist Victory Boulevard, the lunatic reflection of the sick mind of a dictator, the image of the "new order", not even that remained untouched. Ironically, there is in Bucharest a "pure" zone, pardoned by this frenzy of personalization, of marking the spot and expressing post-communist individualism. And this element is so big, so indecent and so insulting for the city, that it is impossible for us not to notice it. Apart from the later growth called NationalMuseum for Contemporary Art (MNAC) (which every inhabitant of Bucharest should visit at least once in a lifetime), our rulers took great care so that no new addition would spoil the "harmony" of the pile. Of course I am talking about the great "people's house", the only place in Bucharest where the pieces of the puzzle seem to match, in a grotesque and disappointing result. Apart from this, the "uniformized chaos" settles in quietly and paints the town. There are boiling points (the districts in the north, the new ghettos for rich people, and the city center) and places in which the phenomenon reaches with more difficulty (the dorm-districts, most of them situated in the southern half). There are places in which the phenomenon is tragic (everywhere the old town meets "the progress" in a very violent manner, places in which it is both tragic and hilarious (the new residence areas in the north of the city), and places in which it is necessary (all the residence areas built before '89). The result metamorphoses in a richness and visual violence of the street so powerful that at every corner we feel that we've just made a new discovery. There are streets where the constant height and the alignment of the fronts is taken into account. Apart from that, Bucharest seems to be laid waste by a constant tectonic move that shapes its tissue, and the street melts into the intimate space of the yards through tens of thousands of piercings and passages, filtrated by plants, which is a characteristic element for the so-called "oriental" tissue. Some cities have public and private space and the boundary between the two creates a fine play on urban perception. Bucharest doesn't have public spaces (any longer), and the private space is trying by all means to monopolize what was left while the effects bounce between grotesque and tragic-comical. Some cities have limits, margins, areas of development. Bucharest has seen development, but the term "limit" is hard to understand by the city (it has always been like this), because it has always been molded by the pressure of the dealings in real estate. In the end, some cities have so called "exceptional" monuments and places. They do not exist (visually) in Bucharest, because the city is so diversified that it is difficult even for a "meritorious" building to detach itself from this heterogeneous net and claim its identity. Bucharest is a world of its own. This text remains just as open and fragmented as its subject. I find it impossible to close it with a paragraph that looks like a conclusion because this would imply the fact that I understand this city. And I am far from reaching this state of mind, I am just as "puzzled" as the subject of my lines. Paris 2008 Translated by Iunia Martin

by Ştefan Tuchilă