A city in Europe: Nostalgia for Bucharest's golden age
13 April 2011
Nicknamed "Little Paris", the Romanian capital is getting a little uglier every day, carved up by building sites that are as mammoth as they are meaningless. But some parts of the town have retained their charm, and it wouldn’t take much to give the city a human face. The architect Teodor Frolu reports.
Bucharest has unwittingly gained a reputation as a city unloved by its inhabitants. But how can one love a city? And can the Bucharest of today, scarred by two decades of totalitarian urban planning and real estate speculation, still be loved?
The first step in the affair would be to try to understand what vision of Bucharest it is that summons up the longing and the languor we feel when we pore over old pictures of "Little Paris". Certainly, the easiest response would be to evoke the inherent romance conjured up by a sepia image of Bucharest as it used to be. The smallness of that city, between the two wars, is another feature we find just as appealing. From the detailing of roadway pavements to the virtuosity of wrought-iron fences and the aesthetics of the street lighting, the city is permeated with "common sense" architecture.
With facades that are certainly "precious”, the architecture also contributes, yet without laying it on thick through excessive decorations or sheer size. Even the Royal Palace and the Romanian Athenaeum (the principal concert hall of the capital) are built to the human scale. I dare say that the charm of "Little Paris" is owed not only to the influence of French architecture from the late nineteenth century, but to its human dimension as well, and to the warmth that contrasts so favourably with the opulence of the “Grand Paris” of Haussmann, which intimidates the visitor with its monumental buildings and grand, marching boulevards. If we can understand what the word "small" is worth, we can more easily recognise the mistakes we have made over the past half century.
Can a major European capital be built by thinking "small"? This concept seems difficult to accept for Romanian society, even if does happen to be the current and most significant European model. We remain (communist throwbacks?) slaves of the “biggest”: the tallest building (the People's Palace), the largest cathedral, and the largest suspension bridge (these two latter are under construction). But in the vocabulary of modern urbanism, "small" translates into a design on the human scale, into a functionality grafted onto the emotional. That was how it was done between the wars, in the era in which "Little Paris" flourished.
Can we still go back there? Yes, surely – but with the tools of 2011. This is not an appeal to put the old town of Bucharest together again, stone by stone – that would be impossible – but we must begin by reconsidering the importance of that heritage we still love. This way we can rediscover what is still of value in the Bucharest of today.
The street plan of the city between the two world wars, which has since grown outwards organically, is one of the key elements for rediscovering our cultural memory. The "snags" in this organic matrix created by the new boulevards, the wider streets and excessive demolition, must be "patched" up using innovative urban design tools. The boulevards have become ugly due to the traffic, but we can still enjoy strolling through the smaller streets, especially on weekends.
The eclecticism of the city requires places with an identity and well-defined roles. Roles that come down from traditions accepted by the inhabitants, not from ad hoc political decisions taken in moments of festive opportunism. The restoration of an urban network shaped by modern principles – by which pedestrians, cyclists and public transport will take priority over cars – will bring with it an astonishing economic and cultural effervescence.
Valuable examples of architecture on a human scale do still exist in Bucharest. We just have to look at them differently. The Triangle of Museums (Antipa, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the Romanian Peasant and the Geological Museum) is an example of an intelligent intervention that can transform the three sites into a new public space with a high added value.
The same holds true for the rediscovery of Griviţei Street and the link between the Gare du Nord and Victoriei Street.
The flower market, the Vama warehouses and the Bragadiru factory are waiting to be rediscovered and brought back into the heart of the city. Carol Park, with its unique industrial architecture, the Power Station and Filaret Station, the Match factory (buildings that have kept alive the memory of the international exhibition of 1906), the Roman amphitheatre and the astronomical observatory, the Palace of the Metropolis (which in 2010 saw fit to build walls and barriers to access)… All these landmarks are the guardians of the vital energy of our urban redemption. Or, in simpler terms, places to love.