Bucharest is a frozen city. Even if the general impression in the last years was that of a growth. Yes, it grows but it does not develop. The People’s House became one of the icons through which Romania is known abroad. However, it hides a tragedy that in 24 years has not gotten even close to be discussed.
From 1980 to 1989, the city was sectioned from West to East indifferent to topography, history, culture. Arch. Dana Harhoiu captured the dimension of this tragedy in analysis plans published post mortem in one of the best-written volumes on Bucharest – Bucharest, a city between Orient and Occident, Ed. Simetria, 1995. You can see this wound in the urban tissue of Bucharest anywhere the facades of the buildings that flank the boulevard are ending; the boulevard onto which the “House of the People” looks upon.
Even if the sidewalks have been recently renewed, the grass has grown onto the former building site and the buildings now have commercials on the facades and shops at ground floor, one can read the difficult history that lies behind this construction. In the film “The Architecture and The Power” from 1992, architect Augustin Ioan and film maker Nicolae Mărgineanu captured the early stages of this project which still shatter our capacity to deal with this city, with Bucharest. The moment is both brutal and raw (in Romanian there is one word that can have either meaning depending on the context).
Meanwhile the project of the former power has started to mature. The unfinished buildings that in the ‘90s were showing only their concrete skeletons are being completed. (On the left hand side of the image it is shown the new National Library and on the right the Bucharest Court). The People’s House has been almost completed also. It seems that the city is not frozen at all, but continuing its life as it was planned decades ago. You don’t really get to notice what happens beneath the daily show anaesthesia.
The face of the city changes like posters on the walls announcing the next show. You can notice in this image an electrical transformer as support for advertising materials. This transformer, like the totalitarian intervention, is something that we do not want to see. Without it, however, the city as we understand it today would not (or rather could not) exist. More than just a boulevard, it became one of the most important spaces in Bucharest for foreign visitors. Undoubtedly it is the largest, its importance being related for the locals with the drama of its becoming. How can it be then transformed into an important public space considering all the cultural and historical constraints?
In the centre of this intervention we have today an empty space. The new Opera House was supposed to have been built here. The word Opera brings about many connotations to this act of building. I think this is not the place to discuss this subject in particular. However, keeping in mind these connotations one can understand that the totalitarian project is far from being finished, and why the affirmation that Bucharest has been living under a sort of anaesthesia since the events at the end of the ‘80s has such strong impact. I am referring both to this intervention and to the 1989 Revolution.
Soon after the Revolution, we could observe reactions like documentation and analysis of the existent. The documentation could have become memory and the critical analysis could have been transformed into projects, in working hypothesis. Instead, we can observe that there are few discussions/writings that appeal to real dialogue on the development of the city.
The frenzy in the building sector that grew after year 2000 and which was brought to an abrupt end due to the financial crisis in 2009 left the city depleted of sense and the discussions were reduced up to the brink of no possible dialogue and negotiation. The lack of real discussions over the way we can foresee the future of this city can be put on this resignation and oblivion of the problems pointed out by the Bucharest 2000 competition (project winner Von Gerkan und Partner). A series of discussions on the specificity of structure and spaces of the city and how all this might evolve, could bring about reassessments of the way we perceive both the central areas and the periphery.
I am proposing a debate that starts from the centre of the problem – the site near the New National Library. Here we have one of the largest demolition areas that have made possible the new boulevard. This is still one of the largest empty spaces in Bucharest. A void of space and meaning which must not just be filled up, but defined; as Luigi Snozzi says – L’architettura é vuoto. A te di definirlo -. This site offers guise – although the word is inappropriate – for an exercise of remembrance, construction, defining the city limits and challenge the boundary between the museum and memorial. If the museum is supposed to be the space where they are kept and presented mainly the great works, heroic acts or objects of progress, a memorial is the place where we keep and display the moments of suffering, the secrets unveiled, and all that it is hard to look at and which we tend to forget.
The project that I present wants instead to present them in the same building, putting together the heroic stories and the untold dramas performed during the mass modernization of Romania in the second half of the twentieth century. Although the main trend in contemporary society is that of forgetting (hiding) this history with its many facets (the failure Contest Bucharest 2000 is a case in this sense), I will propose a reasoning to remember and, thus, define the limits of a new space of consensus, meaning the city.
The area that I refer to is known as Esplanada (the name of a masterplan by Helmut Jahn made in the pre-real-estate-boom years) It is delimited by Unirii Boulevard to the North, to the South by Octavian Goga Boulevard, to the East by Nerva Traian Boulevard and by Mircea Voda Boulevard to the West. On this vast area, one can see the footprint of the would-have-been Romanian Opera building.
The fragments that remain from the old structure of the city can be seen Northeast and Southwest, not so far from the main site. By outlining the same area on the 1970 topographical plan, we can observe the real dimension of the demolitions conducted to create the new boulevard meant for the People’s House. Starting from this place, I will try to make a project hypothesis that blends memory and future.
As if it was a collage, I have cut out the area from the 1970 plan and pasted it in the contemporary context. Taking into account that all around the scale, space, appearance of the city changed dramatically, we are dealing with a recontextualisation. The site has been displaced in time, not in space. Using the old traces, I will imagine a fragment from a contemporary Bucharest and mark a moment of collective memory, which is bound to the drama of mass-modernisation.
Along the boulevard, the action through which the People’s House and the Unirii Boulevard came into existence have to be expressed physically. The marker that has appeared on the plan brings light on something evident (the cut through the city) but which, due to the scale and function of the buildings surrounding the site, has been made difficult to read. The marker is aligned to the boulevard and does not consider the traces of the past over which it has been laid on. We shall call it the Museum. The old streets come back into existence and become the spatial matrix of the new development. These intersect directly the boundaries of the site, the sidewalks of the neighbouring boulevards. By keeping the footprint of the old urban islands, I will try both a memory-linked exercise and an overview on the potential of this old structure to generate contemporary scale buildings and spaces.
Around the museum, the space remains clear of further building. The footprints of the old houses will generate the public space around. On the place of the former Bradul Staicu Church, a new one is proposed to be built. The fragments of the old urban structure too small to be built will serve as places for public/street art. The extent of the old urban islands will give the new building limits. The new building plots have a completely different scale. Each urban island will indicate a building. The content is new, as well as the typologies of the new buildings. The only rule is that the buildings must have unmediated contact with the public space of which form they define. Because of the time elapsed the contours are not sharp anymore, they have been polished, as the stones in a riverbed. The new formed cluster will have a vehicle access on the footprint of former Cernișoara Street. The rest of the streets will be pedestrian with service access only, while the remaining spaces of the islands will be pedestrian only. A big public space – both mineral and vegetal – is formed around the museum.
The huge scale of destruction left the city frozen and without a vision for the future. The blocks of flats that flank the boulevard have an anaesthetic effect, hiding this truth. The place has to be marked with a building that steps out of this register in order to be recognised as such and serve as a landmark for the future development. The new building will be completely opaque towards the boulevard. The former Asau Street intersects the proposed sign, cuts it and creates the accesses to the building. From the access space, we can perceive on the right hand side the boulevard and on the left hand side the new urban cluster (here represented as a white cut-off.
The building is like a wall that separates interior from exterior – here it delineates a recent future from a recent past. On ground floor, from the Asau Street the Museum can be accessed as indicated by the arrow. Following the foyer, we enter the first museum room. It is a long, high space – a ramp that climbs up to the first level. In this space, the climbing of the ramp tells the story of the achievements through mass modernization, which took place in the second half of the past century.
The high sky-lighted space tells about the real expectations driving the propaganda, expectations that were the main force behind the modernisation. The space will be finished in exposed concrete in order to look both neutral and raw. The end of the ramp marks the end of the modernization progress and the beginning of a Romanian post-modernization. The glass wall at the end of the building (left hand side of the drawing) directs the view towards the boulevard and the real symbol of the post-modern Romania – The People’s House. The path continues through a narrow, high side slot into a more obscure space – that of the sacrifices made to achieve the progress exposed on our way here. It is a long path marked in the middle by a breathing area from where we can see once again the city and the hall on the ground floor. The display elements finish as we return to the space where we can see once again, but with new eyes, the Boulevard and the People’s House. Then, we descend again towards the entrance, walking through the mid and late 20th century “achievements”.
Until now, I have told you about the central part of the building. The section on the right indicates using colours how the memorial space is only one of the three programs of the building. In relation to the ground, it will host spaces for public discussions and exhibition of future projects. The building’s relation towards the sky is mediated by spaces dedicated to contemporary art.
The new building is marking the underground with this long, cutting sign of which height changes from East to West. The space expands on both sides following the footprints of the old buildings who intersect the new memorial sign. These spaces are accessible directly off the ground floor, opposite to the entrance of the museum. The rooms that are determined by the buildings that existed here once are lit from above over their entire surface. Depending on the size and shape of the footprints of the old buildings, the new underground spaces can accommodate exhibitions, conferences, workshops, etc.
Between the skylights of the museum’s central space, we observe a series of 12 rooms, which serve as temporary exhibition spaces for contemporary art. This part of the museum is accessible off the main hall. Even if the spaces are almost the same, the sequence of rooms and corridors opens up to the surprise produced by the artwork exhibited in each room. The exhibition rooms are entirely sky lit and they are accessed through small openings. Each room is dedicated to one artwork or artistic stance only.
The transversal section of the building reveals this functional overlapping. It is a model for a sustainable construction of the future, based on debate, developed through knowledge (history) and completed by art. The transversal section of the area shows the true scale of the city and the restrained monumentality of the proposed museum. The proposed buildings take into consideration the boulevard to reflect both the historical events and the scale of the contemporary city. The museum expresses itself as both public art and building.
On the outside, the building defines two spaces – one towards the boulevard and another towards the new cluster of buildings. This is a clear space featuring a combination of horizontal and vertical mineral and vegetal elements. Towards the boulevard, the museum draws a North-oriented wall. The permanent shadow on this facade makes even more evident the connection with the past. The exhibition spaces on the first floor are highlighted towards the exterior by an overhang, which accentuates the public character of the building by providing shelter from bad weather.
Seen from above, the project proposed for the “Esplanada” area displays towards the boulevard the building of the museum that replaces the Romanian Opera project forecasted for this site. The rest of the buildings form a new cluster based on the old streets layout. The height of those new buildings is not yet defined. There can be buildings that are smaller than the existing delineation of the boulevard but also higher ones. The spatial structure on which I based the project allows different heights for the buildings within the cluster. Meanwhile, towards the Boulevard the proposed building is required to interact with the existing. The different elements on the site speak about both memory and a future built on a dialogue between the global scale of contemporary capital cities and the local features of those cities.
The building of the new museum defines a limit in time and becomes the memory wall.