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)

Sheet metal fretwork in Chisinau

Sheet Metal fretwork, Chisinau (©Valentin Mandache)

I found these picturesque sheet metal fretwork doorway embellishments during my recent visit in Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova. They date in my opinion from the mid-1980s, perhaps the early 1990s. They are quite attractive and present a curious vernacular synthesis between the triangular pediment of a classical temple found among the prestigious historicist c19th buildings of the city, and rich ethnographic motifs inspired from the Ukrainian and the Russian ethnography. Another area rich in sheet metal fretwork architectural embellishments is Bucovina, a borderland between Romania and Ukraine, where the local ethnography expounds a large degree of fusion between the civilizations of the Romanian and Slavic communities.

Sheet metal fretwork, Chisinau (©Valentin Mandache)

Sheet metal fretwork, Chisinau (©Valentin Mandache)

Grand Art Nouveau style remodelling project in Chisinau

Chisinau (Kishinev), the capital of the Republic of Moldova, is blessed with a fascinating mix of period architecture dating mostly from the second part of c19th and the first half of the c20th, reflecting the evolution of architectural tastes of the Russian Empire, Romania and the Stalinist Soviet Union. The city contains a number of attractive Art Nouveau style edifices, the most spectacular being a recent remodelling of a Fin de Siècle house, which I encountered during my recent Chisinau trip. The edifice is mentioned on the well documented website “Centrul Istoric al Chisinaului“, which is a comprehensive database of architecturally valuable buildings in the historical centre of the Republic of Moldova’s capital. At the entry detailing the house, which was compiled before the start of the remodelling project, is mentioned that the façade used to be Art Nouveau (named “modern” in the terminology of the Moldovan architects), but completely erased of its decoration during the vicious 1990s post-Soviet property boom. It seems that in the intervening time an enlightened proprietor has decided to bring something back from the edifice’s former glory, as the photographs, which I was able to take from the street, amply testify. In my opinion is a tasteful remodelling and it might also be in the spirit of the original decoration that adorned the house, as I believe the owner had access to old plans and photographs from which the contemporary designer could guide him/her/self. It reminds me of another Art Nouveau project from scratches which takes place in Bucharest, which I documented in 2010 on this blog. I believe that this particular instance is a positive development for Chisinau, and the post-Soviet world, in raising the awareness and appreciation about the local architectural heritage that suffered so much during the two world conflagrations of the c20th, the Soviet era or the most devastating for heritage last two decade since the Soviet empire fell.

Grand Art Nouveau style remodelling project, Pushkin Street, Chisinau (©Valentin Mandache)

Grand Art Nouveau style remodelling project, Pushkin Street, Chisinau: first floor balcony decoration (©Valentin Mandache)

Grand Art Nouveau style remodelling, Pushkin Street, Chisinau: detail of the pediment decoration, 1st floor balcony (©Valentin Mandache)

Grand Art Nouveau style remodelling, Pushkin Street, Chisinau:  detail of the pediment decoration, 1st floor balcony (©Valentin Mandache)

Grand Art Nouveau style remodelling, Pushkin Street, Chisinau: window pediment decoration (©Valentin Mandache)

Grand Art Nouveau style remodelling, Pushkin Street, Chisinau: pilaster capital (©Valentin Mandache)

Grand Art Nouveau style remodelling, Pushkin Street, Chisinau: detail of doorway pediment decoration (©Valentin Mandache)

Surveying Chisinau’s architectural heritage

Surveying Chisinau’s architectural heritage, 26 May 2012 (photo by Diana Mandache)

Some of you already know that last week Diana and I undertook a short trip to Chisinau (Kishinev), the capital of the Republic of Moldova, where we were part of a team that opened there a travelling exhibition organised by the National History Museum of Romania, which commemorates 200 years since most of the territory that today forms this Romanian speaking post-Soviet republic was ceded by the Ottoman Empire, the erstwhile overlord of the south east Europe, to the Russian Empire, thus igniting one of the most conflict generating geopolitical issues in this part of the world. A number of the exhibits (old maps, books, etc.) are from my own collection of such documents, which I gathered in the 1990s and the early 2000s during my doctoral studies, on the historical geography of this region, at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Chisinau nowadays is a large town, with an ethnically mixed population of over three quarters of a million registered residents, making it the second largest city within the Romanian speaking world, a bit as Montreal is for the French world. It contains an ample and fascinating architectural heritage of a special mix, from ethnographic and vernacular Balkan type dwellings, to grandiose edifices typical of the architecture of Russia throughout the c19th and the early c20th, from the Russian Orientalist (Central Asian) current to beautiful Art Nouveau and historicist architecture examples. There are also a number of Neo-Romanian and Art Deco style buildings scattered throughout the town, dating from the inter-war period, when most of what is now the Republic of Moldova, was part of the Kingdom of Romania. In all, the place is a unique meeting point of contrasting architectural traditions.

I tried to use my spare time in Chisinau as efficiently as possible in viewing its extraordinary architectural heritage and photographing as many as possible of its old buildings. The image above shows me immersed in that captivating activity :) Throughout the following weeks and months I plan to post a series of articles detailing some of the most interesting architectural examples that caught my attention.