The decorative stone of a Bucharest tube station

Politehnica tube station - ornamental stone

Politehnica tube station, Bucharest – ornamental stone, laid in the mid-1980s, photo Valentin Mandache

Bucharest’s public and private edifices erected in the last two decades, since the fall of communism, are, apart from the general forgettable design, built in high proportion using mass produced imported materials. Most of that is cheap, low quality, characterless and as regards the resulted architecture, can in my opinion, easily be categorised at kitsch. That situation also reflects the tastes and values of the actual generations engaged in building or renovating edifices of this town and country. They are in such stark contrast with the times of in the inter-war and subsequent communist periods when the architectural materials were in greatest proportion sourced within the country. That produced interesting and attractive results, with the ornamental and construction stone sourced in the Carpathian Mountains or in rocky hills of the province of Dobrogea, on the Black Sea coast, which are from that point of view a wonderful geological kaleidoscope, a bottomless source of high quality marble, limestone of different sorts, travertine, granite of various colours and grains, basalts, sandstones, etc.  I have in the image above a sample of that fabulous panoply of ornamental stone used in one of the grand communist era projects, Bucharest’s metro transport system. It shows the pavement of the Politehinca station, composed of red limestone peppered by Jurassic age marine fossils, which was sourced probably in the Apuseni (Western) Carpathians, the rock being formed in a geological age when those parts were a continental shelf covered by the warm seas on the Equator. My Dr. Martens shoes stand on a band of nicely granulated pinkish granite, sourced in my opinion in northern Dobrogea (it may also be from the Apuseni Mountains). The composition is evocative of the geographical and geological identity of this country, a fact which is no longer encountered within the pitiful built landscape of the actual post-communist years.

Adam and Eve in Art Deco and 1960s communist representations

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.

Adam and Eve in an Art Deco era representation, 1929 house, Cismigiu area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

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.

Adam and Eve represented as a pair of communist youth in a 1960s sculpture, Domenii area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

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.

Adam and Eve in Art Deco and 1960s communist representations, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Communist era “votive” panels

Communist era “votive” panels, Unirii Square area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

I found the two bas-relief like panels presented above, hanging on the wall of a ground floor veranda of an apartment block in the Unirii Square area of Bucharest. They date from the height of the communist era in the 1970s and, looking at their typology, seem inspired from the paintings and creations of Sabin Balasa, a famous Romanian abstract painter active throughout the communist period and after. The panel from the upper half signifies the progress of society through modern industry, depicting a forward leaning worker, backed by a turbine generator and holding his hands on something that look as the elements of a power grid. The lower half panel symbolises education represented by a woman holding a torch that enlightens the masses, seconded by a flag signifying the communist party spirit, battling strong headwinds (a personification of the opposition put by the class enemies, perhaps). The whole assembly is reminiscent of a deeply troubling era for Romania and the outlines of the two panels bring to the fore striking similarities with the visual arts of the Third Reich or the Soviet Union in the 1930s, giving a hint of the strange roots of those dictatorial art trends in the Art Deco era in Europe.

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I endeavor through this daily series of daily articles to inspire appreciation of the historic houses of Romania, a virtually undiscovered, but fascinating chapter of European architectural history and heritage.

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If you plan acquiring a historic property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to advice you in sourcing 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.

The Spark Building (Casa Scanteii): the October Revolution and its architectural echoes in Romania

On 7 November there were 93 years since the Bolshevik October 1917 Revolution (which fell on 25 October according to the Julian calendar in use in Russia, and also in Romania, at that time). The architecture developed in the new Soviet state that emerged in its aftermath, especially that until Stalin’s death had a very interesting specificity, benefiting from the input of a pleiad of talented architects who were mobilised by the idealism of what was later proved to be the empty promises of the the political regime instituted by the Bolshevik revolution. The most grandiose architectural design type in the Soviet Union of that time was termed as “Stalinist Gothic”, with the most iconic such buildings located in Moscow, knowns as the “Seven Sisters” group of skyscrapers, numbering among them the Lomonosov (Moscow) State University or Ukraine Hotel. The technology and style conception employed in these prestige projects resemble in large measure the Art Deco design and delineation of American skyscrapers. The Stalinist Gothic architectural style was in fact much richer and flamboyant in its decorative register, with many motifs brought together, ranging from Greek and Roman classical references to Muscovite motifs and shapes, to communist symbols. The old postcard bellow, issued sometimes in the 1970s, celebrating the anniversary of the October Revolution, conveys through the excellent play of figurative shapes and colours the essence of that style, giving clues through the ziggurat outlines and play of chromatics to the strange Art Deco relations of the Stalinist architecture.

Soviet architecturally themed postcard celebrating the Soviet October 1917 Revolution

Once the Soviet Union won the WWII and established satellite regimes in Eastern Eurpe, this monumental architecture has also been implemented in locations such as Warsaw (the Palace of Culture and Science) or Bucharest (the communist press headquarters, “The Spark” building, “Casa Scanteii” in Romanian). While the Warsaw project was one of the largest and most expensive “Stalinist Gothic” edifices, the Bucharest one was cheaper and less decorous or grandiose, but nevertheless even today is still the second largest building in Romania’s capital, after Ceausescu’s megalomaniac House of the People building. The old press photograph bellow shows the US President Richard Nixon together with the local dictator Nicolae Ceasusecu passing by the front of “Casa Scanteii” edifice in a motorcade during the first such visit by an American leader in Romania, on 2 August 1969, one of the biggest foreign policy coups of Ceausescu (the biggest one was when he and his wife were received in a state visit by the Queen Elisabeth II at the invitation of James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1978). I like how the US journalist relates the style of the building in the caption of that telling photograph: “building in rear in Russo-Soviet style”. One can hardly find nowadays journalists able to say something pertinent about the architecture of the places where they have assignments as was the case with their predecessors not long ago.

The US President Nixon visiting Romania in August 1969, hosted by dictator Nicolae Ceausecu

The name of the buildings “The Spark House”/ “Casa Scanteii” was very fitting for the headquarters of Romania’s communist press, being a reference to the first Bolshevik newspape’r “Iskra” (Russian for “spark”), edited by Lenin. The irony is that “Iskra” was first printed and published in Chisinau, the capital of the Romanian speaking post-Soviet Republic of Moldova, in very close proximity to Romania. The edifice was erected between 1952 – ’57, designed by a collective of Romanian architects led by Horia Maicu, with important Soviet expertise input. There are some interesting references to the Neo-Romanian style in some of the building ornamentation. From the information which I have, the Soviet Union also contributed with important finances and workforce to this project meant to define the skyline of communist Bucharest. The quality of workmanship and materials used were excellent, being one of the best finished buildings in the entire country. Today the edifice is called “The House of the Free Press”, which is quite an irony, hosting many small newspapers and publishers, being poorly maintained and held in low regard by many Bucharesters. My view is that “Casa Scanteii” (a name which I think needs to be reinstated) is part of the local identity and history and deserves better treatment and appreciation as an architectural heritage monument. The building despite the neglect of the last two decades, is still very sound and with minimal investment can be brought to modern levels of comfort, just as Warsaw’s former Palace of Culture has been given a new lease of life through investment and new uses.

Hammer and sickle ornament, Casa Scanteii, Bucharest, 2010. (©Valentin Mandache)

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I endeavor through this daily series of daily articles to inspire appreciation of the historic houses of Romania, a virtually undiscovered, but fascinating chapter of European architectural history and heritage.

***********************************************

If you plan acquiring a historic property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to advice you in sourcing 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.