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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Fiddling while Bucharest....builds


In her recent blogs, Sarah has been giving great coverage to the destructionivists who occupy all positions of power and (apparently influence) here in Romania – and the Ceaucescu tendencies in particular of Mayor Oprescu (a surgeon no less) in relation to old Bucharest buildings.
The inclusion of buildings on a list of protected patrimony means nothing to him – nor laws which forbid eviction of people during winter months.
Today, we are witnessing a second 'systematisation' of Bucharest, which has accelerated since 2005. Its new face sees towers rising up to twenty floors in architectural zones replacing buildings of historical and architectural value. They are spilling into neighbouring areas - look no further than the recent Roman Catholic Cathedral, St Joseph's.
The segment affected by the demolitions included a mass of buildings of traditional architectural heritage representative of the capital. Now they are gone. Hotel Marna, the Nicolae Dobre House, the Constantin Radulescu House, The Dacia cinema, the house where the national poet Mihai Eminescu lived with Veronica Micle to name just a few...all gone. Gone forever. Irreplaceable jewels impossible to rebuild, impossible to replicate. Hala Matache comes next if it hasn't gone already. Twenty storey eye-sores will replace them. Bucharest is being deleted. An inestimable cultural value belonging to the Roumanian people has disappeared in the hands of the Mayor of Bucharest, Sorin Oprescu. The man has no Roumanian culture and no respect for it. This is how City Hall 'manages' historic Bucharest.
Dinu C. Giurescu is named after his grandfather, Constantin, who lived,as previously mentioned, at str. Berzei, 47, destroyed by Ceausescu. He carries the 'C' in his name proudly in memory, and spent his childhood in this house. He said, "We know the roads are congested but that does not justify returning to Ceausescu's demolition process of the few remaining historic streets left in Bucharest. There are monuments on str Berzei - noble, nostalgic and beautiful. The street is a sample of Old Bucharest which, by some miracle, survived [zic Nicolae Ceausescu's urban planning]." Indeed they did survive Ceausescu - but they have not survived Oprescu.
Does Oprescu realise what he is doing? Does he have any idea how loathed he is? Does he not give any thought to what he has done to Roumanian culture, history, architecture and patrimony? To the Roumanian people? Does this man have any conscience?.I think not. He is blinded by money and his own self-importance. Indeed, Roumania's latest urban dictator in a Mayor's position. How could this cardiologist break so many hearts?
The reaction of my Romanian partner is interesting – despite her admiration for European conservation she’s none too sympathetic to the few local protestors who turned up when the bulldozers crushed the old shell which has been standing for years on the corner across from the Mandache market (and the hotel next to it). “What have they been doing in the last 20 years when the old buildings have been empty and crumbling?” she asks. Clearly people like Valentin Mandache have been trying to develop an appreciation of the charm of the Romanian architectural tradition - his website gives us every day a delightful feature from the older buildings here. But he has said nothing about the demolitions which have, rightly, aroused Sarah’s ire. Protestors such as are a forlorn minority. And I came across a publication yesterday which may explain this passivity. Produced by the Romanian Architectural association Arhitect, it was a nicely bound 2 volume collection (in Romanian and English) of articles from their professional journal over the past 20 years – entitled After Twenty Years. I was initially excited to have a chance to follow the thoughts of the profession but was surprised to note an absence of diagrams, sketches, drawings or pictures. And, when I settled down to read the text, I was quite horrified with its abstract gibberish – all drawn, it seemed, from Western semiotics and having little or nothing to do with the tactile business of buildings. Of course, in a country where everyone builds their own houses, Romanian architects are in a curious position!
As I was writing this, I remembered an article Simon Jenkins had written last year on how close Britain came to the same destruction of its history-
We have forgotten, who ever knew, how close familiar Britain came in the 60s to going the way of eastern Europe. Those who regarded themselves as in the van of taste wanted British cities demolished. The architecture and town planning professions, led by the Royal Institute of British Architects, were almost universally destructive. Victorian Britain was derided as ugly, largely because it stood in the way of fees. Scorn was heaped on Gilbert Scott's Foreign Office and his St Pancras hotel. The only Victorian buildings mostly left sacrosanct were places of worship. Nobody could afford to rebuild them. To celebrate its 50th birthday, the Victorian Society has published Victorians Revalued, a book recalling its battle honours. It is a noble record. Back in the 60s the society was the SAS of the conservation movement. It was founded after the demolition of the Euston Arch in 1961, a vandalism personally approved by the philistine Harold Macmillan, desperate to appear modern. Two environment ministers, Geoffrey Rippon and Peter Walker, planned to demolish the "government precinct", including the Foreign Office, and the entire eastern side of Bishopsgate in the City. The architects Leslie Martin and Colin Buchanan proposed to flatten the south end of Whitehall from Downing Street to the river, and the houses of parliament.
Five years of relentless campaigning by the Victorian Society defeated most of these plans. At the same time, with Nikolaus Pevsner and John Betjeman in lead, the society saved St Pancras. Next came a signal triumph over the Greater London Council at Covent Garden. In Liverpool, battle was joined against Graeme Shankland's plan to demolish the entire city centre, at the same time as T Dan Smith's Newcastle started to vanish under the wrecker's ball.
The story of these campaigns reads like a history of the Great War. Lost were the battles of Eaton and Trentham halls, the Coal Exchange and Barings bank in the City, the Imperial Institute in Kensington, Birmingham's Central library and Leeds's Park Row. Won were the battles of Carlton House Terrace, Covent Garden, King's Cross and Liverpool's Albert Dock. A climax came in 1974 with the V&A's sensationally successful 1974 exhibition, The Destruction of the English Country House. Before then a house was being destroyed almost every week; afterwards destruction virtually ceased. Never was art more potent.
It is hard in retrospect to appreciate how cliff-edge were these David and Goliath contests, and how desperately alone were the Davids. Against them were big money, big government and big architecture. The RIBA represented not a profession, let alone an art, but a financial lobby. At public inquiries, developers and architects called witnesses to argue for demolition – often corrupt art historians – whose payments were never revealed. Those whose sole concern was public aesthetics had to use their own time and money. Time and again they won. The survival of Victorian Britain was their reward. The story was not just public against private interest. It needed a revolution in taste.
Many factors brought about a change. The charm of Betjeman's poetic propaganda depicted the 19th century not as grimly Dickensian but as quaint and loveable (helped by ITV's Upstairs Downstairs). Clean air and restoration revealed the decorative subtlety of the Victorians' gothic and classical themes.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Ronald. your partner is quite right. Where was everyone when the buildings stood empty and falling apart? Well, they were standing by WAITING for them to auto-decay so they wouldn't have to pay for the demolition itself and could collect on the price of the land. The plan seems to be a kind of a property Ponzi scheme - pay people well below the market price for their homes which they rush to sell having had the fear of God pumped into them with news of a road mashing through their sitting rooms - and then selling the land off at a massive profit and lining pockets in City Hall. We know the 9 architects in the CTUAT are all business men with their fingers in all kinds of pies, linked to the likes of Voicu etc and we also know that the CTUAT propose their own projects, pass their own projects and profit from them by way of millions of euros... it's a mafiosa bunch who have dragged the profession of 'architect' through the mud...

    New high rises are today about to go up around park Floreasca (Cavarnali, the architect and businessman is indeed a member of the CTUAT). Goodbye Floreasca as we know it today. yesterday it was Berzei-Buzesti, today Floreasca and tomorrow, City Hall have their beady eyes on Pta Romana/Eminescu/Polona/Dacia/Cal. Victoriei...

    If there is money to demolish and build a new eye sore on top of a property that has been left to go to rack and ruin wilfully then there was also nthe money to rescue it in the first place. the destruction of the old 17th century church at Rahovei 259 is a prime example....

    These so-called architects don't give a stuff about the history and patrimony of a people and the people themselves have become so used to it, so saturated by it all, that they have fallen asleep and become immune to mass destruction - until, of course, their home is demolished whilst they're in the kitchen making tea or fast asleep in bed...

    Thanks for posting again, Ronald. This is an issue that merits huge attention and international outcry. Bucharest belongs not only to Roumania, but to the whole world. Its history is being wiped out little by little and is impossible to replace once it's gone.

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  2. I was confident that you would respond! I am now trying to contact Simon Jenkins - the (ennobled) Guardian journalist who is currently Chairman of the English National Trust and who wrote the piece my post quoted about the English campaign of the 1970s to save Victoriana; and also, some time ago about the conservation work in some Saxon villages in Transylania. He would be an invaluable ally......even at this late stage

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  3. Thank you Ronald. Glad I didn't disappoint you! I facebooked it too so you should get more traffic. That is fabulous news! Bucharest needs all the help it can get. With every day that passes another snippet of news concerning the corruption within the government and City Hall leaks out. The victims: Bucharest's history and patrimony, the home owners and the average Jo Bloggs (or Petre Popescu!) in the street... it's scandalous, odious and has to stop.
    Thanks again, Ronald :o)

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