On Romanian culture

  • Published 15 September 2014
Matthew Sweet
Writer and broadcaster

The Romanians who loom largest in the west tend to be hypothetical. There is more to their culture than most of us know.

The House of the  People in Bucharest

The House of the People in Bucharest

There they were, outside the portico of a church in Venice, newly arrived from Romania. Three of them, bearing a sign that described, in misspelt English, some obscure historical injustice. My instinct was to do the same as the other tourists in the Cannaregio: walk by and ignore them. But because my kids had shown an interest, I felt obliged to stop.

They were an incongruous sight. A trio of large steel cubes, providing the space for an outdoor exhibition. Each exposed surface carried sliding shutters that revealed images illustrating a turn in 20th-century culture that was news to me – the ‘brain drain’ that drew a generation of architects from 1980s Romania to Africa and the Middle East. The thesis was advanced in sketches, photographs and cartoons: evidence that prefabricated modernity arrived in the developing world as an export from socialist eastern Europe.

The emphasis fell on government buildings and housing developments – but the star attraction was a work that had failed to make it past the planning stage. Corneliu Ghenciulescu’s design for a hotel on the 330-foot cliff at the Ouzoud Falls, a spectacular watercourse in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco. A cascade of concrete, flowing in terraces down the side of the canyon; as if Gerry Anderson had remade the desert city of Petra as a new HQ for International Rescue.

What I liked about this display was that it described a cultural exchange made entirely without reference to western Europe. The mix of the pragmatic and the unlikely made me think of stories from the Romanian arm of my own family: about my brother-in-law’s mother, who took a chance in the 1970s and sought asylum in Britain; about Uncle Eugene, who won the Romanian National Lottery on the day that the currency was devalued. But it also offered an explanatory context for Romania’s most notorious architectural project – the unfinished palace of Nicolae Ceausescu.

The House of the People, as it’s known (officially it is now the Palace of Parliament), is the world’s second-largest building. Four square miles of Bucharest were razed to accommodate its bulk. Thirty per cent of Romania’s national budget was absorbed in its construction. Thousands of residents were forcibly evicted. Some, it was said, were bulldozered in their own homes. It is a structure of pointless, lunatic giganticism.

Romania’s Parliament sits in one of its smaller spaces. The other chambers are function rooms too vast to serve any imaginable function, except a bicycle race or an exhibition of submarines. Its architect, Anca Petrescu, was 32 years old when she began supervising its construction. She secured the gig with steely persistence and a keen understanding of Ceausescu’s utterly literal mind. Instead of blueprints, she presented him with a dolls’ house-like model. He lacked the imagination to relate an architectural maquette to the idea of a finished building, so Petrescu acquired an aircraft hangar and built full-scale plaster models of the palace interiors.

A vast dummy cupola was lowered on to the roof by helicopter. As Libya and Morocco acquired the benefits of cheap-and-cheerful Romanian modernism, the body of Bucharest was overtaken by a malignant Neoclassical tumour. I met Anca Petrescu when I was in Romania with a BBC film crew. With weary hardness, she asked for $500, approval of the edit and the voiceover. Refusal offended: ‘Well, it can’t be a very prestigious programme.’ She talked in the dead metalanguage of the apparatchik. At one moment she spoke as the building’s sole author; at another, as someone only obeying orders. She died in November 2013.

Twenty-five years after the execution of the Ceausescus, Romanian culture isn’t exactly popular in the West. Yet Cristian Mungiu’s film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, tough and cheerless though it is, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. And two years later the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Herta Müller, whose fiction allowed readers to understand how Ceausescu’s dictatorship soured even the most intimate dealings between his subjects. But the Romanians who loom largest in our culture tend to be hypothetical. They’re the hordes conjured in press releases issued from MigrationWatch UK. They’re the criminals who, tabloid papers claimed, had booked up seats on coaches and planes to London. They’re those men who make Nigel Farage feel uneasy. Romanians who actually exist seem to have very little traction upon the British imagination.

The House of the People is a catastrophe, but in one respect it is perfect – as an embodiment of the psychosis of the society Ceausescu created. And it might be a place from which to start thinking about our own delusions, captured in our native architecture. In those spikes used to deter rough sleepers. In the fact that the Shard, that glass colony for the super-rich, was declared open to the tune of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. But why stop there? The week after I left Venice the mayor and 35 officials and businessmen were arrested on corruption charges. Twenty million Euros that should have been spent on flood defences have mysteriously gone missing. And still the city sinks. And like most problems in western European life, it has nothing to do with the Romanians.

This column is from the autumn 2014 issue of Art Quarterly, our members' magazine. To subscribe, buy a National Art Pass.

Tags: Art Quarterly