Romanian Modernism

Luminita Machedon and Ernie Scoffham (eds). Romanian Modernism: The Architecture of Bucharest, 1920-1940. MIT Press, 1999.

Currently a reprint from MIT Press, Romanian Modernism/The Architecture of Bucharest, 1920-1940 made its first appearance in 1999. Although the book was welcomed by the cultural press and received a positive review from the Times Literary Supplement, it went completely unnoticed in Romania. This is not the book’s fault; it is rather a 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, if they do, they do so briefly and superficially. Frampton, for example, criticizes Soviet Stalinism as “just another” state totalitarianism. There is for the most part no mention of what came before or after Stalinism, nor that there was art and architecture at all, modern or otherwise, in countries of the region 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.Anything Romanian, if at all present in the West, goes under the umbrella of Slavic studies, which is both misleading for the prospective student and quasi-insulting to the topic, given the continuous animosity between Romania as a modern state and its more powerful Eastern/Slavic neighbors.

There are at least three reasons for this obvious lack of visibility. The first 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 about how to write academic books of a high enough standard 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 are succeeding 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, such as 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. As the second largest country in the region after Poland, its size is significant. Additionally, its impressive artistic and architectural history stems from the era before Communism. This 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’ lives and works, let alone their 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 have shown 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) typically 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 fragile, but nevertheless palpable, interest in Romanian 20th century architecture.

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 which heavily informs the book. She now teaches in the University of Architecture in Bucharest. Ernie Scoffam is a frequent visitor at the same university but is otherwise completely unknown as a researcher in the field of Eastern European modernist architecture, let alone Romanian architecture.

Dedicated to “the children of Romania,” Romanian Modernism is a serious and heavily annotated book. The alleged uniqueness of Romanian modern architecture (a cause dear to Communist propaganda and to some of its involuntary promoters in architecture, such as Constantin Joja or Nicolae Porumbescu) 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 are associated with the extreme-left, but these are not mentioned in the book. Neither do the authors 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.

While Sherban Cantacuzino’s introduction “On Being Romanian” is more of a tribute to his father, Prince G.M.Cantacuzino – a reputed gentleman architect and theorist–and less of a contribution to the book’s core theme(s), the Introduction proper (pp. 3-10) is designed to set the stage for the book to come, in terms of various working hypothesises. Some of them are still critical and either deserved more detailing or finer interpretations, or are biased by the theoretical positions of the authors. They do not warn us about their methodological assumptions, but some are immanent in the text. It is reductive to assume that “a united Romania embraced avant-garde modernization,” (3) as if the entire nation and all the social strata grabbed the opportunity opened by WWI (or, rather, its dramatic, and gloriously successful ending for Romania) to become avant-gardist. In fact, the avant-garde was still limited in scope and public awareness well into the 1920s, while Modern architecture, not necessarily avant-gardist, only became “mainstream” (i.e. clearly trusted for ample public works) as late as in 1930, with Horia Creanga and Duiliu Marcu, and not with the avant-garde figures of the ealrier two decades.

Also, the commentaries on “authoritarian universalism” of the intervening fifty years, while not undeserved, do seem to be as onesided as the regime they are criticizing. In fact, there were studies at the time when the book was written that indicated nuances in the monolithic aspects of totalitarian regimes and their built environment. This is true not only when former socialist states are compared, but also when different periods of Communist history and various alternatives to official discourses are investigated (for example, the so called “parallel architecture” of the 1970s and 1980s inspected by Radu Dragan in Arhitext as soon as 1990, my own description of Romanian postmodern architecture, and so on). This is also to say that it is an overstatement to believe that “this work is therefore the first English-language publication to address the phenomenon of modernism in Romanian architecture between the two worls wards” (7). Many other articles, master’s and Ph.D. theses published abroad, and books had already touched the topic, including some bilingual publications from Romania. True, none had perhaps the circulation that comes with the authority of this MIT Press publication, but that is a different issue. Perhaps a second edition should have taken these small mistakes out of the book.

I strongly disagree with the claim made on page nine of the Introduction: “By its essence architecture creates original forms.” While this may be somewhat true with respect to avant-garde and Modernist architecture, which inverted the meaning of value from tradition to novelty, this was never the case with the rest of architecture, from its inception to modern era. Furthermore, it seems to me that forms are part of the architectural toolkit which serves the purpose of fulfilling the ultimate goal of architecture, which is articulating spaces, internal and external to forms, public, private and autres. The authors do at times come off as a bit ecstatic about their topic, which is perhaps due to the “enchantment” one tends to feel when studying neglected or “exotic” topics. A more temperate and critical (in the sense of critical approach) perspective would have helped the credibility of the book.But this is by no means a theoretical book and it should not be punished for that, as it succeeds in terms of clear information and fact-presentation.

I am a bit troubled by the book’s title, which contains two puzzling subtitles. Romanian Modernism clearly cannot be just about Bucharest, and the architecture of Bucharest in between 1920 and 1940 is clearly not entirely modern. If anything can be called “original” or “unique” about Romanian architecture of the 1920s-1940s, it would not be the official administrative and socialist architecture that serves the Romanian State, but rather the quasi-official Orthodox cathedrals 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 that of 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 the 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.