Architects of the Extreme

How the planning of Communist blocks in Bucharest changed from a western vision of functional housing to a sabotage of the city

by Vlad Odobescu, Michael Bird

07 September 2018


To an outsider, Bucharest is a sea of uniform blocks that hustle and crush a pre-World War II city - a totalitarian nightmare encroaching on a low-level European town of rusting roofs, cracking walls and crumbling plaster.

But the Romanian capital has lived through different ages of development since the Communists seized control in 1946. What started as a western-inspired Modernist vision, fuelled by the enthusiasm of young architects, changed to a cataclysmic raid on the urban environment, leaving the city fractured and traumatised. After a Revolution in 1989 kicked out the Communist regime, the city has operated only as a caretaker to its stockpile of concrete hulks, and has failed to draw up a consistent plan for urban development.

Today around 70 per cent of the city’s 1.95 million people live in multi-storey apartments, the vast majority built during or finished after Communism. With very few exceptions, collective housing in blocks were the only new homes constructed from the 1950s until the late 1980s, yet their design and quality vary, and political interference played a key role in changing the construction of neighbourhoods from an egalitarian utopia to a monolithic horrorshow.

This is their story.

Stalinist blocks, Drumul Taberei, Bucharest

Fitting into urban fabric of city: Socialist Realist block in Drumul Taberei, Bucharest (Photo: M Bird)

1952-1959: Stalinism Rules

Bucharest was always a city built in a rush. Between 1912 and 1948, the young capital of Romania experienced a population explosion, tripling its numbers to one million inhabitants.

The architecture was a hybrid of baroque and art nouveau villas, rural cottages and smallholdings, art deco, art nouveau and Modernist housing from the Interwar period, alongside buildings in the Brancovenesque style, a quasi-Byzantine design inspired by Orthodox church architecture.

The city was never finished, as it hurried to construct a hub to rival the established capitals of Budapest, Vienna or Istanbul.

On the surface, its boulevards were grand, and its architecture impressive, however its people still lived in rural conditions. By the end of the second world war, 80 per cent of the population occupied housing with no access to sewers, 72 per cent no running water and over half had no electricity.

After the Communist Party took over Romania in 1946, its general secretary, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, promoted a centrally-planned economic vision for his country, echoing the development of the USSR.

The Communists purged liberals from the top professions, many architects faced jail and students were arrested, while urban planners and architects were brought under the supervision of the Communist party.

“What makes this different from a liberal system is that the state - the public authority - is everything - investor, architect, planner, builder,” says architect and editor-in-chief of Zeppelin magazine, Stefan Ghenciulescu. “The people have to live in what they are given. All the balances between private investment and free market, and urban rules such as regulation, do not exist, because everything is pre-given.”

In the 1950s, the new authority commissioned ‘Cvartals’ - low and medium-rise urban blocks set around a courtyard, usually made of brick, with classical motifs, such as porticoes and pilasters, and arches at the entrance points. These Socialist Realist designs changed the purism of Modernism, which had been fashionable among the Romanian elite in the 1930s and 1940s, in favour of a neoclassical pastiche. Over four or five storeys high, these blocks slotted into the urban fabric of the streets, often in the outer centre.

“The irony is that, politically, this was the most hideous period in post-war history, but it was nicer to the city than the ones that followed,” says Ghenciulescu.

Cotroceni Bucharest

Blocks in Space: functional and green Communist Modernism in Cotroceni, Bucharest (Photo: M Bird)

1960-1970: Modernism Strikes Back

The Soviet Union’s ambition was to industrialise housing. This meant manufacturing materials in factories, and delivering the parts on-site to create buildings, in a similar method to flat-pack furniture. This was quicker, cheaper and less disruptive to cities than building everything at the location, brick by brick. The style for these buildings was simple, plain and efficient.

“We are not against beauty, but we are against superfluity,” USSR General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev said in a 1954 speech on industrialised buildings.

Desperate to crush the legacy of Stalin, while retaining economic credibility as a ruler, Khrushchev declared war on Socialist Realism, its materials and its use of neoclassical design elements, and attacked architects for their obsession with buildings that boasted ‘beautiful silhouettes’.

“What people need is apartments,” said Khrushchev, with his customary no-bullshit stance. “They don’t have time to gaze admiringly at silhouettes; they need houses to live in!”

To the east of the Iron Curtain, this was a signal that the Communist style should shift from neoclassical to a functional form based on a house as efficiently designed as a car or a typewriter. However this change of policy was against the kinds of buildings that Dej and his apparatchiks were in the process of commissioning for Bucharest.

By 1958, Dej began to acknowledge the need for a switch, although he - like Khrushchev - did not call it Modernism, because this term was too western and bourgeois.

“Pretty much there was a ban on the name ‘Modernism’ - it was called functional or rational architecture, at least publicly,” says architect and writer Miruna Stroe. “It wasn’t supposed to be linked to anything that was a reminder of the west, but an eastern bloc invention.”

Many architects in Romania had learned their craft as Modernists in the 1930s, so were happy to dump the frivolities of Socialist Realism and return to constructing boxes of glass and concrete.

As in the USSR, this meant a revolution in the industrialisation of architecture, with maximum gain from minimal resources, in tune with Communism’s rapid development of factories in urban locations. Giant collective housing projects began to appear on the outskirts of Bucharest.

For many architects this was an opportunity. It meant “big neighbourhoods of concrete slabs floating in greenery” says Ghenciulescu.

“These buildings are symbols of socialism, but for the architects who designed them, this was finally the occasion to do it like in the west,” says Ghenciulescu. “Because of the regime - everything was planned and controlled, and they achieved what remained only a dream for urban planners in the west.”

In Romania, this meant comfortable housing for the working masses, with hot water, electricity, heating and sewerage. “For some leaving the countryside and working in the city this was an obvious improvement,” says Stroe.

The largest construction was in east Bucharest, centred on ‘Titan’ on the former area of ‘Balta Alba’, which became a zone that housed 400,000 people around a massive park.

“There is a joke: What is the biggest town in Romania, after Bucharest?” says Miruna Stroe. “It’s Balta Alba.”

Drumul Taberei Bucharest

The capital heads to the clouds: In the 70s and 80s, floor numbers rise - Drumul Taberei, Bucharest (Photo: M Bird)

1971-1989: North Korea invades Bucharest

The outskirts of Bucharest remained a building site for the 1960s, with the fields churned up for the laying down of pipes and foundations, while empty plots in the centre filled with low rise housing. Between 1948 and 1970, the city’s population increased by 40 per cent from 1.1 million to 1.55 million. But as the sixties progressed, the ideal of free standing blocks sprouting from vegetation became too expensive.

By 1971, the new general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, Nicolae Ceausescu, became less enamoured with this Modernist vision.

“The process of keeping unused land between large blocks not only negatively affects the architectural image of the neighborhood, but also reduces the density of housing, and hinders the satisfaction of the best living conditions,” said Ceausescu in a 1971 conference speech to the Union of Architects.

The dictator was taking a special interest in urban planning - and his vision was a city that was tall, crowded and with little public space.

“At one point Ceausescu wanted to see a comparison of urban densities among European capitals,” says Miruna Stroe. “He was presented with statistics on other cities and Bucharest was not in the high density range of inhabitants per hectare, so he said: ‘We need to increase this, it needs to be a capital city’.”

Nature was a waste of resources, that could be filled with concrete and boxes of families. So the state commissioned blocks on areas reserved for amenities, and on grass and vegetation between the Modernist blocks, in what architect Miruna Store calls the ‘Thickening’ of the city.

Piata Victoriei Bucharest

Ornamental, Monumental, Detrimental: 1980s North Korean Style savaged the heart of the city, Piata Victoriei, Bucharest (Photo: M Bird)

“In housing, the most expensive thing is the infrastructure, so it made sense for Ceausescu to build on the areas where that infrastructure already exists,” says Stroe.

In 1971, the Communist leader visited North Korea, where he was influenced by the radical programs of construction under the dictator Kim Il-Sung in the capital Pyongyang.

Four years later, he passed a new law which forced new blocks to face the street and increase their height, and stopped the construction of free-standing blocks perched in nature. Walls of blank ten-storey boulevards emerged, looming over the city’s main thoroughfares.

On 4 March 1977, an earthquake killed 1,424 in Bucharest, wrecking tens of thousands of buildings. Many of the apartment blocks that collapsed were built between 1920 and 1940. This was the final excuse for Ceausescu to launch a full-scale redevelopment of the city.

In 1978, a decree allowed the ruler to subordinate architects and urban planners to his own will. “From then on, development proposals would be drafted overnight, following more and more absurd requests from the dictator,” writes Stroe.

Ceausescu began to strip out the city, destroy thousands of homes, and build megalomaniac projects. This was the era of the bulldozer. The ruler concentrated all planning resources in a city centre project which attempted to turn Bucharest into Pyongyang. “The goal was to make a new socialist city for a new socialist man,” says Ghenciulescu. “The idea was to destroy the pre-Communist Bucharest, and build a new city on top.”

The style of exteriors on these blocks married utility with folk motifs, rounded corners and random arches, favoured by the dictator. But inside, these buildings were often larger, with more floorspace, and their structures were designed to withstand earthquakes.

But Stroe says the “energy and enthusiasm” of architects who were buildings new cities in the 1960s transformed into an atmosphere where the architects said to themselves: ‘let’s do the least worst thing.’

This new form still does not have a name.

“This is not Postmodernist,” says Stroe, “because Postmodernism has to be referential and ironic. In Bucharest, there is no irony. Everything is literal.”

Asked to put a finger on what style we can call this architecture, Stroe says: “I can’t make an assumption. It is stylistically damaged.”

Ceausescu annihilated whole neighbourhoods such as the winding rural streets of Uranus in the central-west, where he built his vanity project, the People’s Palace, the largest building in Europe and a manifestation of his personality cult in concrete and marble.

In other cases, he took the existing boulevards, widened them, destroyed the first rows of houses, and added new blocks.

The stark white amplitude of these constructions is impressive, but behind this monumental facade there is a lack of any visual or physical dialogue with the city. The pavements are tiny, cars clog the walking space, the smell of trash is pungent, and the random alcoves and arches become sanctuaries for the homeless, who sleep on beds of concrete in the summer and next to hot water pipes in the winter.

“[These buildings] do not have a back,” says Ghenciulescu. “What Ceausescu did was to create a real-life Potemkin project.”

The idea was to build an immediate impression of magnificence, with a long and wide axis, and then, once this was completed, to go deeper into the urban fabric of Bucharest, and stage by stage, demolish every building from before Communism, except the churches. This would give a visitor the idea that an entire city had kowtowed to the aesthetic passions of the dictator.

“You may think there is nothing left of the old city if you drive through Bucharest,” says Ghenciulescu. “But if you turn left or look behind a block, there is the old city which did not have the time to disappear.”

Parliament Palace Bucharest Michael Bird

Personality Cult manifest in Concrete and Marble, Ceausescu’s ‘People’s Palace’ now the seat of the Romanian Parliament, Bucharest (Photo: M Bird)

In 1985 Ceaușescu stated that, within five years, between 90 and 95 per cent of the inhabitants of Bucharest would be housed in apartment buildings.

But in December 1989, crowds massed in Timisoara, and, later, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Bucharest. A revolution forced Ceausescu to flee the city by helicopter and land 80 kilometres away in the small town of Targoviste, where he was shot dead by his own soldiers.

Overnight, the megalomaniac projects all stopped.

1989 - 2000: The Sell-Off

The city was left traumatised, and without direction. Most of the blocks started in the 1980s were completed during the 1990s, including the People’s Palace, which was finished in 1997.

The flats, which were previously owned by the state, were sold off by the state at a symbolic price to their owners, creating millions of home-owners in Romania without the burden of a mortgage. Today, this giveaway helped Romania become the EU country with the highest number of owner-occupants.

2000 onwards: The Reconsolidation

As the country emerged from a transition, the state continued to build apartments for young people, and private developers constructed high rises across the city, but none of these projects came close to the building boom between 1960 and 1989. Meanwhile the city has stabilised its population since 1990 at around two million inhabitants.

The attitude of the residents has changed. The move from public to private ownership has seen inhabitants viewing themselves not as part of a collective, but as individuals in self-contained boxes, piled up on one another. So it is still common to see them replaster or paint part of a block which belongs to them, fix the pipes only in the vicinity of their apartment, or transform their balcony into an extra portion of living space, shutting themselves off from the city.

“People are so crazy about having space that they close their balconies,” says Ghenciulescu. “This is a logic of complete segregation and a refusal of the public space. To be in their own little fortress. All that is shared is bad.”

This contributes to a rejection of the exterior. “Facades are not important any more,” adds Ghenciulescu. This is most evident in the presence of commercials on the side of buildings, where advertisers pay residents to smother the entire front of eight-storey buildings in massive posters advertising Coca-Cola, yoghurt or beer.

Bucharest Magheru Blvd

Architecture vanishes, branding takes over: Blvd Magheru in Bucharest, 2015 (Photo: M Bird)

“People don’t give a damn how their block looks,” says Ghenciulescu. “Bucharest becomes more oriental in style - with an interior courtyard, interior space, and no relation to the street.”

Apartments are changing owners fast, especially in the centre, with the richer people moving in and older people selling up and debunking to the country, or to smaller flats on the outskirts.

The city is also developing a north-south divide, with the wealth concentrated at the top, and the poverty at the bottom. The border arguably runs from the main boulevard of 13 Calea Septembrie through the central Unirii Square to the east in Piata Alba Iulia. The south houses the poorest, suffers from the least investment, and has only one metro line. This is a return to the spirit of the 19th Century, where Calea Rahovei - a busy thoroughfare in the southwest, was called ‘Podul Saracilor’ - The Street of the Poor.

In 2009, the state sponsored a major rehabilitation programme of Communist-era blocks. Financed by central Government and local authorities, the project aimed to insulate the outside walls with polystyrene, refurbish the windows with double glazing, and repaint the facade.

Consolidated Blocks Bucharest

Communist Makeover: 2009 saw blocks double-glazed, replastered and painted with random coloured rectangles, Blvd Unu Mai/Calea Grivitei, Bucharest (Photo: M Bird)

Grey blocks were whitewashed, and their exteriors painted in multi-colour shapes to brighten up the monochrome original, and the fuel bills were slashed for residents, in a populist move that gave a shiny makeover to the drab city.

But Ghenciulescu calls the rehabilitation a “catastrophe”. He claims it lacked strategy, as the programme only looked at the superficial problems, and did not redevelop the plumbing, structure, elevators, and interior spaces of these Communist blocks. “It is like when you have problems with your liver, you buy a new pair of glasses,” he says.

But the main change to the fabric of the city has been in private transport. Car purchases boomed in the 90s and the 00s, and continue their steady rise. Last year there were over 1.3 million cars registered in Bucharest, while the country’s rate of car ownership increases by nine per cent year-on-year.

The country is run by and for petrolheads, and Ghenciulescu believes the planners and mayors are trapped in the 1950s and 1960s, where they “dream of urban highways and parking places. They want to destroy the city and make it a space for cars.”

But it is hard to allow cars to occupy such huge amounts of space in a city that Ceausescu made as dense as possible. Especially as Bucharest suffers from growing wealth disparities, thousands of families still lack running water and electricity, and everyone lives in an anarchic atmosphere where the only public policy is to contain the private appetites of its residents.

“In Bucharest,” says Ghenciulescu, “we are living in five different historical periods at the same time.”

Opening picture: Corner of Calea 13 Septembrie/Blvd Tudor Vladimirescu (Photo: M Bird)

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