RECONSTRUCTED FACADES of Bucharest grand old buildings: seeds of a new trend?

The Romanian capital has a large stock of period buildings in a diversity of architectural styles that emerged relatively recently on the historical scale, starting with the second half of 19th century, during the modernisation of the country on western lines under the efficient rule of German origin King Carol I (see my previous post on the history of Bucharest’s building booms). In the century and a half since then, the city and its architectural heritage has also suffered the destructive vicissitudes of two world wars, a half century communist totalitarianism that saw the obliteration of many of its valuable period buildings and in the last twenty years a period of near complete neglect and even contempt for old period buildings displayed by the a large part of the population and authorities, people that still imagine modernity on sterile lines inspired by the communist utilitarian architectural environment in which they lived.

However, there are a number of responsible developers and businesses, usually foreign owned, that realise the great value of the old city and its period architecture. While they are far and few between among the multitude of second and third rate property developers that crowd Bucharest, their presence and activities are a good sign, which would hopefully spark up a new trend in appreciating the city’s old architecture and identity.

In that regard, I would like to bring to your attention two landmark examples of Bucharest developments:

One is the Novotel Hotel, business that has erected a modern building on a former parking lot, the site of the old National Theatre of Bucharest. That site is of extraordinary importance for the Romanian culture. The old national theatre, a picture of which is presented bellow, is a sort of “Old Globe Theatre” for Romanians. It has its beginnings at the start of 19th century, associated with the national revival movement and functioned until the dawn of the communist era. Its architecture was a mixture of mid 19thcentury central European and French styles, with a magnificent Second Empire interior. It functioned continuously until August 1944, when it was damaged by German enemy action, in a devastating Luftwaffe bombing raid. The communist regime that followed the WWII profoundly disliked anything resembling Romanian national culture, left the remaining structure deteriorate and in the end demolished it.  Once a new modernist building was erected in the University area in the early 1970s, the old historic ruins of the National Theatre were already forgotten, being replaced by a non-descript parking lot.

The National Theatre, Bucharest, early 1920s postcard (Valentin Mandache collection)

The National Theatre, Bucharest, early 1910s postcard (Valentin Mandache collection)

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IDENTITY and HUMOUR: “Killer Chicken”, Bucharest fast food outlet

A somehow off the topic post, nevertheless interesting when looking for clues about the identity of a place, as are the urban areas of Romania.

The photograph bellow speaks volumes about a certain peculiar Romanian sense of humour, forged probably during the communist era of industrialisation. It comes alive in many forms, as in the name of the fast food outlet pictured here, which I spotted in central Bucharest. Its meaning is that the chicken served on premises is so good and has such a pleasurable taste that would just literally kill you.

"Killer Chicken" fast food outlet, central Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

"Killer Chicken" fast food outlet, central Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

I believe that a similar type of humour is expressed in an old Romanian saying, which refers to the feeling given by a good heartily meal: “I ate so well, that I can hit a dog with my hat” (the good food provides such strength that attacking a dog even with a flimsy hat does not represent a problem). The expression dates from pre-industrial times and has roots in the rural environment, was often heard in the old highway inns (used by horse-drawn wagon drivers) that dotted the country as late as 1950s.

IDENTITY and HUMOUR: "Killer Chicken", Bucharest fast food outlet

A somehow off the topic post, nevertheless interesting when looking for clues about the identity of a place, as are the urban areas of Romania.

The photograph bellow speaks volumes about a certain peculiar Romanian sense of humour, forged probably during the communist era of industrialisation. It comes alive in many forms, as in the name of the fast food outlet pictured here, which I spotted in central Bucharest. Its meaning is that the chicken served on premises is so good and has such a pleasurable taste that would just literally kill you.

"Killer Chicken" fast food outlet, central Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

"Killer Chicken" fast food outlet, central Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

I believe that a similar type of humour is expressed in an old Romanian saying, which refers to the feeling given by a good heartily meal: “I ate so well, that I can hit a dog with my hat” (the good food provides such strength that attacking a dog even with a flimsy hat does not represent a problem). The expression dates from pre-industrial times and has roots in the rural environment, was often heard in the old highway inns (used by horse-drawn wagon drivers) that dotted the country as late as 1950s.

The first CONTROLLED EXPLOSION DEMOLITION in Romania: mixed responses

The first demolition in Romania of a 1960s style tower block by controlled explosion took place last Saturday on 14 February 2009 in Mioveni, Arges county. The building functioned as the administrative quarter for Dacia Renault car maker, the most profitable and well run industrial company in Romania. That was quite a landmark event, as is well known that the Romanians have a love-hate relationship with this type of construction. 

Many ordinary people and also an important part of the press in this country have expressed disappointment that such a building has been demolished; they would have rather preferred it transformed into a block of flats. That is typical thinking for a majority among Romanians who, if given the choice, would demolish their period and historical buildings and erect non-descript tower blocks in their place. These buildings as the one that implodes in the video bellow are seen as immensely more prestigious than the small ornate period houses. 

 

An important proportion of Romania’s urban dwellers are first or second generation townies and live in grey concrete tower blocks that were provided cheaply or for free by the former communist regime. For many of them moving to these cold concrete boxes represented a gigantic leap forward in terms of comfort and prestige from their previous habitat in poor remote villages. In the early 1990s the state enabled most of the tower block dwellers to become for derisory amounts proprietors of these apartments. Now Romania is a nation of proprietors of such low quality real estate assets, that during the bubble of the last four years have reached sky high prices, in many instances more expensive than Bruxelles or Amsterdam quality flats for middle-classes. Demolishing a concrete tower block, as the one in this video, is in the eyes of many locals just asset squandering and also destruction of a “prestigious” modern building. ©Valentin Mandache

The IRON BALCONIES OF BUCHAREST – Part 3

This is the third instalment of my article on the iron balconies of Bucharest’s period buildings. In Part 1  I presented considerations on the large scale adoption in this city, starting with the third quarter of the 19th century, of the iron balcony as a functional and decorative architectural element and detailed its typology using examples that adorn buildings in Bucharest’s historic quarters. In Part 2  of the article I discussed the pear shaped wrought iron balcony, the most spectacular and conspicuous balcony type in Bucharest, that had its heydays during the last decade of the 19th and  first decade of the 20th centuries, beautifying the Little Paris style buildings erected in Bucharest and all over Romania during that period. 

In this post I present in an approximately chronological order examples of UPRIGHT-FENCE iron balconies as they emerged in late 19th century Bucharest to the 4th decade of the 20th century. 

I found in my research for the article that for Bucharest the oldest type of iron balcony is the cast iron one. A number houses in Lipscani historic quarter, that architecturally are among the oldest in that area, their facades dating from 1870s, perhaps earlier, have such cast iron balconies. The chunkiness of cast iron ornaments gives them a special charm and because the rarity of this balcony type in Bucharest, it adds to the value of a period property. 

Ornate cast iron balcony, Lipscani area (©Valentin Mandache)

Ornate cast iron balcony, Lipscani area (©Valentin Mandache)

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The charm of OLD COMMERCIAL ADVERTS and SIGNS on period houses

The historical districts of a city comprise not just old houses with exquisite decorations, street gas lamps or narrow cobblestone streets. Many other ingredients contribute to the charm and beauty of the old buildings and quarters and among these are the old commercial adverts and signs. While in other European countries these more special period elements of the urban heritage are well conserved and proudly displayed, being admired by the locals and tourists alike, in Romania they seem to be perceived as just another redundant junk from the past.

 I came across three very eloquent such old commercial signs in Bucharest, which if restored would greatly enhance the charm, historic significance, beauty and even the market value of the buildings on which they are still displayed, not speaking of enhanced tourist potential of the areas where these old commercial signs are located.

 The oldest one is a Citroen commercial advert for automobiles which is probably from the first half of the 1920s, judging from the type of car displayed. It resisted stoically in the Coltea-Mantuleasa area for all of these decades and now could be irretrievably lost because of the damaging building sites that sprang up in its close proximity and the general neglect from the locals and city authorities. 

1920s Citroen car commercial advert, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

1920s Citroen car commercial advert, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

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Romania’s “NATIONAL PROPERTY FAIR” sweepes bubble under the rug

I venture from time to time to the much hyped Romanian property fairs organised by developers and estate agents. My interest is to check out if the offer also comprises houses or apartments with period architectural themes or examples of original and high quality architecture. I have to say that they always disappoint me in that regard.

The largest such fair in Romania, pompously called “The National Property Fair”, went on between 5-8 February at the Parliament building in Bucharest and presented offers only form certain areas of this city. I went there on the opening day and saw an event that was just a window dressing exercise for the falling local property market. The big name international property consultants were absent, a sign that they try to keep the distance from such over-optimistic gatherings in a rapidly deteriorating Romanian economic environment. Most of the exhibitors were either developers with their headquarters in Mediterranean countries, companies that have a heavy presence in Romania, or local estate agents. The offer consisted in bland new apartments or houses (affectedly called “villa”) in non-descript assemblies with English sounding aspirational names (“Champions Residence”, “City Garden” and so on). Most discouraging were the extremely high and unrealistic prices in sharp contrast with the promises made by the organisers in the in media that this fair will bring heavy discounts on the market.

Illustrative of these aspirational names was a stand named “American Village” advertising houses that did not have anything to do with the American architectural styles, urban planning or not even with the McMansions that blight the US suburbia. Nearby was another stand promoting an “Austrian Village,” located on the outskirts of Bucharest, not having anything in common with Austria and its building styles.

Bucharest- The National Propery Fair, February 2009

Bucharest- The "American Village" stand at the National Property Fair, February 2009

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Romania's "NATIONAL PROPERTY FAIR" sweepes bubble under the rug

I venture from time to time to the much hyped Romanian property fairs organised by developers and estate agents. My interest is to check out if the offer also comprises houses or apartments with period architectural themes or examples of original and high quality architecture. I have to say that they always disappoint me in that regard.

The largest such fair in Romania, pompously called “The National Property Fair”, went on between 5-8 February at the Parliament building in Bucharest and presented offers only form certain areas of this city. I went there on the opening day and saw an event that was just a window dressing exercise for the falling local property market. The big name international property consultants were absent, a sign that they try to keep the distance from such over-optimistic gatherings in a rapidly deteriorating Romanian economic environment. Most of the exhibitors were either developers with their headquarters in Mediterranean countries, companies that have a heavy presence in Romania, or local estate agents. The offer consisted in bland new apartments or houses (affectedly called “villa”) in non-descript assemblies with English sounding aspirational names (“Champions Residence”, “City Garden” and so on). Most discouraging were the extremely high and unrealistic prices in sharp contrast with the promises made by the organisers in the in media that this fair will bring heavy discounts on the market.

Illustrative of these aspirational names was a stand named “American Village” advertising houses that did not have anything to do with the American architectural styles, urban planning or not even with the McMansions that blight the US suburbia. Nearby was another stand promoting an “Austrian Village,” located on the outskirts of Bucharest, not having anything in common with Austria and its building styles.

Bucharest- The National Propery Fair, February 2009

Bucharest- The "American Village" stand at the National Property Fair, February 2009

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ART NOUVEAU restoration project in Bucharest

I was really surprised the other day to encounter while passing through the Popa Soare quarter in Bucharest, a unique ART NOUVEAU restoration project on a street that contained private residences built in many architectural styles, that all are in dire need of major immediate redecoration and repair, let alone restoration.

Art Nouveau restauration project Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Art Nouveau restoration project Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

That makes this project even more remarkable, especially because in Bucharest there are just a handful of such thorough restoration projects. A majority of the grand old houses are left in disrepair, plagued by ownership disputes as the state gradually and grudgingly gives them back to the descendants of the former owners. Some of those houses are superficially renovated, and put on the market through unprofessional estate agents with great pretence at incredibly high prices (from my research, in many instances the asking prices are higher than in London’s Islington or Paris’s Montparnasse). Also many of these houses suffer irreparable damage at the hands of incompetent builders and decorators.

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180˚ PANORAMA of Bucharest

On a sunny February day, I was thrilled to discover from a top floor terrace balcony, of a friend’s apartment in the Cismigiu area, an exceptional vista of Bucharest. The bloc of flats from where I admired the panorama dates from late 1930s and is located in a quarter with very eclectic architecture: from Little Paris style houses, grandiose neo-Romanian to neo-classical ones and modernist 1930s apartment blocks; all of them in glorious view from his terrace balcony. The stunning panorama just makes you realise the great and real potential of this city of about 3 million inhabitants (a number that includes the unregistered migrants of the last decade). That impression is so much in stark contrast with the often discouraging scenes that one finds every day at the street level. I am sure that there are within Bucharest’s old quarters many other hidden gems like this viewing platform adorning period houses, a sign that the past inhabitants knew how to enjoy life and appreciate their city.

I have photographed the entire panorama that I was so fortunate to admire. The view stretches on an 180 degree arc of the horizon from the NW (with the Gara de Nord – Northern Train Station area) to the SE (CEC building area). Enjoy!

Valentin Mandache

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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, 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.

LIPSCANI regeneration project goes awry

Lipscani, the historic quarter of Bucharest (“centrul istoric” in Romanian) is in a state of near ruin, situation made worse by the mismanaged regeneration project implemented by the Spanish company Sedesa, contracted at great expense in 2006 by the mayoralty. The area with its peculiar oriental and La Belle Époque atmosphere and architecture would have been a huge international tourist magnet and a veritable gold mine for the city coffers. Now that is a lost opportunity, Lipscani is looking like a toxic combination between a Victorian slum, carpet bombed town and messy socialist era construction project. That was achieved in a bit over two years, after spending millions of Euro (the contract specifies 27 million Euro): money from an EBRD loan that has to be covered by the Romanian taxpayer, a contribution form a Dutch government that was clearly taken for a ride with the regeneration project, and city hall funds that again came from Bucharesters’ pocket. I guess that there are not many places in the European Union where such a disaster in the heart of a great city can be achieved in that short while, after spending so much money.

Lipscani derelict street, 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

Lipscani derelict street, 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

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The IRON BALCONIES of Bucharest – Part 2

This is the 2nd of my three part article on Bucharest’s “Little Paris” iron balconies (Part 1 was published on 25 January ’09)- an important and often overlooked ornamental and functional element within the city’s architectural landscape. For this post I selected examples showing the PEAR SHAPED BALCONY type, the most representative and abundant La Belle Époque style iron balcony in Bucharest.

La Belle Époque fashion and style (a corresponding and often equivalent term used in France and countries influenced by French culture, such as Romania, for the Victorian epoch) has been a remarkable period in architectural achievements. Paris was the laboratory of the new trends and the Romanians, often with limited means, but with great enthusiasm, adopted the new chic emanating from France’s capital. Consequently at the end of the 19th century Bucharest emerged as the “Little Paris” at the eastern edges of Europe.

There is a large stock of buildings from that period, unevenly distributed throughout the city. Yet there are some spots with relatively high concentration of Little Paris style buildings, constituting veritable picturesque architectural enclaves with a high but little exploited tourist potential, such as Lipscani, Mantuleasa and Kogalniceanu areas.

The wrought iron is a material that allows a great design and imagination freedom, a fact conspicuously displayed by the pear shaped iron balconies with their exuberance of intricate patterns and motifs that frequently have the monogram of the house owner proudly displayed at the centre.

The abundance of iron balconies of many types and styles at that period in Bucharest suggests the existence of a thriving multitude of workshops and designers. There is hardly anything written on that subject in the last one hundred years. I am sure that there are archive-holdings in Romania containing examples of pattern books compiled by those craftsmen. The eventual finding of such design plans would greatly assist many a prospective owner to renovate/ restore his/her Little Paris period property into Bucharest and put the sparkle back in the iconic balcony of that building. © Valentin Mandache

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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, specialist research, planning permissions, restoration project management, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the Contactpage of this weblog. 

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