work in progress
I met architect Şerban Sturdza on a horribly hot day in Bucharest, at a bookstore that had an art gallery in its cool cellar. I’ve seen on the internet that he worked on a restoration project named 60 Churches.
The Romanian countryside scenery often includes these centuries-old, painted churches made of wood, at times with very tall steeples. I’ve been in many of them in my own county, Sălaj, and I took delight in their washed out frescos featuring angels and skies and saints, or in their minute windows, thick boulders and squeaky doors.
I wanted to talk to Mr. Sturdza both because I wanted to spread the word, the project needed funding, and because I sought inspiration, here was a man who tackled an enormous task, and kept at it, without succumbing, while I, well, always was prone to falling on my face.
I interviewed him alright, and then as customary fell flat on my nose for two years. But here I am now, scurrying to arise along with the spirit of Romanian Orthodox Easter, icons, candles, saints, and all, on May 5th, 2013.
Ella Veres: We’re here in the Cărturăreşti’s bunker, with Architect Mr. Sturdza. He’s been so very kind to come out in this terrible heat, I believe it’s July 10th today. I wanted to ask first of all about the 60 wooden churches, but not so much about the technicalities of restoration, because I can read it in the project promotional leaflets, but about…
Şerban Sturdza: Sure, sure. I’ll tell you about why are they 60, and…
E.V.: Yes, and why you are involved in this, with the Romanian Architects' Organization…
Ş.S.: I’ll say that this idea came to me after I was part of a Commission for Patrimony and Heritage, when I realized there were many historical monuments that disappeared, old wooden churches included.
At this point in time, in Romania there is a phenomenon that is as destructive as the one during Ceauşescu’s time, though a tad different, things happening differently, but the effect is similar. Before 1990 there was an indifference towards patrimony and a will to shove aside a large series of historical religious monuments, while at the same time nationalism was pumped up, national pride, and the nation. Certain things got falsified. But nowadays democratization has allowed that the damage previously created by just one individual, it is done by multiple individuals.
This situation has overlapped with a greedy rush to get rich as fast as possible, and a lack of cultural knowledge and lack of care towards cultural values, care that is not imposed by the state, but which you’ve been taught and thus you know you must take care of them yourself regardless of what the state does.
So after ’90 the dismal state of things regarding our cultural heritage was not rectified, the losses were enormous, and they still continue to add up. So I then thought about how I could take action myself, realizing that the Ministry of Culture and other offices that are part of the public administration are not up to the task, or don’t have the ability and the endowment to give the necessary responses to the situation. Well, when you suddenly realize the enormity of a situation, you feel compelled to write official letters, warnings, complaints, which I’ve done for a while, but soon you realize that their effect is too little. So then I thought it would maybe be better to take action from a different angle.
And I had a sudden feeling that the only way you could do something about it would be to include a large number of churches, not deal with them one by one, but to tackle the entire issue of their overall destruction, not just individually, and not aiming at restoration, because restoration involves a long process and much money, but in this situation is better to think about rescuing them, emergency salvaging, like giving first aid, the way emergency teams on ambulances intervene when there is a traffic accident on a highway.
And we immediately thought about SMURD.
S.S.: It stands for Mobile Emergency Service for Resuscitation and Extrication, SMURD, which is a system of help in desperate situations. I thought that if people in Romania gained a large-scale picture, and wouldn’t find out separately that a monument has disappeared today, another one two weeks later, but if they could see them connected, then they’d realize that the losses are enormous.
You’d get scared by what is happening and realize this is an extreme situation, on the verge of precipice, so then you have to take extreme action. That’s what I believe about the wooden churches, even if many people say I exaggerate when I state this. So I wanted to have a discussion with Mr. Arafat. Mr. Arafat is a personage who managed to restructure the road ambulance system in Romania. In major traffic accidents interventions are made, by car or helicopter, to rescue whatever lives are still salvageable. So, together with a few friends, we asked for a meeting. We had a very interesting discussion. He agreed I was right, and he gave me some advice. He told me that when you are in an extreme situation, you have on your hands an accident with several victims in danger, you have to decide which lives can be saved and which cannot be saved. And you focus your first aid on those who still have a chance, otherwise if you focus only on those close to comma, or close to death, the others succumb too meanwhile. You have to take fast decisions, you have to assume total responsibility, and you have to do this constantly, otherwise you lose your knack. You have to become very skillful at what you do. I was very impressed by both what he said and how he said it, and in the end he told us, we were three people, ‘If I can help you with anything, call me again.’
It was a short discussion, the man being busy, well organized…
E.V.: Sorry, who’s he? I’m behind the times.
Ş.S.: He’s a physician who studied here, but he is, I don’t want to make a mistake, somewhere from the East, I’m not sure which country, I think Palestine, but I don’t know exactly, and he came back to Romania and he founded an ambulance emergency unit somewhere in Piatra Neamţ, which he originally financed with personal funds, then he became State Secretary and now deals with this issue nationally. He gained authority thru his dedicated work.
Well, this meeting and the fact that my friends saw the decayed shape in which the wooden churches were in, prompted them to make an exhibition showing publicly the situation. I’m talking about Mr. Ovidiu Daneş from Dala Foundation, and another group, The Architects’ Order, that asked me to help out, at that time I was their president, and so we organized together the exhibition and I realized that there was no chance anything could be done, because there were very many little churches, no one knew about them, money there was nowhere in sight, and this outcry, impressive as it was, because the exhibition was well staged, would have no effect whatsoever. So I thought about how the issue should be presented and I decided we had to go for an en gross approach, that is not one church, or two churches, but 60 churches. We made a calculation, there were more than 60 churches, but 60 were the ones that needed emergency interventions. They were in Vâlcea and Gorj Counties, south of the Carpathian Mountains, and in Hunedoara County and Sibiu, in the north. Of course there are more churches around the country in the same situation, but we focused on the ones that we knew closely about their severe state. And we launched this provocation, this project, 60 churches, in which we tried to involve as many people as possible.
So this is not a project that focuses on who had the initiative, but wants to get across that there is no help from the authorities, that the churches disappear very fast because wooden structures, be they churches or any other buildings, deteriorate and degrade in time, and if the roof is damaged and the water gets inside, the degradation accelerates, not only it starts to rot, but also all kinds of bio attacks surge, mushrooms/spores and microorganisms and other things. Then the painting inside, many of these churches are painted inside, deteriorates, and in the end it disappears. Eventually the churches collapse.
So we made a list and we announced that these 60 are the ones that need rescuing, and the work we’d be doing would be minimal, just an emergency intervention, to prolong their lives until they get into the hand of such authorities that would give money for their restoration projects. So it’s exactly the SMURD situation, in which the doctor meets his accident victim on the highway. Later on, when the patient arrives to the hospital and gets treatment, so on, it’s a different story.
So we were ‘emergency architects’.
But how could you work out all this when there’s no helpful legislation in place? How can you handle this since there are some rules that if you trespass you become an outlaw/are outside the law? Or those rules applied to lengthy restoration processes which take longer than we could afford, since by the next winter the churches will be collapsed. So we assumed responsibility for actions within the minimum leeway that law permits for emergency help, which in theory you can do instantly, but you’re not allowed any extensive work, only to prop up the building to avoid its collapsing and similar actions.
We decided we shall do just this, without specifically knowing that in certain cases we needed to do just a propping up, but in other cases we had to change the roof covering, or even much more. The matter evolved from theory to real cases, each church seems to be a particular, specific case with interesting and complex aspects. Now the question is, why do these churches deteriorate? There’s no one in the village to take care of them?
E.V.: Indeed, the villagers just let them rot?
Ş.S.: There are villagers, but these churches are usually by cemeteries. In the past they were used together with the cemetery, but then later on, either because the village moved farther on and abandoned the old church and the cemetery, or because the customs changed and the funeral service was not hold in church anymore but in the cemetery burial ground, so out of mere neglect the church decays, deteriorates. This took care of the villagers. What does the priest say? Well, ‘I have to take care of the church that’s in the middle of the village. That’s where the villagers come. I have to gather money to take care of that church, to paint it, and I don’t have money for this old one that people lost interest in.’
Then what are the public administration authorities saying? That is the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The answer is that, ‘Right now we don’t have money for these churches but we don’t have anything against you repairing them.’ I asked them, ‘But still can’t you offer us some help? We’re trying on our side, but you too should try.’ And they say, ‘Our rule is that the church has to be alive. The church means its community, and if the community shifted its interest to the new village church, it means that this wooden church is not of interest to the community, thus we too don’t take any interest in it.’ But then you can say, ‘Still, these are cultural treasures. We’re talking about churches that are classified historical monuments. All of them. We’re talking about 3,000 square meters of painting surfaces, if we count them altogether, we’re talking about mural painting that usually is from 18th, 19th Century, even earlier. In it you find information, you find painting techniques, you find a series of elements of civilization, which if you lose, who suffers?’ To that the Ministry of Culture says, ‘You’re right, but our restoration budget plan is not extensive enough to be able to cover these necessities/needs. We have other priorities.’
And since they are small churches, usually they are 5 by 8 or 10 meter long, small structures, they are neglected.
E.V.: But why are they so small? Were people smaller? Or they were just chapels? Funeral chapels?
Ş.S.: They were used for funerals. They are large enough to fit 20 people. But you ask an interesting question, there is an anthropological aspect to this matter. People were smaller. We realized nowadays that the bier/stretcher they carry the casket on is larger than the church door, so they might have said, ‘Well, it doesn’t fit thru! Well, it doesn’t fit thru at all. We should hold the burial ceremony outside.’ They wouldn’t to start cutting, enlarging it, tearing its entrance apart.
For example there is a church at Urşi, south from Horezu and Măldăreşti, in Vâlcea County, where people didn’t step inside the church for 30 years now, because the casket couldn’t get inside it. Only now they’ve discovered the treasures they left behind to the winds and rain.
But all these arguments are weak. I consider them unacceptable. And I said, ‘Well, we have to see what we can do about it ourselves.’ And we started the work with students, from the Architecture Institute, either as volunteers, they measured the churches, their topography, gathered their data, or organized by their professors in groups, as part of their practicum activity. There were very many student groups from Bucharest from Ion Mincu Institute, less groups from Timişoara, but more volunteers from there. Then we invited the students from the Art Academy, they have a restoration department, its head, Professor Dan Mohanu, of course with the approval and support of the rector, came with a team to find ways to salvage the paintings. If I may go in more detail, the story goes like this: water is the main enemy. The building structure is made of wood and the roof gets damaged. All but…
E.V.: Shingle wood roof?
Ş.S.: Usually all of them were shingles or clapboard roofs, so wood. When they got damaged, the first time people covered it with tin sheet or roofing board coated with asphalt/tar, asbestos sheet, or asbestos cement, and if it got damaged again, they either cover it once more, or just gave up. When the water leaked inside, the roof rafters started to rot, then the water leaked along the interior of the walls that are covered with frescos, be they painted straight on the wood, or on cloth glued on the wooden logs. When humidity reaches the fresco, it deteriorates the fresco and the wall behind it, everything crumbles/erodes. So we made a list: intervention number one is protection of roofs, intervention number two is elimination of surrounding water. Because often the church would be situated on a hill slope, so the water flows down the hill, hits the church wall which rots, so its foundation, which is often also made of wood, not stone, crumbles, and the church leans over and tumbles down. So we had to protect the contours of the church from water.
Then we had various other tasks depending on the specific church situation.
Now let me tell you the first experience, since it generated an entire series of activities. So after these early surveys, we had an activity at Pojogeni, which is near Târgu Cărbuneşti,
E.V.: Which Târgu Cărbuneşti is nearby what town?
Ş.S.: Near Târgu Jiu. This locality is made of several small villages that banded together and became a small town municipality. And the old cemeteries for these villages were abandoned, they have just one or two cemeteries they use together. So the Pojogeni cemetery little church was deserted. It was also crooked, leaning on one side, and invaded by tall weeds that you couldn’t even enter it. If you got inside it was very dangerous because it could collapse on you.
Then students, a team from Timişoara, under great risk, they made the measurements, and we had to decide what to do with it. It was a Sunday. We’d come for a few days to see several churches, and we were just about to take off for the city. We were about 7, 8 architects, and standing in front of it we got into an argument. We were divided in two camps: one said we couldn’t rescue/salvage it, the others said we could. But how? What could we do? We checked our wrist watches and decided we’d give ourselves four more hours to find a solution, and if we didn’t find it, we’d abandon it. We went by car to Târgu Cărbuneşti and looked up the mayor. We’d talked to him before, he was very nice but didn’t know what was to be done. We went to the hospital, they didn’t need our church. We went to the school, it didn’t look like they could be a good fit together.
E.V.: What do you mean about the hospital? To move it there?
Ş.S.: Yes. We ended up at the Cămărăşeasca Monastery that was nearby Târgu Cărbuneşti and only at 15 kilometers from the little church. We talked to the Abbess and she said, ‘Bring it here.’ We decided that was the solution. We took it apart, after we contacted the mayor, the priest, everybody, and the priest approved of its relocation. Now we had to deal with the moving. We talked to a specialist who’d done this kind of work previously, we took it apart into pieces like a Mercado game, writing numbers on the beams to mark their exact placement, put it in a truck, and…
E.V.: And the fresco was painted on the wood?
Ş.S.: This church didn’t have painting. But it was destroyed.
Then we decided with Mother Superior/Abbess where we’d place it. We made a stone foundation, the original was made of wood, and all the beams underneath it were completely rotten. It took us 40 full days of work, from dawn to dusk. It worked out exemplarily well, the team leader was a specialist from the Astra Museum in Sibiu, with his own three, four workers from Maramureş, renowned for their woodwork skills, and also supervised by another specialist, Mr. Tolomei.
Plus I let go one young architect from my studio, who stayed there for the entire period of time and took notes, and thus a book was born, containing all the everyday stories, like a diary. This young man, Mihai Şulea, from Târgu Mures, had just come from a training in Switzerland where you can imagine he saw super-technical things, a highly civilized life style, with its highly demanding expectations, and he came to my studio to learn from me, and instead of that I told him, ‘Now you’re going to Pojogeni village and supervise the reconstruction site.’ It was the first time he ever did such a thing, but he was very conscientious and this is how this book was born.
Now the church is up on its feet, they hold religious service in it, so it was brought back to life. This was only the beginning. It had a few consequences. The Cămărăşeasca Abbey has a very beautiful icon collection, that they’d like to have them restored. We decided with Mother Superior to do it, so we can decorate the church. We had to put electricity in it so they could warm it up in winter so they can still have religious service when it gets cold. Gradually the requests were growing.
We didn’t manage to do everything we planned to, the icon restoration we couldn’t do it. We did it somewhere else, I’ll tell you all about it. But it gave us the confidence that we could succeed in doing things that nobody else thought could be done.
We got in trouble with the authorities which at the beginning said, ‘You are not allowed to do this! You don’t have approvals, neither do you have this, nor that!’
E.V.: The authorities being who? The mayor?
Ş.S.: No, the mayor was extremely understanding and helpful. He gave the stone for the foundation and the transportation on behalf of the town hall. The rest of the money, so all this cost €19,000. All this money came from private sources. Nothing from the state. The mayor gave us the stone, everybody else worked as a volunteer, and the result was incredible. The authorities that criticized our attempts were from the Ministry of Culture, whose duty was to deal with such matters, but had no means to do it, and also insisted it was to be done following their rules, thru a lengthy process with various stages that we didn’t follow 100%. Well, like we created the documentation for the project while we were working at it already, since it was an emergency, and not before starting work…
E.V.: It was tumbling down! Collapsing!
Ş.S.: The law says that in 24 hours after you file your petition and add the decaying building pictures as proof you could start working, if otherwise the building disappears. So that was how we did it. Otherwise were we to wait until they put their official seal of approval, received their answer, so on. It would have been too late. When we were done with the work the approval arrived in the mail too.
There were some very unpleasant conversations.
The priests were swift with their approvals, but the work was done solely by us.
So then we decided to publish the book. The Order of Architects decided in a meeting to reorganize its budget and become a main partner in this project and took responsibility for the 60 Churches project, together with Patrimony Foundation, and international foundation focusing on rescuing the Romanian patrimony, and with the Architecture Institute and Art Academy, and the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, we created a coalition together, to enable ourselves to answer various questions that are seemingly understandable. One of them being, why the local population doesn’t react. Or what’s the use of salvaging, rescuing the churches if the local population shows no interest? Or what does the Church say about churches that are abandoned? Can you just take them and bring them to your home, exhibit beams or whatever remnants? Or are there some rules?
E.V.: Are there?
Ş.S.: I found out that there are.
E.V.: Like what?
Ş.S.: An abandoned church has to hold a service that sanctifies the fact that it is abandoned, the sainted table that’s part of the altar is deconsecrated, unconsecrated, and becomes an everyday object. Then if you want to follow the rules written in historical documents, like in the 17th, 18th century, then you take the church apart, and you pile its logs apart and no one touches them until they turn into earth, since the wood in the end rots and dies and disappears.
E.V.: So there is an old charter rule/hrisov?
Ş.S.: Yes. It’s mentioned in our Pojogeni book. I didn’t know it myself, and if you ask around, many people never heard of it.
E.V.: At home people buy churches.
Ş.S.: Home being where?
E.V.: In America. I’d like to buy a church if I had money. [Laughs] This is my dream actually, to buy a church! [Laughs]
Ş.S.: Let me tell you what interesting things happened. The moment we finished this project, which was initially perceived as a burden and a gesture of kindness on behalf of Mother Superior, who took it on her shoulders, the church occupying part of the abbey grounds, the taking care of it, its maintenance, no one realized that actually the church was beautiful and it looked very good where it was placed. Well, it created a storm of admiration for the entire project, so in the end this endeavor became a positive event. At the beginning it was perceived like, ‘Oh, these crazy folks got into their heads to move about churches.’ It ended up being appreciated. When things advanced and we worked on covering several churches, since, as I said, it has to be done when the roof is destroyed, and we didn’t have money, we made a collection of meshes from the publicity companies in town, we recycled the cloth on which advertisements are printed and displayed on buildings…
E.V.: Companies in Bucharest?
Ş.S.: Yes, Bucharest. After the publicity banners are used they are stored away. And we went and obtained these fabric meshes. And the mesh plus slim planks, lath, with which you nail it and place it on top, so the wind doesn’t blow the cloth away, became the covers sheltering the roof, so the church doesn’t rot, for two, three years, until this cloth lasts under wind and rain and sunshine, and the public started to notice that these churches were beautiful, so they became popular with tourists. We organized a few tours so people could admire them. And some came and said, ‘Wait a minute, if they don’t need the church in their village, I take it.’
E.V.: To do what? [Laughs]
Ş.S.: There are communities who don’t own a church.
E.V.: The Greek Catholics?
Ş.S.: No, often monasteries that are newly established, have just a few monks, so they say instead of building a brand new church, they’d rather rescue an old one and fix it a bit.
Then there are a few churches that are painted with extraordinary beauty. Such object even if it’s not functional anymore becomes a remarkable object of art, and an architectural object. There is a formidable tendency in Slobozia, Călăraşi area, there are a few holy cloth/clergy and a museum director that want to gather all the wooden churches in one place.
E.V.: [Laughs] There they go. What do they want? A museum? An art retreat?
Ş.S.: A kind of museum, with lots and lots of churches, which seem rather…
E.V.: But he has an entire hill, or what? They gave up on the idea?
Ş.S.: No, no, it seems that one of the most beautiful churches on Mureş Valley, near Deva, towards west, in Sălciva village, a very large church, will be moved to Călăraşi, Slobozia. We didn’t agree with this, because we don’t think the geographical region fits with the architecture of the church, and it’s very hard to move a painted church. The damage would be very big, and the painting will end up being extremely deteriorated. Plus the church was very well placed where it was, next to another church and its own bell tour on a beautiful road. They together make a scenery/landscape, a cultural scenery/landscape in itself, or disrupting it, it would be an utter mistake. I wrote various petitions and interventions that no one paid mind to, took into consideration. So it shall be moved to Slobozia.
E.V.: I don’t understand, so this gentleman is amassing churches in his yard?
Ş.S.: This is happening right now: they got one church, but want several of them. I am not sure if to repair them. I am now dealing with other issues myself.
E.V.: But he is a priest?
Ş.S.: A high ranking clergy, yes.
E.V.: That is like a bishop?
Ş.S.: Yes, he has a higher hierarchical position. But I have to acknowledge that I saw such a church in the Slobozia Agricultural Museum that was repaired and restored very well, and it had inside a wonderful painting, and it’s also used, so I wouldn’t say that was a mistake.
E.V.: How do they use it?
Ş.S.: They hold religious service, weddings, baptisms, like in the church in the Village Museum in Timişoara. But to now start a collection of them is rather…
E.V.: [Laughs] I can see them pulling them with ropes about!
Ş.S.: …well, it’s an entire different story.
But what we are looking for now is… There is a new church building in Câmpina made by a very good architect, a modern building, and the priest is an extraordinarily capable man. The priest’s wife even opened a kindergarten. Things go well there, and the priest said that if we found a church that was endangered and needed help, he’d be open to bring it and use it, and the people that built the brick church would put it together, to stand on its feet. He would readily do that. We’re looking for such people who could put it to public use, not hide it in their garden for personal use. Some of them, you’ll see on the web, are just a bunch of logs, undeserving of any attention, but if you get savvier you realize the logs were painted and they are fragments of an object that had incorporated intelligence, memories, identity, everything you want, and you could make out of them, or remake, various beautiful things. Here I’ll make a small aside, and I’ll tell you a real story from Berlin. After the Berlin Wall fell, in the non aedificandi area… So the Berlin Wall that separated the East from the West had in the protection area a portion where construction was forbidden, an area where buildings were demolished, so they could watch the Wall and shoot whoever crossed from one side to the other.
E.V.: On the socialists’ side you mean…
Ş.S.: Yes. But the convention was that this non aedificandi area was on both sides.
E.V.: Don’t tell me the socialists were watching from the other side too?! [Laughs]
Ş.S.: [Laughs too] So it was an area that was cleared. And while clearing everything also a church was demolished. All was left of it was a mound of debris. Time passed, this had happened long time ago. After the fall of the Wall, since this was a church that had significance, people decided to rebuild it in the same place. The architects that were hired for the job said, ‘Gentlemen, it would be even better if when we build it we use the materials that contain the memory of the old church,’ since the debris was still there. So they did a colossal thing: they built a modern church that had nothing to do with the old church, on the old place. They chopped up the debris, turning it into some kind of soil, like adobe, and poured it between two walls of metal casing, like when you cast concrete. They made a thick wall, 70, 80 centimeters, out of the old material. And when they ran out of the old stuff they poured new one. So in this new church the old church still lives. So not only that they build a beautiful building, but also the concept was symbolic, valuable.
I’m saying this because I’m thinking about those pieces of wood that look like can’t be useful anymore, but you can actually recompose the church. The issue is how you do it, with whom you do it, for whom you do it, and with what money you do it.
You find yourself moving in an entire world with similar preoccupations, in which, by reorganizing its teams, you can create a social activity, that is also educational, that leads to a result, I hope, interesting for the community. So then…
I’ll tell you about an interesting church discovery in Vâlcea that bewildered us with its exterior painting. The church was also placed in a cemetery. It was painted both on the exterior and the interior. We didn’t see the interior because we didn’t have the key, but we discovered the wonderful exterior painting. The church is in Urşi village, in Popeşti commune, nearby Măldăreşti, in the south of Vâlcea County. When we found this wonder we were absolutely enthusiastic.
The village hall and the priest had tried several times to repair the church, wrote petition after petition to the Ministry but there were no money sent to them. It was utterly revolting what was going on. Fall was coming, it was mid-summer, but fall was not far, so we spread the word. We received from England £1,000. We opened a bank account for our 60 churches with the Order of the Architects, and architect Şerban Cantacuzino who lives in UK found out about it and said, ‘I’ll give you some money from my own pocket.’ When we saw the Euros, we said, ‘We start the work, even if we need 100,000 Euros,’ pounds I mean, ‘we have to start immediately.’
But this church you couldn’t take apart, or move it. It was a very complicated problem. The architects that were doing the survey/evaluation, the moment they came out of the church, to smoke or something, an altar piece fell off. Were they to still be inside, they would have died there. So this determined us to start immediately, we didn’t wait anymore. But how to do it? We found a builder who was extremely large-hearted/dedicated who said, ‘Well, we won’t wait until the money comes in,’ I’ve already spoken on the phone with Şerban Cantacuzino by then, ‘I’ll just get started now. I don’t know how much would cost, but let’s do something.’
And we built a wooden structure twice as large as the church to shelter it so the water wouldn’t penetrate/trickle inside. But first we propped it from the inside, and our colleagues from the Art Academy came with a student team and could go inside and consolidate the painting so it wouldn’t fall off. Because the painting started to detach/peel off the beams, was dislocated off the walls made of beams…
E.V.: It was on cloth?
Ş.S.: No. The wood was plastered and painted as a fresco. At the foot/bottom of the wall there were hundreds of thousands of tiny bits of fresco already crumbled off. Surely, on the wall there still were large surfaces. So, the sheltering construction was made in two months. The students and professors made it, and meanwhile the money arrived, it cost much more than that, the Order of Architects also added a bit, and the mayor, extremely kind, helpful, sent all the people in the village that were unemployed, and had to do community work for their welfare checks, to help. The priests too were very kind understanding.
It was the first place where the community joined our effort, so everything ended well. We organized a celebration in the village. We opened the church to visitors for the first time in 30 years, no one knew what was inside it. It was filled with beautiful things. About 15 icons were taken off the iconostasis, the altar wall, and brought to the Art Academy Restoration Wing, and in a year students and professors restored them, each icon becoming a student’s thesis work. Each student that graduated this year had restored one or two icons. So that ten days ago they had their thesis examination with these icons exhibited at Cărtureşti, up in the attic. The public was invited.
I find this formidable.
E.V.: Is the exhibition still open?
Ş.S.: No, were it to be open I’d have invited you there. It couldn’t stay open long but you can see them, I’ll put you in touch with Dan Mohanu.
Ş.S.: It’s worth seeing it. Then they’ll go back to Urşi Church. So Dan Mohanu… [Phone rings. Interruption. Reprise.]
Ş.S.: When you create a project like this you have to make some serious efforts in getting all the official approvals, and then you have to look for funding. Thus, to get some money, we started begging, fund raising, and one of our friends who is very smart and enterprising, who does that successfully in Russia, advised us to have a series of concerts. Well, until now we had two concerts. We collaborate with the SoNoRo Foundation, which was established by a few young virtuoso musicians who create workshops and concerts and festivals to promote young classical musicians. Their players perform for free. They invited a Stradivarius violinist from Benelux-Brussels, a viola player and a cellist from England, so all three were well-known and important persons, and together with them, they gave a concert and some money were gathered.
After this successful concert we were invited to the German Embassy, where various businessmen, who could give us something, were invited. In the end we gathered €10,000 up to now. We’re also invited to Raiffeisen Bank for a third concert. This is a source that helps us intervene with our 60 Churches project.
But the amount of money is small and the need is huge. To make an intervention for a medium size church you need, an emergency intervention meaning a roof that can last two years, some slight repairs, and organizing the terrain around the church so the water doesn’t hit its walls, usually costs between €4,000-10,000, depending on the difficulties. At times the church is larger, at times it has a steeple, at times it doesn’t, so this is an estimated cost. You put into it a few thousand of Euros and prologue its life with a few more years, so meanwhile you can search for larger amounts of money so you can launch the restoration process. Which has to include paying a preliminary evaluation, a technical study, a geo study to see how the earth quality is, and everything else. These are all things that the Ministry of Culture should cover. But my feeling is that the chances of that happening are very slim. So the project is difficult and places us often in impossible situations. All the time you have to be inventive, find a way…
E.V.: How many years ago have you started your interventions?
Ş.S.: I think in 2009.
E.V.: Three years ago?
Ş.S.: Yes. Up to now we covered the roofs of about 20 churches, we managed to relocate one successfully, we restored about 15 icons, and we prepare now another batch for the next term. It’s a project that evolves rather slowly. I’d say it needs to move five times faster. Each delay, each loss of time, is a death sentence.
E.V.: And no other mayor took action with the local unemployed villagers?
Ş.S.: No. We found people who wanted their church fixed, but they said, ‘You come yourselves and do it, we can’t. We have other things to do.’ Of course it’s easier if we have help in the village, instead of coming with an entire team. But we agreed doing this too. Well, there was a church nearby Hunedoara where we decided a year ago in spring to bring a French volunteering team. There is a French organization that sends volunteers around the world. So we said we should sign up too, have them send a team of ten people to Romania. They list all the places where people are needed, and various people sign up as volunteers and for two weeks they work in various places, depending on their interests. Be it a castle, be it a church, be it in France, or somewhere else. And we invited them to Romania.
We invited them because the year before, together with Dala Foundation, we restored peasant houses in deserted villages. And French volunteers came and we had an extraordinarily good collaboration, so we said, ‘Let’s do one new call for a church nearby Hunedoara.’ We talked to the priest and he agreed. We talked to the mayor, we talked to the French people, and…
E.V.: But where were they sleeping? At villagers’ homes?
Ş.S.: In a deserted cultural center. These things can be easily arranged if there is good will. But the mayor changed his mind abruptly. It was a very unpleasant situation. He denied having our conversation and agreements. Probably the matter turned political, who knows what party, I don’t care, the end was that he pulled out and the French people had to come. I couldn’t jeopardize my promise, because it would have meant ruining an international relationship, messing up the plans of blameless persons. So we brought the French people to work with our other team that was repairing peasant houses, and fortunately the results were colossal and the French people were very happy here. But I mean to say that we lost them for the 60 Churches work.
These kinds of things are very complicated. The social divisions, political affiliations, complicate things. If you don’t handle them well, then everything else is gone. Basically you have to really act like when you are in a road, in a traffic accident, when you don’t ask the victims’ opinion, ‘Do you allow me, or not? What should we do?’ but you simply take responsibility and act, otherwise people die.
So I believe, even if I trespass some rules, I have to do it so I can still rescue something. Were I not to have palpable proof that we’ve got things done this way, I wouldn’t dare to state what I state now, but when I know what is going on, when I already proved that it was easy to do something that everybody said it was impossible, and when I know the terrible effects of delay… Because we rescued something that were we to let it disappear, can’t be reinvented. A historical monument, a building that disappears, disappears forever, it can’t be regenerated, like a forest that you cut off but it regenerates, or a tree, this is the end. So the choices are very clear. This is all I know to say.
E.V.: Didn’t they catch onto your idea in Transylvania?
Ş.S.: In Transylvania there is a deeper, stronger tradition of restoration, so many of the wooden churches benefited from projects and funding and restoration teams much better organized. Transylvania actually has many more wooden churches than the south of the country. And they are more renown, starting with those from up in Maramureş to lower on in Lăpuş, everywhere in Transylvania. That’s why we didn’t go there, but chose the more endangered areas with more severe damage, because in Transylvania the wooden churches have been more documented and thus the restoration work got more funding. But surely in Transylvania too many churches are disappearing. I think in the last 20 years about 30, 40 churches disappeared in Romania.
E.V.: Did they disappear because they got destroyed or because the Americans came and took them away? I’m joking, but I’ve seen it done in a movie. A millionaire married a German girl who missed her village and so he paid a crew and they plucked out an entire village and transplanted it in America. And in the morning when the girl opened the house shutters, there was her old village.
Ş.S.: No, no, not the Americans. The ‘taking away’ goes on for quite a while, in terms of wood. Because old wood is valuable. You can forge/make fake antique furniture. The timber from an old house becomes for someone who knows about wood, oak wood becomes quite valuable. There are Italian companies that go hand in hand with gangs from here, usually Gypsies, who ‘took out’ of the country, more in the ‘90s, maybe even nowadays, but then it was ‘taken out’ massive amounts of wood. They make fake antique furniture and sell it at very high prices abroad.
Also they took apart peasant houses and the timber was sold abroad as wooden parquet floor. Which at first sight can be revolting, I do think it’s revolting, but at least the material is reused. Which pragmatically speaking can be a valid choice. It’s rather better than what they do in Bucharest where when an old house is demolished, though it has windows, doors, a metal spiral staircase, a balcony and many other good things, they bulldoze it down completely, and throw it in the Glina land filling, when a large variety of elements of that house could be reused. Therefore to turn an old house in parquet floor can be a solution.
Yet, the Japanese solution is different. In Japan there are about 3,000 buildings dating from 18th, 19th century made of wood in traditional architectural style that they don’t know what to do with them. They invented a much cleverer project than ours, with turning old wood into parquet floor. They made a public announcement to other countries that they’re donating a traditional Japanese house as a sample of Japanese culture, which is worth knowing. In it you can have a tea ceremony, or something special. So they up-cycled their old houses at a much higher cultural level than turning them into flooring. This was done very successfully in Paris where they placed a Japanese house in the navel of the midtown/în buricul târgului. They took it apart/disassembled it, moved it to Paris, then reassembled it. It turned into an exhibition. It was done in Abyssinia, where a Japanese house and an Abyssinian house entered a dialogue, turning into cultural objects that can be compared.
Japanese architects came to Bucharest too, and they asked, ‘Gentlemen, would you like such a thing?’ But no one wanted one.
E.V.: Where did they go? To the Ministry of Culture?
Ş.S.: They just asked us if we wanted something like that. The government of the hosting country had to deal with the logistics. I was the one who dealt with the matter, but I couldn’t persuade anyone. The Japanese would make this gift only for a major public space. I asked them if they didn’t want to place it at Cărtureşti. They said, no, they wanted a beautiful park. I found a beautiful park, but the owner of the park said he didn’t want a Japanese house…
E.V.: …thank you so very much.
Ş.S.: So we missed on this one.
E.V.: They ran out of houses?
Ş.S.: No, they didn’t run out of houses, but we somehow tainted our reputation.
E.V.: Now, let me ask you, you don’t battle windmills, you battle wooden churches, so to speak. Well, you don’t battle them, you battle for them… I’d like to know you said the wood has all kinds of mushrooms/spores/microorganisms. Is it healthy to walk inside an old wooden church? If the churches are not used every Sunday, is it healthy to breath inside them?
Ş.S.: The restoration teams perform various procedures and one of them is biological analysis, thru which they control this problem. A church that is ventilated can be centuries old and have no mushrooms/spores/microorganisms. A church that has no ventilation thru which water runs all the time is infested with various kinds of mushrooms/spores/microorganisms. There are mushrooms/spores/microorganisms that destroy the wood, others that destroy the plastering and the painting. Can be an infinity of scenarios. But these scenarios are within scientific control.
E.V.: So even if they have scenarios they can destroy them?
Ş.S.: Yes, yes. Surely.
E.V.: It can be healthy? There are so many artists who would like to go on an artistic retreat stay in a camp.
Ş.S.: Sure, let me tell you an interesting story.
E.V.: Can’t something like this be concocted, so they had their village writer for a month?
Ş.S.: It surely can. I’ll tell you how, only I just need to make a phone call.
E.V.: Please do so.
[He makes his phone call. Then, conversation continues.]
E.V.: We, poor artists, search for residencies where we can quietly create our work. Wouldn’t it be possible to burrow/nest in a church? So the village would have its own writer? Its own painter? Its own choreographer that sits there brainstorming?
I’m joking, but I’m not really joking.
Ş.S.: I don’t think you’re joking, because there is something like this already that we’re trying to finesse now, get it rolling. For example at Urşi we’ve talked with the mayor to do exactly this. There are several places where this can be accommodated, and we’re trying to create a network of such spaces in the countryside, where you can either hold a small workshop, mainly teach work for historical monuments, plastering, clay, pottery making, wrought iron smithy, and other things, or if you wish you can paint or do whatever pleases you. A place where you can learn something but you can also rest.
This is feasible, in time. I, for example…
[Phone rings. Our conversation stops. Then continues.]
What we actually want is a few schools for traditional building crafts/skills to work with metal, stone, construction frameworks, wood, and plastering, masonry. We started with iron, in a village where we found an interesting space where you can make wrought iron. I’ll show you an object that was made there. So you can learn, living in the countryside and drinking cow milk and feeling at home.
We’ve created a workshop for the village kids who can become in the end skillful iron workers/smiths. Craftsmen/tradesmen. But such a space can be inhabited by a writer, by a musician, we just need to take care of the amenities, hot water, and everything, so you feel comfortable.
E.V.: This would be in a peasant’s house or in a church?
Ş.S.: A house. We never thought about a church as you suggest, it’s a rather unexpected, surprising idea to live in a church, though in England…
E.V.: Or they can be turned in performance spaces.
E.V.: I can’t visualize how large are they…
Ş.S.: No, the problem is that you’d change its function.
E.V.: That would create a scandal? Pandemonium?
Ş.S.: Perhaps a scandal, since people are not used to it. They are used with abandoning them, let them fall into ruin, but they are not used with using them for different purpose.
E.V.: Well, in New York it’s a tradition. Always the artists move in left behind industrial areas, in warehouses…
Ş.S.: I know.
E.V.: They’d turn them into lofts and the neighborhood becomes alive…
Ş.S.: I know.
E.V.: And then they’re not able to still live there since rent gets expensive.
Ş.S.: I know, but with a church, due to its religious function, it’s more complicated. But I’ve seen in Catholic countries they do repurpose them.
E.V.: Many, many churches in New York host theater halls.
Ş.S.: Yes, yes.
E.V.: They sponsor the arts.
Thank you for this discussion thread.
Now I’d like us to talk about Bucharest. What is happening here? I walked about its streets and I saw such beautiful buildings. I know nothing of architectural styles to be able to tell you if they were in Brâncoveanu style, whatnot, but I saw a wondrous house, nearby Kogălniceanu Square there’s the Ursuleţilor Dead End Lane and it was next to it, I forgot its name, something with Horse, it is parallel with Schitu Măgureanu. On that street there is a mansion, so very beautiful. I was taking pictures of it, and a man passing by said, ‘This house is abandoned. Boschetari/Tramps live in it.’ ‘But how is it possible?!’ ‘Well, it’s possible.’ What is happening to this city?
Ş.S.: I’ll tell you what’s happening. This is a city that now goes thru transformations, like everything else, after ‘90.
E.V.: If you’ll be kind to tell me also about under communism?
Ş.S.: The changes this city goes thru are demanded by circumstances. Either because real estate business is booming, with lots of new office buildings, or a new road infrastructure is needed, subway, so on, the city didn’t survive very well the shock that Romania had after ’90. Right now we have a car for each fourth inhabitant, there are about a million cars. Everybody wants to go downtown by car, everybody parks his car on the sidewalk. Everybody thinks that they don’t live under communism anymore and won their freedom when they own a car. It’s a rather bizarre way of perceiving freedom, democracy, the first stage of capitalism, but it’s somewhat understandable. Due to this explosion of cars, real estate boom, old road infrastructure, the city is under much pressure/stress. Everybody wants to drive, everybody wants to build, everybody wants to make rules, but they don’t see eye to eye on anything. Thus there are very many conflicts that haven’t achieved a solution, leading to our populace’s exasperation.
Plus the economical crisis arrived, for the last two, three years. So then investment has dwindled, and thus the crisis gave time to doing a bit of thinking, since people don’t have jobs, but they have to prepare the future. So quite a few people have to think about what will come next, how they will be able to make money again.
Some also concluded that in the future poor quality/shoddy developments shouldn’t be allowed, because in the near past many bad/poor quality buildings were permitted, besides a few good ones.
I can tell you that during this crisis the building companies that make repairs to buildings constructed for the last ten years are thriving. Buildings have to be radically renovated as if they were build a hundred years ago, because they were build fast and poorly, with technologies that were not well mastered, without any guaranties/warranty/security and without penalties.
In New York the builder assumes responsibilities and risks, that is if something is build incorrectly badly, then you are responsible for the repairs, loss. Well, here it’s not applicable. Here you make a mistake, but there are no consequences. Therefore whoever was able to build, went for it, made a pretty penny, and built shoddily/badly. So now buildings have to be made all over again.
I can tell you this because I know it to be the reality, because I discussed matters with people in the profession who’ve been in demand 120% during this crisis, they are overextended just with making repairs.
On the other hand a lot of investment has stopped, but still people don’t want to lower their standard of life, I’m talking about the car owners. All of them want larger cars, all of them want to park it downtown, on the sidewalk. There’s no parking space. The pedestrians are exasperated.
There are two parallel worlds here, perhaps in other cities too.
One is the world of investors and the public administration, that willy-nilly are interconnected and mutually influenced, there’s a huge pressure on the administration, and then there’s the world of ordinary people that suffer the consequences and they don’t know why crossing the street became so difficult and they get annoyed and stressed out.
Maybe you are not aware, since you’re not living here, but Bucharest’s pollution and stress rate is much higher than other Romanian cities. At the same time is perceived as one of the ugliest European cities, even though it has many beautiful houses, beautiful gardens, interesting locations. But the city doesn’t fructify them properly.
So this is what’s going on and finally it became obvious to a growing number of people and some of them are indignant. The quality of life promised, the urban comfort desired was not attained, and the town hall doesn’t make it possible thru applying legislation. Well, more or less there’s legislation in place, but its reinforcement is not happening. How should I put it, the law is not applied in its spirit…
E.V.: An auntie told me we cross the street la mica înţelegere, illegally, by making little mutually benefiting unofficial compromises, under the table.
Ş.S.: That’s exactly so. Everything here is done la mica înţelegere. Little side deals. But this leads to huge conflicts. Now we are in an enormous conflict with the town hall regarding a district by the Northern Train Station, Buzeşti district where there is a market place, Matache Market, which will be demolished. I don’t know if you know the area?
E.V.: Sure, I know Matache Market.
Ş.S.: Yes? They demolished about 70 houses, many historical monuments, and the population and several NGOs are outraged and try finding a solution. I’m part of such an organization.
E.V.: But what do they want to build there?
Ş.S.: Real estate and a boulevard that will improve the city traffic, the Bucharest town hall says it will make it flow. Unfortunately the leadership mentality is rather behind times, it’s an antiquated way of operation, functioning. It doesn’t want to find a satisfactory solution for multiple needs: citizenry, traffic, living spaces, nature, so on. They build an avenue and that would take care of everything, though that avenue would create a bigger conflict than the streets we have now.
They ignore the American concept of ‘livable street’, on which you feel good walking, it favors interaction, as opposed to a street that’s just a traffic corridor/channel/passage, and can generate various conflicts. So what we have in Bucharest is a jungle. For quite awhile, it’s the most chaotic Romanian city, because there are money moving hands, a lot of corruption, a lack of medium and long term strategy, and also a discontinuity tendency. That is, what you wanted to achieve ten years ago is nullified by a newer decision that will also be nullified by an even newer decision. So the initial apparent coherence is made of sequences that at times are contradictory, or at least counterproductive, lacking any logic.
So then the old part of the city, the more poetic part of the city that you took pictures of, disappears, and it doesn’t disappear because of some planned logic, but thru indolence and abandon/carelessness/desertion.
There are many beautiful houses abandoned as you said, but if you try to find out the cause you’ll discover that the juridical situation is not clear, that the initial house owners before communism didn’t manage to recover their property. This climate of being is a natural sequel of communist times, a lingering of those times, because widely the same persons with the same ingrained education kept their seats in the present public administration, or in business.
Also people who powerlessly lived thru the public destruction perpetrated by Ceauşescu accepts and goes along furthermore with the destruction perpetrated at present, unlike someone who didn’t live thru such destructive times and who wouldn’t accept what’s going on now. You got somehow used to it, it seems to you that it’s completely normal, though it’s completely abnormal.
Overall, there’s a certain degree of illness, of ill being engulfing the majority of population. Most of the population can’t believe that anything can be salvaged, or that there are a few things that are beautiful in themselves, and they can be preserved next to new buildings, shown to their advantage, incorporated the way they are, even if they are made of wood, even if they are decaying, even if they are small.
Now we live thru a fury of getting rich quickly without paying thought to the future. I don’t know if you sensed this vibe…
E.V.: What made me sad, what alarmed me, what scared me, when I went around the neighborhood of that mansion, or when I went to the Teatrul Mic/Little Theater, and I saw building after building destroyed… Horrifying.
Ş.S.: Yes. I’ll tell you the story behind it. There’s a gap/ disruption/schism/discontinuity in society. You were asking me why can’t artists come live in churches, and I can tell you that I asked artists to help our restoration efforts, because I needed them, but they told me, ‘I prefer going to Bangladesh to stop the disappearance of a monument there because I am paid to restore a monument in Asia, than to stay here. Even if here there are thousands of places that need restoration work, but if no one pays me and no one needs me…’
So our frescos… This is the kind of painters I looked up to renovate the wooden churches. They told me, ‘Well, we are trained to do this kind of work, but we go do it in Paris, in Bangladesh, where’s need for us. People have our phone numbers and call us and we go work there. We don’t work here.’ Even though here there’s a lot of work to do.
This matter is very sad, it’s a misfortune, but you can’t do much about it. Only to try to fix slowly, slowly little things.
And the matter of deserted houses, it’s unacceptable and yet it happens, it’s real. If you want to ask about it at the town hall they don’t even open their mouth to talk to you. If you want to discuss the matter with the Ministry of Culture they don’t even answer your letter. To the most they’d say, ‘It’s none of our business, it’s under litigation,’ so on.
The lawsuits got stuck, many people didn’t manage to recover their properties, so meanwhile their buildings are taken over by transient populations. Plus there are individuals who say, ‘Listen, you are not capable of regaining your property. I can do that for you, I am well connected.’ And you delegate the headache to him, without knowing that his purpose is not to renovate the property, but to destroy it and build something else there.
Things are dealt with extreme cynicism and end in ruinous losses. The part of the city that could be used touristically and culturally disappears fast. Do you know Lipscani area?
Ş.S.: Lipscani area now is filled with pubs.
Ş.S.: You can’t even walk on the street.
E.V.: Yes, there it’s not cars, it’s chairs you stumble upon.
Ş.S.: It’s a malformation, so to speak, because the area restoration project is not lead adequately. There is a lot of money made into that area, at street level business is booming, but on the second floor everything is dead. The houses are falling on their heads. There’s no urban rehabilitation there. Everything is done slowly and poorly.
The money that come in thru business there, from renting and so on, should be normally going to the town hall, part of it, and then used to rehabilitate/renovate the district. The money made in Lipscani should stay in Lipscani. This is not happening at all. In fact, destruction there is like wildfire. It’s a flourishing business with the pubs, but it’s an artificial space created artificially, without future development, with a destruction that goes unmentioned, but in truth it’s lamentable what is going on there.
We’re trying to avoid this pitfall at Matache Market meat market which they want to destroy. There are only two more historical meat markets, Traian Market and Matache. In the past meat markets were important locales in the city, there was one on Nation Square, and two other places, but they disappeared, only these two were left. If these ones disappear too, it’s a colossal loss.
E.V.: I went to Amzei Market… Everything was boarded. I asked around, ‘What is happening here?’ They said, ‘Well, they closed down. They renovate.’ The peasants were selling straight from their car trunks.
Ş.S.: Yes. Well, at Amzei Square it’s a slightly different case. They’re indeed renovating it. There was an architectural competition regarding that area, for a building and the market behind it, so now it’s a construction site. I hope that area will come thru alright.
E.V.: Well, they keep on calling Bucharest ‘Little Paris’, but I don’t understand why they call it ‘Little Paris’. Is it because it has buildings that imitate Parisian buildings, or that it has a similar old charm, or why?
Ş.S.: No, no. It’s called ‘Little Paris’ because, oh, well, it makes no sense, it’s stupid. At a certain moment it was nicknamed like that because many important edifices built in Bucharest during King Carol’s reign and after that, were made by French architects and they put their mark on the city’s personality for a long time. But this was happening in a period that people were Francophiles, admiring the French nation, people spoke French at home, many people went to study in France, and to universities in that part of the Western world. Many architects studied at French architecture schools, so French influence was heavy. Also in the army, all military works were in the same style.
But this ‘Little Paris’ is just signaling the feeling of globalization they had at the beginning of last century. Now it’s just an empty word, void of any sense. And Parisian modern architectural examples are not imitated/carried over here anymore. Take the public transportation in Paris, the alternative public transportation, which is bicycles, or other alternatives of traveling midtown in Paris. That city evolves and takes care of subduing its crises, manages them, whereas here it’s not what’s happening.
‘Little Paris’ is an empty word, vorbă în vînt, a stupidity.
E.V.: But what kind of place is Bucharest. Is it is sinister place? And it shall become more and more sinister?
Ş.S.: I don’t know think it’s sinister, I like Bucharest.
E.V.: But what is Bucharest to you?
Ş.S.: Well, first of all is my hometown, so there’s no way for me to dislike it. Then secondly, it’s a very vital city. Its population is constantly active, and that makes the city alive. On the other hand it’s a very tiresome city. I took a break from it, for 30 years I lived in Timişoara. And I can tell you that in Timişoara you can get things done better, spending less energy and getting swift results due to its adequate dimensions and an order of things that is convenient.
E.V.: I was rather thinking about how the buildings look like in Bucharest…
Ş.S.: It’s a hybrid of new buildings, the majority are of poor quality, and of a few ones that are well made but people don’t know about them because they are few and because at this point architecture is not something that one admires, because people lack education. Bucharest’s architecture is admired by the population/inhabitants if it’s old and relatively beautiful. But modern beautiful architecture is not acknowledged here. Yet there are a few spots.
E.V.: Where? Tell me one such building so I can go look at it.
Ş.S.: [long pause] There is a building in Piaţa Victoriei/Victory Square that is made by a Romanian architect that lives in New York, Vlad Arsene, an office building. Then there is a beautiful building in Piaţa Palatului/Palace Square, that tops another building in a strange way, which for sure you’ve noticed. The ground floor is an old building and the top a modern glass building, with slices of glass, next to the Revolution Monument.
E.V.: The Revolution Monument being that stick thingie?
Ş.S.: Yes, stick. [Ella laughs] You’re laughing, you’re laughing. It’s nicknamed, ‘The Stake’. Ţeapa. Everybody thinks it’s an irony towards the Revolution, but it wasn’t meant as a joke. Well, nearby that monument is a building that combines an old masonry structure. [Ella bursts again in laughter and Ş.S. contagiously laughs too.]
E.V.: In Cluj too they made this horibility Avram Iancu statue. Oh, dear Lord, have mercy of us!
E.V.: So what do you think the future will look like?
Ş.S.: I have no clue. I know nothing more than you do.
E.V.: How come?
Ş.S.: The lack of transparency of the authorities and their hidden ways of acting make me as uninformed as any other lay person, even if I am an architect. It shall be the way God wants it, I really don’t know. It’s all done in secrecy and şmechereală/dubious arrangements. Probably there will be some good things and some less good things. I believe things change very fast and I hope there will be good things too.
But it’s hard for me to tell how it shall be.
E.V.: I personally haven’t seen the People’s Palace until last year when I visited the National Contemporary Art Museum hosted in one of its buildings. In my mind the People’s Palace was made of marble and gold and fine wood, since I always heard that it was made of the best construction materials ever, but when I finally went there, everything was cracked, fallen apart, chipped, crooked, it looked like a shoddy ruin!
Ş.S.: The People’s Palace is garbage.
E.V.: [Unstoppable laughter of recognition] Garbage!
Ş.S.: It’s garbage and it has been garbage from its inception until now, and it shall turn more and more into garbage. I have no appreciation for its dimensions, or architecture, or its content, or its details, or anything. It’s an enormous garbage that people don’t want to recognize it as such, and for which we, as citizens, pay taxes to help finish its construction, because it is not finished yet. It’s poorly built and from materials that don’t last, crumble, and its architectural quality is a big zero. The quality that now matters is its gigantesque silhouette, but nothing attractive in itself and no quality.
It would be healthier to abandon it since people work in it, people make the country’s laws in it, and I don’t think it’s a good working space. When you go to the toilet, it takes you five minutes to run along its corridors. When you take the elevator you have to wait like 30 years ago at the hospital, or apartment buildings, it’s absolutely embarrassing, and it changes one’s inner life. I have the worst possible feeling about this colossus that also had an immensely destructive effect on us, because it gathered tens of thousands of people from all over the country when it was built, and the model they saw in it, they took with them to their villages and towns and they generated hundreds of thousands of small People’s Palaces.
Ş.S.: Seriously, without any exaggeration. There’re scores of architectural details they copied and replicated in their private homes, usually very badly, that you see in various villages, various homes. The People’s Palace gave birth to an enormous confusion regarding expression. So it’s not only the Palace in itself, but also the bad influence that reverberated/scattered/spread out of it. The moment it hit the ground, like a rock in a pond, it splashed the mud far away.
E.V.: Should I understand that the Pagodas are the crystallizations of those mud splashes? Pagodas, how do you call them? Gypsy Palaces.
Ş.S.: No, that’s a more complicated thing.
Like everything we’ve talked about, it’s more complex than what we manage to express. The matter with the Gypsy Palaces is a very strange thing, a very interesting thing, present in other countries too. It’s a combination of the original architectural design combined with the local possibilities and a taste/love for detail that has a very strong Eastern touch, but using local materials, that is tin sheet, for those formidable roofs.
E.V.: What did you do when you saw the first pagoda? [Chokes with laughter.] I was stupefied, frozen in place. I didn’t know what to do.
Ş.S.: I was once very interested in the matter, because I was hired.
E.V.: To build a pagoda?
Ş.S.: Not a pagoda, I was hired by someone who wanted a palace. In Banat pagodas are not in fashion. There the Viennese palaces are in fashion. Schönborn, Belvedere Palace, things like that. But in the same vein. So I’ve been quite close to the subject matter, I studied it closely, and then I distanced myself from it, but only after I understood it a bit, so I can say it’s a way of showing pride. This matters enormously, to show pride, to make a strong impression. But the living inside of it stays at the same humble standard of living of the person’s humble social status. Often they live outside of it, in a small house besides the palace, or in its cellar, and the palace is not used, it’s just a matter of representation. It’s as if you’d coif your hair as beautiful as possible. [Gently laughs]
E.V.: Somehow it’s touching, something about it is touching.
Ş.S.: It is, it is. I’ve been in a locality nearby Galaţi, in Moldavia, where the entire locality is filled with houses like that, with formidable terraces, with humungous railing poles. The men specialize in making metal tools. That’s why I went there. Well, let me tell you, it’s as if you land on a different continent. It has no connection with what we know here. I entered their homes to buy a few chisels, and inside is exactly moving/touching, as you said. The workshop, where they make remarkable things…. For example, a 60-piece chisel set for sculpting is not only the best you can find in Romania, but they also sell it in France. So they make remarkable things, but in a room corner, of two square meters, squatting on the floor with a small anvil between their legs, hammering the iron, while that entire grandiose palace has no purpose. But if you come to buy, they serve you a coffee cup with all due ceremony, like you’re in an Indian palace.
So there are things going on without any connection with what we know, and they contain a large amount of absurdity, and ingenuity, and all kinds of things.
It’s a fairytale, as incredible as a fairytale. [Laughs gently]
E.V.: I’m watching the time.
Ş.S.: Yes, I have to leave soon.
E.V.: Will you tell me then for a minute how is it to be an architect in Romania?
Ş.S.: It’s hard for me to make a comparison, because I haven’t been anywhere else. But I can tell you that it’s very interesting. It’s a profession with a wide range of specialties, so you can choose whatever you decide to do, and because nothing is set in stone, neither the degrees of mastership, nor the clientele, nor the technologies, you are actually functioning in a chaos.
So you have to fathom your response/stance towards society, otherwise you lose your mind, forgetting what you want, or why, but if you clarify your internal options, it can be very interesting. And I can say there are very good architects here. The sad part is that a very small amount of these good architects manage to produce good architectural objects, due to the fact that the process, starting with its inception and ending with its building it, is a process impossible to control. You’ll often hear architects saying, ‘I made that house, but it doesn’t actually look like this. I haven’t built it, others built it. Here they destroyed this and this and this.’ And you realize they don’t exaggerate.
So first there is the unpleasant frustration that very few manage to build something according to their plans. The second is that let’s say you manage to build it the way you wanted it, and was approved as respecting the building codes, but in five years you won’t recognize your work, because the respect due to architectural objects is zero.
The only respect granted to architecture here is limited to Nineteenth Century. A building like the Athenaeum, or the Post Office Palace, or CEC Bank, so on, has status. If a man desires to build a house and has the money to do it, would say, ‘Build me a classical style house, resembling this and that building.’ Few would be those who’d say, ‘I want a modern house. I want a good architect. And I admire the architecture of so-and-so because I did my research and I want to live in such a modern building.’ This is one aspect.
The second is that the gigantesque of the People’s Palace invaded the collective subconscious in a measure much higher than we imagine it to be, generating a desire for houses much larger than it is necessary. In Romania, during the last 20 years, there are huge quantities of villas and extremely large houses owned by small families. Often 1,000 square meters are housing three persons, and they don’t need them. But because they were easy to build during the architectural boom, because they made easy money for a short amount of time, they made megalomaniac gestures following the model of Our Leader. Even if the architecture was slightly different. This created a very unsustainable system of endurance, of preserving and maintaining the house. A 90-square meter apartment is thought of as unacceptably small. Though were you to build now, the 90-square meter apartment would be the one that sells best.
It’s an enormous fluctuation between desire, and the fulfillment of that desire during the boom period, and the day by day reality of now that doesn’t allow you to take crazy steps anymore.
What can I say, I've never got bored, I like very much what I do. I adapt at whatever is going on. I try finding things to do that I believe are necessary, and I proceed doing them. Like yourself.
E.V.: How’s that?
Ş.S.: The way you probably work too, isn’t it?
E.V.: No. My work is deeply personal. That is, I agree to work on an article for a newspaper if the topic touches me personally.
But maybe this could be a good article for the Romanian press in America. Maybe I should take a picture of you, if you agree.
Ş.S.: But who reads such materials?
E.V.: You never know.
Ş.S.: I’ve been to America and I made a presentation in New York at the Romanian Cultural Institute and I made a presentation about this book store, Cărtureşti, and about the wooden churches, and I talked with a formidable lady hoping that we maybe receive some money, Mica Ertegün. An elderly lady who was married to a Turkish gentleman, she was born in Romania, and her husband, Ahmet Ertegün, was the founder and president of Atlantic Records, one of the biggest record labels in the world. She is affiliated with the National Trust...
Ş.S.: Well, we still have to develop the publicity materials, with explanatory notes, stories, that eat a lot of time, and I’m not good at it.
E.V.: How should we go about taking your picture? Do you want that Siemens pen and your banknote sticking out of your breast pocket, or you don’t want it? [Giggles]
Ş.S.: Definitely I don’t want them in the picture. [Laughs]
E.V.: And how would you prefer your picture, to have more light, like in that corner over there, or in total shade like where you are placed now? [Amused, he changes places] Will it be okay if I move this picture so we get a less busy background? Maybe you’d like to sit down on this chair?
Ş.S.: I made this chair.
E.V.: Did you?
E.V.: And to avoid a stiff picture, I’m thinking you should ask me whatever crosses your mind and then we’ll get a better picture.
Ş.S.: You’re very professional.
Ş.S.: You’re very professional.
E.V.: This light doesn’t reach close enough on your face. Do ask me.
Ş.S.: Please tell me what is your occupation? Not what is your profession, but what have you studied?
E.V.: What I’ve studied… [As she takes pictures] I’ve studied Journalism and American Studies. Then when I went to America I studied Creative Writing. There wasn’t such a discipline here. Do we really need that jacket on? [He amiably takes it off] I think the light is better by this wall. So in Creative Writing they didn’t have PhDs, only MFA. [Laughs] Oh, you really don’t like posing for pictures. Why don’t you like picture taking?
Ş.S.: I’m not good at it.
E.V.: I should have photographed you while you were talking. Definitely, you’re against pictures. Maybe we meet some other time because I’m not sure what I’ll get here. [Checks the pictures on the back screen] Well, maybe this one is okay. So I had no choice but go for an MFA.
Ş.S.: And was it complicated?
E.V.: No. Only that I was in an unfamiliar place with a child in tow. But I loved it. Until one fine day I realized it was provincial. [Laughs]
Ş.S.: That it was provincial? Where was it?
E.V.: In Louisiana.
Ş.S.: When did you realize it was provincial?
E.V.: Only in the last year, because for the first two years I was way behind with what I wanted to do with my life. Here in Romania I couldn’t do much. And when I arrived there as if I exploded with creativity. [Turns off the audio recorder]
I talked to Mr. Sturdza briefly a few days ago and he still didn’t received funding from the state. The churches haven’t all tumbled down, yet. Mr. Sturdza and his volunteers, like the legendary Romanian Manole the Mason, still rebuilds them. I on my part will send this interview to all the volunteer organizations in the USA I found on the internet, museums, magazines, but if you know of any other resource, contacts, reach out too.
My thanks go to Dr. Nicholas Andronesco who made sure no mistake has been left in this text.
May 5th, 2013