Bucharest’s National Museum of Contemporary Art in the Big House

Photo courtesy of Augustin Ioan. The House of the Republic, now the Palace of Parliament, was built in the 1980s and remains a work in progress today. During the last years of the Communist regime, it was meant to host all the administrative apparatus in one enormous building, allegedly the second largest in the world, at least at the time, after the Pentagon. But the Ultimate Edifice of Romania was part of a much larger process of reshaping the capital city of Bucharest. Due to the enormous size of the building, the upper floors are still unfinished and will remain empty until the Ultimate Edifice finds institutions that are willing to fill it in. At the turn of the millennium, however, and in deep secret, the then prime minister Adrian Nastase financed the “colonization” of the new institution of National Museum of Contemporary Art within the Big House.

Any attempt to analyze the anti-urban phenomenon of the House of the Republic/Palace of Parliament—once officially called Bucharest’s “new civic center”–should start from two premises: 1) The edifice defies any unique, “holistic” interpretation that could exhaust its meaning; 2) There are important distinctions between the modalities of explaining the building in relation to its exterior (the city) and the exterior space of the building (“its close vicinity,” to use the ossified language of post-Soviet politics).

A portion of this strange and significant place was appropriated for use as a National Museum of Contemporary Art (www.mnac.ro). This fired up controversies right from the start, from the moment Adrian Nastase, a self-proclaimed protector of the arts, made the decision – in stealth – to have MNAC here. The museum’s opening, in 2004, before the parliamentary and presidential elections, which Mr. Nastase and his social-democrat party lost, was also interpreted within political and electoral contexts.

The Romanian Orthodox Patriarchal Cathedral, for example, which is a neighbor of the museum, called all the elements of the project into question, from its name and location to its curatorial policies. The association between the building and the cathedral is not in the least haphazard. Their physical proximity will surely continue to engender tension, since it is difficult to imagine two more different (if not downright opposed) types of audiences to which they will appeal, audiences which will most likely visit at the same time of day.

The name of the building, for example, remains controversial for several reasons. During Mr. Nastase’s premiership all big, old museums, as well as those established by him, received the dubious appellation of “national.” Second, the very designation “museum of contemporary art” was deemed questionable. At first sight, it represents an oxymoron. The contemporaneity of the art purchased and put on display runs counter to the repository function inherent in a museum. The immediacy of that which is acquired precisely because it is contemporary contradicts somehow the stilted nature of gathering, treasuring and preserving old(er) art, inherent to museums by their very nature. What would MNAC then be? A chain of galleries, capitalizing on the mammoth inner space, where works would be exhibited that could find no other landscape in Bucharest because of their proportions?

A super-gallery with “national” exhibition scope? A regional and/or local space (i.e., limited to Bucharest)? Or a privileged display area for the artists, (whoever they might be), in favor with the Establishment (whatever this might be), and thus an instrument to manipulate the province of art?

Photo courtesy of Emil Georgescu. In addition to the controversial name, the location was also deemed problematic. Obviously, taking advantage of excess space in the House of the Republic has economic advantages.(Even after this action, followed by the transfer here of the higher chamber of Parliament (the Senate), there still remains a lot of unused area. For instance, in 2005 I “discovered” a spa (pool and hydro-massage) in the basement of the House, which goes to prove that “unmapped territories” (or at least unknown to the public) can yet be found in the biggest of Romanian edifices.) Yet this surplus of built space lies beyond a fence guarded by armed soldiers. Consequently, access to the museum is difficult. One must pass through unwelcoming security checks and cover large distances. Such obstacles are not likely to promote frequent, consistent visiting of the MNAC, especially by the potential target public: young people. Many exhibitions have included weekly events exclusively dedicated to youths, like discos and parties with well-known DJs and VJs.

Despite these controversies, the most valuable interpretations of MNAC, even if partial, are not necessarily found within the discourse of architecture and urbanism, but rather in socio-human sciences, political science, the history of mentalities, anthropology of the peri-urban (the slum), and, not lastly, psychoanalysis.

The various projects in connection with the House of the Republic after 1989 vacillate between two extremes: on one hand there is pragmatic talk about “recuperating” the building; on the other there is an interest in discussing the space in more abstract and conceptual terms. Those interested in recuperation include not only architects, but also a diverse group of cultural critics and the tour guides who show the building to mesmerized foreigners. With this interest in recuperation we are dealing with quantities, sizes, forms of design, special structures, and so on and so forth.

On the more abstract and conceptual level, the house invites discussion of topics as diverse as postmodernism, “Bigness” (Rem Koolhas), or its nature as an “object singulier” (Baudrillard & Nouvel). One of the “loftiest” aspects of this discussion consists in talking about the House of the Republic as a manifestation of the heavenly Jerusalemite temple that happened to be elevated here, in Bucharest, with a view to a second coming of Jesus.

Between these two extremes, one that glosses over the social, economic, and political folds of the edifice, and the other that indulges in an interpretative frenzy, there flutters a practically endless spectrum of minor interpretative efforts. For instance, nationalistic rhetoric boosts construction technologies and materials by claiming that they are exclusively Romanian and, as a result, of superior quality.(At times, the former royal Peles Castle in Sinaia, 120 km north from Bucharest, acts as a counterpoint to this example, since even the wood used for erecting that castle in the 1870s and 1880s was brought from abroad, consequently cementing the building’s status as “foreign.” )  Close to the other extreme lie no less phantasmagoric ideas regarding a pre-established plan for Bucharest that emerges from the utopian schemes of the Renaissance plans for a city named Sforzinda (Dana Harhoiu), structured according to a sacred geometry represented by a monastic Triangle of the Bermudas, with parish churches laid concentrically in relation to St. George the Old Church, seen as the navel of the city.

From the point of view of making use of the spaces within the House of the Republic/Palace of Parliament, placing a new museum there was a good decision. Like it or not, the building provides space for even more institutions, including museums. Since the “colonization” of MNAC, another museum has landed here as well, a folk museum dedicated to peasant costumes. Because the final form of the building was not determined by an open contest, as would have been appropriate in the case of such an ambitious project, the architecture stands out clearly. The vast halls have either been stripped of their initial flamboyant decoration or covered in white, cheap paint, meant to tone down any ornamental over detailing. The exterior space, on the other hand, gained the outstanding insertion of two exterior elevators that “frame” the entrance of MNAC and the People’s House. This “framing” of the architectural elements of the converted construction (column capitals of the colossal order, for instance, or the upper entablature friezes) muted part of the building’s toxic significance. Architecturally, I believe that converting this tiny portion in the edifice of the former communist Establishment proved rather successful, despite the obvious drawbacks related to the museum’s position within Bucharest’s public space, as well as its physical and symbolical location vis-à-vis the stifling, all-too-powerful presence of the Republic House.

Photo courtesy of Augustin Ioan. Photo courtesy of Augustin Ioan.

Finally, a handful of highly valuable events revealed to us some of the curatorial projects entertained by director Mihai Oroveanu and his team, who are considering displaying the entire creation of living Romanian artists whose careers are not subject to any controversy. It is to the credit of the organizers that MNAC has played all its cards most deftly, the poor ones included. It directly approached the relationship between Romanian artists and the absolute edifice of communist power, which now also shelters the MNAC, starting from the very inaugurating event, “Romanian Artists (and Not Only) Love Ceausescu”s Palace?” Thus part of the toxic chemistry spelled by the museum’s urban position was dispelled. Moreover, the exhibitions of “official” painting before 1989 – the first, in the very inaugural year (2004), dedicated to propaganda art; another (Storehouse, 2005) featuring art purchased by the communist state, not necessarily political – turned the handicap of being associated with the Establishment’s “troublesome heritage” into a media asset.

A variety of media and arts, including architecture, found a meaningful venue with MNAC, in a series of excellent exhibitions devoted strictly to the contemporary age. In relation to architectural display it can even be said that MNAC outshone the traditional, much better situated area downtown, within the Architecture and City Development University complex. Some of the Romanian artists, especially those hailing from the so-called experimental zone and, above all, those coming from the provinces, who from the point of view of cultural policy are a priori situated to the left of the mainstream, most vocally reproached this purchase policy and the biased exhibition criteria. Towards the end of 2007 there was talk about MNAC’s allotting a new, more consistent budget to works by local artists. It remains now to be seen if and to what extent criticism based on matters of principle will continue after the new buyingsprees.

I conclude by saying that the project of setting up MNAC in the Republic House has resulted in violent controversies. Let me support this statement by pointing to the dispute between art critic Erwin Kessler and Magda Carneci, published in 2005, in the prestigious publication 22. The strongest point made by Mr. Kessler’s text relates to how well the moment was chosen to set up this institution, given that Romania still lacks a museum of local modern art, at least one to target the period between 1945 and 1989. Romanian modernity, he argues, continues to be deprived of a consistent showcase.

On the other hand, Magda Carneci, a reputed art historian and critic, and director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Paris, takes a more prudent approach to MNAC. She notes that both disapprobation and praise can be grouped sociologically, according to a generation gap. Paradoxically, because the youth’s rebellious spirit should structurally be more likely to oppose the institution, it was youngsters who, more detached emotionally and politically from the Republic House, fully welcomed the emergence of MNAC. While underlining that most of Mr. Kessler’s arguments are correct, Mrs. Carneci purports that they nevertheless do not represent points of criticism. She further invites us to ponder the advantage of having ready at hand such an institution, a public presence in the local and international artistic sphere. Even if Romania does not yet boast a museum of modern art, even if it misses a Ludwig Museum, even if, alas, it has no museum of its cultivated architecture, the fact that it has a museum of contemporary art, whatever may be said against it, is an undeniable collective gain.

Augustin Ioan is an architect, critic, and historian of architectural history. A member of the ARTMargins editorial board, he lives and works in Bucharest.