Michel Bührer: Cannibal City

Michel Bührer: Bucharest A Cannibal City and White Billboards exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, 10-11 2008

Bucharest, a “Little Paris” of the ghetto
The exhibition of the Swiss Journalist Michel Bührer, Bucharest, a Cannibal City/White Billboards is open at the NMCA between the 2nd of October and the 10th of November 2008.The exhibition comprises of two series of photos (black and white and color) which document the urban changes of Bucharest through their spectacular ugliness.
Bucharest appears to be a city of endless transition, in which the ruins of the buildings erected before the war are swallowed by the decrepitude of communism and then buried by the post-communist rusty “boutiques”.
Bucharest is a city where the political and social history can be re-lived through its buildings without any useless embellishment. “Bucharest, a Cannibal City is a series of color photographs on the story of how the architecture and the town-planning (or their absence) allow a disturbing and often strong emotional reading of the various ages that the city has gone through,” Michel Bührer explains.
The Swiss journalist’s exhibition actually comprises a single photo, re-captured over and over again, the picture of a city which builds in a chaotic, senile manner but doesn’t know how to safeguard itself, a city that adds new strata and architectural styles to the last generation’s buildings even before they collapse, just like any other over-crowded city of the third world. I say “senile” because, as Bührer’s exhibition shows, the buildings in Bucharest all share a fragile touch, common to constructions which age fast – be it the buildings from the beginning of the century or the post-communist “boutiquism”.
Which brings us to the title of the first color photo series, “Bucharest – a Cannibal City”, in the sense of a city that self-devours its urban forms, incapable of keeping them or integrating them within newer structures. In front of a metro station, a small concrete fence is to be found, whose forms, half munched, are intertwined in a style specific to folk culture, through which one can see the reinforced concrete. An apartment building with chipped mortar which sustains a hovel resembling a Mexican ghetto; its chimney fumigates the building’s wall. A building dated at the beginning of the century with a roof made of rusted iron sheet or, in another case, of asbestos. A newer building, unbelievably narrow, with no apparent architectonic logic, erected between dirty apartment buildings. The Unirea Esplanade, with a few graffiti-scribbled concrete pieces and an abandoned newspaper stand. A three-level construction, not a penthouse building, nor a pseudo-cubist villa, in a perimeter that looks like a thistle field; a stationary shop (a “SRL”, i.e. limited liability company) with doors made of yellow iron sheet, on the ground floor of an interwar apartment building.
Every age has its own symbols of decrepitude: the broken windows or those covered with plywood for the old buildings; the triumphant concrete of communism, with its ethno-kitsch or monumental motives; the all-present iron sheet of communism, expressing itself through kiosks or so-called boutiques. Oddly enough, it’s not the apartment buildings that capture the eye in Bührer’s exhibition, but the iron sheet buildings and the exposed blind walls of the old buildings, and it’s not just about the places where something was demolished in order to build something else, it’s also about the places where the blind walls seem to always have been there – it seems that things were always built in a stupid, chaotic manner, regardless of the neighborhood. “The Metaphor of Transition” in BucharestThe second series of the exhibition, “White Billboards”, in black and white, focuses on the numberless panel boards abandoned everywhere – on patrimony buildings, at the entrance of the metro stations, on apartment buildings, at the edge of the road, a perfect fit, in their misery, with the anodyne surroundings and just as aggressive. “Besides the actual visual impact of these weird urban landscapes, the two series offer a kind of metaphor for the transition in Bucharest,” explains Bührer, who comes from a civilization in which the constructions have been designed in a town-planning policy and in which the lack of education and the “recently gained money” have not given birth to architectural monsters. And so Lipscani, Calea Mosilor and others that make Bucharest famous look like interwar Argentinean ghettos; under the cold, surgical eye of Bührer, the “Little Paris” legend is disclosed as a joke, as a tranquilizing reverie.“The (beautiful) weeping buildings” are more likely exceptions in a desolate and kitschy architectural landscape, reminding us of those banana republics where fragile, “low cost” buildings which imitate prestigious architectonic styles are swiftly eroded by moisture and, I repeat, I’m not talking about the communist buildings, but about those designed before the war. The emblematic photo of the exhibition seemed to be one of the “renovated” back wall of an old, frightfully ugly building. The blind wall points toward some sort of a remote, muddy intersection, as it is caught in a triangular garden, surrounded by a wired fence. Beyond the fence there’s a rusted garbage can. The building is covered with iron sheet and the roof has a hallucinating unbalanced form in its irregular shape: a kitsch masterpiece. In front of it there are dirty, shriveled walls, as is the case with most of the “weeping houses”; yet in the back, the landlord’s working hand has wrought a radical lightening, making it younger with the help of a fluorescent yellow-green.
Let us not delude ourselves: even if in Bucharest the on-going construction is enormous, the things that catch the eye of a foreigner from a developed state are the misery and the tacky kitsch of the city – of a prosperous city from an under-developed state…. Is the thermopane ready yet? Michel BührerMichel Bührer is a free-lance photographer and journalist from Switzerland. Besides his journalistic activity, he has had photo exhibitions in Switzerland, France and Scotland. The photos shown in the exhibition dedicated to Bucharest were made between 2003 and 2007. Simultaneously with the NMCA exhibition, Bührer’s photos are exhibited on 10 commercial banners placed in crowded places of the city. Romania libera, October 7, 2008 Translated by Oana-Laura Pancu

by Adrian Şchiop