Athenaeum and CEC Palace on Calea Victoriei
We like to refer to the “exterior” whenever we analyze local problems and the present day situation in our country can only prove us right. Starting with the ambition of political Europeanization and ending with the famous “gipsy castles”, Romania is saturated with assimilations and important reflections that were integrated and have different degrees of success... A method that is normal and easy to understand, especially in the context of the much praised “globalization”. In trying to keep up, the capital city allowed ideas inspired by the neighbors to show up gradually in its shape, while the content unfortunately remained local.
While Ceausescu dreamed that he was in North Korea and some architects in the 30s sighed at the thought of Haussmann’s interventions, the end of the 19th century was marked by the undoubted influence of one of the world’s most famous cities, that is Paris. Animated by the urban development, as well as the development at a cultural and social level, the city identified itself with the most famous city of that time, since the strong francophone community played an important role.
“Little Paris” will become a logo that defines one of the most glorious periods of the history of the city. While at first the idea was brought up by the nostalgic people in those days, who were hurt and full of sorrow because of the communist period, after the revolution it blossomed in political campaigns, made it to the cover of numerous books on Bucharest and created an idyllic image of a lost world. “L. P.” became a symbol of a vivid, vibrant, cosmopolitan and “beautiful” city, of a place that “used to be”.
In the last years, that were witnesses of major changes in the structure and shape of Bucharest, “L. P.” became a reference term for all those who were trying to change the face of the city (or at least state that they would). From the mayor (no matter which one) to civic associations (which, fortunately, are more and more numerous) Paris became a reference term again and the argument brought up every time is “Bucharest was once Little Paris”. Although no one managed to grind out victory over the crushing roll called “development”, that molds the city in a fast and irreversible way, Paris is used as a lethal weapon every time the state of the city for the next 10-20-30-x years is invoked.
Carefully, designing began with the details. The first step consisted in a means of harmonizing the street signs. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain why all the street signs in the city along the Dambovita river look like the spitting image of the Parisian ones. The design is copied to the last detail. The big difference is that the French signs imply a series of pieces and details that are reduced to a mere plate in the Bucharest version. The “arrondissements” become sectors, the fonts are copied in a chunky way, and a new kind of visual identity is thrown on the streets of the city.
Once this stage has been accomplished, the ambitions become higher at urban level: the next step would be achieving a maximum height level in the city (the famous Parisian “37 meters” being, of course, the main reference) and banning glass and steel from being building materials. This idea, which is common to many organizations that fight to save Bucharest, show a burlesque vision of the so-called “urban” atmosphere, revealing at the same time the despair suffered from 19 years of destruction, from ignorance and brazenness with regard to the architecture of the city. At the same time, the fact that these terms are evoked continuously, shows how powerful the iconic image of this city (Paris) is and how it prevents its real image to come to the fore: although there are many office buildings in “La Defense”, most of them are still in the city; there is a lot of building going on in Paris and it’s all done in a contemporary manner, in which glass and steel are often used. Only the 37 meters remain as a reality (although there are many buildings which exceed it), but this is the rule that is specific to a certain city, established after debates and for precise reasons, and this rule shouldn’t be copied and applied blindly.
Paris, like any other European city, is a complex organism, with many qualities and just as many flaws. Once the gilded polish that amazes the tourists wears off, one can discover that the reality is often discouraging. But still, Paris is a city that works well, partly because of the efforts of those who are running it and partly because there are rules... that are actually being observed.
I have been given the chance to live in this city and get to know it. To surpass the status of tourist, bewitched by its many squares, monuments and museums and to look at its real side. And also to understand that we shouldn’t look for the shape, but for the spirit of a certain approach of urban planning, should we want to draw another parallel between the two cities. Maybe one day Bucharest will become Little Paris again... or maybe not (and that’s the most probable case). But since we want so much to refer to this city, we should change the elements of the equation dramatically.
Thinking about Bucharest again, where are the remains of the age that we regret? The answer is close at hand: they do not exist any longer. Of course we have the Athenaeum, the C.E.C. (Savings Bank) Palace, dozens of buildings that remind us of the Parisian boulevards (many of them being built by French architects), but that is not what “Little Paris” is all about. The state that the city was in at that time cannot be quantified by a few buildings, no matter how well preserved they are. “L. P.” was a state of affairs, an atmosphere, a society, a way of living and investing in a city that doesn’t exist any longer.
Little Paris was a time in which many of the Bucharest intellectuals were educated in the universities of Paris. It was a time when the French language and culture were so present in Romanian culture, that the concept of francophone nation came naturally. A time in which every architect’s dream was to attend the “Beaux-Arts”. A time in which Romanian culture, starting with theater and ending with sculpture, could pit its strength against any other European rival. A time that is long gone.
In some parts of the city the setting remained the same but the actors have disappeared a long time ago. The way in which the urban space is perceived and used has changed in time. Life in Paris nowadays has nothing to do with life in Paris a hundred years ago, and in Bucharest the difference is even more striking. In order to understand this idea we can head towards “Little Paris”, the last floor of a well-known shopping mall in the heart of the capital. A heavy smell of fried meat and background music of arguable taste are floating among decorations made of plasterboard, cheap urban furniture and the aggressive neon lights of the restaurants. The class of population usually found in these places follows the now classical ritual of seeing and being seen, a well proven recipe used for hundreds of years now, apart from the details, which changed completely.
In the given situation, if we absolutely want to choose a new symbol for the life of this city, maybe the most suited one would be “Little Moscow”. Leaving any reference to communism behind, Moscow is symbolic of the situation of all East-European countries, that is characterized by two chief elements: money and the expression of individuality. The situation with Moscow, a ruined city and at the same time “the most expensive city in Europe”, is suitable for revealing the anomalous contrasts which we know so well but on a more important and pervert scale. “L. M.” would be a more realistic logo for Bucharest. Much better than an Occident we often cannot be compatible with.
“L. P.” remains above all a Romanian concept: we only like to remember what we admire (or even what “suits” us right) and to turn every insignificant element into a glorious one. The need for benchmarks is huge, after so many decades of “equality” and uniformization. We thus hold on to memories of times that are long gone and like to refer to them while erasing, sometimes unawares, every trace of their existence. Little Paris can come back but in a totally different shape, on a totally different background, and definitely as a result of copying by forced assimilation. With the risk of repeating myself, we can look to Paris as an example for the transport and services infrastructure, for the social system, for the urban regulations and for tourism marketing. We shouldn’t look at it like we would humbly look at an icon, and copy it to its smallest detail.
Last but not least we should know that we are not the only people on the planet to have had the honor to accommodate a little Paris. At a time when the French colonial influence was widespread and francophone culture had much more to say than today, there were many cities that claimed the honor. But there was a case of exceptional value: Beirut. The city of great splendor was called “Paris of the Orient”. A more contemporary Paris can be found today in China. The inhabitants, well-known for their quality copies, built a replica (at a smaller scale) of the Eiffel Tower and of the “Champ de Mars”. And all is surrounded by buildings “à la française”, located on the outskirts of Beijing. And that’s “proof” that an “L. P.” can be accomplished nowadays.
Translated by Iunia Martin
by Ştefan Tuchilă
Athenaeum and CEC Palace on Calea Victoriei