It must be startling to look out of your window and see a centuries-old church rolling by. Even more so if you are in communist Romania in the 1980s, where news is controlled and everyday items rationed. And yet, over a span of seven years between 1982 and 1988 almost a dozen churches, as well as other buildings, were moved hundreds of metres in order to save them from destruction, as dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu went about radically redesigning the heart of Bucharest, the Romanian capital.
By Kit Gillet
That a communist country would go out of its way to save churches is strange enough, but the method of saving them, when other countries would probably have tried to dismantle the buildings and then reassemble them elsewhere, makes the achievement all the more impressive.
LANDING ON THE MOON
“We were awestruck at those operations, comparing them with the landing on the moon for a country like Romania,” says Valentin Mandache, a Romanian architecture historian who witnessed the moving of several of the churches when he was still a young student.
At the centre of it all was Eugeniu Iordăchescu, a civil engineer who had the radical idea to literally place whole buildings on the equivalent of railway tracks and roll them to safety.
“I was in the area that was to be knocked down and I saw a beautiful small church and started wondering how it was possible to demolish such a jewel,” says the sprightly 87-year-old, sitting in his dining room in a non-descript apartment building in Bucharest, a few miles from where the churches he saved three decades ago still stand. “I thought about the idea of moving it.”
Around that time 30,000 residents were being forced from their homes, with an entire district of historical Bucharest, roughly 9,000 houses as well as churches, synagogues and other buildings demolished to make way for Ceaușescu’s grandiose vanity project, the Palace of the People and surrounding Civic Centre. The Palace – which still dominates the Bucharest skyline and is said to be the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon – and remodelled city centre were supposedly inspired by a visit Ceaușescu took to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
Fixating on that one church, Iordăchescu, who worked at the Project Institute in Bucharest, a huge engineering and design institute, says that when he first broached the subject of moving the church with his colleagues he was told that it wasn’t possible, that the building would fall over. Some thought he was crazy for even suggesting it, but slowly the idea formed in his head.
THE TRAY – AN EARTH-SHATTERING IDEA
Iordăchescu says he got the breakthrough after seeing a waiter passing through a crowd of people with a tray of glasses in his hand. “I saw that the secret of the glasses not falling was the tray, so I started trying to work out how to apply a tray to the building.”
Ultimately a process was developed whereby the ground was dug out from under the churches with the aid of supports, with a large reinforced concrete support created under the buildings and the foundations severed. Tracks were then laid starting underneath the structure and hydraulic levers and industrial pullies used to slowly move the buildings to their new locations, often at a few metres an hour.
One church would require a team of around five engineers for the planning phases, and then upwards of 20 workers for when the physical work was underway.
They had to rely exclusively on local equipment and technologies, since Communist Romania was largely cut off from the outside world. Tracks and other equipment were reused from site to site to save on costs and materials. Meanwhile the route from one site to the other had to be cleared and the logistics of the move planned, including issues of gradients and rotating the buildings.
Many were skeptical that it would work, and for the first church they were only given verbal permission to go ahead, with no one wanting to sign the written approval.
Iordăchescu believes that there was outside pressure on the country’s communist leadership to save the historical and religious buildings from the mass destruction, and he thinks that they got permission largely because if it failed those at the top could say that they had tried to save the structures and it wasn’t their fault.
MOVING, ROTATING SHIFTING BUILDINGS WHILE YOU SLEEP
The first church to be moved, the 18th century Schitul Maicilor, was relocated in 1982, 245m away from its original site, with the whole project taking five months, though the actual moving of the structures would often take just a few days once it began.
Priests, government officials and locals would often gather to watch the final spectacle; in some photographs Iordăchescu is seen standing alongside the patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church during one of the early moves.
As time went on the team got more and more ambitious, with the 16th century Mihai Voda Church being moved in tandem with its standalone tower. Buildings were rotated. Schitul Maicilor weighed 745 tons; the largest church that was moved, technically a monastery, weighed 9,000 tons, though it was only shifted 24 metres from its original location.
In Bucharest and other cities Iordăchescu and his colleagues even moved entire apartment buildings, often with the water and gas lines still attached and the people still inside them. “One building, people inside thought the move would start at 9am so they prepared their luggage, with their papers, valuables, but we started at 6am, so at 9am when they went to leave it had already moved a couple of metres,” says Iordăchescu, showing me an old photograph of himself standing on a balcony looking out as the building he is on is being moved.
They also moved a hospital and a bank.
Despite the complexity of the work, all of the buildings made it unscathed to their final locations. However, it wasn’t all good news. Iordăchescu shows me a list of 22 churches that were destroyed in the period, some having already been given permission to be moved, with Ceaușescu impatient to get on with the urban overhaul of the capital.
Pointing to an image of one church, once located in what is now Piata Unirii, a huge brash square that is now effectively a roundabout a few hundred metres from the Palace of the People, Iordăchescu’s son Adrian, also a civil engineer, says: “It was a tragedy. The priest died of a heart attack, even the workers didn’t want to demolish it so Ceaușescu got people from prison to do it.”
Adrian, 54, has continued his father’s legacy, using an updated version of the technology to recently retrofit the city’s Arcul de Triumf monument.
Despite surviving, many of the churches ended up being relocated in the shadows of large, soviet-style apartment blocks, often sandwiched tightly as if daring those who pass by to blink and miss them. Visitors to the city can find Schitul Maicilor barely a hundred metres from the Palace of the People hidden behind a huge building that contains several governmental ministries.
Iordăchescu says he wasn’t particularly religious at the time, and that he was driven to do it more by a desire to save the historic buildings themselves, though presumably the complex engineering challenge was also a big factor.
“It is amazing what they were able to achieve,” says son Adrian, adding: “During the moves all the day he was on site, because at the very beginning he heard people from the working team would try to sabotage it, so he would stay 24 hours a day.”
Yet, preserving these important churches in the capital, along with their hundreds of years of history, ornate interiors and elaborate iconography and paintings has had an important cultural legacy.
Highlighting Antim Monastery, one of the saved buildings, architecture historian Mandache points to the importance of what was achieved in protecting those buildings three decades ago. “Antim is a jewel of Brancovan-style architecture, the design peculiar to 18th century Wallachia, unique to this part of the world. Architecture is the most visible identity marker of a community, and those churches are among the most important such markers,” he adds.
The relocating of churches and other buildings stopped with the Romanian revolution in 1989, and in the years since Iordăchescu has received a number of honourary diplomas for his work, as well as a medal from the Romanian Orthodox church. He only properly retired a few years ago.
Yet, as the years go by his achievements back then become more and more clouded in the fog of time. “I’m 54, the younger generation of architects don’t know the method,” says Adrian Iordăchescu. “My son is 23 and a student at the architectural university. He’s only really discovering what his grandfather did in the last year or so.”
Still, Iordăchescu is very proud of what he and his colleagues were able to achieve. “When I see the churches today I still can’t believe it,” he says.