New Buildings And Old Facades In Bucharest

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1. Hotel on Victoria Road. The remake of the former National Theatre façade kept this operation away from the attacks against the tall buildings from the historic center.

2. The replacement of the old buildings from Lipscani area. The pseudo-classical pediment and the colors are innovations of the refurbishment operation.

Photos by Ştefan Ghenciulescu

Do you mind if one builds a bulky construction in the center that could perhaps replace an old one? Don't worry, we just preserve or reinvent a classical style façade, and all's well. All sorts of oddities have mushroomed in Bucharest lately: they are obviously new buildings showing stuccowork, frames, and pediments to the street. I believe that far from being an elegant manner of reconciling heritage protection and modernization requirements, such operations are rather alarming. On the one hand, we are concerned about the approach itself that offers a pastiche instead of dialogue, and on the other hand, about the justification of the aggressive operations. The first category of problems involves the idea of authenticity. In 2004, several people (usually laymen) criticized the dialogue between the historic skin and the core of the headquarters of UAR (Union of Architects of Romania) and ACMS from Revolution Square. However, in this particular case, we are not dealing with an old house from which some facades have been preserved, but with a ruined building reminding of a crucial historical moment. This is why I think that the authors made a good choice and did not try to come up with a sort of pseudo-restoration, in which the new elements would have prevailed; instead, they sought to establish a dialogue between an old and a new object, thus preserving their autonomy. The memorial value of the remains of the old house with the traces of bullets and fire is intact and protected and has a powerful impact. Things are different with the remade façade of the National Theatre on Victoria Road (Calea Victoriei), tacked on to a tall, massive building. At first sight, the façade seems to contain fragments preserved from the remains of an old building. However, this is a complete reconstruction of an image: a modern structure plated with tiles and ornaments. Do not get me wrong, I do understand the authors' desire to recall the old building that had been removed from people's memory and the city's identity for fifty years. Yet their gesture is purely scenographic; there is no new function to support it, no architectural processing or commentary points to the fact that this is a thorough reconstruction, rather than an integration of authentic fragments. The building from Rosetti Square points to a similar case: the new building is plated with ornaments reminding those from the smaller demolished building. The new house puts on the coat of the old one and replaces it. However, it is not quite the same coat: the old stucco ornaments were, as it is always the case with authentic classical architecture, tuned to the overall scale; they now appear as some prefabricated profiles. You never know if that is an old building that has been added to or a new one that preserves the old façade or a new building that rereads the image of the old one. Even in other cases in which most of the old façade has been preserved (see the facades of some houses from Lipscani area facing the Dâmboviţa), the break of the natural cohesion between the interior and the house facade turns such images into a theatre set that maintains a reassuring "old" image from which the content of the city has vanished for good. Besides the special cases of authenticity, the greatest danger is the extension of this approach, especially under current circumstances. The chaotic boom of recent years led to many controversial interventions in the historical fabrics. The civic society reacted vehemently against some projects or finished buildings. However, considering the fact that even the elites do not have a solid architectural culture in general, and a modern one in particular, the protests swung from urban to style problems. I think they are but artificial problems. It is not modernity that is maladjusted to new interventions within old contexts; quite the contrary, every period has the right to assume a modern expression, even if it reinterprets traditional elements. The problems of scale, articulation to the existing element, the negotiation with the public space are the ones that matter, and not the discussions about "steel and glass". Well, it seems that the operations mentioned above seem to reconcile everyone. The investors can afford building as much as they wish to, the committees and commissions may come up and say they did their job, while the civic society is pleased to see old, nice facades and accepts no matter what is beyond it. I do not question the architectural value of the examples discussed before. Nonetheless, it is amazing that while everybody has vituperated against the projects for the Revolution Square and the high risers close to St Joseph Cathedral and the Armenian Church (I have my own arguments against their urban implications), a similar operation, the hotel on Victoria Road proposing the old/new façade of the National Theatre did not seem to have bothered anyone. Apparently, many investors have come to understand it and demand that architects should design classical facades even for the new buildings. I don't even dare to think about the potential nightmare of aggressive destructions and interventions going on unrestrictedly under the cover of the odd alliance between real estate speculation and misinterpreted conservatism. We seem to witness an evolution in public perception: traditionalism of expression is used as an alibi, while modernity becomes a sin. In my opinion, both the Order and the Union of Architects should state their position clearly.

by Ştefan Ghenciulescu