Romanian Autism – Bucharest Architecture and its Histories

Luminita Machedon and Ernie Scoffam, Romanian Modernism – The Architecture of Bucharest, 1920-1940, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Except for an extended, and largely favorable, review in The Times Literary Supplement, the book and its topic, Romanian Modernism, have so far passed largely unnoticed by those interested in art and society of Central and Eastern Europe. This is not the book’s fault, but rather the symptom of a larger malaise; for example, none of the major recent histories of modern architecture (Curtis, Frampton, Jencks) ever mention the architecture of Central and Eastern Europe, or do so briefly and superficially. (Frampton, for example, criticizes Soviet Stalinism as “just another” state totalitarianism). There is for the most part no mention what came before or after Stalinism, nor even about countries other than the USSR. Even now, after 1989, the countries of Eastern Europe are mentioned, at best, in academic research; it almost seems as if their post-war architecture had never existed.

There are at least three reasons for this obvious lack of visibility. First, it is due to Eastern European researchers’ own weak interest in promoting their patrimony, in writing the histories of their own artistic past. Second, there is, in East-Central Europe, little Western-style academic expertise on how to write academic books of a standard high enough to be accepted by prominent publishers. Third, the image of each country’s art in the 20th century mirrors its current “image” in the Western media. On the one hand, there are those countries that succeeded in reforming their societies and economies, the countries that, in a word, “behaved” themselves after 1989, essentially Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland. These are accepted as “distinguished” research subjects. More remote and fuzzy regions, like far Eastern Europe and the Balkans, on the other hand, are perceived as more backwards and less hospitable, and are therefore of little academic interest to the West.

In this sort of landscape, Romania is in a peculiar position. Its size – it is the second largest country in the region after Poland – and impressive artistic life and architecture stemming from the era before Communism would seemingly recommend Romania for academic research by art historians and theorists. However, while many Western scholars admit that Romanian (or, rather, Romania-born) artists did make a major contribution to the literature and modern art of the 20th century (from Paul Celan to Emil Cioran, from Tristan Tzara to Marcel Janco to Constantin Brancusi), they do not feel especially tempted to explore the Romanian chapter of these artists’ life and work, let alone the local art milieu, which in itself is by all standards inferior to the art scenes of, for example, Romania’s Western neighbors. And those scholars who do show an interest in the Romanian local art scene, no matter whether they come from the East or the West (e.g., Udo Kultermann or Anders Åman, mostly use sources that are either written from second-hand experience, or are largely outdated (the latter is the case with Kultermann’s book from 1993 ). Lately, we have been able to observe something like a change of fortune: from the architectural journal AD to major publishing houses such as Routledge and MIT Press, there seems to be a still fragile, but nevertheless palpable interest in Romanian 20th century architecture.

Dedicated to “the children of Romania,” Romanian Modernism is a serious and heavily annotated book. Luminita Machedon’s previous projects have included the 1994 exhibition Bucharest Between Avant-Garde and Modernism, 1920-1940, followed by a book of the same title (Simetria Press) in 1996, and finally, a Ph.D. thesis. Ernie Scoffam is a frequent visitor at the Institute of Architecture in Bucharest but is otherwise unknown as a researcher in the field of Eastern European modernist architecture, let alone Romanian architecture. There is little in the way of art interpretation in the book, and what little there is not always reliable. To begin with, the authors come off as a bit too ecstatic about their topic, which is perhaps due to the “enchantment” one tends to feel when studying neglected or “exotic” topics. However, the allegeduniqueness of Romanian modern architecture cannot be sustained any longer, and is, moreover, derived from pre-1989 populist jargon of national identity rather than from rigorous comparative research. The same could be said about the influence of the local architectural vernacular on Romanian modernist discourse. Such a claim would no doubt be correct with regard to certain architects who associate with the extreme-left, but these are not mentioned in the book. The authors also fail to mention one of the most important high points of this movement in Romanian architecture, the 1940 exhibition “Munca si Voie Buna”, even though it clearly falls within the timeframe of the book. The authors also never mention the Orthodox architecture of churches and monasteries from the decades covered in the book, even though much could be said about the effort to modernize what has been, and to a certain extent still is, seen as an “outdated”, timeless, or even “Byzantine” architecture. If this architecture had been taken in consideration, the scope of Machedon and Scoffam’s book would have become richer and more diverse.

If anything can be called “original” or “unique” about Romanian architecture of the 1920’s-1940’s, it is not the official administrative, socialist architecture that serves the Romanian State but the quasi-official Orthodox cathedrals being planted in Transylvania, or the hybrid neo-Romanian-turned-modern architecture of private residences. Of course, most of these buildings are not in Bucharest and for that reason they are not strictly speaking within the range of the book. But then, the volume’s very title is problematic in that it suggests that Romanian modernism during the two decades discussed is concentrated in Bucharest, which is blatantly untrue. True, major works of modern architecture, especially the official administrative palaces, were built there and then. But Romanian modern architecture originated in the Neo-Romanian style (i.e., south and east Carpathian Art Nouveau), including certain Cubist works that were built before 1920. There is much debate about post-war Romanian modernist architecture, especially regarding the period from 1945-1950, as well as the late fifties and sixties, when “pure,” Bauhaus-like and corbusierian modernism became once more popular, only to be severely compromised first by Socialist-Realism, and later on by Ceausescu’s megalomaniac urban schemes. Still, it is a good thing that with this book there is now a reliable source for further study of Romanian modernist architecture, made available by a major academic press. Hopefully, this first step will lead to a long “architectural promenade” on a topic which can be as exciting and controversial as its Western equivalents.