Drumul Taberei: Utopia Interrupted. What happened to the ideal Modernist city on the edge of Bucharest

19 September 2018

Drumul Taberei: Utopia Interrupted. What happened to the ideal Modernist city on the edge of Bucharest

5 September 2018 By Michael Bird, Vlad Odobescu (text), Sorina Vazelina (illustration)

With the air rank with dust, thick with exhaust and deafened by the burr of drills and car-horns, Bucharest’s western district of Drumul Taberei is a typical zone of the Romanian capital, with its monotonous slabs of concrete, anarchic parking and war on free space.

Where once there was Communist centrally-planned housing, lawns and open land, now there are new churches and supermarkets, while patches of grass between the blocks are gated off by the authorities, and littered with trash. Public space is no more than corridors that thread around cars, fences and building sites.

An underground line has been under construction here since 2012, further suffocating the gridlocked zone, where apartment prices have plummeted in value since the financial crash of 2008.

Yet when the packed number 368 bus from the city centre ascends the wide boulevard that bisects the zone, a brighter light from the west enters the vehicle, the streets open, and one can sense balance and harmony, as though this neighbourhood grew from a concept that centred on the needs of citizens, not a plan to build fast, cheap and big to appease a cut-price vision of Communism.

At the end of the 1950s a group of young architects in Bucharest were given the liberty by ruler Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej to develop an unprecedented experiment for Romania - a micro-city on the outskirts of Bucharest.

Over fields and land used by the army, this would be a self-contained urban complex built from zero.

The low-rise blocks were Modernist designs of concrete floating in a sea of greenery, combining the mod cons of the city with the air and freedom of the countryside. Schools, factories, libraries, a cinema and shopping would all be within walking distance.

Intellectually, it intended to lift the body, mind and spirit, inspired by the functional visionary Le Corbusier, but on a scale unprecedented in the west. This was a French utopia inscribed on a blank slate in Romania.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the first residents believed this neighbourhood married the ideals of an egalitarian society with elegant surroundings, and it became a showpiece for successful social engineering and a sanctuary for refugees fleeing military juntas in Chile and Greece.

Although the blocks housed a mix of working and middle classes, many residents felt this was a place for professionals and progressives - a zone out of time and place from both Romania’s feudal past and its totalitarian present.

Then politics intervened.

By the 1970s, the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu took over the duties of urban planning in the capital, and dumped taller and bigger blocks throughout the city, crushing the free space and leaving the streets overcrowded. In the next decade, Romania’s economy stalled and the markets were empty of food and the media empty of news.

Following the violent 1989 Revolution, the streets were invaded by kiosks, rats, stray dogs, prostitutes and bars. One of Drumul Taberei’s libraries became a fake Italian restaurant, and its cinema, Favorit, a squat for the drunk and homeless.

But today a movement by civil society and private enterprise aims to revive the community spirit.

We have researched Drumul Taberei for six months, and have allowed the neighbourhood to tell its story through the voices of four generations who grew up, played, loved and fought there.

What surfaces may be a mythic vision of the past, but we uncover an enlightened and internationalist neighbourhood struggling to regain its cosmopolitan identity.

This article is compiled in collaboration with DoR, which is publishing a Romanian version in its magazine.