La Grande Dame de l’Est: Bucharest and the art of urban expression

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Rebecca McKeown explores the second youth of a cultured capital and discovers that when searching for the “real Romania”, one need not look beyond Bucharest.

Rebecca McKeown explores the second youth of a cultured capital and discovers that when searching for the “real Romania”, one does not need to look beyond Bucharest.

The city is a canvas: apartments become art near Bucharest’s city centre.
The city is a canvas: apartments become art near Bucharest’s city centre. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.

Many cities are crowned “Grande Dame” at the nibs of travel writers’ grandiloquent pens: their aim to imbue the destination in focus with a sort of wistful majesty. Perhaps, then, it is both hypocritical and hackneyed to begin this account by dubbing Romania’s capital Bucharest just that. I do so, however, without apology.

There are few other descriptors that could come close to defining this city. Bucharest as an urban environment is old and it is new. It is communist and it is capitalist. It is both very grey and very green. It is historic and modern. It is a loud, noisy rat-race, and a slow-paced family-friendly nirvana. Above all else, it is unequivocally vibrant and proud: alive with the coupling of youthful energy and aged wisdom that only a true lady of the world can possess.

Bucharest is indeed an enigma. The regular band of expats aside, few foreigners stick around long enough to piece together its puzzle. At first glance, the city can seem noisy, dirty, grey and unfriendly. Many tourists skip it completely, hopping straight in a car from Otopeni or Baneasa airports for the three-hour drive through the mountains to Braşov – gateway to Transylvania.

Mention Transylvania in conversation with a Bucharestian and they will probably tell you that they’d like to do the same: “Oh, I wish I lived in Braşov/Cluj/Sibiu”, they will sigh. “Life in Transylvania is so much more relaxed – the scenery and the architecture is so beautiful. Transylvania is the real Romania”.

The town of Sighisoara in Transylvania: The “real” Romania? Photo: Rebecca McKeown.
The town of Sighisoara in Transylvania: The “real” Romania? Photo: Rebecca McKeown.

Admittedly it is no stretch to argue that the built space of Transylvanian cities surpasses Bucharest in the beauty stakes. Transylvania is filled with tidy fairy tale-like fortified towns bearing Gothic churches and Austro-Hungarian houses with ornate façades and gingerbread-house roofs. Bucharest, and the rest of its Wallachian region, has been influenced by an entirely different wave of architectural imperialism. Many call it “the city where East meets West” because of its historical encounters with the Ottomans and Imperial Russia.

Bucharest is not Transylvania. But it has an aesthetic and charm all of its own – born from its residents’ need for a liveable habitat. The city does not have the natural magnetism of Brașov, Sibiu or Sighișoara, and thus its inhabitants are forced to exert some effort to extract its benefits. It is this exertion that transforms Bucharest into quite the socialite. She is hard work, she is stubborn, and her beauty has weathered – but she can tell a great many more stories than other “polished” European cities. This madam is flamboyant, eclectic and very much alive and kicking.

Oriental influences are apparent in parts of the city. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.
Oriental influences are apparent in parts of the city. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.

Transylvania, Maramureș, and Moldavia may attract Western tourists tired of corporate chaos and in search of haystacks, hills, and a simpler way of life. But for young Romanians, the realities of country life are no longer so appealing. Youth may harbour nostalgia for their rural roots, but Bucharest (and beyond) is where opportunities for individual expression and personal growth really lie. A comment on an online exhibition of creative Bucharest photography confirms this assessment: “Finally!”, the commenter exclaims, “one artist who shows Romania (even if in the background) as it is today! No more photos of primitive agriculture, traditional “sheep watching” or “calușarii”. This is indeed closer to the Romania I know!”.

Dancing Bucharest“. Photo: Dani Ioniță.

The exhibition in question is the brainchild of a Romanian photographer of theatre in Bucharest, who decided to move her artistic expression out onto the streets. Instead of coming to the dancers, she coaxed the dancers out into the urban environment – the results a creative snapshot of Bucharest as a living and lived piece of art.

Art has been at the heart of Bucharestians realignment to new post-socialist identities. The grey legacies of Ceausescu’s regime are inescapable in this jungle of panel blocs and concrete. Inescapable, but not unassailable or uncontrollable. Socialist architecture is a major part of Bucharest’s present – but beyond the politicised debate about the future of the central city, a more natural, bottom-up relationship between the city and its residents is blossoming.

Graffiti takes over on a concrete wall in Bucharest’s suburbs. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.
Graffiti takes over on a concrete wall in Bucharest’s suburbs. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.

Despite the myriad of creative outlets Bucharest harbours, most outsiders continue to see it as messy and dull – lacking the ease of interest that other tidier, more tourist-oriented European cities have to offer. The city also suffers from a knowledge vacuum in the form of its most imposing architectural offering. As a study of Bucharest’s post-socialist space and urban identity highlights, despite “all the efforts to rebrand Bucharest the city continues to be associated in the Western imagination with Nicolae Ceauşescu and his monumental ‘House of the People’”.

This is indeed true, but it is not at all surprising. The “House of the People” (Casa Poporului) dominates the central city landscape with a floor area of 340,000m2 and bearing 1 million cubic metres of marble and 3,500 tonnes of crystal – all sourced from within Romania. Unlike Warsaw’s towering Palace of Culture and Science, however, Bucharest’s architectural talking point is squat and easy to escape. Just a block away one can slip down a leafy side-street and find “the Palace” out of sight and of mind.

The Palace of Parliament: a monument marks Bucharest’s 555th birthday. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.
The Palace of Parliament: a monument marks Bucharest’s 555th birthday. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.

Lurking down these leafy boulevards is the key to Bucharest’s status of “Grande Dame”. The resistance to the city’s socialist sprawl has always been its old mansions. Largely constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ornate homes reference a variety of architectural styles, from the Gothic revival to French Baroque to Eclecticism. Of the houses that survived Ceaușescu’s bulldozer and the destructive earthquake of 1977, many now exhibit signs of neglect. They bear witness to the difficult social and economic times the city has seen since being hurtled into the terrifying snake-filled abyss of “post-socialism”.

Some of the mansions have it lucky and are the proud containers of foreign embassies or Romania’s nouveau riche. Others have seen better days – their paint flaking, yards overgrown.

An overgrown yard and one of Bucharest’s character mansions on Dacia Boulevard. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.
An overgrown yard and one of Bucharest’s character mansions on Dacia Boulevard. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.

What character these old ladies have. What stories they might tell. Who held parties within their walls at the turn of the century? What plots were whispered behind closed doors as the First and Second World Wars swept across Europe? And what helped them to survive the urban planning axe of a megalomaniacal dictator, as he rolled his concrete plans for a socialist utopia out over a living city?

There are certainly still aspects of Bucharest that are less than majestic. Some buildings sit like open wounds when their neighbours are torn down from beside them. On Bucharest’s equivalent of the Champs Elysee, (Bulevardul Unirii), a fountain two metres from the celebratory “555” monument lies in pieces – a stark contrast to the modern, successful face the overhanging sculpture was intended to portray.

The fountain on Bulevardul Unirii lies broken and forgotten. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.
The fountain on Bulevardul Unirii lies broken and forgotten. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.

Wild dogs are a part of this landscape too – though scare stories by foreign media exaggerate the problem. Still, there have been some incidents, and the question of what to do with the animals frequently lines the local newspapers and fuels breakfast table debates.

Bucharest certainly presents its fair share of challenges to those who call it home. Yet like any urban centre, and like many post-socialist cities, it is a hive of life and creativity – a family-friendly city where parents are not afraid to let their children play alone in the parks, and where theatre, film, art, and innovation thrive.

ree-lined streets and bright-coloured housing blocks. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.
ree-lined streets and bright-coloured housing blocks. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.

Many of those who have never encountered a panel block before might see the city-scape as grey, run-down and depressing. Yet these scars are superficial. Go inside an apartment in a building like the one pictured below and you will find no end of colour and warmth. Romanian apartments, no matter how small, are immaculate and bedecked with colourful wall rugs and family photographs. They are places of inner, rather than outer beauty, and a source of great pride to their owners.

More than anything, such apartments are sites of intense hospitality. Enter at your own risk. Inside, off the concrete-lined, dog-infested, post-socialist streets you will no doubt be obliged to accept never-ending homemade cooking and cakes, wine and plum brandy, offers of spontaneous trips to the mountains, and hearty, genuine smiles. Inside, but spilling out into the youthful new veins of a grand old city, is where you’ll find the real Romania.

A glimpse of the family life lying beyond scarred walls: potted plants and other ornaments adorn Bucharest’s balconies. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.
A glimpse of the family life lying beyond scarred walls: potted plants and other ornaments adorn Bucharest’s balconies. Photo: Rebecca McKeown.
About the author: Rebecca McKeown is a postgraduate student of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London. A born and bred New Zealander, she has found a second home between the panel blocks and haystack-dotted hills of Romania. Rebecca has, in the past, been guilty of bypassing Bucharest for the picture-perfect Brașov (which she once called home for a year), but the capital’s best proselytising efforts in the summer of 2014 rendered her one of the happily converted. @rebiccamck

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