Little Paris

top row: Lipscani diggings, Unirea shoping center, house in Romanian Peasant Museum yard, National Museum of Contemporary Art
bottom row: Collections Museum on Calea Victoriei, University Sq., dilapidated building on Lipscani St., old house on Mantuleasa St.

It seems to be unfair to write about Bucharest in this late, cold, rainy, windy autumn. You feel that you are capitalizing on the weather, it is as if you were throwing yet another heavy bag on the bent back of an already stumbling porter. Bad weather makes the city look even worse, as Bucharest is a place exposed to the elements, a place at the mercy of climate more than any other capital city in Europe. This is because it doesn't have an architectural and social core, capable of resisting melting; instead, the whole place becomes inaccessible and unpalatable when the weather gets really bad. Even Calea Victoriei, the backbone of the city, becomes sticky and slippery when it rains and pedestrians get splashed in University Square by cars running madly through the numberless pools that are formed in the endemic holes in the pavement that have survived all road rehabilitation attempts. When the weather is bad, Bucharest looks like a blocked, moist and unfriendly cave, a place you need to pass through and not a destination you want to get to and even less the environment of a journey you would fondly remember afterwards.What would be then the season when you could write favorably about Bucharest, when you could describe a beautiful, attractive city?! There is no friendly season in Bucharest. The weather seems to be permanently at odds with the city. In the summer, the place is suffocated by dust, liquefied between the seething asphalt during the day and the hot concrete blocks of flats during the night, pestered by mosquitoes that fly around in the stifling atmosphere and full of streets teeming with cockroaches where the melon rinds that landed on the muddy sidewalks look like small stinking boats on which the seeds have the aspect of lousy seamen that you would expect any moment to grow wings, change into blue flies and take off. In the winter, Bucharest is a nightmare of slimy streets and icicles hanging from the eaves, of mud (when it snows) and frozen dust lining the grand icy boulevards like the dirty lining of a shabby cloak where the frozen cigarette stubs and pieces of garbage scattered around have the aspect of peanuts in the chocolate coat of an ice lolly. As spring has almost disappeared lately, torn between endless winters and erratic summers, the absence of the more than one million trees that have been felled since the early 90-s is even more painfully felt; trees that no longer blossom or bud in the asphalt jungle of the city. Uncared for and untrimmed, their fellows that are still standing look shaggy and untidy, their crown covered by a permanent coat of dust; they cast their dubious shadows on the pavement and keep up, free of charge, the telecommunication cables that strangle them and on which they take their revenge when, during a storm, they fall, pulling them down and crushing a car that is parked there or a chance passer-by that thus comes to the end of his life's journey.Present-day Bucharest looks like a transient city, a hasty improvisation for a chance event. Though a relatively young town, it is already worn-out as its inhabitants have changed it into an article that they use indifferently as if it were a crumpled piece of wrapping paper; these crowds of people so eager to destroy everything they lay their hands on and so insensitive to the conditions they live in crawl hurriedly along the streets of the city in their cars that form endless lines, stuck in the strangled, punctured roads from which the tarmac has been removed. There are, naturally, pleasant places as well in Bucharest; nice residential neighborhoods in the north of the city and in a couple of other areas. But they date back to the period between the two World Wars and are the most pure expression of a strictly private universe that stands in sharp, even striking contrast to the public space that belongs to the community.It is precisely the public space, after all the very essence of civic consciousness, that Bucharest is most obviously deprived of. The few large squares – take for instance Unirii (Union) Square – are in fact flat deserts from which barely half a dozen trees stand out in the middle of the barren hectares of asphalt; this particular one is bordered by yellowish, hideous blocks of flats and its main attraction point are the fountains from which water rather leaks than springs; the water coming out from these cement-coated bowels can in no way refresh the atmosphere of the hot August days, days on which being in the center of the city in such open public places actually means tempting your fate, an act of defiance that can ultimately prove to be fatal. In the winter, the same square is whipped by frosty winds as if you were in the open steppes; the city abandons you there, in its very centre, leaves you at the mercy of the elements, exactly when and where it should demonstrate its urban effectiveness, that is being a protective environment, close to its citizens. Most other squares are in fact small, insignificant, narrow, often overcrowded precincts where the traffic is often jammed and the civic spirit is replaced by irritability, hysteria, chaos; people (especially drivers) are thus alienated, antagonized, violently pushed towards hostility to and hatred of their fellows behind the wheels of other cars.The other major component of the public space, the institutions, particularly the cultural ones, are not only crippled by lack of funds – which practically renders their impact almost null – but suffer mainly from the absence of a critical mass, they are simply far too few to form together, if not a genuine cultural map of the Capital, at least a route that might lead a visitor to discover some of the particular meanings of this place. Instead of such a map, a stranger that arrives in the city and wants to get a general idea about the place that is called Bucharest will find himself directed towards a couple of sights: the Village Museum, the Romanian Peasant's Museum and the People’s House. The first two are representative of the utopia of living in a pastoral (rural), ideal past that was so powerful in the interwar period; they perfectly embody the tendency to escape reality and take refuge in history, an attitude we revel in with a mixture of exoticism, metaphysics and marketing. The two museums that are so popular with the visitors of the city are in fact in sharp contrast to the urban reality surrounding them as their very success represents the triumph of the beauty of the traditional concept of inhabiting a place that is diametrically opposed to the atmosphere of the city where they stand; at the same time they represent an explanation for its failure and for its triviality. If the two museums are, inside the city, centers of radiation of an anti-city utopia, the People’s House is, on the contrary, the most crushing embodiment of a dystopia, more precisely of the communist one, which denies in its turn man-centered town-planning, the city as a place that is built to live in, opposing to it the monument-building, the argument-building, the form of relief-building, which is aggressively indifferent to humans and in contrast to which the city is a damp, musty dwarf. The most daring building of the city and, at the same time, its dullest, most hateful and infamous construction, the Pharaonic People’s House downgrades Bucharest from metropolis to necropolis. What Bucharest lacks is precisely the kind of institution that might illustrate and revive, through its very cultural activity, the very essence of local town-planning. I mean the Museum of Modern Art, the inauguration of which is a long-awaited moment and whose very existence might clarify not only the numerous dilemmas of contemporary art and present mentalities, but also some of the fundamental questions pertaining to the peculiarities of our cities' design, so spectacular decades ago, at the very climax of local modernism during the controversial interwar period. Such a museum would not only explain and counterbalance our propensity to the national, idiosyncratic elements, with a rural tinge, but will also heave the healthy task of bringing up the subject of our present town-planning and confronting it with the principles and achievements of the avant-garde artists of those times as well as with the fashionable works of the great interwar artists.Instead of these necessary accomplishments, we are presented with shallow, decorative and treacherous "works of restoration". A striking example of this kind of activity are the so-called archaeological diggings in the vicinity of the National Bank. Overwhelmingly common "vestiges" have been "discovered" (so recent, in fact, if analyzed from the perspective of the long – very long! – history of many other European capitals); what we are talking about are in fact the brick walls of caves and sewers that have been swallowed by clay and sand that are supposed to illustrate the century-old existence of human settlements in the valley of the Dâmboviţa River. These sham diggings are in fact a blatant fake, skillfully (with Western craftsmanship) embroidered with wooden bridges and railings that are apparently improvised but are in fact carefully polished and meant to facilitate the access of the curious people to these archaeological treasures; in fact they are only changing Bucharest's shortcomings into attractions, trying to suggest, quite shrewdly, that the entire disaster surrounding the site (the dilapidated buildings of Lipscani Street, the recently created pedestrian precinct that has instantly become a real challenge for the passers-by with its bumpy, worn-out kitsch pavements often transformed into dumpsites) is part of a restoration project that can only progress very slowly since the work is carried out with the precious relics under our feet and we must be careful, very careful not to destroy the priceless buried monuments even if we ignore in the meantime the fact that our misguided attention leads to the collapse of the buildings above, which are barely standing. This is actually the very plan of the initiators of this project that wants to "restore" the neighborhood by letting it crumble; they thus encourage the progress of dental decay and they call this treatment. They wait for the buildings to collapse "naturally" so that they can subsequently annihilate them under the pretext of restoring them; and this is done so "faithfully" that the process results in their complete disfiguration, changing them into smart (so these people think at least) office buildings that only have 8 or 9 penthouses more than the initial project. (Never mind, "restoration" is all that matters) And at the foundation of the "restored" buildings the famous "vestiges" will be preserved, adorned with wooden flap seats for the onlookers to sit on and admire the place; it is these vestiges that are important after all, since they highlight the place, add luster to it and enrich the real estate racketeers that hide their real goals under the pretense of interest in the fate of the historic center of the Capital.To be honest, not even these dilapidated buildings of the historic center are outstanding architectural achievements. But, unlike the pocket skyscrapers that are aesthetically null and are proliferating at the moment, they have at least preserved something of the uneasy and picturesque personality of the city of olden days. The day when Obor (the Old Market) becomes a mall and there is an underground station in Mântuleasa St., old Bucharest, with everything that was good and bad in it, will be dead for good. Obor was the muddy essence of what was really typical of Bucharest, of the market place at the heart of the city, a rural dead end with an urban odor. Few places (and ever fewer as time passes) beside it helped the Capital be so overt an expression of the very depths of the national character, since Sibiu can put a spell on you (if you have not been spellbound too often in your life) Iaşi can sweeten you (if you are really sour, I mean) and Cluj can divide you (if you are all of a piece) while Bucharest is unique, whole and complete, it is entirely Romanian, too Romanian, it poisons your spirit with Romanianness as the plutonium poisons your body with radiation: lethally... In its stead, a pitiful Singapore will arise, with thermopane insulating windows, as stifling for its inhabitants as diapers are for children, a city suffocated by the infernal traffic and with its lungs cleaned up, right to the brain, by its air-conditioning systems. And this place will be populated by swarms of trivial individuals moving busily around, as they already do, seeming paradoxically to paralyze the city.
Translated by Dan Mateescu

by Erwin Kessler