EMERGING FROM ASHES: a vision for heritage property renovation in Bucharest

Bucharest has a large stock of exquisite period properties that are in an advanced state of disrepair, with many among them too expensive to restore or renovate due to their advanced structural and architectural detail decay. 

However there are innovative ways to put back life into an old and attractive building by grafting modern architectural shapes and innovations on the old fabric of the period property. The method has been applied in countless cases in Western European countries, combining the period look with modern or avant-garde architecture. An epitome of this approach is the well known example of the German Parliament building in Berlin left as a war ruin for half a century and finally resurrected by the stunning architectural creation of Sir Norman Foster. 

Bucharest also contains an interesting such example, much reduced in scale and scope, namely the old building that used to host the embassy of the Austian-Hungarian Empire, which nevertheless deserves to be known and popularised as there are many other beautiful buildings in this town on the point of near-collapse necessitating imaginative modern interventions for their resurrection. The former imperial embassy fittingly hosts today the headquarters of the Architects’ Union of Romania

The Architects' Union of Romania edifice located within the structure of a famous mid-19th century Bucharest building

The Architects' Union of Romania edifice located within the structure of a famous mid-19th century Bucharest building

There is an interesting story behind this landmark and how it finally reached the present stage. In the second half of the 19thcentury the powerful Austrian-Hungarian Empire increased its influence in Romania as the Ottoman Empire, the old regional hegemon, was in continuous retreat, with Russia, another important player in the affairs of the Romanian principalities, still reeling from defeat in the Crimea War. Consequently the Austrian-Hungarian diplomatic legation came to occupy a prime location in Bucharest, next to Romania’s seat of power, the Royal Palace, thus symbolically asserting its status within the country. 

The embassy of the Austian-Hungarian Empire in Bucharest, 1905 postcard (Valentin Mandache collection)

The embassy of the Austian-Hungarian Empire in Bucharest, 1905 postcard (Valentin Mandache collection)

That situation changed dramatically after the First World War when the Austrian-Hungarian Empire disappeared from the maps and history. The new states that emerged from that body built new embassies in other Bucharest locations. Austria has now a beautiful early modernist building, while the Hungarian embassy occupies a grand classical villa, both buildings being located in the Icoanei Garden area. 

During the communist period, the former Austrian-Hungarian embassy was used by the foreign intelligence section of the dreaded Securitate, the communist secret police of Ceausescu, Romania’s late dictator. It thus became a target of the population’s fury during the December 1989 Romanian Revolution and got burned down together with the nearby Central University Library in the course of confusion on the streets and chaotic gunfire exchanges. For more information about the Romanian Revolution see my review of Peter Siani Davis’ book, one of the best volumes researching the event. 

The building was a ruin for years after the upheaval, until the architects Zeno Bogdanescu and Dan Marin brought her back to life with their design, together with the contribution of the construction engineering firm Popp & Asociatii . They innovatively managed to transform the edifice and thus give it a new personality within the city’s skyline. The controversial new shape superimposed on the old mid 19th century Central European architectural structure has inevitably raised many an eyebrow and even generated protests. In my opinion this architectural gem in its transformed shape is an excellent example of things that could be achieved in Bucharest’s diverse and substantial, but underinvested period property market. (© Valentin Mandache, v_mandache@yahoo.co.uk, www.viapontica.wordpress.com)

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If you are interested in acquiring a period property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to assist in locating the property for you, specialist research, planning permissions, restoration project management, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the Contact page of this weblog. 

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3 comments on “EMERGING FROM ASHES: a vision for heritage property renovation in Bucharest

  1. Thank you , i got some information indeed from igloo magazine, they have a dedication to this building in no28/2004. i ordered it already. Also i found that the building was nominee to the european union prize for contemporary architecture-Mies van de Rohe award 2005, they have there pictures and some plans of the first 2 levels. About the architects though, i cannot find anything about their other work…i was interested to see if thier other projects are as good as this one..or to compare them, to understand their style ..anyways, if you have any information or know about any of their other work, i would be very thankfull.

  2. Hi Hrisitiana, I think the best way to find information about this building architectural plans is to enquire directly to the Architects’ Union of Romania. organisation that has its headquarters in that edifice; a weblink to which is provied in my article. Also you may find useful to contact the main architectural magazine of Romania- “Igloo” at http://www.igloo.ro ; most probably they have published something about this building in the past. Another line of enquire would be to contact one of the creators of the building, architect Zeno Bogdanescu, who is a dean at the University of Architecture and Urbanism here in Bucharest; their website is the following: http://www.iaim.ro/en/. I hope the above info would help, Valentin

  3. i’m so very interested in this building, do you know where i could find some plans of the building or first architects’ scketches, are they published anywhere? I would realy appreciate any information, thank you

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