Ceaușescu and the Architecture of Bucharest

There are a few things that are not generally known or understood about the central Bucharest part of Ceaușescu’s so-called “systematization”, and since my aesthetic values and standards compel me to defend – on purely aesthetic grounds – even so-called Stalinist Classical style against modernism and postmodernism, it is probably I who should say something about them.

It was of course wholly unacceptable that one fifth of historic Bucharest had to disappear to make room for the “Civic  Centre” (Centrul Civic) and the House of the Republic (Casa Republicii, now called Palatul Parlamentului or Casa Poporului). I hold that this part of Bucharest should be rebuilt, like much of Dresden, Leipzig, and Warsaw. Moreover, the circumstances of the construction seem to have been in almost all respects lamentable.

Yet whatever we may think of it in those other respects, Ceaușescu’s systematization is in the case of Bucharest’s Civic Centre, or at least its most visible and central parts, a direct continuation and renewal of a Bucharest style of the 1920s, when the city was truly Micul Paris, “Little Paris”. That particular style was not strictly one of the historical styles of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century which gave Micul Paris most of its beauty and elegance. It was considered modern at the time, no doubt due mainly to what could be regarded as some Art Deco elements.

But Art Deco cannot unambiguously be defined as a unitary style, and those elements seem to me modest, not at all extreme. More importantly, the style also displayed some more obviously “classicist” elements, like the belvederes on top of many of the buildings. There are two examples of this style at the beginning of the Calea Victoriei by the Dâmbovița, Petru Antonescu’s so-called Gloriette Buildings from 1926, which seem to have been the main inspiration of and are indeed very similar to those of the 1980s Civic Centre.

Critics seem to think Ceaușescu forced some radical early Soviet constructivist, Bauhaus or Le Corbusier modernism on Bucharest in line with globalist, communist ideology – the so-called “international style” that should rather be called the “postnational style”. That may be true in other parts of Romania. But they fail to understand that because Ceaușescu was a kind of nationalist, he wanted, like Stalin, at least in some places, a monumental architecture that was only possible by drawing on historical tradition. Whether he achieved it or not, he clearly aspired to architectural seriousness, and needed it for his purposes.

Now, the House of the Republic differs in style from the rest of the Civic Centre area. But with the Champs-Élysées-like Unirii Boulevard (as it is called today, originally the Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism) with its characteristic, interestingly ornate lamp-posts leading up to it from the equally ornate and non-modernist fountain on Unirii Square, followed by similar but smaller ones along the way, it does so in a way that is still part of the overall plan. This building, the second largest in the world, was intended to stand out, to be unique. The effect of the whole evokes something of the legacy of imperial Rome that seems so important to the self-understanding of Romania.

Ms. Petrescu’s work, the House of the Republic, seems to me quite as misunderstood as the rest of the Civic Centre. It is said that Ceaușescu’s idea of systematization was influenced by his visit to North Korea. I am not very familiar with North Korean architecture. The best-known buildings are, so far as I have been able to see, not very reminiscent of the House of the Republic or the Civic Centre in general, but probably they are closer to other individual buildings of the systematization. Kim Il-sung seems to have done something on a similar scale to Pyongyang.

Yet if it is Antonescu’s 1920s style that explains the Civic Centre, what seems to me really to explain much of the House of the Republic, and what I think most tourists don’t know (I was told by a Romanian friend), is that the Western historical elements of its creative traditionalism are combined with inspiration from the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

It should have been built elsewhere. I am certainly not saying the Bucharest systematization was defensible in the way that, for instance, Haussmann’s Paris was – mainly because, alongside many old churches and monasteries, it was as far as I understand, if not Haussmannian, at least to a considerable extent valuable nineteenth-century buildings that were destroyed. In this as in other respects it is comparable to the Stalinallee in Berlin.

But whatever we may think of the Civic Centre and the House of the Republic in aesthetic and other terms, the facts I have mentioned should, I submit, be borne in mind. Today, when much of what survived systematization, the little that remains of Micul Paris, is also being destroyed by globalist developers and replaced by the modernism and postmodernism of new generations of bats with baby faces, both Antonescu’s original buildings on Calea Victoriei and the Civic Centre are hidden behind huge illuminated Coca-Cola signs.

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