For me Bucharest’s identity is clearly expressed through the physical fabric of the city, its architecture. There are of course the well lauded, famous and infamous buildings; the area of Centrul Civic around Piața Unirii and the Casa Poporului, the churches, the Athenaeum, the bank of Romania, The CEC bank or the housing blocs of the second wave of communism etc. All of these are often referred to in guides to Bucharest, the same guides will talk about Centrul Vechi, The Old Town (c.1850’s) area too but in fact Bucharest is not really an old city at all, what we see is mostly 20th century with some late 19th century.
By Giles Eldridge
There are several reasons for this. In 1847 a Great Fire destroyed around a third of the wooden constructed central area and of course the communist demolitions cleared huge areas to make way for grandiose projects such as the aforementioned Centrul Civic and unfinished schemes such as the Văcărești Dam project, which is now a nature reserve. Not all damage has been man-made and any mention of buildings in the city cannot overlook the devastation done and indeed present threat of earthquakes to buildings and their inhabitants. Bucharest is probably the most earthquake damage prone capital in Europe, both in terms of construction alongside its geological and geographical prospect. During the boom of the wealthy interwar period much of the building was undertaken with German engineering methods, that is to say from a country that does not suffer from earthquakes.
Nearly all of the pre 19th century buildings in Bucharest are churches, many of which are reconstructions. Some 13 churches were literally moved on rails, with some verve and engineering panache, to accommodate the 1980’s designs for a new Bucharest (story on this coming up in future OZB). Of course many more places of worship were demolished and this indicates yet again the contradictions of those times; preservation in the presence of destruction.
What I would like to posit here is a more positive view, to stress and underline the sheer visual wealth and utter eclecticism of the housing stock in the city. It simply cannot be compared with anywhere else in Europe. Stand at the crossroads anywhere in the area between Piața Unirii and Piața Romană and you can see a cacophony of architectural styles and references. In fact it may be impossible to give even a cursory overview of this situation without launching into an extended essay of several thousand words. By necessity therefore this is a simplified and compressed outline of some of the types of buildings you can find here. I hope to evoke a need for further enquiry by anyone who lives here and is intrigued by their surroundings.
It’s true to say that at first sight Bucharest might seem like an architectural conundrum; this is not Paris with its singular ethos of urban design or London with its constant reinventions yet Bucharest’s unplanned diversity has its own energy and individuality that makes it hard to tire of. Each street is made of a thousand details, not here the monotonous Victorian terrace. With a bit of a way in you will find a rich visual landscape. As a point of departure and sticking to essentially domestic buildings I will say that Bucharest contains 3 main design references; French // Deco // Neo-Romanian.
Art Deco – Modernist
I confess that this is the style that I select as my favourite, for a myriad of reasons, but it is, I think, the emblem of Bucharest’s urban design and therefore merits particular celebration. A 2016 article in the Guardian newspaper suggested that there are “many” Art Deco buildings in Bucharest. “Many”? In terms of domestic buildings, that is to say buildings that people live in and use everyday, Bucharest must be a contender for the World capital of Art Deco dwellings. In Bucharest, Deco indicates the wealth experienced during this time from oil production, food exports and the engineering industries. There must be around 1000 of these elegant and often small buildings in Bucharest yet, to my knowledge, no official audit exists. There are particularly fine examples in Cotroceni and Dorobanți but actually any street in the central area contains several of these gems.
The style of Art Deco could be seen as a way of summing up a wide range of early to mid 20th century art and design influences such as cubism and constructivism whilst also including notions of travel and a new fascination with other cultures. The interwar period was, for an increasing number of the middle-class world-wide, a time of tourism and discovery. Two fundamental references that reflect this in Deco buildings are Egyptology and the features of the ocean liner. It was undertaken with a confident ease as opposed to the famous display of the style in Miami, which is to my mind garish and self- conscious.
The key design characteristics are porthole round windows, flag poles, curved balconies and elegant glazed stairwells where each pane of glass is like an individual abstract painting. The name of the architect can sometimes been seen inscribed on the building with an appropriate modernist font. Simple graphic motifs are repeated three times to reflect the Egyptian regard for the daily solar phases: sunrise/midday/sunset.
I imagine that many of these buildings are lived in by people who simply like the architecture and enjoy the simple use of beautifully articulated materials. They may be unaware of the often famous architects who designed them, such as Jean Monda or Marcel Janco.
French – Art Nouveau
French architecture was built during a time when Bucharest was considered a “little Paris”, a Belle Epoch time corresponding to the building spree of the Victorians and Edwardians in the UK. Some of it was produced by French architects whilst other examples display a pastiche by way of a sort of francophile homage.The Art Nouveau aspects are often seen in Bucharest in the form of details and decorations incorporated within other types of architecture, such that it is often the case that an essentially Art Deco building with its clean lines will be pleasingly interrupted by the floral and organic forms from a Nouveau influence. Think of the original Metro entrances in Paris and you have an idea of the organic forms employed.
This style can be considered the national style and appears in a matured form during the same time as Deco during the interwar period but started in the late 19th century. In some way these buildings could be seen as the most important since they can only be found only here in Romania. It is a complex and multilayered architecture and one that often presents a challenging visual impact. It fuses many architectural references from countryside vernacular, Brancovan, Byzantine, and Ottoman decoration and even sometimes with the addition of northern Italian renaissance elements. These aspects are all held together by a central fortified structure based on a construction called a Cula, a physical response to attacks during the Ottoman-Habsburg wars. As with Deco buildings the number three is evident in various forms but in this context it refers to the Holy Trinity rather than the Sun. Depending on the particular distribution of these disparate elements the overall impression can sometimes seem a little heavy and austere but if one starts to compare differing examples it becomes possible to appreciate how distinctive these buildings are, like mini castles spread throughout Bucharest they really do represent some of the diverse history of the country.
As indicated earlier this is a concise sketch and there are scores of other architectural stories and styles including merchant’s houses, inns, churches, public buildings and many perspectives that would be best understood by attending an architectural tour or by reading the Blog of Valentin Mandache who is, without a shadow of a doubt, The expert in this field. I cannot stress enough how much of an understanding you would get from one of his themed weekend walks through various parts of Bucharest as the architecture is put into historical context for more info see www.casedeepoca.com
With some insight into the architecture of Bucharest it is possible to literally see the city differently and gain a purchase on more of Romania’s history and culture.