Bucharest as the Little Paris of the Balkans – Saturday 25 October

Dear readers,

I would like to invite you to a thematic walking tour, to take place this Saturday 25 October ’14, between 12.00h – 14.00h, on the subject of the late c19th – early c20th French and western historicist styles architecture of Bucharest, which made the city known to the rest of world as the “Little Paris of the Balkans”, a phenomenon that imprinted the identity of Romania’s capital ever since. The tour may be of interest to any of you visiting the city as a tourist or on business looking to find out more about its fascinating historic architecture and character.

The first building boom of modern era Bucharest happened during the period aptly named La Belle Époque, which corresponds with the late Victorian and early Edwardian epochs for the English speaking world (or Gilded Age in the US). It was characterised by a charming architecture inspired especially from the flamboyant neo-baroque, neo-rococo and also neo-gothic forms fashionable in France, a country seen by the then Romanians as a beacon of culture worthy to emulate, and from other west European states held in high regard by the young Balkan nation. The local architecture thus acquired a personality of its own by combining the new forms with the indigenous and Ottoman traditional motifs and construction methods, resulting in what I collectively call the “Little Paris style”. This is a type of architecture peculiar to the Fin de Siècle Romania and also to a lesser extent to the rest of the Balkans, reflecting the modernisation of the society and fusion in architecture of the western fashions together with ancestral forms. Bucharest is the best place in the entire region to view and study that peculiar type of architecture that emerged in this part of Europe, which because of its high concentration and relatively good state of preservation, is still an important component of the local built landscape. In the course of this tour I endeavour to show you some of the representative Little Paris style buildings found in central Bucharest, explain their architectural intricacies and the economic and social history contained without and within their walls and thus convey to you how amazing the Little Paris style is.

The tour costs Lei 35 (Romanian currency) per person, book by emailing v.mandache@gmail.com or using the comments section of this post. You will be informed of meeting place on booking.

I look forward to seeing you at the tour,

Valentin Mandache, expert in Romania’s historic houses (tel: 0040 (0)728323272)

Architectural walking tour – Bucharest as the Little Paris of the Balkans with Valentin Mandache

Architectural walking tour: Bucharest as the Little Paris of the Balkans

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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.

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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 Contactpage of this weblog.

Bucharest early wrought iron doorway awning

Bucharest doorway wrought iron and cast lead doorway awning dating from the early 1890s. (Valentin Mandache)

Bucharest doorway awning made from wrought iron and cast lead, dating from the early 1890s, Patriarchy Hill area. (©Valentin Mandache)

This is an early type of Little Paris style doorway awning, dating from the early 1890s, being a precursor of the clamshell one, which was typical of the Art Nouveau fashions. Most of these examples, now rare, are in a bad state of repair, and despite the fact that they are important markers of Bucharest’s architectural identity and history, remain uncared and unloved, ignored or even sold for scrap iron, a reflection how the local citizens, after the decades of communism and shallow post-communist transition, value their heritage.

Little Paris pediment through wires & door

Little Paris through wires

Little Paris pediment through wires, the former American Library, 1890s building in the Little Paris style, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

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.

Interior door, the former American Library, Bucharest

Interior door, the former American Library, 1890s building in the Little Paris style, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

“The Modernisation of Romania: Royal Destinies” – Presentations and debate at Cafeneaua Liberala, 10 Jan. ’13

Modernizarea Romaniei: Destine Regale

The Modernisation of Romania: Royal Destinies

The event is hosted by Cafeneaua Liberala (The Liberal Cafe, in Lipscani quarter of Bucharest), through the invitation the National Liberal Party Bloggers’ Club, Thursday 10 January 2013, 18.30h – 20.30h.
There are two presentations, followed by questions and discussions:
-120 years since the marriage of Princess Marie of Edinburgh with Prince Ferdinand of Romania – by Diana Mandache and
-The “Little Paris” style – architectural identity in the times of King Carol I – by Valentin Mandache.
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The partitipants will also have the opportunity to buy the authographed volume entitled “Marie of Romania. Images of a Queen” de Diana Mandache, the first pictorial history of the life of Queen Marie of Romania: http://www.royalbooks.se/produkt/45/marie-of-romania-images-of-a-queen.html, and also the album “HM King Michael of Romania – A Tribute” by HRH Prince Radu http://www.royalbooks.se/produkt/44/h-m-king-michael-i-of-romania-a-tribute.html

November sunlight and Little Paris architecture in Bucharest

November light and Little Paris architecture in Bucharest, house dating from the 1880s, Patriarchy Hill area. (Valentin Mandache)

We had a wonderful sunlight this autumn, beginning roundabout the equinox in late September until the time I write, in the second week of November. This season at 45 degree north latitude in continental Europe, where Bucharest is located, seems to be exceedingly propitious for architectural photography, with its clear, crisp atmosphere and intense colours. The images in this post are of a house in the Little Paris style (a term which I use to describe the late c19th architecture of Romania of that period, inspired mainly from French historicist styles, rendered in a provincial manner in this corner of South East Europe), a manner of architectural design that imprinted the identity of Romania’s capital ever since its day of vogue in the La Belle Époque period. The photograph was taken on 8 November at midday. It is a pity that the house and the entire surrounding garden is left derelict and damaged through being exposed to the elements or theft. These houses can be relatively easily and cheaply restored, but the actual citizens of Bucharest seem to not understand yet the fatal loss of their identity and heritage though that kind of damaging communist and post-communist attitude.

November light and Little Paris architecture in Bucharest, house dating from the 1880s, Patriarchy Hill area. (Valentin Mandache)

Street lamps and full moon in Bucharest’s old centre

Street lamps and full moon in Bucharest’s old centre (©Valentin Mandache)

Last week there was a full moon at this latitude and we also had an unusual Indian summer weather for the month of October. I took the photograph above in the evening while walking by Bratianu Boulevard, watching toward one of the side streets around New Saint George’s church, which is a more run down area of Lipscani, the old commercial quarter of Bucharest. In my opinion it conveys something from the peculiar half-Oriental – half-European identity of this city on the eastern edge of the European Union. The ramshackle Little Paris style buildings, small shops and people going about in the warmth of the night, in the clear-obscure generated by the the moonlight in competition with the makeshift street lamps are evocative for that type of character of which Bucharest abounds.

Clamshell doorway awnings from the La Belle Époque period in Ploiesti

Bellow are two wonderful clamshell house entrance awnings that I photographed in Ploiesti, the oil town 60km north of Bucharest. They date from the La Belle Époque period (late Victorian and Edwardian periods) and belong as an architectural “species” to the Art Nouveau current, constituting a part of what I call the Little Parish style built landscape of the urban areas of that period in Romania. The clamshell awnings are widespread in Bucharest, which make me consider them as one of the main architectural symbols of Romania’s capital, but also popular throughout the country before the Great War (which was then formed by the provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, without Transylvania). Ploiesti was developing spectacularly in that era on the proceeds of the newly emerging oil economy and as an important regional market town. The clamshell awnings are a superb reminder of those times of economic boom and architectural finery.

Clamshell doorway awning from the La Belle Époque period in Ploiesti (©Valentin Mandache)

Clamshell doorway awning from the La Belle Époque period in Ploiesti (©Valentin Mandache)

Clamshell doorway awning from the La Belle Époque period in Ploiesti (©Valentin Mandache)

Early Neo-Romanian style house in Campina

I have found in Campina, a beautiful town north of Bucharest, on Prahova Valley, during the preparation of the last year’s architectural tour in that location, an interesting Neo-Romanian house, belonging to the early phase of development of Romania’s national architectural style. That period unfurled between 1886, the year when Lahovary House, the first Neo-Romanian edifice was built by the architect Ion Mincu, and 1906, when this design peculiar to this country, was “codified” within the architecture of the great buildings that functioned as pavilions of the Royal Jubilee Exhibition of 1906 in Bucharest. The Neo-Romanian style subsequently underwent a mature and also a late phase of development until its zenith in the late 1940s.

Early Neo-Romanian style house, dating from the early 1900s, in Campina (©Valentin Mandache)

This wonderful example from Campina dates, in my opinion, from the 1900s, exhibiting a mixture of Neo-Romanian and Little Paris features, characteristic of the early phase of this design. Specifically Neo-Romanian is the three arched veranda, coloured ceramic medallions or the toothed brick arch above the doorway. Little Paris is the general aspect of the building, a wagon house facing the street, with a typical doorway woodwork and roof finial. The house has probably underwent a series of renovations throughout more than a century of existence, which altered or erased part of its ornaments and other architectural details, the most aggressive such intervention taking place, in my view, in the last few years.

Early Neo-Romanian style house, dating from the early 1900s, in Campina (©Valentin Mandache)

Nevertheless the structure retains enough original elements and details that preserve its original early Neo-Romanian character. The duo-tone processed photograph above emphasizes even more the outlines of this picturesque house, giving us a better idea about its interesting mix of Neo-Romanian and Little Paris designs.

Early Neo-Romanian style house, dating from the early 1900s, in Campina (©Valentin Mandache)

The main Neo-Romanian sector is the three arched veranda, a reference to the Christian holy trinity. That is also seen in the three-lobes forming the arch span. The broken arch feature is a reference to the Ottoman-Balkan architectural traditions of this region, as seen in the local Brancovan style churches of the c18th and early c19th centuries, a main source of inspiration for the Neo-Romanian design. The veranda poles are of ethnographic type, as encountered in peasant houses, another fountain of inspiration for the national architecture.

Early Neo-Romanian style house, dating from the early 1900s, in Campina (©Valentin Mandache)

The most eye catching elements of the facade are the glazed ceramic medallions embellishing the entrance sector or the wall space between the arches and windows. The coloured ceramic on building façades is a Victorian era innovation, that had somehow faint echoes in Romania of that period, seen mostly in early Neo-Romanian edifices. Above is a rendering in that material of a Brancovan church frieze medallion, in its turn inspired from Ottoman-Balkan Islamic architecture. Suggestive for Neo-Romanian is the toothed brick arch, which is an allusion to pre-Brancovan church architecture (as seen for example in Mihai Voda Church‘s brickwork).

Early Neo-Romanian style house, dating from the early 1900s, in Campina (©Valentin Mandache)

I particularly like the yellow and blue coloured ceramic medallions pointing out the wall between the arches that together with the brown-red shade of the façade rendering, which originally was probably a Pompeian red hue, used in the decoration of many early and mature phase Neo-Romanian edifices, make up the colours of Romania’s national flag, a peculiar instance that I encountered in few other examples of houses in this design genre.

Art Nouveau letter box plate

Art Nouveau letter box plate dating from the 1900s, Mosilor area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Bucharest is an interesting Art Nouveau province, located at the geographical and in many aspects architectural periphery of this style. That is why the Art Nouveau designs occur mostly fragmentary, in small bits and pieces on buildings that display overall conservative c19th historicisit styles or on some early Neo-Romanian edifices. That makes them less visible for the the untrained eye, constituting one of my favourite past-times to spot them. The letter box plate from the image above is one of those discoveries, adorning the Little Paris style doorway of a 1900s house in Mosilor area of Bucharest. Its lettering style renders, somehow in a provincial Art Nouveau manner, the free flowing plant leaves so peculiar for this style, making it quite evocative for the manifestation of this current in this part of the world.

Art Nouveau letter box plate

Art Nouveau letter box plate dating from the 1900s, Mosilor area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Bucharest is an interesting Art Nouveau province, located at the geographical and in many aspects architectural periphery of this style. That is why the Art Nouveau designs occur mostly fragmentary, in small bits and pieces on buildings that display overall conservative c19th historicisit styles or on some early Neo-Romanian edifices. That makes them less visible for the the untrained eye, constituting one of my favourite past-times to spot them. The letter box plate from the image above is one of those discoveries, adorning the Little Paris style doorway of a 1900s house in Mosilor area of Bucharest. Its lettering style renders, somehow in a provincial Art Nouveau manner, the free flowing plant leaves so peculiar for this style, making it quite evocative for the manifestation of this current in this part of the world.

Photographs form “Bucharest as the Little Paris of the Balkans” tour on 30 August ’12

Bucharest as the Little Paris of the Balkans – Historic Houses of Romania tour

The Little Paris style is an umbrella term which I use to define the architecture inspired especially from French c19th styles, rendered in a provincial manner that acquired a personality of its own in Fin de Siècle Romania and also to a lesser extent to the rest of the Balkans, reflecting the modernisation of the society and fusion in architecture of the western fashions together with local forms. Bucharest is the best place in the entire region to view and study that peculiar type of architecture that emerged in this part of Europe, which because of its high concentration and relatively good state of preservation, is still an important component of the local built landscape. The photographs presented here were shot during the Historic Houses of Romania tour of a few days ago, representing a small sample from the great multitude of such picturesque houses of Bucharest.

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Neo-Romanian style wall lamps designed by architect Ion Mincu

Neo-Romanian style wall lamps designed by architect Ion Mincu, Monteoru House, 1889, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The exquisite pair of lamps, presented in the images of this post, adorn the monumental doorway of Monteoru House in Bucharest, a grand boyar (the Romanian term for “aristocrat”) mansion, built in a French flavour Beaux Arts style. The edifice lines up Calea Victoriei Boulevard, a thoroughfare that is traditionally among the prime streets of Romania’s capital. The lamps belong to the early phase of the Neo-Romanian style, designed, in my opinion, by the architect Ion Mincu, under whose direction the building was radically remodelled, works finalised in 1889.

Neo-Romanian style wall lamp designed by architect Ion Mincu, Monteoru House, 1889, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

What makes me to attribute these lamps to Mincu, are two elements that betray his manner of design. The most conspicuous is constituted by the “spikes” embellishing the artefact like an out of the normal proportion crown. The other element is the shape of each of the lamp’s windows.

Neo-Romanian style wall lamp designed by architect Ion Mincu, Monteoru House, 1889, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

I noticed during my fieldwork at Ion Mincu’s houses in Bucharest, his tendency to design certain architectural elements, especially those placed on the edges of an edifice or of other major components, as out of the usual proportions, like looking at them through a magnifying glass. Such examples are the spikes adorning the rainwater troughs of Lahovay House (1886 – the first Neo-Romanian style building), or the ornamental “spikes” adorning the street fence in front of Central School for Girls (1890). That tendency is also mentioned in Mincu’s biography written by Mihail Caffe (Editura Stiintifica, 1960), as regards the appearance of his sketches. The out of normal optics lamp “spikes” shown here are in that vein, which in my opinion divulge their author.

The second Mincu element discussed here, the shape of the lamp window, is designed like a miniature church doorway, modelled after examples found at Curtea de Arges cathedral and Coltei Church in Bucharest. Mincu uses this type of window for his masterly work of interior design at Constanta Bishopric Cathedral (1895), on the Romanian Black Sea shore.

Neo-Romanian style wall lamps designed by architect Ion Mincu, Monteoru House, 1889, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The lamps through those characteristics, which I attribute to Ion Mincu, have a striking aspect, certainly drawing the attention of visitors and passerby, and giving a plus of personality to Monteoru House, one of the landmark architectural edifices of Bucharest. This type of design was later used by other architects, many former students of Mincu, for some of the most prestigious Neo-Romanian style buildings that are still embellishing the city.

A century old air vent

Air vent of a 1900s house in Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Actually this air vent is about 110 years old. It is still in good working order, ensuring the ventilation of a brick lined cellar underneath a flamboyant Little Paris style house in Mantuleasa area of Bucharest. The period houses of this city were much better aired than the ones built during the communist and post-communist periods. Unfortunately those air vents and ducts are now fast disappearing, victims of the botched “renovation” or “modernisation” works performed by the uncouth contemporary inhabitants of Romania’s capital, with dreadful consequences for the integrity of the fabric of those historic buildings.

Bucharest and Chisinau letter boxes

I enjoy making parallels between the architectural phenomena of different places and periods, to see if I can extract interesting clues about the history and societies that produced and host those artefacts. In fact, for me, the comparatist method is a main means of investigation of the exacting and apparently chaotic built landscape of Bucharest and Romania, where there is not yet a tradition of quality architectural history commentariat and the academic literature in that field is still thin on the ground.

Letter box lid, 1900s house, Icoanei area, Buharest (©Valentin Mandache)

To illustrate that, I have here two letter boxes, their openings more precisely, dating from the La Belle Epoque period. The one above is from Bucharest, adorning a 1900s gate, inscribed on its flap with the Romanian text “Scrisori si Jurnale”, which translates as “Letters and Journals”. The one shown bellow is from Chisinau, the Republic of Moldova, is quite obscured under thick coats of paint. It reads in Russian as “Dlya Pisemi i Gazeti”, which in English is “For Letters and Journals”.

Those cities are in the same area of South East European civilization, but different historical experiences in the last two centuries, exhibiting often diverging trends in their architectural and artistic preferences, as these letter boxes testify. The Romanian one, adorning a wrought iron gate shows the popularity of this architectural element in Bucharest and the country, and the existence of front gardens, people enjoying interacting within the community, while in Chisinau the letter box affixed on a street doorway indicates the preference of houses with walls fronting the street, with intimate interior gardens, away from the peering eyes of neighbours and passerby. The Romanian letter box flap displays a sort of French inspired Beaux Arts decoration indicating the influence of the influence of that country in this part of Europe, while the Chisinau box is surrounded by Renaissance inspired ornaments, underlying the stronger Renaissance tradition and popularity of this style in Imperial Russia. The languages used to inscribe these artefacts also suggest the existence of a more cosmopolitan society in Chisnau. The very fact that this city has now a majority of Romanian speaking population, and this Russian inscription is left in its place, indicates a more tolerant attitude for ethnic diversity than the nowadays boringly mono-ethnic Bucharest.

There are many other interesting architectural and historic fact than can be drawn by comparing these two simple letter box openings, showing the usefulness of this research method in less documented and talked about places like Romania and the Republic of Moldova.

Letter box opening, 1890s house, Chisinau, the Republic of Moldova (©Valentin Mandache)

Letter box opening, 1890s house, Chisinau, the Republic of Moldova (©Valentin Mandache)

iPhone photo of the day: ornamental ring bell string conduit

This is a rare ring bell string conduit from the La Belle Epoque Period of Bucarest. It adorns the doorway of “Carturesti” bookshop and is still in an excellent condition. The string linking the bell with the its handle would have passed through a small hole within the small barrel like element seen at the centre of this artefact.

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Doorbell string conduit, adorning an 1900s Little Paris style house in Icoanei area, Bucuarest (©Valentin Mandache)