The architectural heritage of a country is an essential part of its cultural identity, defining the local communities, making them recognisable to the outside world and generating civic pride among the locals. The Neo-Romanian style is the only original architectural order that had emerged in Romania and as a consequence is a vital part of the national heritage and modern cultural identity.
The style has been initiated by the remarkable architect Ion Mincu (1852 – 1912) with the construction of the Lahovary House (1886) in Bucharest, followed by a number of outstanding designs and finished buildings. Unfortunately Mincu’s output was very small when compared with other seminal architects in Europe and elsewhere that put the basis of new styles or other architectural innovations. That was because of the fairly poor economy of Romania in that period, a newly independent country that emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, not a very propitious environment for the development of innovative architecture, and a still crystallizing modern Romanian cultural identity that was more concerned with following Western models, perceived as more prestigious, than developing its own heritage. Micu has thus planted the first seeds in the field of national architecture, which grew into the vigorous Neo-Romanian current that then developed effervescently throughout the country for following five decades until the WWII.
This is why the first Neo-Romanian style buildings created by Ion Mincu are monuments of architecture of extraordinary importance for the national heritage, listed on the heritage registry and in theory protected by strict laws and regulations. The largest and in my opinion the most innovative Neo-Romanian style building designed by Mincu is the Central School for Girls in Bucharest (works started in 1890), a boarding school open to deserving girls from all social classes, emulating the Victorian modernising and democratising principles that permeated Romania at that time. I have here an old postcard, from the early 1930s, showing an aerial image of the building, which gives a good idea about its size and proficient layout, in many aspects ahead of its times.
The Central School for Girls, together with the city around it, has withstood many vicissitudes in the century and a score since its first foundation stone was laid: the Great War and the enemy occupation of Bucharest, the World War II with bombing air raids by both Allied and German forces, followed by Soviet troops that swept through the city, nearly five decades of harsh communist regime, a bloody anticommunist revolution in 1989 and finally twenty years of chaotic and rapacious transition to a market economy. The sad irony is that the school and the architectural heritage of Bucharest have suffered most in the last two decades since the country made the transition to democracy. Romania has emerged from communism with a low quality education system, where history and culture in general are held in low esteem, and a political class that is overwhelmingly focused more on self-aggrandisement. The disastrous results for the built heritage are now everywhere to see: the historic houses are rapidly degrading, falling prey to unscrupulous property developers under the indifferent eye of a public largerly uninterested in its own heritage, coupled with the weak and inefficient response to these challenges from the authorities in charge with preserving the heritage.
The Central School for Girls building is inevitably suffering in this adverse environment. The situation has reached now a critical level, especially since in the last few months a radical renovation project has started and is well underway. The works are financed through a European Union licensing system and have been awarded to a local construction company with little experience in historical buildings. The Ministry of Culture and the government departments responsible for conserving the architectural heritage have minimal involvement in the ongoing renovation, with the inevitable result that the fabric of the building, its aspect and many of its original features will suffer irreversible damage.
I was informed by the Friends of the Central School Association (an organisation grouping actual and former pupils that does a great job in maintaining awareness, organising protests and petitions referring to the current woes of the school) about three main conservation issues that are controversial with the current builders: the glazed courtyard gallery, the Pompeian red coat painting of the building interiors and the mock stone rendering of the exterior walls. These are serious issues because the renovation project lacks a research report about the building’s unique historic features and the authorities show at the moment little interest and probably have limited resources to intervene and properly coordinate the project.
I studied Mincu’s life and works as part of my essential training in Romanian architectural heritage, and believe that I can bring some light with this article over those important issues.
* The glazed courtyard gallery is the largest and most beautiful such structure in Romania and was a remarkable innovation for its times, using then newly available construction materials like wrought iron for the frames and mass production glass panes. It is a feature that deserves the utmost attention in a renovation/ conservation project. I understand that most of the original glass panes were discarded during the current works and there were even discussion to replace the original iron frames.
The best biography book on Mincu, published by Mihail Caffé in 1960 (Editura Stiintifica, Bucharest), of which I am the fortunate owner of a copy, describes in some detail this remarkable feature and points out its novelty for the European architectural scene in general; see the bellow paragraph from the book pointing those details:
* The Pompeian red paint coat is another eminent contribution by Ion Mincu, which later became an essential feature in Neo-Romanian architecture. The photograph bellow shows a the variety of the Pompeian red that was painted with the occasion of a restoration programme in the 1970s, during the communist period. According to my wife, the historian Diana Mandache, who has been a pupil at the school in those years, the state company involved in the restoration was very professional and took extreme care in achieving results as close as possible to the original features. That is in sharp contrast with the situation today in a democratic Romania, when this building is renovated by ear, without a proper conservation research project and materials.
Mihail Caffé in his book, see the paragraph bellow, specifically mentions how Ion Mincu adopted the Pompeian red for the interior decoration, noticing its aesthetics, historical references and also the excellent practical purposes of such a colour scheme.
I believe that Ion Mincu had also in mind, when he adopted the Pompeian red colour, his student period experiments with decorative schemes at the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris and most importantly his study subsequent trip to Pompeii, where he was deeply impressed by the mastery of the ancient Romans’ achievements in architecture and decoration. Bellow is a drawing by Mincu, put together during his Pompeii visit, which features prominently nuances of Pompeian red.
This colour became a major theme in Neo-Romanian architectural decoration, being also a subtle reference/ metaphor through association to the Latin roots of the Romanian people, with the result that many buildings in that style now feature conspicuously the Pompeian red in their decorative scheme, as I put together in following photomontage:
* The mock stone rendering of the exterior walls is another controversy of the current renovation works due to the lack of heritage specialist supervision. The builder has already replaced large areas of the old mock stone rendering (of which the communist era experts took great care to preserve during the 1970s restoration works) with modern plastering material that does not conserve anything from the original masonry aspect. The terrible result of this action can be seen in the following photograph where the new wall plastering makes a shocking contrast with the old mock stone rendering as was put in place initially by Ion Mincu.
The biography book on Mincu is again very precise (see the paragraph bellow) when mentioning the mock stone façade (‘similipiatra’ = similar to stone in Romanian) of the Central School, through which its creator wanted to emulate the imposing stone walls of the Wallachian late medieval churches, a main source of inspiration for the Neo-Romanian style.
It is indeed amazing how such such an architectural landmark like the Central School for Girls in Bucharest, of utmost importance for Romania’s built heritage and for the country’s cultural identity is treated like an ordinary renovation project of an ordinary school from an ordinary, non-descript, communist era quarter of the city. The edifice is also an important architectural monument for the European heritage, and its actual woes should draw the attention of the European organisms and bureaucrats that oversee the conservation of the cultural heritage EU-wide. The situation is even more nonsensical as the financing of the project is through an EU framework programme. The indifference of the Bucharest public and government authorities is also truly disconcerting in a c21th European country.
However, the most effective voices, in preserving this wonderful building, are those of the Central School’s pupils, their Friends Association and a number of genuinely dedicated teachers. They single handedly and with extremely limited resources have managed to save many historic features and convinced the project managers to renounce some of the more damaging renovation works, and they certainly deserve recognition for their actions. All of these are, unfortunately, not enough at the moment and a more concerned effort is needed, including the much necessary implication of specialists and decision-makers from the government and city authorities. I will certainly watch anxiously the evolution of this controversial renovation project with future blog articles planned and try thus to offer assistance to the embattled and deserving Central School pupils, friends and teachers. ©Valentin Mandache. https://historo.wordpress.com/
If you plan acquiring a historic property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to advice you in locating the property, specialist research, planning permissions, restoration project management, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the Contact page of this weblog.