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

13 September 2018 • News

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

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.

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.