I No Longer Love Bucharest

"I no longer love Bucharest. I'm no longer hoping something can be done about this dump of Europe" An interview with Mircea Cărtărescu by Ion Longin Popescu Slowly but surely, the old, historic Bucharest – the little that was left after Ceauşescu's demolishing fury – is disappearing, mercilessly gobbled away by the orders of a mayor completely devoid of any urban-planning culture and surrounded by a gang of mediocre architects, who have put their drawing boards in the service of their own pockets and of the real estate sharks. While all other European capitals are carefully guarding their past, creating beautiful, identity-reinforcing historical areas, in Bucharest, the so-called new, American-style architecture, with its steel and PVC windows, uglifies the city forever and nobody can do anything about it. Poet and prose writer Mircea Cărtărescu is the most active of the first-rate intellectuals of Bucharest who have been protesting against the disastrous policy of Bucharest City Hall, defending in writing the beauty and nostalgia of the old city. "The Communist period was the final sentence on this urban tack called Bucharest""They say the place a poet is born and lives in seeps into the subtle alchemy of his creation. Can you still find yourself in today's Bucharest? Do its old styles, endangered species now, still mean anything?" "Honestly speaking, I don't think so. Bucharest is a city that has developed according to immediate economic needs without any idea of urban planning, aesthetics, or forethought; a maze of filthy lanes, winding through boyars' houses and gardens, waste grounds, added buildings and then buildings added to the additions, ruined by earthquakes and fires. Picturesque and stinking, it was never anything other than a huge slum, as described by Preziosi and a few other memorialists. A dozen churches with their parishes all around them, Turnul Colţii, a tower dented by an earthquake, Dâmboviţa, a running water but, in fact, a swamp in which bathe together cows, ducks and women with oriental shapes, several primitive inns, several fish and cheese markets. Around 1900, the center was westernized after the Parisian model, the river was rerouted, they raised some buildings that were heavy and devoid of any style, but at least somewhat modern – the buildings that still surround the four statues in University square. Today, even this center looks provincial, dusty and outdated, especially as it's not at all maintained. As for what we call the "historical center", three or four streets in the Covaci neighborhood, it is insignificant and I don't think it could ever be more than just picturesque, even if it does get renovated. There was a lot of building going on between the two world wars, we had the first attempts at building "according to a plan", to a style, and at least in the center, the city began to look modern, just like our prose at the time. Horia Creangă and a few other modernist architects practiced the international style influenced by Bauhaus. Now, the majority of the villas built by them – most of them scattered through Cotroceni and other several coherent urban isles – are in a deplorable state. The communist period was the final sentence on this urban tack called Bucharest. The thousands of "matchbox-like" blocks of flats are the most drastic verdict passed on our city. They cannot be renovated – in the sense of some kind of aestheticizing, as it happened in East Berlin. They're horrors, like hideous wounds on the bare feet of beggars. We won't be rid of them in the next fifty, maybe one hundred years. Budapest, Prague, even the entirely rebuilt Warsaw are light years ahead of us and we'll never catch up with them." "How can mayors be different from the politicians whose ranks they come from?" "The architectural destiny of the Romanian Capital is in the hands of City Hall. Can you evaluate its competence?" "Although it's always been won by the democratic right after the Revolution, Bucharest City Hall has displayed a series of picturesque, rather than competent characters. But it would be strange if it had been any different given that Romania itself, from its institutions to its last citizen, has proved to be morally brittle, corruptible, a real Latin-American country stranded in Europe. How can mayors be different from the politician whose ranks they come from? Videanu doesn't care about the public interest, but then who does? He gives approvals for the building of skyscrapers without car parks right next to historical monuments, he has roads asphalted at random, but given the huge problems this city is faced with, these are almost insignificant trifles. Giuliani himself could be the mayor and these roads would still collapse under the crazy traffic, ten times heavier than what our roads can cope with, we would still be choking because of the worst pollution in Europe (our life expectancy is seven years shorter than that of the Swiss), hundreds of old buildings, whose structure has never been consolidated, would still collapse at the first more serious earthquake, we would still have the same old decayed sewers, the same billions of hanging electric wires, the same depressing ruin greeting us everywhere. The same depressed, stressed people, in a perpetual state of bitterness and hysteria." "In Sibiu and Braşov, nothing's been demolished in the old center, nor have there appeared glass high-rises among already existing building. Why is this possible there but not in Bucharest?" "Oh, there's a big difference. Sibiu and Braşov are German towns, which were built by and for a socially and culturally coherent population, in a historical region, part of a big and rich empire. Even today investments in Transylvania – made, partly at least, by the same empire that tends to regroup on an economic and financial level – are up to three times as big as in the rest of the country. Much more so than Braşov, Sibiu, with a German mayor, looks almost like a town from Tyrol. But it has been raining European money on it lately. Bucharest was inhabited – still is – by an identity-less crowd. There's no comparison between it and a real European city. Vienna, for example, is a city with a fabulous historical heritage. They have their own steel and glass buildings, they even have factories among the imperial buildings, but they were built by Hundertwasser, with pastel tiles glittering in the sun, which makes all the difference. Whereas we, aesthetically speaking, are still at the stage of spearing potatoes in the Revolution Square." "I don't think it's about corrupt architects so much as it is about mediocre practitioners""What do you think about the idea of raising two glass commercial buildings in Revolution Square, one of them right next to the Athenaeum?" "A monstrosity, no doubt. I was one of those who signed protests and appeals, but all in vain. I signed against the building of the Cathedral of the Nation's Redemption as well, wherever they might put it. If we haven't had such a thing for centuries, it is ridiculous to raise one today at enormous costs and for no purpose whatsoever. I doubt the "nation" will be a millimeter closer to redemption if it has a fake historical building, pharisaically constructed in traditional style among the blocks of flats with rusted balcony rails of the city. I'd like to make myself very clear: I've nothing against steel and glass buildings. We can find them today even in the most traditionalist cities in the world, coexisting with old monuments. Potsdamer Platz is not necessarily much loved by the inhabitants of Berlin, but it's beginning to be a landmark for tourists, and an attraction. The Eiffel Tower itself began by being perceived as a monstrosity that was going to disfigure Paris. Our problem is one of common sense and good taste. So far, we've built brick monsters with facades laden with cupids and plaster masks, then monsters of reinforced concrete with stinking dumping places and sub-standard bedsits, and, finally, today we're building skyscrapers just as style-less and misplaced. There are, however, a few successes and it would be unfair not to mention them: several hotels that have integrated in a postmodernist manner old facades and new frames; for example, the one on Calea Victoriei which has reconstructed the old pediment of the National Theatre, embedding it in a glass wall." "On Calea Victoriei, there are already empty spaces (as a result of demolitions) which threaten more of the hundred meter high towers. What should be done?" "As the price of land is soaring in the city center, we have to expect more and more such very tall buildings. There are economic reasons that have justified such phenomena all over the place. Frankfurt, for example, is a typically German city, with rather short buildings, but in the center it's got about fifteen huge "spears", most of them banks. Have they made the city uglier? I think they've rather given it a specific character, they've taken it out of anonymity. Not only the old architecture is valuable, the (post)modern one can be too. I repeat, the problem is that the new buildings in Bucharest aren't raised by the greatest architects of the world, as in other places, but by mediocre imitators, who build ugly, sad surrogates that spoil the city even more. I don't think it's about corrupt architects so much as it is about mediocre practitioners, for whom architecture is only a job, not an art, which they do superficially." "In the great Western capitals, the civil society has a serious word to say when it comes to the way the city looks. Do you think the inhabitants of Bucharest care?" "There are, of course, a few inefficient pressure groups – but then what means do they have to cancel the big financial interests? – which identify problems rather than contribute to their resolution. In the West, the civil society has a long tradition and a respectable force, and still, not even there do they manage to change the essence of things – see the eternal protests at each political summit. Sometimes the causes they fight for are in fact utopian or simply ideologically extremist. Here, where there's almost no sense of community, protests usually begin and end with appeals signed by cultural personalities, almost always the same. I have a feeling they no longer impress anyone. For years, there have been protests on all levels against the ecological crime at Roşia Montană. It hasn't made any difference. Those boys are still there, with cyanide flasks in their hands. A country that, under circumstances of freedom and democracy, has yet to indict a single corrupt person cannot claim social justice and normalcy in any domain." "All we do is continue Ceauşescu's work""A lot of old factories have been blown up, although some of them had historical value. Why isn't anyone turning them into cultural and artistic centers, following the German, Dutch or French model?" "I've said this before: because of the typically Romanian imbecility, because of how indifferent we are to any argument other than the immediately economic one. Because of the old habit of cooking our own goose. Ceauşescu, too, tore down everything that was 'old': all we do is continue his work. It's true that everywhere old plants, factories, slaughter houses, water towers, 'gasometers' (of the kind they have in Vienna), tram depots, some of them magnificent examples of industrial architecture, have been turned into malls, restaurants, theatres, opera houses, etc. We tear them down for the land they're built on and on this land we raise blocks of flats devoid of any character, just like the communist ones, even though they're advertised as super-furnished. Two years ago they tore down the Dâmboviţa mill, which used to be behind my parents' block of flats, on Ştefan cel Mare. I'd written dozens of pages about the huge, melancholy brick building which had been there all my life. Now there are eleven blocks in its stead, awfully close to each other, from whose windows you can only see what your neighbor is doing in his bedroom in the flat across. "You're a Bucharester one hundred percent, although you've also lived a lot in the West recently. Do you still like the city? Can you still find its intimacy?" "The answer is NO to all these questions. I no longer love Bucharest, which was once everything to me, a real alter-ego, as Mateiu Caragiale would have said. I'm no longer hoping something can be done about this dump of Europe. Bucharest will never become liveable in (again) as long as I can hope to live. I think now one can't truly live here, its millions of inhabitants are extremely unhappy and dream only of a mass exodus. I'm even wondering sometimes, echoing Camil Petrescu, if we could just abandon it and move our capital to the geographical center of the country, to Sibiu, since we've mentioned it, and leave this drab city on the Dâmboviţa to fall peacefully into ruin, like Persepolis, 'like a memento mori in history's eye'." Formula AS, no. 799, December 2007

Translated by Dana Crăciun

by Mircea Cărtărescu (b. 1956); Ion Longin Popescu