I am a great fan of the cheerful Art Deco panels that depict sunbursts, rainbows or southern seas themes. In that spirit I have put together a real sunburst photographed last summer in Grivita - Domenii area of the city, a quarter that is still preserving its inter-war charm when it was built up in large part in the Art Deco style, then much in vogue in Bucharest, and the emblem of an insurance company, ornament that dates from the Art Deco era, located in the town centre. Looking at the natural sunburst is easier to understand the message, optimism and confidence exuded by the Art Deco panels of Bucharest and the culture of that beautiful time in the history of architecture.
I would like to share with you a small sample from the magnificent multitude of Neo-Romanian style houses that belong to the late phase of the development of this design peculiar to Romania, which were viewed and examined during the 25 August ’12 tour guided by the author of this blog. In basic terms it represents a synthesis between the Neo-Romanian and mainly Art Deco, or said differently- the national architecture of Romania expressed in the Art Deco coordinates of the period between the late 1920s and the mid-1940s. The modern construction technologies that emerged in the roaring twenties affording the development of light, airy structures expressed in the Art Deco and Modernist architecture, were quite antithetical to the traditionally heavy, built in brick and masonry, Neo-Romanian style edifices, as typical to its early and mature phases of the previous four decades. That led to a crisis within this indigenous architectural order, threatened by the high popularity among the public of the international modern styles, which were all the rage in Bucharest during the 1930s. The Neo-Romanian style managed to survive and even thrive, until the watershed of the Second World War, through fascinating syntheses especially with the Art Deco designs.
The primordial couple, Adam and Eve, is a predilect theme in the visual arts. The architectural decoration is no exception in that regard. I found during my fieldwork in Bucharest two such representations, an Art Deco style bas-relief embellishing the pediment of a 1929 apartment house entrance, and a statue, part of the garden design of the garden of a mid-1960s communist block of flats, both shown in the photographs bellow.
The Art Deco era panel is, in my opinion, a fairly good artistic product, on classical or even Rodin-inan lines, inviting to philosophate about the symbolism of this couple in the conditions of the inter-war period, at the beginning of the Great Depression. I like the altar, with a base in three steps, and a three groove shaft, all conforming to the Art Deco’s rule of three, on which the two personages lean, engulfed within the radiation generated by the sacred fire. Adam and Eve in this instance look quite androgynous, which conform to the Greek classical norms of uncertain gender portrayal.
The couple from the mid-1960s statuary composition is also a rendering of the Adam and Eve theme, but in the communist ideology coordinates that pervaded the life and society of Romania of that period. It represents a pair of Romeo-and-Juliet age adolescents, not of an aristocratic outlook, but in what were then considered healthy, study outlines of the working class individuals. The 1960s was a period of thaw within the communist world, after the harsh Stalinist post-war years, and in Romania in particular that was reflected in good quality artistic and also architectural productions (see for example the remarkable Modernist designs of the hotels embellishing the Black Sea resorts). This statue exudes something from that more propitious atmosphere and in my opinion is of a better artistic standard than the Art Deco bas-relief described above.
Bellow are three interesting images of glazed balconies/ verandas pertaining to the three main styles that characterize the architecture of Bucharest: Little Paris (last quarter of the c19th until the Great War), Neo-Romanian (late c19th – late 1940s) and Art Deco (1930s and ’40s). From what I found in my fieldwork, usually the glazed structures are not contemporary with the original building, but added as an improvement or embellishment in renovations works of the first or second decade after the edifice is put in place. The main attraction of a glazed structure, be it a balcony, doorway or light-well is in fact its exquisite ironwork, its frame, exemplified here in the second photograph showing the Neo-Romanian glazed balcony. Sometimes there are bits of original glass panes still surviving within the ironwork, which in the case of the historicist c19th Little Paris design comes in beautiful colours typical of the Victorian era coloured glass.
This building is not much to write home about if one looks at its street and lower levels, but the top is an entirely different story, as the picture above testifies. It gives the impression of a river fall or rapid through the multitude of right angle steps and vertical ridges that embellish it. The rule of three, inspired from Egyptian mythology, so popular in the era when the Art Deco style was in vogue, is evident in the “straps” delimited by the straight vertical ridges and the grouping of the assembly of steps on the top of the building. There is also an allusion to the ocean line theme through the porthole window at the centre, the two small flag poles that flank the vertical ridges and the general impression of a liner’s command bridge exuded by this building top structure.
I found this small and exquisite Art Deco detail during one of my architectural history tours in Patriarchy Hill area of Bucharest. It forms part of the rooftop veranda of a house built in the late ’30s, on an ocean liner theme. In fact the shape of the balcony and the veranda fence are clearly inspired from a nautical theme, similar with the semi-cylindrical observation post/ cage on top of the bow of the big liners of that era. Bellow this more unusual balcony is presented in six different image processing sequences and filters, which I hope would better convey its nice proportions and architectural context.
Bucharest now goes, as many other places in the northern hemisphere, through a terrible heath wave, which has unfurled for a month now and is still going on unabated. The city in this period went through temperatures of over 35 – 37 centigrades or even higher, which in my opinion is an obvious sign of a the ongoing climate change. The nights are hot too, many people taking walks on the streets, going to parks or sitting on balconies at very late hours. I have been one of those strollers, walking in the last few days late at night up and down the streets of Domenii quarter, which is near the area where I currently live. It was developed in the inter-war period and contains some beautiful examples of Art Deco architecture. I found very interesting to observe how the architectural forms and all sorts of details show off in the clear-obscure of the discreetly lit residential streets of this quarter. The diverse decorations, motifs embellishing the old houses look like glowing or vibrating in very warm air, and the flying insects crowding around light bulbs complete the exotic atmosphere, which coincide with the southern seas theme (jungle and sunburst motifs, ocean liner shapes, etc.) so typical of Bucharest’s Art Deco architecture. Here are two Art Deco entrances shot during those late hours, which I believe relay something from what I have seen and sensed about Bucharest’s historic architecture in the heath of the night.
I am always on the lookout, during my routine architectural history fieldwork in Bucharest or other places in Romania, for name tablets: architect’s, builder’s and also proprietor’s name tablets. They are important documentary elements that can give clues about the history of the house, its more precise dating, style and manner of design and also in case the architect is famous, can noticeably increase the value of the propriety. I struck lucky with the example seen in the photograph above, by finding “two for the price of one” such artifacts. There is a tablet containing the name of the famous architect Gheorghe Simotta and another of a highly reputable building company of inter-war Bucharest, Belli Brothers. The lettering of the two tablets contrast in their manner of rendering- that of the architect having the letters protruding out, while the constructor’s one is grooved within surface. They adorn a grandiose Art Deco – Later Neo-Romanian style edifice from the Dorobanti area of Bucharest. That mix of styles can also be noted in that of the lettering: Simotta’s tablet being in the Art Deco vein, while Belli Brothers’ inclining toward the Neo-Romanian lettering style.
In my early years I have been fascinated why the word “number” is abbreviated “no” and not “nr”, which later I read in a book about printing fonts that the “no” shortening is a sort of tradition and was used as such since medieval times, when Latin was the most used written language, and comes from ”numero”, one of its Latin forms. I like the instances when the letter “o” is rendered sitting above an equal (“=”) sign or just a hyphen (“-”). The abbreviation containing the equal sign was often encountered in the inter-war period, adopted in many Art Deco designs, from famous posters of that era (adverts for transoceanic liner tickets, drinks, medicines, etc.) to architectural renderings like building or apartment numbers, etc.
I found during the architectural tour, which took place last Sunday, in Matei Basarab area of Bucharest, three cases of “no” abbreviation as architectural rendering, shown in the photographs of this post. The first one is the most attractive, with a catchy “=” sign under “o”, embellishing an Art Deco style house dating from the early 1930s.
The second image shows the name plate of a shop window blinds manufacturer, which most probably was active in the early 1920s, judging from the spelling of Bucharest (as “Bucuresci”) typicall for the period 1900s-1920s.
The third plate, seen in the photograph above, dates from the mid-1930s, indicating an workshop (perhaps a shoemaker or tailor) on the ground-floor of an Art Deco apartment block in the Jewish neighbourhood of the city (close by the State Jewish Theatre of Bucharest).
During a recent Art Deco and Modernist walking tour in the central area of the Bucharest I photographed the above rare instance of a well preserved 1930s tablet containing the name and address of a local ceramic tile (“Rako” make) supplier (someone called “B. Ungureanu”). It is part of the tile pavement flooring at the entrance of the famous Modernist building ARO (“The Romanian Insurance”) Building by arch. Horia Creanga (1938) on Calea Victoriei boulevard. I like the lettering style of the tablet, in the Art Deco vein, seen especially in the shape of the letters “S” or “A” and also its modernity- it can well be a nowadays name tablet, with only the web address missing. The tilling and the tablet make up a good quality Art Deco style flooring design, which seems to be a characteristic of the period seen in other examples that I documented on this blog, such as the case of a kitchen ground and that of a hallway floor.
The central park of Bucharest, Cismigiu, contains a number of memorials of past personalities that imprinted the city’s history. The monument dedicated to Smaranda Gheorghiu (1857 -1944), or Maica Smara, how she was known among her contemporaries, is one of the very few that exhibits Art Deco elements. I believe the statue was erected sometimes in the 1940s, or even the following decade, as a tribute, probably after her death. Maica Smara was active among the nascent women’s rights movement in this conservative country in south east Europe. She was well known in Romania as a literary figure and traveller reaching even North Cape in Norway in her peregrinations, not a mean fact for a Romanian woman of the late c19th and the early c20th periods. The name “Maica Smara” literally means “mother Smara[nda]“, given as a compliment for her educational work and as a writer of children stories and poems.
The most prominent Art Deco element of the monument, which is the creation of the sculptor Mihai Onofrei, is the bronze bas-relief at its base showing two school children. The boy and the girl are represented reading and respectively writing attentively passages from Maica Smara’s stories. I especially like the flamboyant flower motif on the left hand side area of the panel, which conveys the serenity and natural world described in this personality’s literary creations, some of which I read and listened to during my childhood.
Another Art Deco element of note is exemplified by the three retreating steps at the base of the monument, illustrating the rule of three typical of this style.
Bucharest’s Ashkenazi Jewish cemetery is located on Boulevard Ion Michalache, in the north west area of the city. It is named “Philanthropy” (“Filantropia” in Romanian) and among the many personalities buried there are Mihail Sebastian, one of my favourite writers of inter-war Bucharest, who wrote the novel “It’s Been 2000 Years…” in which he magisterially documents the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism in this country, or Iosif Sava, the best Romanian classical music commentator. The cemetery also contains a monument dedicated to Romanian heroes of Jewish ethnicity fallen in the Great War.
The gate of this solemn place is of a remarkable monumental Art Deco – Modernist style, which in Bucharest is a rare sight for structures associated with religious and funerary functions. The ironwork of the gate is an interesting combination of Jewish (the star of David, menorah) and universalist (the radiating sun) symbols rendered in an Art Deco framework.
The assembly also has the outlines of a classical antiquity temple, with its concrete pilasters flanking the entrances and the suggestion of crossing under the massive lintel of an ancient city gate (entering the city of the dead from the city of the living in this particular instance).
I like the geometric way in which the menorah, the seven-branched Jewish ritual lampstand, is rendered on the side gate presented in the photograph above, of a quite unusual shape, different from the semicircular branches seen on the Arch of Titus or the coat of arms of the State of Israel.
In the above image the rule of three of the Art Deco style is obvious in the three stepped wall framing of the window, crowned by a large pediment embellished with the star of David.
The cemetery’s synagogue is of a c19th architecture, derived from the Jewish central European baroque and dates probably from the first decades of functioning of this burial ground. The star of David is noticeable about the top of each dome covering its hall and side towers.
The Art Deco – Modernist style of the gate of this cemetery signifies, in my opinion, the spirit in step with the times of this once dynamic and creative community, dwindled by the events of Second World War and Romania’s national-communist policies of the second part of the c20th.
The letter boxes in the image above are most probably the original ones, from the date when the Art Deco style apartment block hosting them has been built, sometimes in the mid-1930s Bucharest. The veneer of each box is still well preserved, with the wood fibres arranged in something resembling a papyrus flower pattern, which is one of the classical Art Deco decorative motifs. This piece of furniture could easily be restored to its former glory and one must only hope that the proprietors of those apartments will be sensible enough to preserve it for the future, resisting the current fashionable temptations in Romania to replace period artefacts with characterless modern, “made in China”, accoutrements.