Healing the Ruptured Memory

Why should the demolished Orthodox monasteries of Bucharest be rebuilt? After ten years, could this possibly still be a relevant issue in Romanian public and cultural life? Very much so: two prestigious Bucharest cultural journals, 22 and Dilema, recently published articles asking for the restoration of some form of sacred architecture on the concrete wasteland that fifteen years ago came to replace one of the most important sanctuaries of the Orthodox world: Vacaresti Monastery in downtown Bucharest. A bit of history, then: the monastery was built in the third decade of the 18th century by a series of princes from the Greek Mavrocordat family ruling in what was then Wallachia (the part of Romania located between the Carpathian mountains and the river Danube). More than 18,000 sq.m. of inner courtyards, chapels, and a main church of grand scale, with magnificent frescoes. During the 1848 revolution it began to be used as a political prison until way into the 20th century, when it became a regular prison. After the earthquake of 1977, ample restoration began but was stopped soon afterwards. The whole place was demolished by the decision of Ceausescu’s regime to build an ample “new civic center” in the historic downtown area south of the river Dambovita, which crosses the core of the city. The monastery was not the only victim: more than 450 hectares (1 hectar=10,000 sqm) of downtown area were razed, out of which by 1989 only 150 were replaced with the “new” architecture of the “House of the Republic” (the second largest building in the world) and the Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism, a mixture of huge replicas of North-Korean kitsch “monuments” adorned with decorations “saved” (according to the chief architect of the project, Mrs.Anca Petrescu) from the demolished monasteries in the area. The Vacaresti complex is the most prestigious victim; there were, however, many other churches demolished or removed from their original location and transferred away towards another one, then camouflaged by blocks of flats.

After 1989, the Union of Romanian Architects and the Commission for Historical Monuments debated for some years what might be the best solution for the reconstruction, given the fact that a huge slab of concrete had by then replaced the original location,the Palace of Culture and, ironically, the Ministry of Justice of the Socialist Republic of Romania. None of these vivid debates ever reached a conclusion, and interest in the topic faded. However, in 1995, the Orthodox patriarch of Romania started a campaign to build a National Cathedral in the downtown area. He managed to secure a site in Unirii Square, close to the present Patriarchal Palace. The consecration last year was sanctioned by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Romania, when the pontiff was brought in front of the cross marking the future location of the National Cathedral’s altar, which he kissed and blessed. An urban and architectural competition followed, allegedly to find the best location and scale for the church itself. The much predicted result? There was no winning entry, therefore not a single architect (or architectural studio) would design the future monument, but instead an unaccountable mixture of “experts”. Such an unlawful procedure reminded many that, instead of building “Houses of the Republic with a cross on top”, as some of the more rebellious intellectuals called the huge (13,000 people) Cathedral, one might instead revert to the uncontroversial project of rebuilding Vacaresti Monastery. The church itself was the largest in Bucharest and indeed in the region, while the surrounding buildings could easily accommodate the other functions required by the Orthodox Church’s hierarchy: a museum, offices for the Archbishop of Bucharest, and so on. Furthermore, it would be a gesture towards recuperating the demolished history of Bucharest and, in doing so, towards healing the ruptured memories of the city and its inhabitants. It would be only natural to replace the old sacred space with a new one, identical or not with the old monastery, but definitely consistent with the archival nature of the place. But every time when the topic of Vacaresti came up, when City Hall or the Historical Monuments Commission were asked for permission to rebuild it, the answer was that “it was not the proper time” or that “the place is too important to rush things”. And it’s been like this for ten years now.

It was not until mid-June this year that the city’s top urban planning commission dared to ask for a feasibility study on the rebuilding of the monastery. Dr. Florin Biciusca, associate professor at the Institute of Architecture “Ion Mincu” in Bucharest and one of the (very few) researchers of the troubled question of a new Orthodox architecture, was asked to coordinate the study. I have also discussed the issue with another prestigious Romanian architect now living in Paris, Radu Dragan, the (co-) author of several acclaimed books, the latest of which was published in France by l’Harmattan and in Romania by Paideia Press, Reversed Worlds: Representations of Space in Traditional Societies. Here is a brief encounter with both of them on the reconstruction of the Vacaresti Monastery in Bucharest.

F. B.: Building a monastic ensemble on the site of the previous monastery would be consistent with the history of the place and would also mean the recuperation of a consecrated place. However, one has to stress that the “original” monastery DOES NOT EXIST anymore. Not at all. There are no ruins left, nothing except for several columns and parts of the frescoes saved before the demolition. Of course, there are the blueprints and a lot of relevant designs from the unfinished restoration, but the buildings themselves are gone.

A. I.: Yes, but we do have the Polish example from Warsaw, where the Stare Miasto-the old city center-was reconstructed in its entirety after the whole city was completely demolished by the Nazi bombardments in 1944. There, too, the buildings were remade according to the “originals”, although they are actually “fake”. After 55 years, nobody really cares that the stones or bricks used in the reconstruction were not the genuine ones, whereas the public memory, embodied as it is in public edifices and urban texture, did survive.

F. B.: Here it is different, though. It’s been fifteen years that the place is empty. If a celebrated painting were destroyed by fire and someone would ask to repaint it according to existing reproductions, we would all agree that this is stupid. Strangely enough, the same rationale does not seem to apply to architecture! As an architect, I cannot seriously think of cloning a disappeared church. But I do insist that on the site of a previous church another church should stay, and that the new one should somehow address the previous one. This is the main argument behind my studies, which date back to the early 1990’s.

A. I.: Not only address, but also incorporate what’s left from the original church, which is quite a lot, in fact.

R. D.: I disagree with Florin Biciusca. I believe that the monastery should be rebuilt as it was at the unfortunate time of its demolition, not because of architectural arguments, but because of historical ones. I do believe that the Orthodox architecture should be updated, but this is different, it has to do with recuperating the collective memory. It is important to rebuilt the church according to the existing drawings and blueprints, not according to an “interpretation”, post-modern or not, of the church.

A. I.: I am sure that the various stages of the designs will have to be approved by lots of commissions and boards and they will be scrutinized by the press, so I believe one should trust the architects and historians for the time being and let them formulate a point of view as soon as possible.

F. B.: But there were four different stages through which the church has passed in its history. Which one is “the best”?

R. D.: The one that was unlucky enough to be demolished. In fact, I am quite surprised to hear about “four stages”. I only knew about the one erected between 1716 and 1722. I do admit that perhaps minor touches ought to be necessary, but not another project. According to G.M.Cantacuzino, an architect has to leave quietly after s/he has finished the job, making sure that no one notices his presence.

A. I.: Thank you both for joining me in debating the reconstruction of Vacaresti Monastery.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *