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The NEO-ROMANIAN ARCHITECTURAL STYLE: a brief guide on its origins and features

The neo-Romanian architectural style is one of the most original and strikingly beautiful orders that emerged in Europe during the intensely creative years of late Victorian-era. The Romanians of that period wanted to create a style that would reflect the glories of their medieval past in the transforming architectural landscape of their country, just as the British created decades earlier at a larger scale the better-known Victorian neo-Gothic architectural style.

It represents an interesting blend between eastern Byzantine elements together with local peasant architectural and ethnographic motifs, also particular patterns of Ottoman art and even late Italian Renaissance themes. The style began to be in vogue among the well-to-do Romanians with the first years of the 20th century in pre-WWI Romania, area known as the Old Kingdom, and spread also within Transylvania after the World War One once the province became part of Romania.

A typical neo-Romanian style property looks on lines similar with the following example,

Calea Calarasi, Bucharest

Calea Calarasi, Bucharest

Here one can clearly detect the Byzantine architectural elements (i.e. short arches, thick and short columns, etc.) and the heavy, citadel-like aspect of the building, that all together represents a Romantic architectural metaphor intended by its creators to express the heroic resistance put by Romanians during medieval times as a Christian people against the relentless advance of the Ottoman Empire.

A neo-Romanian style house today is a valuable piece of property and a restoration project would be an extremely interesting and challenging, but rewarding endeavour.

The style reached its zenith during the inter-war period, with an abrupt end after the communist takeover in Romania in 1948. It has somehow been revived during the construction boom of the last decade, but in a minimalist modernist fashion, without the eclectic motifs and grandeur characteristic of the inter-war period.

I assembled here a few images from my postcard and photography collection, which together with short explanations would hopefully help you better appreciate the origins, characteristics, importance and value in artistic and period property market terms of this sophisticated architectural style peculiar to Romania.

Romanians are at their origins a nation of peasant farmers and shepherds. Their dwellings had basic decorations that were mainly ethnographic symbols characteristic to ancient aboriginal European communities that survived in less accessible areas of the continent (for example the Romanian ethnography has many motifs strikingly similar to the Celtic Irish, Pyrenees or Caucasian mountains communities). The house usually served immediate and very practical concerns for a people having to scrap a living in a harsh environment. A typical poor peasant dwelling form the region of the southern plains looked like in the illustration bellow, taken sometime at the end of 19th century.

Ancestral type peasant dwelling

Ancestral type peasant dwelling

The wealthier peasants on the other hand were able to build more sophisticated and solid houses that contained many ethnographic and also religious artefacts and decorations. The postcard bellow shows a house, suggesting that aspect, from the southern Carpathian piedmont region, dating from the first decade of the twentieth century:

A more evolved ancestral type peasant dwelling from the Sub-Carpathian hills

A more evolved ancestral type peasant dwelling from the Sub-Carpathian hills

A real high architectural style emerged in the Romanian lands during the medieval times and one can detect that only in the religious buildings, like village churches or monasteries built and endowed by the boyars (Romanian aristocrats) and princes (voivodes). These churches were typically a symbiosis of mainly Byzantine elements and local ethnographic representations like the rope motif or the symbol of the Sun, etc. A good example is the following image from Valcea County, on the Southern slopes of Transylvanian Alps in Wallachia. These architectural elements are now often found in the neo-Romanian style of architecture.

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Byzantine style village church from Caineni, Valcea county

Another peculiar direction in the medieval church architecture was represented by the cases where Gothic architectural elements prevailed over the Byzantine ones. The classical such area is north-eastern Romania, in the province of Bucovina. A good example is Sucevita Monastery church from Suceava County shown in the image bellow.

Sucevita Monastery

Sucevita Monastery

That is a most interesting development, being known that the Orthodox church architecture is, as a rule, essentially Byzantine. The fact that Romania has many examples of Orthodox churches with obvious western Gothic motifs is the direct result of the geopolitical historical development of the old Romanian communities on the historic fault line between West and East, between the western and eastern churches. Their religious architecture therefore borrowed from both Gothic and Byzantine styles during the Middle Ages.

This interesting blend of Gothic and Byzantine was not followed, with a few exceptions, in the modern Romanian civil architecture. The best such rare example is the Buzau Community Palace (“Palatul Comunal”), in southern Romania, erected in 1903, in the same period when also the neo-Romanian style was launched. See the image bellow:

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'Buzau Community Palace' built in 1903

This style, which can be called, Moldavian Gothic that subordinates the Byzantine order has however been adopted in the religious architecture with the result that many Romanian churches built in the last one hundred years display this peculiar order (see the Timisoara Cathedral).

The neo-Romanian style eventually won the contest for preference among the public, after it was better promoted by royal patronage and also appealed more to the Romanian elite’s tastes, that after centuries of Ottoman domination felt culturally closer to the civilisation of Byzantium than the Gothic revivalism in the west.

The type of building which is at the core of the neo-Romanian style is “CULA” (pronounced more or less like “coolah”), a fortified variety of mansion built by the small boyars and wealthy peasants of Oltenia in south-western Romania, starting with late 17th century The building includes Byzantine style architectural and structural resistance elements borrowed from local church architecture and also peasant ethnographic features. See in the example bellow one of the most representative such buildings:

a fortified country mansion type emblematic to Oltenia region

Cula from Maldaresti: a fortified country mansion type emblematic to Oltenia region

In fact the word “cula” derives from the Turkish “kale”/ “kule” meaning citadel or fortified place. The locals adopted it from their Ottoman overlords for that particular type of fortified dwelling that had a very practical purpose in times of instability: to defend the local lord’s family and possessions. The 17th century, when first cula buildings were erected correlates with the start of the long era of instability in the Ottoman Empire that ultimately led to its downfall two and a half centuries latter.

Another source of inspiration for the neo-Romanian style is from the architecture of palaces built for the Wallachian prince Constantin Brancoveanu (1688 – 1714) by Italian architects in a style that borrows heavily from late Renaissance villas of northern Italy. The photography bellow shows Potlogi Palace, now in a very sorry state, where one can also detect numerous elements strikingly similar with the grass root architecture of the cula buildings (some added during subsequent restoration works). That is the reason why sometimes the neo-Romanian style is called “Brancovenesc”. However the term “NEO-ROMANIAN” is more inclusive regarding the blend of styles and motifs than “Brancovenesc” one and therefore better suited to designate that architectural style.

Potlogi Palace, built end 17th century by Prince Constantin Brancoveanu

Potlogi Palace, built end 17th century by Prince Constantin Brancoveanu

The late Victorian era in Romania was a period of remarkable political stability under the efficient reign of the German origin King Carol I, and great economic prosperity when the country become one of the main grain exporters of Europe. Those facts were reflected in the developments of arts and architecture by the creation of works expressing the confident Romanian national identity. The neo-Romanian architectural style is an expression of that current and spiritual search dating from the last two decades of the 19th century when the seminal architect Ion Mincu erected the first iconic buildings in that style.

The style quickly gained popularity and in a short time by the start of the 20th century many affluent families throughout the country started building mansions or town houses in the new patriotic style. To better promote it among the public, a cula, the original type of the neo-Romanian style, was exhibited at the great 1906 National Royal Exhibition in Bucharest. The exhibition celebrated 40 years of prosperous rule by King Carol I and 1,800 years since the Roman Empire conquered the Dacians, the ancestors of today Romanians and therefore was intended as a celebration of nation’s ancient roots reflected in modernity.

the cula type building is presented to the public

The National Royal Exhibition 1906, Bucharest: the cula type building is presented to the public

One of the first iconic buildings in the neo-Romanian style still standing in Bucharest is that of Restaurant Doina (the old “Causeway Buffet”) created in 1892 by architect Ion Mincu. Here one can clearly see at its core the cula archetype with the fortified bastion as the main structural element and the decorative Byzantine components, peasant ethnographic motifs and also Ottoman decorative patterns.

one of the first buildings that had the "cula" at its core, heralding the neo-Romanian style

Restaurant Doina, Bucharest: one of the first buildings that had the "cula" at its core, heralding the neo-Romanian style

Certainly the most iconic building in the neo-Romanian style is Villa Mina Minovici, now a museum and a good place to visit and get initiated in this peculiar and beautiful style. Unfortunately the building today is in a very sorry state, a reflection of the lack of interest from the contemporary Romanian government and public in its architectural heritage.

Museum "Villa Mina Minovici", Bucharest, architect Cristofi Cerchez 1906

Museum "Villa Mina Minovici", Bucharest, architect Cristofi Cerchez 1906

The neo-Romanian style made also powerful inroads into the modernist architecture of 1930s and 1940s, some of the most interesting such buildings being the Black Sea shore holiday villas built by wealthy and cultured Romanians in places such as Eforie or Mamaia. The example bellow is very instructive in that regard, where the cula core can be instantly recognised. Also on the left had side of the picture in the background, one can also see a villa in the classical neo-Romanian style, which suggest its intense popularity at the time.

Eforie villa, the Black Sea shore, 1930s

Eforie villa, the Black Sea shore, 1930s

After WWII the neo-Romanian style did not find any favour with the communist authorities that governed the country for the next forty-five years. The accent was put on the utilitarian social and industrial architecture. The communists saw the neo-Romanian style as one promoted by their class enemies, the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, and was abandoned. State tenants or companies now occupied the old grandiose buildings that slowly and inexorably fell into disrepair.

The latest building boom underway in post 2000s Romania saw a mushrooming of ugly, badly built country villas and town houses that blight the local architectural landscape. There are some few encouraging exceptions from this rule that stared, for the moment timidly, to incorporate elements of the neo-Romanian architectural style. Their cula core, the main diagnostic element for the neo-Romanian style, recognizes these buildings. I have bellow two examples of architectural project renderings that display attempts to incorporate that important element:

Villa design displaying the "cula" core. Rendering for a building project on the Black Sea shore, 2006

Villa design displaying the "cula" core. Rendering for a building project on the Black Sea shore, 2006

Design dating from 2005 for a house in the forested zone north of Bucharest

Design dating from 2005 for a house in the forested zone north of Bucharest

CONCLUSION:

The neo-Romanian architectural style is one of the truly remarkable statements of national art in Europe, but virtually unknown by the large public in the West. Buying, restoring and owning such an architectural gem is a very serious, but rewarding enterprise. Many amazing neo-Romanian buildings are in an advanced state of disrepair today, plagued by the authorities’ indifference and ignorance of their present owners. In many instances they demolish or alter these buildings in order put up bland and bad taste modernist structures built from tacky materials. ©Valentin Mandache

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©Valentin Mandache and http://viapontica.wordpress.com 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited

 

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If you are interested in acquiring a neo-Romanian house I would be very glad to assist with the search on the ground, locating the property or special research in the local archives. I also offer assistance and advice regarding the restoration/ renovation project or in obtaining special grants for restoring listed buildings from the Romanian state, specialist banks or the EU. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the “Contact” page of this blog.

Example of a neo-Romanian style house, built early 1940s, south-western Romania

Example of a neo-Romanian style house, built early 1940s, south-western Romania

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16 comments on “The NEO-ROMANIAN ARCHITECTURAL STYLE: a brief guide on its origins and features

  1. I was in Romania and Bucharest twice in 1998-2001 and really enjoyed the Neo-Romanian style you describe, especially in the upper-class houses of Bucharest. I think you might have included the Hanul Manuc as an influence. I

    • Some contemporary Romanian architects who dabble in architectural history, which should be a field for properly qualified historians, say that Creanga found inspiration in cula-s and other traditional Romanian buildings and motifs. In my opinion he made a particular effort to distance himself from national or other types of local traditions, opting for a wholesome modernist approach, which he managed quite well, especially starting with the early 1930s projects. His background has to be found more in Art Deco and French modernist ideas rather than Romanian types. VM

      • I understand and respect your opinion, however where some qualified historians see “distance”, others may see attempt. Maybe not the best fusion of styles, but one may wonder if his style was not a reaction to the heavy architecture of his times. Something that pushes forward a bit – be it ArtDeco/French inspired or not, but also trying to keep the local spirit. Afterall, the neo-romanian is basically a mix and why stop the mixing there?
        R.

      • From what I read about Horia Creanga, he was quite a Cartesian character, which suited his modernist approach in architecture. I also understood from those bio data which I went through that he was not really interested in history, tradition, and things pertaining to identity. I believe that his architecture betrays those traits of character and for that they are even more like a breath of fresh air in the heavy identity imbued architectural scene of his days. VM

  2. Unfortunately it was not just the Communists who abandoned historical building styles. Modernism in general jettisoned much that was beautiful. Had they replaced it with something better I would accept that, but they did not. In the guise of simplicity they gave us boring.

    One thing I appreciate about Art Nouveau was that it was at attempt to modernize without forgetting the past. Modern architecture of that era still valued decoration. Art Deco has a similar story. But then they abandoned all that. Under the guise of creativity they gave us a variety of boxes that looked amazingly alike. It was experimentation without progress, because if you do not value the past you can never learn from it.

    • It interesting what you are saying! From my perspective, studying the national styles of Eastern Europe, which had their beginnings in a period that overlapped with the Art Nouveau current, essential is how the Art Nouveau gave them an “environment” of international legitimacy, what I usually call coordinates of expression. I also found Art Deco being another nursing “environment” for those national styles, as for example the Neo-Romanian articulated itself excellently within Art Deco coordinates (see for example: http://historo.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/art-deco-and-neo-romanian-style-syncretism/). The Modernism was less propitious indeed for that sort of manifestations.

  3. Greetings from Southern California. I just discovered your blog, while searching for pictures of historic architectural styles in Eastern Europe. Thanks so much for the great pictures and historic information. Take care…..

  4. Hard to define from such a small image. However I can detect a series of Neo-Romanian motifs and structures (a central citadel towel like structure embellished with arched windows, etc.); there are also local architectural elements (the air vents on the roof, etc) and even some Art Deco stuff (the reticular motif on the balcony façades). It is a bit of a melange in style terms, with the Neo-Romanian style somehow dominating. I would need to see the building in more detail for a better diagnostic.

  5. Hi! I am a student in Bucharest but I come from Campulung Muscel. Have you ever been to Campulung? The architecture is lovely but sadly the locals are not really concerned with any renovation work. Maybe one day I’ll have the time to take some pictures and show you :)
    Best of luck with this really nice blog :)

  6. An informative article that should be read by all foreigners willing to start a “trip” into romanian architecture.However,i was very intrigued by the Moldavian Gothic style;more precisely by its revival version.I can only wonder how this style could’ve evolved if Moldavia had benefited from a greater economic and cultural autonomy during the royalty years.

    I often wondered if there are any studies concerning this specific branch of “romanian” architecture.Can you help me please?Do you happen to know other such examples of the Moldavian revival style?I knew of Timisoara’s Cathedral,but are there any;large public buildings or small villas?Iasi Cultural Palace for example?Some parts of Cernauti’s/Chernivtsi’s ex-Bishop’s/nowadays University’s Palace?Moldavian manors such as Rovinari?Thank you

  7. A very interesting article, thank you for this presentation! The kulas would deserve an article of their own, especially as they can be found from the highlands in Albania and all the way to Northern Wallachia. As for Brancoveanu style, the Monastery of Comana (S of Bucharest) or the jewel of St. Nicholas – Balamuci (Sitaru, NE of Bucharest) are other great samples. In addition to Minovici Villa (by the way, Dumitru Minovici Villa next door is fortunately still open and pretty well preserved, even though set in a totally different style), one can also see Casa Bucur (dreadful restaurant though)…

  8. Hi Alex, I appreciate your nice words about this article on the Neo-Romanian style, the sole grass roots architectural order that emerged within the Romanian lands. I liked your remark about the cula building type spread over large areas of the Balkans, a sign of their shared Ottoman and also older cultural heritage. It deserves a thorough investigation indeed.

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