the commuter's eye

on ‘modernizing’ bucharest

Posted in cityscapes, likes and dislikes, romania is my country by martzipan on May 7, 2011

how to destroy (national) identity with a new bridge and two wider streets

about a month ago, thanks to my phd internship supervisor at the sorbonne, mrs. nativel, and my bright colleague, alexander, i’ve had the privilege to travel to netherlands for one of the richest study trips i’ve ever taken. what stroke me the most was the fact that the city centre of amsterdam – where impressive reconstruction and restoration works are currently undergoing – looks exactly as it did more than four hundred years ago. its beautiful city hall is now hidden by scaffoldings, the narrow facades of the old houses preserve their subtle alignment, while the dam square is yet packed with pretty much the same colorful crowd, as you can see below.

presently, my home city is undertaking an apparently similar construction frenzy. still, instead of preserving a beautiful heritage, the process goes in the opposite direction when compared to amsterdam. what was once ‘my city’ (or at least as i remember its streets and buildings) slowly vanishes – actually it crumbles under the merciless appetite for destruction of bulldozers. that is to make way for some architectural and urbanistic aberrations, which kill any perspective – the case of the so-called ‘unleveled passage’ at basarab –, or demolish an entire history – the widening of berzei and buzesti streets. judging by the contrasts that these two endeavors produce, it is hard for me to believe that this has anything to do with norberg-schulz’s genius loci (if there was one whatsoever).

the old houses and buildings that not so long ago populated (at least a part of) bucharest pertained to an inventory of physical and, most important, symbolical goods. one of their many purposes was to instill the sentiment of continuity and the conscience of belonging in urban, stylistic, cultural and ideological terms. there is no doubt that they were the result of an (external) influence, as the surname of the romanian capital at that time – ‘little paris’ – suggests it. still, these buildings and the program behind also played a significant role in the establishment of a (local) cultural identity, through the identification with a set of values that architects, builders and propriety owners openly embraced and promoted. ultimately, this process led to the edification of an autochthon style, relatively hybrid and paradoxically perceived as both national and cosmopolite. or, in terms of eric hobsbawm, to an “invented tradition”.

surely, it all started with some individual changes perceived as architectural innovations – which later led to some sort of ‘new fashion’ – that upper bourgeoisie and local aristocracy brought from the western countries. the meaning was probably first and foremost related to the significant changes that were undergoing, but should also be linked with a more subtle aim, which is the forging of the nation-state. in this respect, probably one of the best examples is to be found in the project of the royal palace (today the national museum of art). from a house with about 25 rooms, around 1830, that served as a ‘ceremonial palace’ (if one can call it that way) it turned into a real palace in less than a decade. however, the same dramatic changes occurred in less impressive buildings and the subsequent development of the city testifies about the same trend that eventually turned into a particular local or ‘nationalized’ style.

i believe that the aforementioned buildings construct through their ‘nationalized’ style an internal coherence within a (more or less empty or stylistically irregular, but not eclectic) space, which is modeled in accordance with an urbanistic program. in this case, the term ‘nationalized’ should be understood in a broader context, as derived from the discourse of ‘cultural nationalism’, as understood by john hutchinson: „for cultural nationalism, i suggest, is a response to the erosion of traditional identities and status orders by the modernization process as mediated through a reforming state”.

what it is even more striking is the fact that, as hutchinson emphasizes, the purpose of cultural nationalists is “rather the moral regeneration of the historic community, or, in other words, the re-creation of their distinctive national civilization”. if we consider the urbanistic program as a part of a broader ideology, i believe that we can distinguish in the ‘new’ or ‘modern’ style (that at least part of the house owners of the late 19th century bucharest embraced) the same integrative approach. on one hand, they sought to break with a static and rigid tradition and, on the other hand, they attempted to cope with the large-scale changes that the end of the 1880’s announced, by preserving “the sense of unique identity” and showing their (future) nation “as a progressive culture in active contact with other societies.”

even more remarkable is the fact that these buildings were somewhat equally owned by (some of) the secular intellectuals (as formulators of the ideology) and by the intelligentsia (who provided the state’s political organizers), which looked both towards the modern countries but also in their own yard in order to construct romania. but in our case, cultural nationalism hasn’t adopted “state-oriented strategies by which to institutionalize its ideals in the social order”, as they didn’t actually exist by that time (that happened only after, during the communist regime, when cultural nationalism turned into pure isolationist nationalism). it was rather the other way around, by articulating, in effect, something that was later called “the national interest”, which rose and materialized in the dawn of the next century.

in other words, to put it bluntly, these houses – recently sent to the oblivion – were also the ingenious and extremely subtle expression of the same ideology that “regenerated the national community” and, to some extent, shaped the modern nation-state. honestly, i don’t think that the inhabitants of amsterdam are more conservative than those who live in bucharest. on the contrary. in my humble opinion, this lack of stylistic cohesion and coherence which is more and more manifest in romanian’s capital translates, in effect, not only by a simple instrumental confusion or by a non-consensus in urban vision (if any). it brutally states and endorses the absence of a program, or at a higher level, of any ideology to draw from.