2006-12-01 Iulian Mursean
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A facelift for Bucharest

In less than one month Bucharest will be the easternmost capital of the European Union. In the 17 years since the fall of communism the city has gotten a facelift, but the traces of the past are still visible everywhere. Iulian Muresan from Radio Romania International caught up with a team of Romanian and British architects, sociologists and artists and reports on their efforts to give Bucharest a new identity.

Anyone strolling through the streets of Bucharest and admiring its buildings can detect the 3 major historical periods the city has lived through. There’s the golden age of interwar Bucharest, with its gorgeous houses and small palaces built in French neo-classical style. Back then the city was also known as the Little Paris. All that was abruptly ended by communism, which left behind the Soviet inspired blocks of flats and mammoth buildings, such as the House of the People, the architectural monster built by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Finally, there’s also the post-1989 period, which actually equals 15 years of neglect, followed by the present day chaos of a booming real estate market. Clare Cumberlidge is the director of the General Public Agency, a London based organization, which has completed urban regeneration and redevelopment projects in cities across Europe. She is a bit perplexed by what she sees, especially in the neighborhood of Rahova, which is behind the House of the People.

” I see many different periods of architecture existing all at one time. And it’s like a lot different historical periods have been crushed into one space. The culture to me seems quite private. I think it’s hard to understand, as an outsider, who lives in those buildings and how they live.”

The "House of people" stands on the place of former Rahova neighborhoodThe "House of people" stands on the place of former Rahova neighborhood
The Rahova neighborhood was destroyed by the communists in the early 1980's when they started work on the House of the People, the world’s second biggest administrative building after the Pentagon. Most houses were torn down while owners from the remaining ones were evicted to make room for families of ethnic Roma. Now it's a derelict area, with wastelands claimed only by stray dogs.

Clare Cumberlidge is leading a team of British and Romanian architects, sociologists and artists who are trying to establish the specificity of the Rahova district, to capture its identity and propose projects to the local authorities in charge with the development of this area that should preserve the identity of the place. They call this procedure, mapping. Clare Cumberlidge explains:

”The groups are looking at particular aspects of the area. So one is looking at the flower trade, one is looking at the social network, one is looking at the public spaces and one is looking at the history, and they're looking at those themes and thinking how they might create a map that can guide you through that aspect of the area.”

This year Bucharest has seen an unprecedented real estate boom. Over 50% of all direct foreign investment coming to Romania goes into real estate and in the last 6 months land prices have gone up by an average 30%. However most constructions are done in a rush, without any architectural concept or consideration of public needs. Nathan Coley is a Scottish artist focusing on architecture and public spaces:

French neo-classical style soared in interwar  BucharstFrench neo-classical style soared in interwar Bucharst
”When European money floods into Romania and that will happen, land value will go up and control of land will change. There's a real sense that everything that's here will change; I mean I said to someone over lunch: wouldn't it be fascinating to come back in ten years. And she said yeah, but wouldn't it be really frightening also? So this is a key time to see and to pause and to take stock of what's here, because the speed of the world and already there's investment happening in Romania and the people of this community have to have a say.”

Having their say - sounds nice in theory but it's difficult when most of persons living here are doing so illegally – or are simply not interested. Gabi Albu is a young architect from Bucharest who's also on the British-Romanian team working on the mapping of the Rahova neighborhood for two months:

Bucharest, Charles de Gaulle administrative buildingBucharest, Charles de Gaulle administrative building
"I've worked here with the community, with the people. I haven't managed to do anything architectural here. I don't know if a new market or some new houses will solve everything here, because the problem here regards the people."

I asked Gabi if she works with the city council and the mayor of this neighborhood. Her answer was blunt:

"No. This mayor wouldn’t care about it. We just tried to go to the city hall and talk to everybody. As long as we made some events, it was ok, but when we tried to involve in decisions and we tried to find out what's going on in the area, what are the projects, the intentions and if we can change anything, they just wouldn't answer and wouldn't come and talk to the people to clarify everything that needs to be done here.”

So it’s not just the buildings that have had to suffer from 50 years of communism, mentalities, too. And unlike the derelict buildings in the Rahova neighborhood, mentalities cannot be bulldozed overnight.

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