Neo-Romanian architecture in Transylvania before the union with Romania

Neo-Romanian style cultural centre building, inaugurated in 1913 in Seliste, southern Transylvania, then part of the Empire of Austria-Hungary; press cut from a Romanian language Transylvanian newspaper.

The Habsburg Empire hosted an important Romanian population, especially in the provinces of Transylvania and Bukovina. After the the Compromise Act of 1867 which saw the reorganisation of the empire on the basis of a dual Austrian – Hungarian monarchy, Transylvania fell under the direct rule of Hungary, which pursued an unveiled policy of cultural and linguistic assimilation of the other ethic groups making up the province, a policy infamously known as “forced Magyarisation”, a sort of cultural identity cleansing. Those policies provoked a strong reaction from among the targeted nationalities (Romanians, Germans, Slovaks, etc.), which tried through diverse means to preserve their culture. The Romanian population greatly benefited in that regard from the support offered by the authorities of the neighbouring Romanian kingdom, entity called by the Transylvanian Romanians as Tara (the Country). That situation was not unlike that between the c19th Greek state and the Ottoman Empire, regarding the preservation of the cultural identity of the Ottoman Greeks. The Romanian state helped its ethic kin population in Transylvania in setting up a series of cultural centres or sponsored newspapers and magazines. The press cut presented in the image above dates from 1914, just before the start of the Great War, and is from a Transylvanian Romanian language periodic newspaper detailing the inauguration, the year before, of a cultural centre in the village of Seliste in southern Transylvania, near the city of Sibiu (in Romanian)/ Hermannstadt (in German)/ Nagyszeben (in Hungarian). The explanatory text accompanying the photograph points out the Neo-Romanian style architecture of the house, which by itself is a powerful ethnic identity statement expressed in architecture, mentioning that the design was by an architect named Cerna, from the Country (Romania). I like how the journalist defines the [Neo]-Romanian style as “the style of the old boyar cula [fortified yeoman house] encountered in the Country.” The harsh Hungarian cultural assimilation policies and the tensions generated within society backfired in a big way in the aftermath of the Great War, when the targeted ethic groups opted for self-determination, in the case of the Romanians, to unify their provinces with old Romania, facts that ultimately led to the obliteration of the once mighty Habsburg Empire.

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I endeavor through this 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.

Neo-Romanian Architecture During the Great War

A sketchy life scale model suggesting a Neo-Romanian style house, exhibition at the Petit Palais, Paris 1917. (old postcard, Valentin Mandache collection)

Romania entered the war in August 1916 on the side of the Entente and after initial successes, was quickly overran by the Central Power armies, which forced the government to conclude a humiliating armistice in December 1917. France and Britain had little to offer in terms of consistent assistance to their ally in the Balkans, and consequently the country had to endure the enemy occupation of most of its territory and an attrition war in the refugee crowded eastern half of the province of Moldavia, which remained under the Romanian army control, helped by a Bolshevik infested Russian army. The postal card above presents a scene from an exhibition of solidarity with the Romanians, organised in Paris during those dark days, showing to the Parisian public, itself war weary, how a house in Romania would have looked like. The architect G. Sterian, had tried to suggest a Neo-Romanian style dwelling using makeshift materials and papier mache mouldings. This life scale model, which is more like a theatre stage setting, surrounded by palm tree plants alien to the Romanian climate and landscape, convey very aptly the tenebrous and unsettling war time atmosphere during one of the most difficult phases of the Great War for both Romania and France.

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I endeavor through this series of daily articles to inspire appreciation of the historic houses of Romania, a virtually undiscovered, but fascinating chapter of European architectural 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 Romanian Royal Standard

Most of the period architecture of Romania has been built during the reign of the Romanian kings Carol I, Ferdinand, Carol II and Michael in a period spanning from the mid c19th until mid c20th. The Royal Standard has been a familiar presence on the skyline of Bucharest and many other cities during that time, indicating the presence of the sovereign there. The flag was forbidden in Romania during the communist dictatorship and the first years of post-communist transition when the country was led by a second generation of communist apparatchiks. Here is a short contemporary video, filmed in 2010, of that flag (a model that dates from the 1920s) waving graciously again from atop of the Elisabeta Palace in Bucharest indicating that HM King Michael is in residence there.

Daily Image 11-Mar-10: Citadel Like Neo-Romanian Style House

An eloquent example of a Neo-Romanian style house from the 'citadel' phase/ period of this architectural style's development. The house dates from late 1920s. Armeneasca area, Bucharest. (©Valentin Mandache)

The Neo-Romanian architectural style, about which I wrote a popular article (link  here), had a number of distinct development phases during its nearly six decades lifespan from 1880s, when it was initiated by the architect Ion Mincu, until 1940s when it practically vanished as a style choice for new buildings, a consequence of reaching a dead end in terms of artistic-architectural expression in the new era of slender steel and concrete modernist buildings and also because the post-war communist regime perceived it as as an old bourgeois architectural style relic. The building above, which I photographed on a crisp, frost biting day this winter at minus-20 centigrade temperature, belongs to what I call the citadel phase of development for the Neo-Romanian style- its most spectacular period, that occurred between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s. Its main inspiration model was the c17th – c18th fortified type house, called cula, of Oltenia yeomen (a social class between local aristocrats/ boyars and free peasants) in south-west Romania. The cula, was interpreted as a nationalist architectural metaphor of the centuries old resistance of the Romanian people against foreign invaders. The Great War, which was instrumental in the emergence of the citadel phase architecture, has been a very traumatic experience for Romania, a country that experienced defeat, occupation of most of its territory, but also exhilarating achievements like the occupation of Budapest, the enemy capital, and the doubling of its territory and population after the war. The Neo-Romanian architecture after the Great War, was thus developing on an excited collective psychological background of survivor-against-all-odds mentality, and the citadel like structures became the preferred chosen type for new buildings designed in the patriotic Neo-Romanian architectural style.  The edifice above is an eloquent example in that regard, where I also like the fact that even the tower roof finial has the shape of a mace, a fearsome medieval weapon, very much mentioned by the bards of the Romanian romantic poetry. See my article on Neo-Romanian roof finials and their significance/message- link here.

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

Daily Image 25-Jan-10: Bucharest’s Old Municipal Coat of Arms

One of the few surviving examples of Bucharest's municipal coat of arms as architectural ornament dating from the period before the Great War. Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest. (©Valentin Mandache)

The actual coat of arms of Bucharest dates from the 1860s. It contains a representation of the city’s traditional patron saint, St Demetrios, one of the main Christian military saints, an indication of Bucharest’s historic role as a frontier Christendom outpost that faced the confronting Muslim power of the Ottoman Empire and its Tatar allies. The motto is inspired from the Western royal heraldry and reads as “The Fatherland and My Right” (“Patria si Dreptul Meu” in Romanian), an allusion to the fact that the city was a princely seat (the German origin Prince Carol of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen became the chief of state in that period) of a principality, later a kingdom, which embarked on a process of modernisation on Western lines at the height of the Victorian era. The coat of arms was also provided with a mural crown, indicating the urban status of Bucharest. When the communists took over the government and the country in 1948, the coat of arms was forbidden because of its Christian and royal connections. Most of its representations on buildings, monuments and other public places throughout the city were chiselled off or concreted over, with only a handful surviving in difficult to see places. I found the above such rare surviving example placed high above the street level, on the rooftop of the old Scoala Comunala (Public Scool for poor pupils) in the Patriarchy Hill area, and was able to photograph its details only at full zoom length. The school building dates from 1898 and the style of the coat of arms, surrounded by laurel branches and  flanked by two cherubs is in the French inspired decorative styles of the period. In mid 1990s, Bucharest municipal authorities have re-adopted the pre-communist coat of arms in a somehow different format, where however the three main symbols, St Demetrios, the royal motto and the mural crown feature prominently again.

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

Video-architecture: Bucharest’s Anglican Church

This is my first weekly architectural video blogpost!

The Bucharest Anglican church with its standard issue late Victorian Gothic style, designed by the Romanian architect V. Stefanescu, is quite a singular architectural presence in Bucharest, a city endowed with a rich Byzantine church architecture and a very incongruous mix of civilian architectural styles from French inspired, native Neo-Romanian, Art Deco, modernist to communist brutalist. The church was built in 1914-’20, and during the Cold War has been the sole functioning official Anglican church behind the Iron Curtain.

I mentioned in the video Queen Marie of Romania as a ‘niece of Queen Victoria’. She was in fact the British Sovereign’s granddaughter. The inadvertence was generated by the fact that ‘niece’ and ‘nephew’ in Romance languages such as my native Romanian, cover both English ‘granddaughter’/ ‘nice’ and ‘grandson’/ ‘nephew’ terms.

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

Peasant Devastated Country Mansion

Former country mansion in Wallachia, Giurgiu county, devastated and looted by local peasants during the 1990s, when the property rights were not specifically protected by Romania’s basic law. (©Valentin Mandache) 

I took the above photograph during one of my field trips in the environs of Bucharest, searching for traditional peasant architecture houses and old country mansions or conacs, how these buildings are named in Romania. Most of the larger villages have a country mansion built by the local land owner or aristocrat as a residence and headquarters from which the farm, an important business concern, was run. When the communist regime took over during the collectivisation programme in the 1950s- early ’60s, these mansions were used as collective farm headquarters or local schools. This new role saved them from destruction or complete deterioration. After the events of 1989, and during most of the 1990s, the Romanian basic law (aka Constitution) was lacking specific articles protecting the private property. Also the crypto-communist government of that time was doing everything in its power to stop the descendants of the rightful owners to recover their historic properties. That led to many abuses perpetrated by the locals, who profited of the ambiguity of the law and in more isolated areas, like the countryside, went on a rampage looting and devastating the former aristocratic mansions. The conac presented here, a large residency built in 1920s in a basic Neo-Romanian style, is one of those countless victims. It is hard to believe that the sorry landscape presented in this image, with sad remains of architectural ornaments scattered on the lawn, was the result of events that have happened only a few years ago. The scene in my opinion is more akin to that of an ancient Roman villa rustica devastated by invading barbarians during the fall of the Roman empire…

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

Daily Picture 16-Oct-09: Exquisite Pelican-like Motif Art Nouveau Panel

Art Nouveau decorative panel, Bucharest (Valentin Mandache)

Bucharest, Unirii area: this pelican-like motif (it is a combination of aquatic bird motifs, the pelican being the dominant one) panel is one of the most beautiful and exquisite early (late 1890s) Art Nouveau decorations in the entire capital of Romania. (©Valentin Mandache)

The building embellished with these extraordinary panels is in a very run down state, practically beyond repair. It is inhabited by careless and ignorant state tenants housed there since the communist era, after the rightful owners were abusively dispossessed by the then government. The building also seems neglected by the state authorities in charge with the preservation of architectural heritage. This situation is symptomatic for many historic houses in today Romania, a consequence of a low quality education system, probably the worst in the European Union, and absence of a proper civic identity among the Romanian public. Bucharest is probably the European capital where the local architectural heritage is most actively destroyed by its own citizens.

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

Royal Property Restitution: new documents submitted by Simeon of Bulgaria

This post has initially been published in Diana Madache’s weblog on royal history and deals with the increasingly difficult issues of property restitution faced by the King of Bulgaria and his family in their quest to recover abusively confiscated property during the communist regime. There is stiff opposition against restitution by many political circles in Bulgaria, especially from parties situated at the extremes of the political spectrum: communists and nationalists alike. What is happening in Bulgaria is also mirrored in Romania and Serbia, although on a more muted level, but nevertheless raising serious doubts about the commitments to fulfill the democratic property rights assumed by the post-communist regimes in those countries. Romania, as Bulgaria, is an EU member, which also has a deeply corrupt political elite, with a long anti-monarchic tradition inherited from the communists and inter-war extreme right nationalists. That elite has also grown accustomed to use royal properties for their own pleasure and interests ever since the communist times and finds it hard to renounce now to those perks. Those specific impediments add to the current difficulties faced by the Romanian royal family in completely recovering its rightful property.

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King Simeon of Bulgaria 

King Simeon of Bulgaria has submitted documents showing he has all rights to deal with the royal property in Bulgaria. The letter of attorney has been issued on December 20, 1999, in Munich, and is signed by five of Simeon’s relatives giving him all rights to manage the property of Bulgaria’s Tsars Ferdinand I and Boris III. The information was announced on September 24 by Simeon’s press secretary, Tsvetelina Uzunova, and was revealed in connection with statements coming for the Chair of the Parliamentary Anti-Corruption Committee and leader of the far right Order, Law and Justice party, who is questioning the royal property restitution in Bulgaria. The date of the letter is one year after the Bulgarian Constitutional Court declared the Nationalization of the Private Property of the Bulgarian Royal Family Act illegal. Simeon of Bulgaria had further submitted with the Parliament and other State institutions additional documents showing the relations with his family have been settled clearly and according to the law. [Source: Sofia news agency] ©Diana Mandache’s Weblog Royal History

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Historic royal properties in Bulgaria and Romania eyed again by the state

The post bellow has previously been published on www.royalromania.wordpress.com blog under the title KRICHIM Palace: A disputed Bulgarian royal property, on 18 August 2009, authored by Diana Mandache. It presents the apparent ongoing ground preparations by the respective states and governing elites for clawing back valuable royal properties. In Romania the Royal Family is still battling many unsolved issues with the state regarding the complete return and full recognition of property illegally confiscated by the communist regime. That situation impedes the starting of indispensable rehabilitation and restoration works needed for these historic royal properties, which are also vey important for Romania’s national heritage, in order to save and conserve them for the enjoyment of both owners and the public. The deteriorating state of Pelesh Castle in the Transylvanian Alps, a magnificent historic domain equal to any of its western peers, due to the Romanian state’s continuous foot dragging in solving once and for all the property restitution issues, is the most telling case in point in that regard.

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“I am based in Bucharest and closely follow the news in the region. Many articles pertaining to the royal properties, published over the last few months since the economic crisis has started to bite in south east Europe, indicate that in Bulgaria and Romania the state tries to claw back the royal properties, which were reinstated to the former sovereigns as part of the democratisation process of the last two decades that led to the EU membership. There was an apparent goodwill period from the governments of these Balkan countries toward their respective royal families that lasted until 2008, which looks now more like a ploy to gain trust from the western countries in order for the local elites to fulfil their aspirations in gaining membership in western organisations. Now, as the EU/ NATO etc. membership has been achieved, the Romanian and Bulgarian governing elites do not need their royal families on their side anymore. The crisis also has dramatically reduced the important wealth amassed over the last two decades by the top echelons of the Romanian and Bulgarian society, which have now started to prey on whatever is close to hand to recoup some of their rapidly eroding fortunes. The royal properties are some of the most obvious targets, as these elites, originating in the old communist apparatchiks, have a long anti-royalist tradition. The future looks uncertain, as the Romanian and Bulgarian governing upper classes do not need anymore their royals in the pursuit of their short or long term objectives.”

The Bulgarian sovereign King Simeon II

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IDENTITY MESSAGE as architectural ornament on Bucharest Venetian style house

I recently photographed a remarkable period house in the Batistei area of Bucharest, built in an abstract Venetian style, popular among well to do Romanians in the inter-war period, especially during the reign of King Carol II (1930 – 1940). The quality of the construction is obviously exceptional, since its intricate details survived practically unscathed the decades of communist and post-communist neglect. 

Venetian style house, late 1930s, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Venetian style house, late 1930s, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The house is from a period when the city was a cosmopolitan place with a very vibrant cultural life, still unsurpassed by the today amorphous urban agglomeration that represents Bucharest, the sixth largest EU metropolis. The popularity of the abstract Venetian Renaissance architecture stemmed from the fact that it had a high degree of convergence with the Neo-Romanian style, the most popular architectural order in interwar Romania, which itself has at its core elements of late Renaissance motifs borrowed from Venetian villa architecture (see my post on the origins and features of Neo-Romanian style for details). Also during the interwar period, especially starting with the 1930s there was a strong Italian cultural influence in Romania. Many Romanian intellectuals went to study arts and architecture in Italy and also the Romanian state established for those students and scholars research institutes (“Casa di Romania”) in Rome and Venice itself, similar with how the more developed European countries opened such establishments in Italy in late 19th century. 

What I found very interesting was the large ornament design of upper floor window screens that displayed a series of intermingled cross symbols, which if carefully examined, can reveal a fascinating riddled message about the ethnic and cultural identity of the house owner. Continue reading

COMMUNIST ERA ARCHITECTURAL ORNAMENTS in Bucharest

Romania’s communist era apartment blocks are noted for their substandard and coarse finishes and near total absence of ornaments or other decorations. This type of grotesque building started to define the city’s skyline in the second part of the 1950s, becoming emblematic for the entire metropolitan area by early 1980s. That is the communist building boom period characterised by the emergence of huge quarters of unsightly apartment blocks (see my previous post on the Four Building Booms of Bucharest for more information on the city’s real estate history). The construction of these dwellings was motivated by the communist ideology for utilitarian and equalitarian housing and also to accommodate a large inflow of population originating in the countryside needed for the communist sponsored heavy industries (the city’s population more than doubled in that period). The number of these buildings in Bucharest is so large that many were erected even in the city centre next to the old palaces or the quaint Little Paris or Neo-Romanian architecture houses. 

I found such an example of a ten-storey block in the vicinity of the Boulevard Magheru, an important shopping area that has some of highest rents in the European Union. What sets apart this communist building from the others is the primitive ethnographic decoration occurring on the concrete balcony showing the ethnographic Indo-European symbol of the Sun (the stylised six spoke wheel). 

Solar ethnographic symbols on communist era block of flats, Boulevard Magheru, Bucharest 2009 (Valentin Mandache)

Solar ethnographic symbols on communist era block of flats, Boulevard Magheru, Bucharest 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

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The BATTLE SCAR PEDIGREE of Bucharest’s period buildings: relics of the 1989 Revolution

I often notice when strolling through central Bucharest or around Gara de Nord (Northern Train Station) area the many bullet and gun shell scars on various old beautiful buildings. These damages were inflicted two decades ago, during the December 1989 Anti-communist Revolution in Romania. I have here an illustrative example of a Neo-Romanian style house from Gara de Nord area, photographed a couple of weeks ago, that still bears the marks of imprecisely fired machine gun shells sprayed around its windows by the poorly trained army conscripts in those momentous days.

(©Valentin Mandache)

Machinegun shell scars on Neo-Romanian building, Gara de Nord area, 2009 (©Valentin Mandache)

The scars are usually clustered around the window frame or on the roof edge area, as from those places snipers belonging to the communist regime’s secret police were targeting the crowd bellow on the street and the armed forces responded with machine gun fire. Continue reading

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

EMERGING FROM ASHES: a vision for heritage property renovation in Bucharest

Bucharest has a large stock of exquisite period properties that are in an advanced state of disrepair, with many among them too expensive to restore or renovate due to their advanced structural and architectural detail decay. 

However there are innovative ways to put back life into an old and attractive building by grafting modern architectural shapes and innovations on the old fabric of the period property. The method has been applied in countless cases in Western European countries, combining the period look with modern or avant-garde architecture. An epitome of this approach is the well known example of the German Parliament building in Berlin left as a war ruin for half a century and finally resurrected by the stunning architectural creation of Sir Norman Foster. 

Bucharest also contains an interesting such example, much reduced in scale and scope, namely the old building that used to host the embassy of the Austian-Hungarian Empire, which nevertheless deserves to be known and popularised as there are many other beautiful buildings in this town on the point of near-collapse necessitating imaginative modern interventions for their resurrection. The former imperial embassy fittingly hosts today the headquarters of the Architects’ Union of Romania

The Architects' Union of Romania edifice located within the structure of a famous mid-19th century Bucharest building

The Architects' Union of Romania edifice located within the structure of a famous mid-19th century Bucharest building

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