Haunted by ambiguity
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Haunted by ambiguity - a conversation with Mariana Celac
Bucharest, April 23, 2005

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Vinca Kruk: Can you tell me something about the French architecture influences in Bucharest? Were architects such as Anca Petrescu trained in France?

Mariana Celac: She was educated at the University of Architecture in Bucharest. It is not a very old school, established in 1892. It is obvious that from the very beginning, since the professors where trained in France, the influence or persistence of the Beaux Arts training system and thinking has been very strong in Romania. I'm somehow uncomfortable... I can understand that there is a lot of attention for the palace, just because it is so big and it caused so much destruction. At the same time, I'm unhappy, since this attention gives it some credit; credit that it doesn't deserve. I'm a little reluctant to speak about the palace. I would like that now, this building is put in a critical perspective. Just because it is linked to totalitarian rule, it maybe has some of the characteristics of totalitarian rule. In a sense, its decisions are arbitrary. You might think architect Anca Petrescu is the author, I think the author is Nicolae Ceausescu. The thing is: this building is not the outcome of a formal design process as we know it. A brief for such a big endeavour, then a competetion, the technical plan and then the building of the whole thing, it didn't work like this. It happened in a completely different way, with a lot of basic decisions being taken on the ground during the building process.

VK: There are stories that Ceausescu didn't have the ability to understand architectural drawings as three dimensional situations, and that models had to be built for every drawing that was made.

MC: There was an enormous model of the city centre of Bucharest. It was located in a sports hall, I believe, and there was a moving bridge overhead. That image is very evocative for the way the dictator thought. He was there on the bridge, taking decisions, pointing to the model. In the press some photographs have been published of the bridge, and the model of the city centre, and the dictator showing what to do.

VK: Can you tell me something about the original conditions of the area where the People's House was located? What was it like before the destruction? Are there exact numbers of churches and houses that were taken down?

MC: Some churches were demolished, others have been removed from their original location and were rebuilt elsewhere, but then obviously lost their surroundings and historical context. The area is measures about five square kilometers. I once put the destroyed area at the same scale over a map of Amsterdam, and all of the city centre of Amsterdam was gone. It equals the entire historic centre of Venice, or two districts of Paris. And of course in such a large area, one can find all sorts of things. From very good sophisticated neighbourhoods to pre-industrial proletarian semi-rural parts, some of which could be considered historical landmarks. The boulevard runs West to East through the city, cutting across the old tissue, not at all relating to the pre-existing fabric. In a way it goes against the historic development of Bucharest.

VK: Ceausescu started the development of the building after the 1977 earthquake. Supposedly the projected site for the palace, the hill, was the ‘safest place in Bucharest'.

MC: That is a fairytale! Every earthquake has its own temper. Of course no one can predict what an earthquake will do. Some earthquakes produce a tsunami, others not, so to say that in an area that is exposed to major earthquakes some places are safer than others is nonsense. I think some ideological motives were more important for the dictator. For instance, the fact that there were a monastery and a church on the hill, established by the prince who reunited the Romanian historic provinces. Ceausescu destroyed the monastery, moved the church from its place, and now it is behind the screen of highrise buildings just in front of the palace. The monastery would have been on the hill next to the palace, where the park is. There was really no need to remove that monastery.

VK: What happened to the people who lived in the homes that were demolished? Were they given new apartments at new locations?

MC: I think everybody was moved someplace. With the exception of cases where people arranged something or moved to relatives, I think everybody was ‘parked' somewhere in an apartment in the highrise. Sometimes though, these building were still under construction, or they were not completely finished yet.

VK: Was there any resistance to the demolitions? To the dictatorial regime, I can imagine, the resistance at the time was minimal.

MC: I think in the intellectual community, yes. It has been discussed and is still discussed. And the intellectual community is still split over the decision about the museum of contemporary art being installed there. The reaction was and is very ambiguous.
The explicit resistance was minimal, as you put it, but there has been an implicit resistance. Some people committed suicide, some people tried to protect a much beloved church on the other side of Piazza Unirii. There has been a passive resistance, for instance by saying things to workers. So when I say that there has been a very ambiguous reaction, I mean that of course while there were some very tragic stories, and there is a significant number of people who lost their house, neighbourhoods and social context, at the same time, when the House was opened to the public, the general feeling was one of pride. A huge amount of resources had been directed to that place. Many things have been erased from the list of priorities, in order to build that thing. Some people took it as an acceptable revenge against Romanian history, that lacks large or prestigious buildings.

VK: The overall feeling was one of pride?

MC: Yes. History has been adverse, here in Romania, at the crossroads of big empires, war and destruction. And finally, with local material, local designers, local craftsmen and local artists, this building was accomplished. The building has a lot of ornamentation and decoration. Maybe people here are keen of ornaments, of showing off with architecture. The construction site affected some 40.000 people directly. Everybody was somehow affected, simply because it was so difficult to cross the city. While the bridges over the river were remade, in order to get from this part of the city to another you had to take an alternative route. So, somehow everybody was feeling the consequences, the fact that one of the biggest buildings in the world was there, and one of the sturdiest at that. It is structutally very strong. If, or when, an earthquake would destroy the whole of Bucharest, that one building will still stand.
So that's a question still to be adressed. Why people who suffered a lot, were at the same time eager to accept and take pride in the palace. And even within the profession of architecture, there are big differences in perception.

VK: Can you explain these differences?

MC: For instance, many architects worked on the palace. At a certain moment, some 500 architects, and you have to add still the engineers. And not only on the palace, also there was a lot of construction on the boulevard. Just because the dictator said that the new boulevard should look like then-contemporary architecture from Paris, for young architects, there was a feeling that somehow they could exploit this opportunity, and try some Ricardo Bofill-inspired postmodernism. And if you look at the façades along the main boulevards, you can see suggestions of that. We are planning a conference where Bofill has promised to speak, where we will discuss this, again ambigious, situation. Those who worked on the palace and the boulevards, who tried to very hard to embark on the latest trends in international architecture, have a very subtle position or perception of the whole thing. Even the People's House has some very interesting features, done in a less arbitrary, ‘classical' vein.

VK: To me, the neo-classicistic elements seem done very roughly; it appears like a gigantic Barbie house.

MC: That's true, it is rough because the scale is rough.

VK: Can you tell me something about the Bucarest 2000 competition?

MC: That was a competition organized by the union of architects, the UAR. The president and initiator was Alexandru Beldiman, president of the union, and the main partner was the Bank of Romania. It was a very prestigious project: one million dollars for organisation only, and an international jury headed by Kenneth Frampton from Columbia University.
There were fifteen finalist, and I think there were five prizes. The first prize was won by Meinhard von Gerkan, who is now building a lot in China. He came with a very interesting plan. He proposed first to make a dense area of buildings around the palace. A sort of Bucharest downtown of highrise, to create a counterpart in height to the palace. It was very interesting that he proposed to cut the regular pattern of slabs with passageways. Some covered, some not, bringing in mind the old streets. So somehow, in this very rigid scheme, a poetic network of streets came through.

VK: The park next to the house of parliament today contains some roads. It is said that the shortcuts created around these roads resemble the streets as they used to be before the demolition.

MC: I think that is also interesting to be studied. You know how the park is also subjected to inhuman scale; people are looking for shortcuts. And I think some are indeed reminiscent of the old streets. A street is in a sense much more important than a building.

VK: I know nothing was done with outcome of the Bucharest 2000 competition by the government at that time. And then in 2004, it was decided that MNAC, the museum of contemporary art, would be built in the façade of the palace. Do you know how that came about?

MC: Let's say there have been alternative proposals where to locate the museum. Let's say that a group of architects I belonged to at the time were very much in favour of situating the museum in a famous modernist building, which is now the location of a busy market in a modern and popular area of Bucarest. The market hall would have been a fantastic space. It would have been a subject for contemporary design. Something of the intensity and impact of the Tate Modern. But the government decided to locate it in the House. And I must say, I was in favour of that. I saw it as a symbolic gesture, since it interrupted this building, only used for power and for the structures of power. I saw it as something ‘alien', putting one foot in the door opening. Also because of the way it has been done, putting up the two elevators, really changing the structure of the building. This puts the building in a critical perpective. I understand very well that there is something adverse to the museum in its social function. It is faraway and difficult to get there. It is not easily accessible; one enters through a gate with guards. A fence around it, it is far from a pleasant excursion. For those who are managing the museum, it is a great problem: how to attract people, how to make it inhabitable.

VK: When speaking to one of the MNAC curators, I was surprised by the paradox of this museum. They didn't actually prefer to be in this specific location, yet because the building is so internationally known, it provides a bridge to big contemporary art centres in Western Europe, and so they are able to get big names to the board.

MC: Indeed, again this abiguity! This house is haunted by ambiguity. I'm also curious about the future. Judging myself, since I don't have a car, I don't go to the museum. I think twice.

Mariana Celac is an architect and architecture critic in Bucharest.
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