By Stefania Ventome. Edited by Lina Mansour. Biographies are available at the end of the article.
In front of Bucharest’s main train station, at the end of a small park that shelters homeless people and drug addicts, lies the CFR Palace. Massive, imposing and sober, the CFR Palace, also known as the Ministry of Transportation, is one of the first buildings that a visitor coming to Bucharest by train would notice. It is also one of the many architectural remains of totalitarian regimes scattered around Romania’s capital. Nowadays, Bucharest is a city of contrasts, split between abandonment and consumerism and decay and development, but for most of the past century, the city was the administrative centre of three gruesome dictatorships, a dark history that has left significant marks on the city’s identity. Bucharest’s monumentalism is mostly attributed to the infamous legacy of Ceausescu’s brutal regime, but buildings such as the CFR Palace evoke a different past, one that has been slowly erased from the people’s collective memory.
The current Ministry of Transportation is a colossal construction, defined by symmetry and order, that expresses both power and dread. With a surface of 40000 square metres and designed for a capacity of 4000 clerks, the building was planned by architect Duiliu Marcu in 1936 and represents one of his most ambitious projects. While for most inhabitants of the Romanian capital, the CFR Palace reminds them of the country’s communist past, the building is in fact one of the most important architectural inheritances of the interwar period. Although it was only completed at the end of the 1940s, the Palace’s construction began in 1937, during the reign of Carol the Second and most importantly, it was inspired by the new aesthetics developed in fascist Italy.
Imposing and stripped of ornaments, the CFR Palace resembles the monumentalism of Italian rationalism, an architectural movement that was “emphasizing the primacy of functionalism in directing form, with aesthetic to be derived from the functional program of the building.” However, the rationalists’ vision was not limited to form and functionalism but was also a political statement that was trying to create an artistic expression of fascist ideology through architecture. Similarly, Duiliu Marcu, inspired by his visits to Mussolini’s Italy, along with other architects formed at the Accademia Di Romania in the 1920s, laid the foundation of a new type of urban and architectural expression in Bucharest, a style that was not devoid of political and ideological implications.
In a radio broadcast from 1939, architect Petre Antonescu discussed the characteristics of the Carol the Second architectural style. The new urban plan of Bucharest – created in 1934 by the Romanian Institute of Urbanism, although never completed – was meant to reflect the Romanian soul by creating a bridge between traditional Romanian architecture and modernity. In his discourse, Petre Antonescu praises the beauty and unity of native Romanian architecture, while criticising the foreign architectural influences that were appearing in the capital. His nationalistic discourse was not surprising in the historical context of the interwar period. After the First World War, Romania almost doubled its territory and the country’s population increased by 8,500,000, a change that had led to ethnic diversity and consequently, to a rise in nationalistic attitudes. With approximately 30% of the population consisting of minorities and in the context of economic inequalities, a quest to establish and defend a national identity emerged and architecture became a powerful political tool.
Moreover, King Carol the Second, who came to the Romanian throne in 1930, was establishing a strong cult of personality that was manifested through sumptuous celebrations, military parades and a desire for monumentality. In 1938, the year that Romania officially became a royal dictatorship after Carol the Second suspended the constitution, Bucharest was in a process of urban and architectural transformation, reflecting the King’s authoritarianism. However, despite Petre Antonescu’s praise for native architecture, the new urban plan of Bucharest was in fact inspired by fascist Italy. If architecture during Mussolini’s regime attempted to define fascist ideology and to suggest its eternity, architecture in Romania during the royal dictatorship was meant to express the King’s authority and the superiority and eternity of the Romanian people. As in the case of many totalitarian regimes, architecture became a propaganda tool that attempted to express the establishment’s vision and to induce a state of submission to the citizens.
Not far away from the CFR Palace, the current government of democratic Romania stands imposingly at the end of Victory Square. A common place for protests in recent years, the square offers a clear view of the Victory Palace, a large edifice resembling the Italian Stile Littorio that was initially designed to host the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The famous Stile Littorio, characteristic of architect Marcello Piacentini, was meant to encapsulate classicism, modernism and monumentalism in a balanced and harmonious manner. Architect Duiliu Marcu attempted the same result with the Victory Palace, by designing a massive construction, with tall arcades and two lateral sculptured panels. With its small upper windows and the openings behind the arcades, the building watches over the square, while simultaneously giving the illusion of openness and transparency. As stated by architect I.D. Enescu in 1939 in the magazine Arhitectura, public institutions were supposed to give the impression they were in the service of the population and had nothing to hide. The openings in the buildings had to inspire safety, but to also be able to defend those inside them. In reality, safety was only an illusion and the public institutions only served the needs of the regime.
At the same time, the Victory Palace was created to inspire a sense of national identity, another important characteristic of what was then considered the Carol the Second style. The two decorative panels at the laterals were carved by sculptor Mac Constantinescu with illustrations of allegorical characters and Latin texts. That was a clear reference to the grandiosity of the Romanian people, descendants of the Roman Empire and of a latinate identity. Both panels were destroyed in the bombings of 1944 and were not reconstructed after the war, although Duiliu Marcu remained architect of the Palace under the communist regime. Similar features can be found on the walls of the CEC Pensions House and on the Faculty of Law, one of the best preserved architectural emblems of the interwar period. The friezes on the CEC Pensions House show elegant carved mythological figures while statues of Roman leaders watch proudly over the stairs of the University.
Further down Victoria avenue, the current Ministry of Internal Affairs, is another example of fascist-inspired architecture. The construction of the Palace of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was planned by architect Paul Smărăndescu in 1939 and is characterized by majestic columns and two symmetrical sides that point towards the centre. Nonetheless, the location discloses much of the Palace’s monumentalism. Its strategic position, on the main avenue of the capital and in front of a large square, amplifies its grandiose character. In addition, the openness of the surrounding offers space for gatherings, marches and parades, important events for a regime that was relying on propaganda.
Beyond the aesthetics and architectural details, the location of the institutions played an important role in the urban planning of Bucharest in the interwar period. In the case of the Military Academy – one of the most eloquent examples of the Stile Littorio in Bucharest – its triumphant location inspires power and authority. Situated above the entire neighbourhood and at the end of a long row of stairs, the setting also evokes a sense of continuity.
King Carol II’s engraving at The Military Academy
On the one hand, the location of these institutions was meant to disclose the grandiosity of the building. On the other hand, it was meant to induce a state of submission to the authorities. It is certainly ironic that the people of Bucharest started their rebellion against Ceausescu right from the square facing the Ministry of Internal Affairs (the headquarters of the Communist Party between 1958 and 1989) and that he flew away with a helicopter from the roof of the building.
Many of the remaining buildings of the interwar period have suffered significant changes over the years. After the King’s abdication in 1940 and Ion Antonescu’s takeover, Romania became part of the Soviet Block and remained under dictatorship until 1989. During these years of historical challenges, Bucharest’s architecture was constantly shaped according to new values and state party demands. Some of these buildings were reconditioned, some of their features were erased or replaced and their roles changed according to new needs. Nonetheless, they stand witness to decades of traumas for the city and its people. Behind their modernity, majestity and functionality, they are relics of a dark history, in which architecture served the ego of proud leaders instead of the needs of its citizens.
Picture Credits: Valentin Talaba
Hello! I’m Stefania from Romania. I studied Foreign Languages and Literatures (English and Dutch) at the University of Bucharest. In 2013, I went to Belgium with an Erasmus scholarship and I studied Applied Linguistics at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. That was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had so far and it has helped me develop both professionally and personally. At the moment, I work for a multinational company in Bucharest and I help Dutch and Belgian customers with accounting issues. I am passionate about urbanism, cinematography and history. In my free time, I like to explore places and to write articles about their history. I am also an avid reader of history and anthropology books. In the future, I hope to continue my studies and to be able to share with the world fascinating stories about our cities, culture and society.
Lina Mansour is an editor at The Euroculturer. She is currently in her third semester, pursuing a professional track in Berlin. Her first and second universities were Olomouc and Göttingen, respectively.
1) Fallon, Nathan. (2012). How does the aesthetic of Fascist architecture reflect the nature of fascist political ideology in Italy during the years of Benito Mussolini’s regime from 1922-1943, Aesthetics under Mussolini: Public Art & Architecture, 1922-1940, pg. 25
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