16 Apr 98
The architecture of Bucharest is fascinating. The core of the city was
constructed from 1875 to 1925 and French architects were the principle
designers. The results are very satisfying. The city is designed around
broad boulevards that run at odd and interesting angles and intersect
in large, usually round piatzas. Roads are frequently lined by trees that
seem to create a greenway that connects the large parks that are combed
by pedestrian paths, large ponds, and gentle bridges.
One of the results of using a large number of architects trained in the
same school of design is a large number of buildings that are from the
same period: French Neo-Classical. Every American city that was at all
large in 1900 has some of these buildings.
Above, on of the University
buildings in the center of Universitate Piatza. How many of the
design features from the text can you identify?
To find one, look around for something that has
a lot of the following design features. On the exterior there are frequent
semi-circular arches, many shallow balconies, frequent carved decorations
(coats of arms, floral doodads, oval medallions with floral arrangements
hanging on them, etc.), mansard roofs, jutting window sills, windows topped
with curved or angular projections. There can be round towers at the corners
and various forms of steep tiled roofs and hemispherical domes. Buildings
frequently had atrium-like inner courtyard that might contain a carriage
house but always provided refuge from the street noise.
In the interior, look for high ceilings (to let the heat rise in the summer),
double doored room entrances, no closets (they used armoires to store
things), painted plaster walls, and big windows that opened inwards.
Because of the extensive use of exterior decoration, buildings all appear
to be different and yet, when grouped together, they create a harmonious
Then came the communists, the expropriation of private property, and central
planning whose notion of "efficiency" affected everything. To
be efficient with land, very few single family homes were constructed
(and you can guess who got to live in those!), rather over the years there
was extensive construction of large apartment buildings.
Socialist "efficiency" also dictated (forgive the pun) many
elevators designed to carry only 2, 3, or 4 people. Try taking a ride
on such an elevator with a fat person with a bag or a skinny one who stinks
and you will have personal proof that "efficiency" is not the
only value that needs to be incorporated in housing.
Apartment blocks like these are every where in the outer portions of Bucharest
and all over the cities that were developed after the war. Block after
block, the same basic design (saving on architectural design costs, perhaps)
rises ten or more stories with the balconies partially glassed in (so
that every home had an all weather clothes drying area).
Above, a row of buildings
along Calea Victoriei, on of the main streets of Bucharest. Note
the "flat" face design, even when there are patios. This
is utterly uninspired design. Contrast with above.
At best the effect is drab, depressing and dehumanizing. We call it "Socialist
Realism," you might call it "Blight."
In Bucharest you need to add the visual impact of the dirt on the buildings.
In the smaller cities, the exterior of these apartment blocks are only
now beginning to soil but in the capital they are distinctly dirty --
all the buildings. It takes away from the beauty of the older, better
designed building and makes the visual crap constructed by the communists
Fortunately it doesn't take much imagination to see what Bucharest would
look like if it were steam cleaned and a few particularly offensive structures
were torn down. It would be the Paris of the
East -- which it is often called.
16 Apr 98
Recently I spent the weekend in Brashov, a city that has a long history
and an old quarter that nestles in the foothills of the Transylvanian
Alps and at the same time is at the edge of a fertile plain. It is less
than a day's march from important mountain passes and that is why it was
established -- to guard the frontier of Hungary. Click
here for pictures of Brashov.
About 24 kilometers from Brashov is Bran, a fascinating castle that sits
atop a high rock. It has surging towers, a dominant presence, and a dark
aspect. Some PR junky decided should be Vlad the Impaler's castle. Vlad
was a "nationalist" of the 15th century with the admittedly
bad habit of impaling his victims on pointed stakes and dining on tables
made from icons torn from church walls, all the while listen to the agonized
screams of his victims. Some other PR flack decided that Vlad should be
the "historical" Dracula.
Why would a PR flack want to commit this atrocity? Because the novel that
created all this brouhaha was written by Bram Stoker, a Dublin-born Irishman
who never got closer to Transylvania than London's British Museum. He
chose Transylvania for his tale of blood and gore because it was the least
known part of Europe and could thus be easily manipulated to provide the
creepy kind of effect he sought. Perhaps he felt that the setting just
wouldn't have worked if he had chosen the Cottswold -- although, to be
sure, Emily Bronte did pretty well with the Yorkshire moors in Wuthering
Heights but she didn't need a big castle and bigger mountains.
Did you know that the Dracula story is heavily indebted to Catholic theology?
Stoker tells his readers that they can trap a vampire by sprinkling a
crumbled up consecrated host round it in a circle. Now a priest might
object to this particular use of a host but a priest is also a person
who will tell you not to have sex and NOT to use a condom when you do.
Who would want to listen to someone so out of touch with reality?
Well, speaking of Vlad/Dracula, he never really lived at Bran Castle at
all. It is recorded that he did stop by for lunch once and besieged the
place. I don't know if he got inside but at least he was in the neighborhood.
Actually it is not possible to designate a specific location for Dracula's
castle since the place names Stoker used were in contradiction to actual
locations. But why would a PR flack -- or a novelist -- care about that?
I did visit Brashov recently, but I stuck with the old city (built between
the 14th and 17th centuries) and the immediate area. I didn't visit Bran
Castle -- after all, it is much easier to describe things you've never
seen at all.
19 Apr 98
The religious life of Romanians is interesting in several ways. About
80 percent of the country is Romanian Orthodox. There are several million
"Uniate" Catholics who never split with Rome when the great
schism occurred in the 9th century and a smattering of other faiths.
About 1949 the government forced a merger of the Uniate Catholics with
Romanian Orthodox Church. This had several advantages for the communists
for it allowed the replacement of less trustworthy Uniate priest with
more reliable one. A national church is easier to control for a government
than an international church that has resources outside the country. A
second advantage was that the it threw the Orthodox church a bone to help
keep them contented. The Romanian experience is thus in sharp contrast
to the Polish experience where there was one (international) church to
which virtually all Poles belonged.
The Orthodox church here is different from the Catholic in another respect:
it concentrates on building new churches to the exclusion of other activities.
Think of it as an Eastern European replay of "faith versus good works.
My apartment door bell rang but I was not expecting anyone. There was
a sound coming from the hallway; a strange sound, like a small group of
people singing a cappella. I looked through the peep hole but saw no one.
I asked at the office and I was told that it is traditional for carolers
to sing for traditional food -- or money. The singing had a wonderful,
ethereal quality, a lovely angelic feel to it. The singing is hard to
describe but it had great beauty.
On the Orthodox Holy Saturday (a week after the Western Holy Saturday
because the Orthodox Church rejects the Gregorian and keeps to the Julian
calendar), I went to the local Orthodox church -- it is about 50 meters
from my apartment. I suspect that hardly anyone in Bucharest is more than
a five minute walk from some Orthodox church or chapel: they are everywhere.
I arrived just before midnight when the crowd is at its largest and most
of it standing outside the small church. I went inside the structure to
see whatever could be seen; and in truth, not much. Romanian Orthodox
churches have a narthex at the entrance, a sort of covered portico and
then a pro-nave, and then a nave. Only in the nave can any part of the
service be actually seen since there is an eight foot high, icon decorated
wall that separates the priests from the faithful. The priest do mysterious
things behind the wall and every so often a man in a black cassock will
go inside the hidden area or will come out. At those moments you can see
bearded priests in vestments moving things around but not much more.
The people inside the church were holding candles and chatting quietly
while I was staring at the paintings and icons. All the walls are painted
with scenes from the Bible. A metallic gold color is a frequent background
for saints driving lances into the devil serpent or whatever. The smoke
of beeswax candles rises into the "steeple" from which light
gently filters into the nave during daytime.
At midnight a line of priests come out carrying lit candles. Everyone
surges forward to take a light on the candle they are carrying and the
crowd heads for the door where the really large crowd is waiting. The
chief cleric carries a large book with an icon on it and proceeds outside
where he conducts a brief service and then everyone goes home taking their
lit candles with them. The service goes on for hours more but the candle
lighting is what the people come for.
I am told it is traditional to have a big family feast after the midnight
service but I went to bed.
Tomorrow a friend is taking several of us to see a Monastery Church. Click
here to see what it looked like.