The photo-collage above is composed by building inauguration year panels rendered architecturally, encountered by the author of this blog on edifices dating from a multitude of historical epochs in Bucharest and other locations in Romania. I used the illustrations as cover photographs for the Historic Houses of Romania – Case de Epoca’s Facebook page. I usually present to the readers a cover photo per week, and the ones here are those scheduled for the first ten weeks of 2014. To find out details about the significance of those years and the buildings hosting them, you can click the links listed below. The links are arranged in the same scheme as the architecturally rendered years mentioned in the collage.
Although today in Bucharest the temperatures were hovering around -12 centigrades, being freezing cold and blowy, my spirit, at least, was warmed up by a visit to an Art Deco style apartment that in part evoked much warmer climates and sunnier lands, a theme often encountered in this town’s Art Deco architecture.
The interior of the dwelling does not have much left from its original features, except the doors. The original wall and ceiling mouldings, the 1930s windows, bathroom and kitchen tiles and fittings, were replaced in the last few years by the owner, a “young artist”, who judging from the results of her misguided effort, is in fact is a typical Romanian period house proprietor, nurturing arrogant dreams about the money value of their real estate, but completely oblivious regarding its artistic and heritage worth. The doors remained in place, presumably because the owner ran out of money, splashed on the other “improvements”, otherwise I would have seen plastic made portals bought triumphantly from a DIY shop.
The main door, pictured above, is a composition of panels displaying at its centre the rule of three, typical of the Art Deco, with the others arranged around in a gamma cross array, a cosmic motif that I encountered quite frequently in the ornamentation pertaining to this design in the Bucharest of the fourth decade of the c20th, associated usually with the nazi movement, which I believe was not the case here, as the block where this apartment belongs, was inhabited by Jewish families. The door’s lower register contains two overlapping semicircles, signifying the rising and setting sun of the southern seas.
The apartment block dates from the mid-1930s and is located in Matei Basarab area, the architect being B. Zilberman, a designer with numerous commissions in that quarter, which in that period had a large Jewish population. His name and the fact that he is a graduate of the architectural school in Milan are proudly displayed in a name tablet on one of the exterior walls of the building.
The bedroom door, seen in the third photograph, was narrower, but of wonderful proportions, preserving the gamma cross motif made from panels radiating a central window made from six openings. The lower register in this instance was embellished with three horizontal bars, according to the rule of three mentioned above.
I like the three steps motif decorating the panel overhead the dressing room door, clearly enlivening the rest of the bedroom and diminishing the sense of weight generated by the unfortunate choice of wall colour by the contemporary owner.
These doors, survivors from happier times in the brave new world of Romania’s post-communist society, are important for the local architectural identity and also worth some money, even if the locals do not realise that yet. My hope is that the citizens of Bucharest and the country will start recovering through those witnesses their civic pride and appreciate the creations of their forebearers, who were certainly more sophisticated than their descendants.
Among the hidden architectural gems of Bucharest are the Modernist creations of Marcel Iancu (also spelt Janco or Janko), the culture polymath active on the architectural scene of Romania’s capital in the 1920s and the 1930s. Iancu’s buildings encompass his conceptions of art ranging from surrealism, as he was one of the foreruners of that current, Soviet inspired constructivism, functionalism to cubism, Bauhaus or expressionism. The Frida Cohen House, an apartment block, the amplest edifice designed by Iancu, exhibits many of those traits and for me is a delight to continuously discover new such elements with each visit I make there.
The constructivist and cubist features are obvious when analysing the exterior outlines and volumetry of Frida Cohen building, yet equally if not more fascinating patterns reveal themselves once one steps into the entrance hallway.
Remarkable in my opinion is the floor with its grey and black tiles, arranged in a modern painting like figure, in the vein of the De Stijl artistic movement, where the forms although lack simple symmetry, as one would expect in an architectural design, nevertheless achieve a sense of balance through their inner kinetics.
The main staircase of this noteworthy building is also a case in point, this time as an example of constructivist design, where the profile of the apparently utilitarian device is an equilateral triangle, a basic geometrical shape, seen, as other fundamental forms, within the Constructivist movement as a pure pattern. The staircase reminds me of one of Iancu’s celebrated affirmations that “the purpose of architecture was a “harmony of forms”, with designs as simplified as to resemble crystals” (Tom Sandqvist, p. 342). To me the crystal suggested by the stairwell contour is undoubtedly a diamond (the tetrahedron of Carbon atoms), which is a metafora for perfect harmony in itself.
Every single creation of Marcel Iancu is, as in the samples illustrated above, brimful with meanings and symbols pertaining to the the emergence and maturation of the first Modern artistic currents, fostered by epoch making social and economic changes in the period that led up to the Great War and its aftermath decades, a fertile and effervescent period of which Bucharest benefited through the agency of such a hugely talented personality.
My article about the foot mud scraper from the La Belle Epoque era adorning the Metropolitan Orthodox Cathedral in Sibiu has attracted an unexpected degree of interest from the readers. Among those making remarks was Robin Grow, the President of Australia’s Art Deco and Modernism Society, who naturally asked me if I have an Art Deco mud scraper among my finds. I answered that indeed I have found one in Bucharest, which I would like now to show it to you in all its glory in the following photographs.
The inedite artifact adorns Villa Miclescu, one of most elegant buildings of Bucharest’s Art Deco and Modernism era, located in Dorobanti quarter, designed by the architect Horia Creanga in 1930.
The mud scraper displays the rule of three, inspired from the Egyptian mythology, typical of the Art Deco style, seen in its three blades, being in tone with the horizontal bars grouped in three on the ironwork of the doorway.
The villa is mostly an inter-war Modernist design, of which Horia Creanga is most famous, with some Art Deco elements, such as the staircase windows, doorway or the mud scraper.
The building is in a bad state of repair, although it is on the heritage list, a common situation in Bucharest, due mostly to the lack of education and interest about the historic architecture among the post-communist inhabitants of this town. One can notice the effects of that neglect even on this Art Deco mud scraper, which is such a rare architectural vestige: the first photograph, which I took about one and a half years ago, presents it with two “ears”, the loops on each side, while the last one, taken last week, shows one of those ears missing. That gives you an idea how fast the architectural identity and heritage of Bucharest is disappearing at the hands of its own citizens and their representative authorities.
I would like to thank all my readers, collaborators, participants at my architectural history tours and courses for the active support, encouragement, comments, contribution and criticism without which I would not have coped in what I consider my ongoing mission to bring to the attention of the wider world Romania’s and Southeast Europe’s architectural heritage and period property market. I wish you all the best for 2014!
Valentin Mandache, expert in historic houses
History and historical facts discussed over the envelope of a letter sent from Bucharest to Paris in February 1948, just a few weeks after the forced abdication of King Michael of Romania. The envelope contains a two sets of stamps, one from the just ended royal period and another form the newly installed communist regime, constituting a good material witness of a watershed event in Romania’s history.
As 2013 is drawing to a close, here is a less than 2 min length video of my architectural history photographs, which I believe shows the essence of my activity this year. The images were used throughout 2013 as cover photos for my Historic Houses of Romania facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/casedeepoca).
The built environment of Romania has an obvious personality, and being present permanently around me, it became in the last few years since I am based in Bucharest, an integral part of my intellectual universe. Some more than two decades ago I used to attended earth science courses, and one of the main tenets thought there was the keen observation of the ground and other landscape details to work out the local geological history. I was thought back then to make as often as I can field sketches in a notebook, which were always preferable to photographs. That habit is still with me in my activity as an architectural historian, but recently in a high-tech form, having acquired and iPad and tried my hand on glass, which in my opinion is in many ways similar with how our c19th and earlier centuries counterparts used to draw and write on slate. My sketches encompass some of the main types of Romanian architectural landscape, which I hope you, dear readers, would find it interesting!
Today most of the Romanian Black Sea shore is, with the exception of the Danube Delta area, a mostly uninteresting flat plain, dotted with large industrial facilities and grey communist era hotel and residential developments. However, the country had between 1913 – 1916 and 1918 – 1940 a southern rocky seaboard with spectacular vistas, which is now part of Bulgaria. In the inter-war period Queen Marie of Romania built there, in the port city of Balchik (the ancient Greek colony of Dionysopolis, founded in c7th BCE), her most remarkable holiday palace, endowed with a magnificent garden and a multitude of guest houses, over a period stretching a decade, from 1927 to 1936. Some of the best Romanian architects of the time contributed with their creations, such as Emil Gunes or Henriette Delavrancea Gibory. Taking the queen’s example, many well to do Romanians also erected summer residences of a superb architectural quality that are still in large part in place and well looked after. The coast around Balchik faces the south and is protected behind by a series of rocky hills and cliffs from the cold winds and winter weather that come over the open Pontic steppe from as far as Siberia and menaces most of the rest of the country.
The inter-war period has thus been a glorious time for Balchik, which saw the wealthy spending summers in the luxury of their seashore villas, and the emergence of a remarkable painters’ and writers’ colony that took advantage of the glorious southern sunlight, appealing coastal landscape and enjoying the picturesque and welcome of the local community that was in important part Turkish, Tatar and Bulgarian.
Queen Marie and her family spent many a great summer holiday at her palace and gardens in Balchik, taking pleasure fast boat rides along the shore. Everything exuded the happiness and well-being peculiar of that period of history, much the same as other European aristocrats, wealthy individuals or famous artists enjoyed places in the Mediterranean or the Gulf of Mexico.
Remarkable for Balchik and the times when Marie put it on the holiday map as an idyllic place, was the worlds apart contrast of life and aspirations with the Soviet Union’s Black Sea shore communities, over the not far away border. Balchik’s flourishing years as a royal resort overlap with Stalin’s party purges, the killing and sending to prison of countless wretched souls. Romania in less than a decade after Marie built her seaside palace became one of its first victims.
This post was initially published on Diana Mandache’s weblog under our joint authorship.
I divide the evolution of the Neo-Romanian architectural style in three main phases. The early one lasted from its initiation in 1886 by the architect Ion Mincu with his edifice in the national style, Lahovary house, until 1906 when the Royal Jubilee exhibition took place, showing to the public its grand pavilions, many designed in an elevated unitary manner that “canonised” the style, which marked the beginning of its mature phase. It reached an apogee after the country’s victory in the Great War and subsequently in the 1920s decade, when was adopted all over the territory of interbellum Romania. The late 1920s, and the 1930s decade saw the increase popularity and in the end prevalence of the international styles Art Deco and Modernism, which induced a crisis of expression for the Neo-Romanian, thus marking its late phase. The national style managed to strive through an imaginative synthesis with the Art Deco and also Mediterranean inspired forms, resulting in extremely interesting designs. The evolution of the style practically ended with the instauration of communism in the winter of 1947, under the impact of the ideologically driven architectural priorities of the new political regime. It continued to have echoes for another two decades especially in vernacular forms and in motifs used on post-war edifices.
The street gate and doorway assembly presented above belongs in its design outline and period when it was built to the late phase of development of the Neo-Romanian style. The wrought iron gate is inspired from Brancovan style church or altar doors, but expressed in coordinates close to Art Deco. The two gate posts are also derived from church or medieval citadel towers, conforming with the national-romantic message of the style. The door itself shows a series of square panels pointed each by a central disc, which can be understood as the outline of an ethnographic solar disc or an interpretation of a Greek cross. The wall surround of the door is basically an adaptation of a church door opening in reduced to essence coordinates of the Art Deco style. The doorway assembly dates from the beginning of the 1930s, and as the time progressed into that decade, the expression of the Neo-Romanian forms in an Art Deco “ambiance” became even more prevalent and captivating as a form of architectural language.
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 tried to profit yesterday of the lull in between snowfalls and blizzards that affect Bucharest at the end of this January, and shoot a few photographs on the theme of atlantes and caryatides that embellish some of the historic buildings of Romania’s capital. If on the one hand the term caryatid (pl.-s/es) is well known, as the female figure appearing to support on her head the architectural structure above, the name coming form that of the sculpted goddesses that sustain the lintel of the Erechtheion temple on Athens’ Acropolis, atlantes, on the other hand, is somehow confusing for being the plural of the term atlas, the classical Greek god that support the world on his head and shoulders, a male counterpart of a caryatid. Bucharest does not have too many such ornaments, which are the province of the high historicist styles, encountered also sometimes on more modern buildings, but for a keen eye they reveal themselves on house corners, side streets or at the top of façades of some of the city’s historic edifices. Bellow is a selection of some of the most impressive atlantes and caryatides that adorn Romania’s capital, put in place in a period spanning from the mid-c19th to the 1930s, in styles ranging from neo-Renaissance, neo-rococo, Beaux Arts to classicized Art Deco.
I endeavour through this series of periodic 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 or selling a historic property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to advice you in sourcing and transacting the property, specialist research, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the
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.
The two images in this article are from the building, which was, in the 1980s, at the height of Ceausescu’s communist totalitarianism, the American Library, the United States’ embassy’s cultural arm. I was a student at the University of Bucharest then and became a member of this library that constituted a true and proper oasis or refuge from the distorted reality and terror of the daily life in Romania under that primitive dictatorship. The building which was then rented by the embassy from the state, was given in the last decade or so, back to its former owners, the Gerota family, who have it now on the market to let out as office spaces.
The US embassy obviously took excellent care of this landmark edifice of La Belle Époque period Bucharest, which is one of the amplest and now best preserved Little Paris style houses of Romania’s capital. I had recently the opportunity to revisit the building and take a series of photographs. I hope that this visual sample presented here would convey something from its magnificence and sense of Bucharest’s character as the Little Paris of the Balkans.