Plural, an English Language Book Format Magazine
Since 2008, Plural an English-language book-format magazine published under the aegis of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest had a presence online. For several years this was their website for Plural.
Content is from the site's 2009 archived pages providing a glimpse of what this magazine offered its readship.
For more inforamtion about the Romanian Cultural Institute go to their current website at: www.icr.ro/
Plural is an English-language book-format (since 2008, online) magazine published under the aegis of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest, Romania (with branches in: Berlin, Brussels, Budapest, Istanbul, Lisbon, London, Madrid, New York, Paris, Prague, Rome, Stockholm, Szeged, Tel Aviv, Venice, Vienna, Warsaw). The first issue came out in 1999.
Its chief objective is to offer English (and, in special editions, other languages) speakers – students and teachers, individuals and organizations – interested in various aspects of Romanian life a comprehensive, balanced and ever-broadening perspective on a variety of subjects, through fiction, articles, and essays by classic and contemporary authors, as well as graphic art and photographs. In this respect, Plural is unique among Romanian periodicals.
Themes and domains covered so far include literature, history, art and architecture, anthropology, sociology, ethnography, philosophy, science, music and choreography, minorities, children, the environment, and many more. Beginning with 2005, the translations have been supervised (and some of them made) by native English speakers.
2008, Plural went online, with the editors’ intention to make www.plural-magazine.com the largest English-language online database of Romanian culture and civilization and a prime source of reference. Significant portions from the 31 issues printed until 2008 are incorporated into the website, to which new, exciting themes continue to be added, as well as links to relevant websites and video and sound clips, while Plural remains open to suggestions and proposals.
"While doing research on the origins of sterling silver jewelry, I stumbled across this archive of historic records and discovered a treasure trove of fascinating information regarding references to both religious and fashion related uses of silver. Most interesting to me, since I work for a sterling silver online jewelry store was the gorgeous craftmanship and exquisite gem settings in these ancient rings. Modern stores may carry beautiful sterling silver engagement rings, but they pale in comparison to the rings of ancient Romanian lords and royalty. Both gold and silver items were bejeweled with immensesly precious stones and other valuable elements like ivory. The loss of this magazine is huge, but hoping these archives will live on in other forms." Milhof Forman
by Aurora Fabritius and Adrian Solomon
COVER: Stefan Tuchilă, The People's House
Full of defects, anxious, weary in many respects, enjoying a capricious climate, and even wholly unstable weather, overwhelmed by the plaints of its inhabitants above all else, Bucharest was and remains paradoxically a city that is loved!
The ugliness of the city has evolved from gray to motley: from the frozen drabness of communist times to the dappled zing of burgeoning capitalism.
• Bucharest And Its Paradoxes
Aurora Fabritius (no. 32/2008)
• Little Pariah
Adrian Solomon (no. 32/2008)
» An Inhabitable Past
• A Tale Of A City
Bucharest City Hall website (no. 32/2008)
• What I Understand By A Capital
Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940) (no. 32/2008)
• Saint Dimitrie Basarabov The New, Protector Of Bucharest
Bucharest City Hall website (no. 32/2008)
• The Past: Plus Quam Perfectum
Andrei Pippidi (no. 32/2008)
• Bucharest – An Oddity Surviving Against All Odds
Dan Mateescu (no. 32/2008)
• Urban Memory: Museums Of The Romanian Capital
Narcis Dorin Ion (no. 32/2008)
• Patriarch Of Romanian Geology
Vasile Surcel (no. 32/2008)
• Grigore Antipa In The Bucharest Of The Beginning Of The 20th Century
Dumitru Murariu (no. 32/2008)
• Nature And Architecture: The Parks And Gardens Of The Capital
Narcis Dorin Ion (no. 32/2008)
• Public Works From The Time Of Carol I. Acts Of Founding And Commemorative Medals By Nicolae Şt. Noica
Tudorel Urian (no. 32/2008)
• A Showcase For Kalodont
Hans Liebhardt (no. 32/2008)
What I Understand By A Capital
clockwise from top left: Coltei Church, Manuc's Inn, St. Anthony's Old Court Church, Metropolitan Church, Mihai Voda Church, Cretzulescu Church, St. Apostles' Church, St. George's Church.
The administrative efforts that very enthusiastic and dedicated people like mayors D. Dobrescu and Al. Donescu have made lately and the ongoing preparations for the “Month of Bucharest”, including the restoration in their original shape, of old buildings as the Tower of Colţea and Manuc’s Inn are the reasons for which I am determined to talk about what is, and what must be the capital city of a country. As it is not enough for a place to be a royal residence or to be given the pompous name of Capital with a capital C for it to be one indeed.
For us to be able to speak of a genuine capital city several conditions must be met and we are going to see to what extent Bucharest meets them, so that by finding out where it comes short of what is needed, the very same good-will and enthusiasm of the leaders that I was talking about, combined with the critical and self-critical spirit of the inhabitants, help us eliminate these shortcomings – and change our city into what that foreign guest and friend of Bucharest called “the beautiful city that it might become”, through an uninterrupted and courageous effort.
The first of the conditions I was talking about is that a capital city should include an essential, if not necessarily rich, part of the nation’s history and traditions.
I am fully aware of the fact that in modern times, at the end of the abstract-and-entirely-devoid-of-a-historical-sense 18th century new capitals were built, instantaneously; it was a time that was apt to ruin everything that was meaningful in the century-old well-established traditions of the provinces of a great nation like France; these provinces were replaced on the new map of the country by squares representing the arrondissements and departments, their capitals marked by dots; new capitals with wide streets, tall buildings and wide open spaces that were erected on simple administrative orders issued by such-and-such office.
Placed as it is on the confines of the Bărăgan Plain and consequently exposed to the icy north wind but not devoid of natural beauty (only people that criticize the city without having taken the trouble to go and see it can maintain that it is), the city that developed from the village of a certain Bucur (a man of whom only popular imagination was capable of making a shepherd, adding to the story even a little church that was supposedly erected by him, but which was in fact the chapel for the churchyard of the monks of the adjoining Radu Vodă Monastery) is rich in historic treasures, which are, however, entirely unknown to most people. While there is nothing left to remind us of the first centuries in the life of the city (the end of the 14th and the 15th century), the 16th century is represented by the Old Court Church that was restored about the year 1700 and is now taken care of by the National Heritage Commission. A real shepherd was buried in this church, Prince Mircea the Shepherd (though he had not been a shepherd in the common sense of the word, that is a man taking care of a flock of sheep, but a sheep merchant and had had a flourishing business trading sheep in the Lower Danube area). Another 16th-century monument is the church built by Alexandru Vodă, much extended by his relative Radu Vodă, the prince under whose name the church has been known to these days. And finally, a third church from the same century is the one built by Michael the Brave on another hill dominating the course of the Dâmboviţa River (in the meantime the church was removed and the hill was leveled in the last years of Ceauşescu’s rule; thus, the best known emblem of the city, the monastery on the hill, was wiped out – translator’s note). Beside the already mentioned extensions ordered by Radu Vodă in the 17th century to the already existing church of the 16th century, there are a number of other 17th century churches that have survived and in a pretty good shape too. If Matei Basarab’s Sărindar Church was foolishly demolished, we still have the Metropolitan Church (built around 1650) that has been recently hideously repainted, Doamnei Church, then the churches erected by the princely family of the Cantacuzenes – Cotroceni, the new Saint George’s Church, Colţea Church and the Church of the Saint Apostles and, outside the town, Afumati and Fundenii Doamnei – as well as Ienei Church, the One-Day Church and Creţulescu Church, the latter being built by Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu and his son-in-law, Iodache Creţulescu (the Cotroceni and Ienei churches were also demolished on Ceauşescu’s orders – translator’s note). An endless list of small churches is indicative of the religious fervor of the people of the Phanariots’ times, an age that, out of ignorance, we unjustly misrepresent even in this respect, while we owe to it the commanding splendor of the Văcăreşti Monastery, originally built outside the perimeter of the city and later incorporated by it, the magnificent gift of Prince Nicolae Mavrocordat, as well as Ghica Church in Pantelimon where the members of this princely family were buried (one of the most remarkable monuments of 18th century South Eastern Europe, the Văcăreşti Monastery was also one of the most outstanding victims of the final years of Ceauşescu’s rule, being demolished in the late 1980-s – translator’s note). Boyards or lesser country nobility, merchants or craftsmen’s guilds, all competed to build such religious monuments so that their memory should outlive them and that they be remembered in the future.
So far, however, we haven’t managed to make good use of these architectural jewels, to set them off against the background of the city, even if they are the only monuments that have survived in the city, as most of the palaces and residences have been demolished and no trace has been left of them. We allowed huge modern buildings to be erected around these churches, buildings that are not only utterly ugly, but they also cast their mould-breeding shadows over these houses of worship for which even the most savage barbarians would have shown more respect.
It’s not enough to have monuments – and we saw how careless we were in preserving them – a capital city needs large avenues.
No human mind can understand how we allowed – at a time when something could still be done in this respect – that Calea Victoriei should have such a sinuous course, which blocks any meaningful perspective on this main road of the city. One could argue that this winding course can be full of surprises and that this labyrinth where you are forced to change direction every hundred yards has its special capricious beauty. I could hardly accept such a point of view. We should be grateful at least that, since this cannot be changed today because of lack of money, we were lucky to have at least energetic mayors like Pache Protopopescu and Nicolae Filipescu who gave the city its two main avenues, thus creating conditions, even if with a delay of several decades, for a normal traffic in the city. To achieve this, they pulled down whole neighborhoods of shabby, unhealthy buildings. The new buildings that replaced them, though not very much in tune with that of the old boyards’ mansions on Calea Victoriei, are much more appropriate for the place that Romania and its Capital should occupy in South Eastern Europe at present...
Being a genuine capital has not to do only with buildings, but also with people and their behavior.
About a century ago, Mihail Kogălniceanu, writing about Iaşi, tried to sketch a caricature of what he called “the provincial boor”. Before World War I there were no such people in Bucharest.
There were two categories of people in Bucharest then; both were equally stable, well-established and endearing. On the one side there were the boyards (the old noble families or more recent nobility) who inhabited often attractive houses in spite of their stylistic eclecticism, houses that you could see in the main neighborhoods of the city in the vicinity of the major streets; and, on the other hand, there were the townspeople living on the outskirts of the city, in houses with porches and big gardens or orchards. They were almost villagers in nature but they loved the city they lived in as much as the other category of people and they were all proud of living in it, they were an integral, organic part of Bucharest.
In the last twenty years, however, all sorts of people have come to Bucharest. Peasants fleeing the countryside and hoping to make a living more easily than by farming the land, tramps coming from God knows and God forbid where; and they were not only people from the so-called Old Kingdom (an informal name for Romania before World War I and the territorial gains that followed it – translator’s note) but countless others from God knows what end of Transylvania or Banat or Bucovina or Bessarabia, people lured by the ease of a new kind of existence and the numerous opportunities of enjoyment that a big city always provides. And this flow is continuous, we can’t stop it, we are not allowed to. It also brings in lots of foreigners that have no love or respect for the Capital, they seem, on the contrary, to be keen on spreading and protecting the filth that suffocates the city.
It’s a world that needs breeding and education. Beside the many schools that already exist in the city – though the number of libraries is unacceptably low, the City Library still awaiting its inauguration – we need an educational system for the grown-ups, to teach them not reading, but good manners. It’s a barbarian world that needs to be shaped and molded into cultural patterns, but not random ones, it needs the patterns of our decent, century-old culture, itself the result of a long process of sifting and remodeling.
When we come to see our small churches behind the modern buildings, when we stop changing Calea Victoriei into a string of warehouses for foreign factories advertising their products from Banat and Maramureş and we do not allow a greedy, wealthy proprietor to buy the services of a crazy architect and bring in the Tower of Babel to replace the decent residences of a sensible nobility, when the invaders of this city that has had a long history and used to have its good customs, too, are forced to respect their host city and behave in a civilized way, then we will have a capital indeed!
In no way do we fall short of what is needed for this task, but we should hurry! I’d like to live to see the new city after I have so lovingly studied the old one.
Translated by Dan Mateescu.
Bucharest And Its Paradoxes
by Aurora Fabritius
“O Moft! Thou art the watchword and motto of our times. Vast syllable of unbounded content, in thee there is such comfortable room for countless meanings: joys and misfortunes, merit and infamy, guilt and misadventure, right, duty, sentiments, interests, convictions, politics, plague, typhoid, diphtheria, destructive vices, suffering, poverty, talent and imbecility, lunar and mental eclipses, past, present, future – all of them, all these do we modern Romanians name in a single, short word: MOFT.”
Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912)
Three enthusiastic editors, yours truly together with Erwin Kessler and Adrian Solomon, had the opportunity to set off into the world as messengers of the most remarkable texts and illustrations to represent Romanian culture, not only in its particularity but also its universal aspect. It was thus that the PLURAL project took shape, a quarterly magazine of culture and civilisation, published in English, in the form of thematic anthologies, accompanied by illustrations and colour plates suitable or complementary to the theme.
With the twenty-fifth issue, a new half-yearly series began, continuing to tackle topics of primary importance in the history of Romanian culture while preserving the same principles, selectivity, and structure and adopting a modern design.
Not possessing an academic formula or painstaking bibliographies, PLURAL does not intend to be an elite magazine, but rather one that respects the criterion of value as well as representative selection, in order to promote a cultural policy aimed at bringing intellectuals from abroad into contact with the Romanian culture of today and yesterday.
We now find ourselves embarking upon the electronic issue of the magazine: PLURAL can be accessed at www.plural-magazine.com where it arrives with a well-structured body of Romanian cultural texts, seeking elevated partnerships throughout the world and challenging Romanian culture to enter a dialogue with other civilisations. A few explanations at the beginning of this journey: we are getting under way with a subject dear to our hearts – Bucharest, ever a controversial capital, and all the more so nowadays, from its traditions and boasts to manners, scents, perfumes, fashions, conflicts, aromas, achievements, defects, religions, competitions, sounds, harmonies, calques, decisions…
Without making any exception, Bucharest is one of the European capitals that has always believed in its own worth, proudly trying to keep up with not just anybody but with Paris itself, the centre of European culture and modernism – pretentious Paris, a city with which Bucharest has always regarded itself as fraternally linked.
Many Bucharest inhabitants delude themselves about former times; many of them even like to carry the burden of those times, constantly comparing them to the present. It was from their perspective that we published, eight years ago, Bucharest – A Sentimental Guide, which can be accessed on the website. It presents charming literary texts, remarkable archival documents written by philosophers, historians and novelists, Romanian and foreign, who look back to or gaze from the past with an indulgent or a critical eye.
Judging from the attitude of the foreigners who have had occasion to cross our threshold, analysing their diaries, journals, albums, drawings, photographs and correspondence, we gain an understanding of how many opportunities have bound them to this city, and we are surprised by the warmth they feel for the Romanian capital. Can it be that Bucharest is a hospitable city? Do the people of Bucharest have that winning I don’t know what and I don’t know how?
We read the illustrious pages of this city’s civilised history, we pore over documents and records, we note the social events that have taken place over the course of time, we endeavour to understand the laws according to which Bucharest life flows, we preserve significant dates, we weigh up what has been good or bad, we live here a lifetime and nevertheless we are still surprised! What is a newcomer to make of it, you will say?
An interesting and attractive city from many points of view, Bucharest ought to enjoy much more respect on the part of its inhabitants, in the first place, but also on the part of its aediles. Without doubt, the people of Bucharest do not excel in environmental protection or in providing a good example of scrupulous, excessive cleanliness. Categorically, it will be a long time before Romanians become good ecologists.
I regard sincerity, meticulousness and good faith as primary criteria in putting together a volume dedicated to the presentation of a city and its life, of the mentality rooted here. These are obligatory requirements that will have to stand alongside a good knowledge, a critical spirit, a feeling of belonging, but also detachment and, not least, good taste.
With these considerations in mind, we get the current issue under way. Even today, the capital of Romania is astonishing for its unique amalgam of western and eastern influences, which we must accept, take responsibility for, in fact, while at the same time fighting hard for our own identity. But to a large extent we share the fate of all capitals.
We set forth a sweeping current panorama, with the good and the not so good: romanticism and lordliness of spirit juxtaposed with technological abuses, a city with splendid, enduring buildings and historic monuments juxtaposed with the hideous structures that have brutally made their appearance in recent decades. We offer readers a city brimming with rituals and cultural traditions of great nobility, which peacefully dwell in close proximity to flagrant corruption. We are concerned, even worried, when closely observing today’s so-called modern Bucharest.
Forever connected to western European civilisation, situated at the border with the Orient, borrowing from anywhere and everywhere whenever it seemed appropriate, or even when it wasn’t, Bucharest civilisation is surprising precisely because of these spectacular interferences, because of its atmosphere, its connexions, its rhythm, and the bustle we encounter here, an atmosphere in the midst of which unfold lives marked by nerves, hubbub and more rarely harmony, a city where grandiose projects take shape, as well as dramas of every kind. You will appreciate the huge contrasts between texts and images.
Full of defects, anxious, weary in many respects, enjoying a capricious climate, and even wholly unstable weather, overwhelmed by the plaints of its inhabitants above all else, Bucharest was and remains paradoxically a city that is loved!
In many respects we continue – it seems to be an invitation to tourists – a place where stable partnerships can be established, a place that presents all the parameters the exigencies of our times presuppose – something that is not at all to be overlooked. At the same time, we figure in the current statistics with troubling data as regards the negative effects of civilisation, among which pollution is perhaps the most grave.
What is the reality? How does Bucharest take shape on the map of Europe? How does the image of our capital look when viewed from afar, from greater or lesser distances? What are we doing today in order for tomorrow to be better for all of us? How do we judge the behaviour of citizens who have settled here or of those who are passing through? What architectural and city-planning projects can salvage and rectify the mistakes of the last few decades?
We enlist the opinions of historians, architects, sociologists and other specialists from various fields, as well as writers and journalists, who have been taking the pulse and analysing the quality of Bucharest life for a long time, observing how the old habits, the customs of the natives of former times have gradually been forgotten in favour of the brisk rhythm of everyday life, replaced more often than not by an avalanche of counterfeit, dubious cultural information. It is hard to verify how much of what is now considered valuable derives from kitsch. The capital of Romania pleasantly surprises the world with festivals, galas, prestigious cultural events, performances, exhibitions, and impeccable scientific symposia; an authentic school of theatre and of film has been created here, esteemed throughout the world, the university has given the world prestigious savants, while the everyday life of Bucharest becomes more and more devoid of satisfaction, more hurried, often more ashen.
It will be up to you, the visitors to this site, to determine how much in this corner of the world is authentic and how much is kitsch, in this Bucharest, which, like any large city, has accumulated a sum of modern influences. Not only the native of Bucharest can be a slave to mofturi, to kitsch. Life everywhere offers new temptations of this kind. It remains for us to sift discerningly, perceptively, culturally, tastefully. What are mofturiif not Romanian kitsch? But kitsch in its turn can be considered to be a universal moft, for a quicker understanding of the matter.
The site remains open to lovers and connoisseurs of our metropolis, for additions that serve history and its progress.
Moft, plural mofturi, derives from a Turkish word meaning free of charge, cheap. In Romanian, the word has acquired the meaning lacking in value, content or importance, a trifle, a lie, a swindle, empty words, palaver.
A Tale Of A City
by Bucharest City Hall
Dimbovitza river from Izvor bridge, Old Court ruins, Patriarchate Palace, old house on Gabroveni St.
Romania's capital city Bucharest lies in the south-eastern part of the country: there, several centuries ago, the Vlasia Forests were reigning, from which just a few bunches of trees are still alive today. The Dambovita River, which crosses the city, and the intertwined sundry lakes to the north give freshness and humidity to the town during torrid summer days.
The honor of being the city founder seems to be disputed between Bucur the Shepherd, the candidate supported by tradition and legend, and controversial Prince Vlad the Impaler, the signatory of the first known document attesting the existence of our capital city and dated September 20, 1459.
Actually, historical research and most of all archeological diggings have revealed the vestiges of a fortified settlement, possibly the first one here, which is datable as early as in the latter half of the 14th century. At that time, Bucharest was born; then, around that first fortification of 160 square meters, several constructions were built one by one, such as the Princely Court, the Church of Mihai the Shepherd (1558-1559), and the narrow streets of merchants and craftsmen – namely the political and cultural town.
The city developed little by little, coagulating the surrounding villages around the old historical center. Dambovita was a link in this urban settlement, which spread along its natural dimensions, stretching mostly to the north, to the lake area. The reminiscence of the old villages is preserved in the memory of Bucharesters, with names such as Berceni, Floreasca, Colentina, and Pantelimon being now familiar neighborhoods of the city.
In 1659 Bucharest definitively became the capital of Wallachia. The city developed, as they built numerous churches, huge, fortified inns, and the first lane paved with wood, the Mogosoaia Bridge (1692), renamed Calea Victoriei in 1878.
The Vacaresti Monastery was built in 1724 – a masterpiece of the Brancoveanu-style architecture, which was abusively – and pointlessly – demolished during the later years of the communist regime.
In the 19th century, the city was modernized: in 1862, it was chosen to become the capital of Romania, the country that emerged from the union of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. It is the second largest city in south-east Europe after Istanbul.
Streets were paved, first with wood, then with granite from Scotland and Sicily, public lighting was installed, and the sewage system and public parks were built. In the late 19th century, the two axes were drawn: north-south and east-west, which conferred structure to the city.
In fact, the reign of King Carol I (1866-1914) was the time when they built the large edifices that became landmarks of Bucur's city: the Romanian Athenaeum (1888), the Carol I Foundation (1891), the Ministry of Agriculture (1894), the Palace of Justice (1890-1895), the Post Office Palace (1894-1900), the Sturdza Palace (1899), the CEC Savings Bank Palace (1900), the Patriarchy Palace (1907), the Military Club (1912), the Athenee Palace Hotel (1914), and so on. (see Public Works From The Time Of Carol I... by Tudorel Urian)
After World War I (1914-1918), Bucharest became one of the most beautiful European capitals: the brilliance of its cultural and social life, its atmosphere, and its architecture brought to it the well-deserved nickname of "Little Paris."
Its natural and harmonious development was brutally interrupted by the coming to power of the communist regime (1945-1989). The city became the object of a devastating social and urban experiment. Hundreds of thousands of people were brought to Bucharest for the forced industrialization of the city.
Not having any roots in the city, the new inhabitants were placed in dormitory-like apartment buildings, which, in turn, formed the workers' neighborhoods that became satellites of Bucharest.
During the years of the Ceausescu regime, an area of the city equal to the surface of Venice was demolished to make room for the aberrant project of the People's House. Dozens of churches, some of which were monuments of exceptional historical and architectural value, fell victim to bulldozers: the St. Friday Church, the Vacaresti Monastery, the Enei Church, and so on.
Today the city is a mixture of old and new, traditional and modern, eastern and western, which, on the one hand, makes it look like an eclectic and unstructured metropolis, but which, on the other hand, gives originality and charm to it.
Stop And Show Me Something Green!
by Ioana Popescu / Cultura, 16-22 February 2005
I used to play this game when I was a child, I played it so often that, from one day to the next, I always remembered to keep some leaves of grass, small leaves or even an entire plant, root and all, in my pockets, socks or sleeves. Little children played it too, later on. I don’t know if people still know this game today, but whenever I pass by a villa with green moquette glued over the pavement in the yard I can’t help thinking how a child would feel carrying that plastic wire in his socks and it gives me the goose bumps.
Where did the greenery of my Bucharest go? What happened to the old courtyards separated, just like in the countryside, by a wooden fence or a short wall covered with clay tiles? Since the passer-by was invited to glance indiscreetly or even engage in conversations over the fence, he could also see, during his walk, the flowery patch of land, vegetable beds and rows of strawberries, the vine trellis, one or several fruit trees – the shadow of the walnut tree or the mulberry tree protected the bench and the table actually used for eating – and waves of tall grass on every side of the narrow pathway connecting the gate to the entrance door. These yards – peripheral, if truth be told – were obviously inhabited, used, and full of life: laundry used to be washed and hung out to dry there, carpets were cleaned, linen was taken out to take some air, wine or jam was prepared in the autumn, chickens were raised for meat and eggs, the pig had its own pigsty behind the house, the dog would watch the house, the cat chased mice, everything made sense. And everything respected a certain order of events, because it was all meant to be seen. In time, starting from the second half of the previous century, these courtyards became fewer and dirtier, the trees died, the chickens nowadays peck among the vegetable beds, the pig is kept in deserted buffets or in improvised shelters and the owners, as if feeling embarrassed, came up with all sorts of means to make the fences opaque, to hide the disorder behind them.
Recently, to my surprise, I realized that fragments of these courtyards were vertically reconstructed in workers’ neighborhoods of blocks, in the closed balconies crowded with pots of flowers, rope and cords for drying the laundry, shelves full of jam jars, barrels of sour cabbage and linen taken out to air.
Yet, there is also an urban tradition of gardens in Bucharest. Elegant fences, made of wrought iron, with sophisticated cable moldings and volutes, through which we could see multicolored flowers; I often wondered whether the fact that the same kind of flowers were grown in certain neighborhoods – streets full of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), streets with garden hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophyll) or streets with cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) – was because of the fashion, or a certain feeling of belonging to the same neighborhood, or simply because the wind carried and spread the seeds from one garden to another. The round pavilions in the yards, with a table in the center and benches or garden chairs, bear evidence that these green spaces were meant for relaxation and socializing. You could see animals here too (pedigree dogs and cats), but their role was strictly that of accompanying humans and, perhaps, being an emblem of a certain social status. These were oases of tamed nature, peace and beauty. They grew fewer too, and the ones that remained, negligently obsolete, stopped being a model of inhabitance for the third millennium.
Bucharest, 2005. With the careful look of an ethnologist, I go over the streets of a fancy residential complex for the rich and picky. I don’t look that much at the countless new villas with thermopane windows, aggressive blank walls and balconies accessible only through the window. Instead, I’m interested in the yards and gardens, hoping that the present obsession with living “on the ground” might possibly revive the ambient tradition and bring back the love for gardens. The first surprise I have is that looking through or over the fence (if possible) triggers an outburst of aggressive worries from the part of the owners: “What are you looking at, lady? This is my private space!” I step back, embarrassed, and I try to continue my walk, but I am once again told off by a lady neighbor who draws my attention that the sidewalk, and the street, even, are the private space of abutting residents. “Can’t you read? There’s a do-not-enter sign at the end of the street!” The tone of her voice admits no reply, so I give up asking her why their private space looks like a latrine – dirty, with geological layers from the former construction sites and with muddy pits and bumps.
I indeed realize that the sidewalks have been eaten by courtyards, sometimes by extending the surface covered by the grass-like rug under the garden fence and all the way to the road, sometimes by taking down the limit separating the piece of land surrounding the house on the side with the street. And then, I realize the contrary: on neighboring streets properties were closed with high blind walls, locked gates secured with the help of modern equivalents to the iron locker – intercom, cell reflector or even surveillance cameras. Paradoxically, the fear of intruders and the stubbornness of controlling all the surrounding area mingle with the owner’s desire to make himself visible, with some extra work on his image: the land around the house is designed in such a way that through the gate railings or straight on the sidewalk (in the case of fenceless yards) we may see the empty, light-blue pool, the superimposed brick barbecue facing the street (to which it displays its contents and sends its scent, if it’s ever used), the pots and large plastic buckets with exotic plants making supernatural efforts to survive, given the local climate, which eventually will get thrown away every autumn, because fashion changes annually and the plants are not perennial. I had already noticed a similar process of destructive taking over of the common green area around the blocks of flats: the place is now populated with personal carpet beaters and improvised fences used as display stands for decorative fabrics; inside the ad hoc wire enclosures locked with an iron locker there are tables and chairs, and unused cars.
In all these cases, we can sense a paradoxical, contradictory, retractile and invasive relationship with the environment, both secret and declarative at the same time. One of the most visible consequences of this hesitant evolution taking the gutter way to Europe is, in fact, the death of Bucharest gardens; the end of an inherited cultural behavior and that of a rather community-oriented mindset.
You can’t fight death, and mausoleums are nothing but an illusion of power. Speaking of which… inside some mausoleum-villas recently built in the place of former patriarchal merchant’s houses there are jardinières plated with imitation of granite or tiles holding poor greenhouse flowers, like a material expression of the garden’s agony. Moreover, as a surrealist apotheosis of Bucharest luxurious living, well-enclosed and professionally-guarded ghettos are built in the north of the city, consisting of uniform-houses, obediently lined up on both sides of the soundly-asphalted main alley, at the end of which there’s the compulsory common playground, with its minuscule patches of grass slipped between mimeographed buildings. Beyond the border of these samples of contemporary paradise, the waste lots and the garbage remained, marking the buffer area between the city’s tamed area and the natural one, haunted by disorder and the unknown. There’s no concern for making contact or having a relationship with the other, the inhabitant from the neighboring street, or with the passer-by. Everything that is not brand new is considered to be trash.
Actually, come to think of it, I may have discovered one of the main differences between the mentality of “courtyard” living and that of “parceled” living. The house with a rural-inspired, multi-functional courtyard implied a system of daily re-use of different household elements resorting to improvisation and adaptation according to our needs: this way, the courtyards in Bucharest suburbs produced little to no garbage at all, and it didn’t end up on the common spaces, since it was reused, in its turn. The rule of this sui generis ecology was “I take the things I need from where I live”. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the luxury parceled areas, obsessed with progress and the trend of the moment, easily give up the memory of the old object: being seen getting rid of everything that is not modern becomes a hallmark of the high socio-economic status. Consequently, this new form of inhabitance produces a lot of garbage and even exhibits it. The rule of the new ecology is “I dispose of my things wherever I may live”.
The City's Ugliest Square
by Razvan Barbulescu
Jurnalul national, June 21, 2008
Translated by Ariadna Ponta
Clockwise from top left: Revolution Square, Maniu statue, Coposu bust, Hilton Athenee Palace, Kretzulescu Church, University Library, Ataturk bust, Carol I equestrian statue.
Post-revolutionary administrators of the capital city have managed to turn the birth place of the revolution into the dullest square in all of Bucharest. Lacking skill, culture and heart, determined to link their names to accomplishments meant to prove to the West our rapid rehabilitation, public servants of all ranks and political affiliations have played havoc with the middle section of the city’s oldest street, burying it under a hotchpotch of statues and monuments.
A jumble of monuments
After the post-war period deprived Bucharest of most of its exceptional monuments, the city has seen, after 1989, many an initiative born out of political vanities. While allegedly retrieving historical heritage, each political party left its mark in the shape of statues and street names echoing their respective aspirations. The idea was a felicitous one, but its coming to life was left to chance. The monument in Charles de Gaulle Square, known as Caramitru’s “button” (since it was placed there during his office as minister of culture) was generally misunderstood and made it into urban culture as a haberdashery item rather than a Christian monument, as the minister explained its meaning to be at the unveiling. The monument dominated the square until the steel and glass beast started to grow out of the subway station. And the jumble does not end here: the adventure of moving the statue of Caragiale from Maria Rosetti Street to a new location in front of the National Theatre and then back to Maria Rosetti Street is yet another splinter (I was about to say spike) in the twisted logic behind our local urban planning. In the University Square, instead of having a statue of Bratianu, we planted a clock stuck at the hour when we joined the UE.
Victoria Road, which Ceausescu left undemolished after the 1977 earthquake, because, as Alexandru Budisteanu, chief architect of the city at the time, confesses, he was not interested in the area (found it narrow, small, winding, unfitting for high aspirations and ideals) was thus historically fortunate. The most representative street in Bucharest was able to preserve untouched numerous splendid houses, buildings that are now part of the national heritage. Monuments, however, were not meant to last. The well-known equestrian statue of Carol I, the work of Ivan Mestrovici, whose sculptures were enjoyed in great American cities, in London, in Prague, Vienna, Paris, or Rome, was pulled down by the communists in 1948 and the bronze later recycled to be used for a statue of Lenin. After the revolution, the urban planning impetus of the city administration was unstoppable. Convinced that enthusiasm is enough make up for lost time and history can be revived with (mainly political) schoolboy zeal, people set to work and put up street furniture paying no heed to urbanism – plans or strategies. Not to mention the “commissions of the moment,” like placing the bust of Ataturk (otherwise a prominent political figure, founder of modern Turkey) in front of the Odeon Theatre. That is on Victoria Road, of all places, a street whose name commemorates the Independence War against the Ottoman Empire. And what of it? A revenge of the Turks.
And so we get to the Revolution Square, packed today with monuments the size of nouveau riches mansions, the kind that “store” a confused heap of “artistic objects” so people would take the owners for refined intellectuals. A square where, just underneath the now historic balcony there existed already a triangular monument (like a slice of cheese as a citizen of Bucharest, genuinely fond of Victoria Road, once put it) dedicated to the victims of the revolution. With its back to the “cheese” there sits Iuliu Maniu accompanied by a tree cast in bronze. No plaque, no inscription actually says it is Maniu who is depicted. It must be something for the initiates. What is more, no one seems to grasp the connection to the dead tree. Across the street from Maniu, a semi-bust of Corneliu Coposu, placed in total disregard of aesthetic rules next to the Kretzulescu Church.
And now, to crown it all, “the spiked potato,” as the memorial to the heroes of the revolution has come to be known, a masterpiece in the poorest of tastes according to specialists, a drivelling nonsense according to the people of Bucharest. The ensemble, designed by architect Alexandru Ghildus (comprising four architectural elements – the Victory Pyramid, the Memory Wall, the Triumph Path and the Remembrance Square) was erected with the blessing of presidents Iliescu and Basescu and Patriarch Teoctist. Rumours have it that the work of art was dear to president Iliescu’s soul, who envisaged its location facing the University Library and the former Royal Palace. Thus dedicated to the unseen crowds, to the heavens and the rainbows, facing away from Maniu and his tree and completely ignoring Coposu. The ensemble includes a space for recollection, with benches where the drivers of the cars parked in the square now come to play backgammon. The monument has had its share of criticism and people have expressed disapproval of the shape, the materials, the costs and so on. But mostly of the style (plastic artists used phrases such as “utter kitsch” or “failed circumcision,” while the populace minced no words: spiked potato, skewer, spear, stake) and the location.
THE LOCATION. Try to picture the Revolution Square, with the skewered potato soaring towards the Athenaeum, its back turned to Maniu. Maniu sits with his back turned to the triangular monument and the balcony, but faces Coposu, himself lost in the vicinity of the Kretzulescu Church. On an area of barely several dozen square feet, as if randomly stored, an enormous monument, one flattened into the ground and two busts which are as far as can be from being artistic achievements turn Victoria Road into a sculpture summer camp, where each artist places his creation wherever there is a vacant spot. Looked at from this perspective there is still room for three or four monumental statues at the end of the former Onesti street, in the middle of the parking lot, in the courtyard of the Royal Palace, on the right and left side of the spiked potato and so on and the initiative could be followed by an ample movement among amateur artists. As the abundance of monuments gets more and more substantial, the traffic on Victoria Road, from the Athenee Palace (Hilton) Hotel to Videanu’s building, a mastodon that tramples on the very notion of ambient, makes the centre of our little Paris the biggest town-planning failure in the post-revolution history of the capital. Had they been placed in a more suitable location, the monuments might have had a happier destiny.
And, as if it weren’t enough, there sprang up in front of the University Library the clay scale model of the equestrian statue of Carol I, a creation of sculptor Florin Codre. Before WWII Mestrovici’s statue of Carol I used to have pride of place on the same spot. Communist history is full of recycled statues and, in a dialectic twist of fate, Mestrovici’s masterwork became, for the following four decades, a political and artistic ideal in the shape of Lenin. Today, Codre’s statue of King Carol – it is up to the specialist to decide whether it is a felicitous artistic achievement or not – fits the grandiose skewered potato like a shoulder of mutton a sick horse. The statue of the king is at home in front of the palace, it conveys personality and greatness to the pace. The rest of the monuments are from another story
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