Well a little bit of an exaggeration, but Viewport was in Bucharest to talk at the GIS Architecture Conference (alongside Hagy Belzberg from Los Angeles and Diogo Aguiar from Porto) and after all the talking was done, we had half a day to spin around town to get an idea of the architecture in town. This is definitely not a definitive guide to the best of Bucharest (there are some exquisite and grand 19th century villas in the north of the city and some decrepit but very decent modernist apartment buildings from the twenties and thirties dotted around town) but we managed to squeeze in nearly 300 years of Romanian architectural history. Fortunately the conference took place on Calea Victoriei which has been a significant thoroughfare in the city since the end of the seventeenth century when it was paved in wood. This made it a cut above the standard muddy street and it became the most fashionable part of town, which it remains to this day. And it is along or very near this street that our tour is based.
So in chronological order, and just behind the former Royal Palace in Revolution Square (there is still a living King of Romania although the country has been a republic since 1947) is a typical example of Romanian Orthodox church architecture – the Kretzulescu Church from the early 18th century. It is a model of the linear form of Eastern Orthodox churches in brick with two domed towers and in the front porch, are still the original frescoes. Unlike the western Christian tradition, Romanian churches are mostly small scale intimate spaces with highly decorated interiors, so make sure you step inside to take a look – it is mostly open.
Just the other side of the Palace and back on Calea Victoriei, stands Bucharest’s most highly regarded building and now with a European Heritage Label, (first time I’ve heard of that as well), The Romanian Athenaeum. Designed by the French architect Albert Galleron in a Neo Classical Style, , the building is a temple of Romanian culture and has been the site of some key events in the country’s history, not least the vote to create Greater Romania in 1919, the slightly larger version of the country that existed in the Inter War years. This is one of many buildings in the city that were either designed by French architects or built in the Second Empire and Beaux Arts Style. The spectacular circular auditorium has been home to concerts conducted by Bartok to Prokofiev, and is decorated with a 70 metre long painting of the key points of Romanian history, just in case you are not gripped by the music.
Set back from the street is the office of the Union of Romanian Architects, which sightly mixes up the chronological order here, because this is both a 19th century building and a contemporary seven storey office building completed between 2003 – 2007. The building was once the Austro- Hungarian embassy until the collapse of that empire, and later became the home of the foreign intelligence section of the dreaded Securitate, the communist secret police of Ceausescu, Romania’s late dictator. During the 1989 revolution – the only violent overthrow and the last of all the former Warsaw Pact communist regimes – the building was badly damaged by fire. The building lay in ruins for more than a decade but has now been both imaginatively restored by two local architects Dan Marin and Zeno Bogdanescu, as a memorial to the revolution but also to provide contemporary office accommodation to a number of companies as well as the Union of Romanian Architects.
Continue down and you find a good example of Bucharest’s modernist heritage at the Telephone Palace or in Romanian the Palatul Telefoanelor. This is Bucharest’s first significant Modernist building from 1931-33, and for over twenty years after being built was its tallest at just over 50 metres high. Following New York in its styling, the architect was of Dutch origin, and funded by the Americans in exchange for a monopoly to provide telephone services for the next twenty years. It was recently refurbished at some significant cost in order that the roof could support microwave antennae.
And to finish off, two examples of building during the communist era. The first is a typically modernist performance venue built in 1960 designed by Tiberiu Ricci with a concaved roof and a huge number of seats, it was the site of the Romanian Communist Party five-yearly congresses. If you ever see films of Nicolae Ceausescu being applauded in unison by 4000 drones, chances are Sala Palatului was the venue. Finally, a bit of a schlep from the main drag of this tour, is the monstrous Palace of Parliament or the People’s Palace, the second largest building in the world which during the course of its construction during the last years of the Ceausescu regime, swallowed up 40% of Romania’s GDP. Alongside the dictator’s crazy plan to completely pay off the national debt and turn Romania into a self sufficient nation, he was also impressed by North Korea’s ability to choreograph its people so he began his policy of Systematizaion, his version of urban planning. The construction of the Palace saw huge swathes of the city being pulled down – 40 000 people were given one day’s notice to abandon their homes. Designed by a 28 year old, and containing some 2800 chandeliers, it appears to be on every tourists’ to do list in Romania. Oh well, if you must, but do not follow in Michael Jackson’s footsteps and shout “Hello Budapest” from the balcony.