Critic & Theory
Libeskind in Bucharest
Ger Duijzings – UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (firstname.lastname@example.org)
On 15 May, as part of my regular fieldwork visits to the House of the People, I witnessed an interesting ceremony in Bucharest’s most iconic building: the award of an honorary doctorate to the global star architect Daniel Libeskind, by the Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism. The ceremony, one of the highlights of the Romanian Convention of Architecture and Design (ROCAD) 2013, triggered my curiosity, or rather incredulity: almost twenty-five years after the end of socialism, Romania’s architectural elite chose this (above the usual academic) venue to convene and honour an architect who is well-known for engaging with the Holocaust (and recent tragedies such as 9/11) as well as for taking issue with colleagues collaborating with undemocratic regimes such as the Chinese. In anticipation of Libeskind’s acceptance speech, I was wondering whether he was going to refer to this building, one of the largest and most notorious authoritarian edifices of the twentieth century, or remain silent about it in order not to offend his hosts.
He tackled the issue discretely but head-on by commencing his statement with hailing Bucharest as a ‘beautiful and fantastic city’, but also as a city ‘full of history and human suffering’, reminding his audience of the threats to human liberty under political regimes such as Nicolae Ceauşescu’s which use violence and denigrate individual freedom for the sake of higher ideological goals. He referred to the House of the People as the epitome of bad architecture: ‘a building created by dictators, to impress the public, to oppress human beings, and to celebrate a kind of a dream world of power’. Discussing his inroads into architecture from music, he conveyed his views on the profession as the ‘most musical of all arts’, as ‘an art of communication to the human soul’, and as a form of story-telling — of stories that are often sensitive and difficult to communicate in words, but nevertheless can be expressed in architecture, through the use of space, materials, and light. He described his architectural designs (such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Ground Zero Master Plan) as ‘standing on the ground of memory’, giving articulation to voices that have been silenced and bringing visibility to experiences that are present in a city but are not always evident and noticeable.
The designer of the (original) Freedom Tower, part of the Ground Zero Master Plan, with 1776 feet the tallest building in the US, told his Romanian audience that architecture is not about how grand or big a building is but what meaning it conveys: a small building can communicate something much more profound than a large one which may be impressive physically but is devoid of human quality, obviously alluding to the edifice in which he was uttering his words. His speech touched upon some of the points raised by Bogdan Ghiu in the trans(ap)parencies curatorial statement: it deplored the soulless and dehumanizing qualities of authoritarian edifices, but also pointed at the numerous positive contributions architecture can make in furthering an open, civic and democratic society, putting emphasis on memory and communication as the two key elements of such an open and democratically oriented architecture.
Conferring an honorary doctorate to an architect who is famous for tackling historical traumas does not mean that the Romanian architectural establishment seems to be troubled by the fact that its annual convention is taking place (for the second time) in an authoritarian edifice that totally denies Libeskind’s vision. Whether most of them secretly admire the building as one of the great achievements of Romanian architecture or are just indifferent to the pain and suffering it caused remains to be seen, but it is a fact that hundreds of Romanian architects were involved in its design and some of them do not have any scruples mentioning their contribution in their CVs. Only few have openly expressed regret over their involvement. Hence it is indeed fair to ask whether the House of the People was ‘authored’ by the dictator and his wife alone or whether members of the Romanian architectural elite should not be seen as deeply implicated in his monstrous ‘achievement’, shifting their share of personal responsibility and complicity onto the shoulders of chief architect Anca Petrescu (like executioners blaming their superiors for giving the orders). Whatever the answer, Ceauşescu’s House of the People can be seen as a perfect example of what one of the leading anthropologists of today, Michael Herzfeld, has called ‘spatial cleansing’, in explicit analogy to ethnic cleansing, that is, the creation of large, controlled and sanitized public spaces over which government buildings exert a commanding presence, removing the population in the process (Herzfeld 2006).
Over the last two decades, however, this authoritarian building has been ‘domesticated’ and it soon will have its own ideological antidote in yet another pompous and ostentatious House of the People, the Orthodox Cathedral of National Redemption which is now under construction in the backyard of Casa Poporului. It has undergone a degree of post-socialist conversion and fragmentation as it now accommodates, amongst other national institutions, the Romanian Parliament (the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies), the Constitutional Court, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, and the headquarters of the Protection and Guard Service (SPP), the special elite forces created in 1990 by President Iliescu to provide employment to former members of the Securitate. It is the SPP which keeps the House of the People (or Parliament Palace as it is called now) ‘together’, maintaining a tight security ring around the edifice’s perimeter: it has ‘ownership’ over it more than any other organization, controlling flows of people into and through the building. In spite of the House of the People’s public function, it continues to be a highly securitized, inaccessible, and intimidating ‘fortress’ and an invincible centre of power.
The building has become the venue of events such as international and high profile academic conferences, political summits, commercial fairs and the annual Viennese Balls for the affluent local elite. It also has become the backdrop of spectacles such as car races and rock concerts, organized regularly on Constitution Square in front of the building. On Friday nights, this large semi-circular space transforms itself into an informal meeting place for members of Seat, BMW, Dacia, Škoda and other car clubs, tuned-up car fanatics, as well as hen parties. The building may seem less threatening and more human as a result of these activities inside or in front of it, yet it is doubtful whether they have made it a ‘House of the People’ in the true sense of the word. Often these spaces are sealed off and made accessible to a selected audience only, which can afford paying for expensive tickets, as I have observed at a number of occasions, especially during big rock concerts. Constitution Square is closed off hermetically by the Gendarmerie, concertgoers queue at the entrance, while elderly and homeless people scavenge the area for food and plastic bottles. Employees of the House of the People watch these concerts for free from the balconies of the building. ROCAD 2013 was of a similar kind, with regular tickets for the event costing 150 euros and special VIP areas for those willing to pay more.
Hence a more sceptical mind would characterize the House as first and foremost a symbol of the privileged and wealthy. It is primarily used by the Romanian political class (or ‘caste’ as some prefer to call it) and the special security forces that provide for their protection. As one critic wrote, it may not have been the best decision to move Parliament into this arrogant and contaminating symbol of authoritarian power: ‘The risk is, it may have given elected representatives the idea they have been accorded discretionary powers instead of popular mandate. The lavish construction, waste of public funds and kitsch backdrop, all seem to encourage megalomania in the political class, complete contempt of the real needs of their electorate and the delusion of belonging to an intangible élite’ (Pandele 2009). The sporadic political protests outside of the enclosure wall seem almost inevitably to fall on deaf ears, as they look futile if not ridiculous in front of this gigantic edifice.
Space is instrumental in the exercise of power, as Michel Foucault insisted, channelling everyday life, controlling spatial practices and creating ‘docile’ bodies. Socialist architecture and planning practices form an interesting case in this discussion as they produced tangible legacies of edifices and landscapes that have now become remnants of a rejected past. The question is to what extent these landscapes have retained the power to regiment everyday life as was originally intended? Despite Foucault underlining the political instrumentality of spatial configurations, he himself would have insisted that specific architectural forms do not necessarily carry with them a fixed political significance, keeping open the possibility of sites and spaces transforming themselves in spite of their previous functionality (Rabinow 2003). One can indeed accept that there is such a potential, but it seems that in the case of the House of the People at least some of its previous socialist functionality has stuck, displaying certain continuities with the past in spite of its conversion and ‘democratization’. Hence, for some people the House remains a totalitarian, oversized, aggressive and paranoid building. Others evoke the image of Bentham’s panopticon, of a powerful and impervious edifice overlooking the city, surrounded by a huge and protective spatial void and enclosed by a three kilometres long wall, with hundreds of windows indicating an omnipresent gaze coming from above (Salecl 1999).
There are problems though with applying these notions of spatial governance and the image of the panopticon, for the simple reason that the main force behind the House of the People, Ceauşescu’s socialist regime, came to an end before the whole project was finished. At the time of the Romanian Revolution (1989), this was an uninhabited ‘phantom city’ with empty structures some of which were still at an early stage of construction. It is sufficient to watch the raw footage in Vitan Ceauşescu: the crooked axes of the Civic Centre (1993-1994) by contemporary artist Ion Grigorescu, which shows a huge wasteland of unfinished concrete shells and dozens of cranes, mud tracks scattered with piles of rubble, and the odd road with conspicuously few people. This was not (yet) a panoptical space but rather an area emptied of people, designated to become a ceremonial axis for parades and the occasional traffic of Ceauşescu’s entourage.
It was not the finished spatial forms and configurations, but rather the process of massive demolition and construction which I believe was at the core of Ceauşescu’s technology of power: through direct and personal interventions and decrees, the leader oversaw the whole project, including the demolition and clearance of sites. He erased some monuments in full view of his Bucharest’s citizens, reducing the latter to impotent spectators and horrified and mesmerised bystanders offering hardly any resistance. The demolition and building process was the ultimate proof of his power: as long as nobody stopped his megalomaniac and brutal interventions, Ceauşescu felt unassailable and safe. His habit of endlessly modifying and deviating from the initial architectural blueprints fits the model of the process being the main instrument of political control, achieving docility, deference, and hierarchy, through a never-ending stream of often capricious and contradictory instructions descending down from him and his wife.
As Ştefan Ghenciulescu (2011) has argued, the House of the People has become the object of a perverse identity transfer: though created by Ceauşescu, the house is ‘beautiful’, because it was built ‘through our sacrifices’. It has grown into a symbol of national achievement, built by Romanians and with Romanian materials only, and admired by foreign visitors who are keen to see something out of the ordinary, except for a small minority (to which Libeskind belongs) who feel deeply disturbed and appalled by it. It reminds Romanians of their past and provides a stable anchor point when the city around is moving and transforming. Hopefully the time will come, however, that also this authoritarian edifice gets truly unstuck, not just by ‘domesticating’ the beast but by engaging critically with the pain and suffering it has caused and the legacies and continuities it has left behind. This reckoning with the past is and ought to be in equal measure a contemporary reflection on the ills of Romanian society. The wall between Parliament Palace and citizens has to come down, as the President of the Chamber of Deputies recently declared (posing in front of the cameras with a sledgehammer), but opening up and beautifying the green space at the building’s main entrance, as he has proposed, is not enough to achieve what is needed: which is to turn this building radically inside out, spatially, historically and politically.
Duijzings, Ger. 2011. ‘Dictators, dogs, and survival in a post-totalitarian city’. In: Urban constellations, edited by Matthew Gandy. Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2011, 145-8.
Ghenciulescu, Ştefan. 2011. ‘The House of the People and matchboxes for people to live in. Socialist architecture in Romania after 1989: perceptions, transformations, continuities’, in: Colloquia: Journal of Central European History 18: 150-61.
Herzfeld, Michael. 2006. ‘Spatial cleansing: monumental vacuity and the idea of the West’, in: Journal of Material Culture 11 (1-2): 127-49.
Pandele, Andrei. 2009. The House of the People. The end, in marble. Bucureşti: Compania.
Rabinow, Paul. 2003. ‘Ordonnance, discipline, regulation: some reflections on urbanism’, in The Anthropology of space and place: locating culture, edited by Setha Low and Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga. Malden: Blackwell, 353-62.
Salecl, Renata. 1999. ‘The state as a work of art. The trauma of Ceauşescu’s Disneyland’, in Architecture and revolution: contemporary perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Neil Leach. London: Routledge, 92-111.
Architecture of Counterfluence
(Are today’s architects naïve or comfortably blindfolded?)
Modern architecture or architecture as an image of social utopia reached its climax some 50 years ago as it became actual – when local utopias were literally built all over the Globe. Therefore, having no reason to be called utopia anymore, architectural product lost its great narrative and ever since there is a sense of inner emptiness causing many architects to feel uncomfortable about their social role. Underlying this emptiness, there was in fact a huge gap between society as a modern project and its everyday reality because utopian architecture, however tangible, did not build utopian social conditions.
In the jurassic park of today’s seemingly new architectural practices, questions about the crisis is never really asked. What is at display through architectural exhibitions and press may seem full of new and exciting products but beneath the skin of new urban artefacts there is nothing socially or culturally innovative but more of a same old story. In relation to reality of global injustices, this exercise of formal or technological innovations is in fact only a blueprinted mask for economic and political hegemony. Surprisingly the architectural contemporaneity of the past decade is often stuffed with language of socially engaged sixties and seventies. As if the formal and linguistic quotations of all sorts of modernist pastiche is to make us uncritical to the real content of contemporary buildings. Since by doing so architects are in fact only postponing the answer to crisis of their own subjectivity, one is tempted to ask a question : Are today’s architects naïve or only comfortably blindfolded? It is true that erosion of political culture and „late capitalism, with its mass consumption ethic, weakened the capability of architecture for transmitting patterns of conscious ethical value” (4) but then architectural practice should in the first place react to that. It should find ways to counter act.
If one takes a look at Fluences exhibition from that perspective, then he or she will conclude that it isn’t much different from architectural fireworks that happen all over the place. However one should take a closer look and see that apart from those that boldly exercise details of stainless steel and marble cladding (maybe those are really the ‘naïve’) there are architectural practices from post communist eastern and southern Europe. Those are inevitably aware of precarious social and political circumstances of their work but still do not find the will and courage to articulate them through their material practice (maybe those are the ‘comfortably blindfolded’).
However there are architectural thinkers and practitioners in the Fluences selection that produce architectural effects by practices that in many ways dissent from the stream. Those architectures of dissent or architectural counterfluences are equally influenced by market tendencies or cultural cliches but seem to be more concerned with conditions of their production while still succeeding in articulating that conditions through their material and cultural practice as architects. To explain my argument I singled out two pieces.
To read the entire text please consult Fluencies catalog. Details about where it can be found, the price or delivery, you can obtain by contacting us at: arhitext_redactie[at]b[dot]astral[dot]ro
You can find more about the catalog, here.
Secondary Modernity in Eastern/Central-Eastern/South-Eastern Europe
What are the themes of architecture in our region? Is there “regional” coherence in the architecture of Eastern/Central-Eastern/South-Eastern Europe? Does “region” manifest itself in architecture? If we had problems and spatial habits different from others, if we had been special indeed, then we would also be able to produce special architecture. Can we identify such a reality?
1. The Region
The problem appears from the very beginning. How do we define region? Dan Perjovschi described things best in the field of art: he noticed that in the mid-’90s he was integrated in Center-Eastern European exhibitions, at the end of the ’90s in the Eastern European ones, and in the early 2000s in the South-Eastern European ones; and all this, while he hadn’t even moved out of Bucharest. The region slides all around us.
However, the cardinal points have connotations. The “East” has the clearest one: it is the post-communist area. But the neo-liberal chaos that we perceive as the most specific trait of everything that post-communism meant in our urban space, for instance, is not at all something original and unique in the world today. Real estate modernity is simply contemporaneous and global.
Undoubtedly, the number one theme of our architectural environment is modernity, and it is an important and explicit theme precisely because it is extremely problematic.
The biggest problem raised by architectural modernity in the East has been the fact that its main ingredient, i.e. technology, has never been completely mastered here. Even Russian constructivism, the most avant-gardist movement ever to occur in Eastern Europe, stood out thanks to the utopian impossibility of its superb technological fantasies. In architecture, it is technology that settles the distance between dream and real construction. Or, when it comes to architecture, the East has never quite traveled this whole distance on its own.
b. Functional or Post-colonial
Underlining the necessity of a new modernity in the East, Bogdan Ghiu recently proposed the abandonment of “historical modernity”, that of the scientific-technical metaphysics once denounced by Heidegger”. Indeed, in the field of architecture in particular, it is worth looking for a new modernity; it is probably the only way to produce something that counts. Moreover, we are beginning to understand more and more that it is not the metaphysics of essences that could ever offer us something remarkable. At the same time, to regard the “scientific-technical” as something negative would be a big mistake. It is not the “technical-scientific” attribute that stands in the way of a new modernity in our country, but the very lack of it. It should be understood, however, in a certain key: it does not refer so much to what modernity is as to the way modernity functions.
3. The Secondary
Whether we like it or not, the European East comes second to the West. But this actually constitutes its “specific” resource. However, the secret is to see this secondary condition as a pure position, devoid of any negative connotation. We are not secondary, condemned by our original history to ranking (immediately) lower in the hierarchy, if we understand our condition as being situated somewhere, as a neutral spatial positioning nearby.
The shift of modernity from history to geography means, first of all, that we have finally overcome transition, this essential temporal intermezzo of paradoxical modernity, i.e. a modernity with a well-known future. It is only now that we have regained our open, unpredictable future. We can finally look for a new modernity, which can function for us as a current modernity, in the present continuous. This, for instance, could finally push Romanian architecture beyond neo-modernism – a fine and “competent” trend, no question about it, but which can never be “great” again. Modernity understood as repositioning would render obvious the fact that we cannot be relevant unless we avoid exploring those places that we already explored.
But “to change the world”, is, alas, the privilege of “power”. What can you do when you do not have much power?… In his book Art Power, Groys approached explicitly the topic of the methods employed by art nowadays in order to count, to make a difference. However, what he describes therein rather amounts to all sorts of lateral strategies, such as avoiding object production, remaining in the project, the construction of the multiple author or – in the specific case of Eastern European art – recognizing communism as part of its own modernity.
c. The Margin as Border/The Economic Margin
Finally, the secondary always tries to come out the winner one way or another. In order to count, it needs to be successful. Secondary positions, while nourishing on margins and alterity, keep close to establishments and canons. Undoubtedly, what they aim for is success, a widely-recognized one. Groys says it explicitly: “there is no such thing as looking for alternative success in marginality”. Secondary means at the margin, but not marginally. Secondary modernity functions as the economic margin: the margin of power.
The Arhitext exhibition already contains instances of architecture evolving towards this new modernity, which highlight several of its themes: improvisation with only a few means, working at the limit of the micro scale and minor aesthetic strategies.
1. In the open air
In rich Germany there are still cities like Magdeburg, strewn with deserted houses and affected by unemployment. Thus, the exclusive, luxurious, “air-conditioned comfort greenhouse” of Western capitalism, which leaves “in the open air” the rest, the poor of the world, has its own broken glass here and there, on the Eastern façade.
2. Micro-cohesions in Chaos
The world of architectural and “urban” composition has been completely abandoned and our subject functions today in a theoretical paradigm of fields and elementary particles. The post-communist East is indeed the ideal space for testing this theory. It is the space of privatization pushed to extreme, of micro-privatization. The aerial photograph of Ivan Galic’s house in Zagreb shows this at one glance. The agents of urban development have been reduced to the smallest elements possible, units of private habitation, small self-sufficient molecules totally indifferent to any coagulation of the city around them: the limit of entropy has been reached.
How can one renovate the city from now on, that is, reinvent the relations between these urban micro-agents? What is the first possible connecting step between them in a chaotic and atomized city? How can one define the minimum of a micro-collective? This is precisely what Galic’s house investigates: it achieves the smallest transition formula from the elementary unit to what already amounts to a connection between various units. It is a house in which there are already four houses, the first step from the molecule to any multicellular organism and points to an evolutionary direction. And the aerial photography demonstrates, with the unbeatable force of the image, that this is indeed a safe, secondary means of introducing order into chaos.
3. Minor aesthetics
In addition to being minimal and micro, minor aesthetics also evinces another necessary feature: it is always next to and in something existing already, on which it counts to demonstrate its little perfection. It necessarily works as an insertion in already established spatial systems, i.e. it is secondary. Counting on contrast, its minimism becomes sharper, because it demonstrates by means of an immediate comparison the limited performance of its radical modernity. The apparently discrete insertions of beautiful things that are small and circumstantial are in fact points of concentration of maximal aesthetic intension.
Overall, Eastern Europe architecture has nothing special about it. However, some themes are expressed therein with more intensity. They suggest a promising future, because they count on the practically unlimited and unpredictable resources of the connections which may be created in the ever-changing, ever-decomposing and recomposing space of today. Micro-relations afford functional cohesion amid the chaos. Minor beauty ensures the durability of the beautiful. Recycling, participation and public interest ensure an indirect access to power by means of “correctness”.
To read the entire text please consult Fluencies catalogue. Details about where it can be found, the price or delivery, you can obtain by contacting us at: arhitext_redactie[at]b[dot]astral[dot]ro
You can find more about the catalogue, here.