De Stijl and Constructivist forms in the hallway of Frida Cohen House

Among the hidden architectural gems of Bucharest are the Modernist creations of Marcel Iancu (also spelt Janco or Janko), the culture polymath active on the architectural scene of Romania’s capital in the 1920s and the 1930s. Iancu’s buildings encompass his conceptions of art ranging from surrealism, as he was one of the foreruners of that current, Soviet inspired constructivism, functionalism to cubism, Bauhaus or expressionism. The Frida Cohen House, an apartment block, the amplest edifice designed by Iancu, exhibits many of those traits and for me is a delight to continuously discover new such elements with each visit I make there.

Frida Cohen House, arch. Marcel Iancu, 1935, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Frida Cohen House, arch. Marcel Iancu, 1935, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The constructivist and cubist features are obvious when analysing the exterior outlines and volumetry of Frida Cohen building, yet equally if not more fascinating patterns reveal themselves once one steps into the entrance hallway.

Frida Cohen House, arch. Marcel Iancu
Frida Cohen House, arch. Marcel Iancu, 1935, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Remarkable in my opinion is the floor with its grey and black tiles, arranged in a modern painting like figure, in the vein of the De Stijl artistic movement, where the forms although lack simple symmetry, as one would expect in an architectural design, nevertheless achieve a sense of balance through their inner kinetics.

Frida Cohen House, arch. Marcel Iancu
Frida Cohen House, arch. Marcel Iancu, 1935, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The main staircase of this noteworthy building is also a case in point, this time as an example of constructivist design, where the profile of the apparently utilitarian device is an equilateral triangle, a basic geometrical shape, seen, as other fundamental forms, within the Constructivist movement as a pure pattern. The staircase reminds me of one of Iancu’s celebrated affirmations that “the purpose of architecture was a “harmony of forms”, with designs as simplified as to resemble crystals” (Tom Sandqvist, p. 342). To me the crystal suggested by the stairwell contour is undoubtedly a diamond (the tetrahedron of Carbon atoms), which is a metafora for perfect harmony in itself.

Every single creation of Marcel Iancu is, as in the samples illustrated  above, brimful with meanings and symbols pertaining to the the emergence and maturation of the first Modern artistic currents, fostered by epoch making social and economic changes in the period that led up to the Great War and its aftermath decades, a fertile and effervescent period of which Bucharest benefited through the agency of such a hugely talented personality.

Art Deco mud scraper

My article about the foot mud scraper from the La Belle Epoque era adorning the Metropolitan Orthodox Cathedral in Sibiu has attracted an unexpected degree of interest from the readers. Among those making remarks was Robin Grow, the President of Australia’s Art Deco and Modernism Society, who naturally asked me if I have an Art Deco mud scraper among my finds. I answered that indeed I have found one in Bucharest, which I would like now to show it to you in all its glory in the following photographs.

Art Deco mud scraper
Art Deco mud scraper, Villa Miclescu, arch. Horia Creanga, 1930, Dorobanti quarter, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The inedite artifact adorns Villa Miclescu, one of most elegant buildings of Bucharest’s Art Deco and Modernism era, located in Dorobanti quarter, designed by the architect Horia Creanga in 1930.

Art Deco mud scraper
Art Deco mud scraper, Villa Miclescu, arch. Horia Creanga, 1930, Dorobanti quarter, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The mud scraper displays the rule of three, inspired from the Egyptian mythology, typical of the Art Deco style, seen in its three blades, being in tone with the horizontal bars grouped in three on the ironwork of the doorway.

Art Deco mud scraper
Villa Miclescu, arch. Horia Creanga, 1930, Dorobanti quarter, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The villa is mostly an inter-war Modernist design, of which Horia Creanga is most famous, with some Art Deco elements, such as the staircase windows, doorway or the mud scraper.

Art Deco mud scraper
Art Deco mud scraper, Villa Miclescu, arch. Horia Creanga, 1930, Dorobanti quarter, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The building is in a bad state of repair, although it is on the heritage list, a common situation in Bucharest, due mostly to the lack of education and interest about the historic architecture among the post-communist inhabitants of this town. One can notice the effects of that neglect even on this Art Deco mud scraper, which is such a rare architectural vestige: the first photograph, which I took about one and a half years ago, presents it with two “ears”, the loops on each side, while the last one, taken last week, shows one of those ears missing. That gives you an idea how fast the architectural identity and heritage of Bucharest is disappearing at the hands of its own citizens and their representative authorities.

Circular motif Art Deco gate

Art Deco style gate, dating from the mid 1930s, Piata Romana area, Bucharest
Art Deco style gate, dating from the mid 1930s, Piata Romana area, Bucharest

An interesting Art Deco design vestige, dating from the cultural peak period of Bucharest, in the third and fourth decade of the last century, now uncared and unloved by its post-communist inhabitants, still stoically surviving among their ugly, uncouth renovations of period buildings.

Sketches of representative Romanian historic built landscape sights

VM drawings-001
Sketches of representative Romanian historic built landscape sights by the author of this blog

The built environment of Romania has an obvious personality, and being present permanently around me, it became in the last few years since I am based in Bucharest, an integral part of my intellectual universe. Some more than two decades ago I used to attended earth science courses, and one of the main tenets thought there was the keen observation of the ground and other landscape details to work out the local geological history. I was thought  back then to make as often as I can field sketches in a notebook, which were always preferable to photographs. That habit is still with me in my activity as an architectural historian, but recently in a high-tech form, having acquired and iPad and tried my hand on glass, which in my opinion is in many ways similar with how our c19th and earlier centuries counterparts used to draw and write on slate. My sketches encompass some of the main types of Romanian architectural landscape, which I hope you, dear readers, would find it interesting!

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Late Neo-Romanian style doorway assembly

Late Neo-Romanian style doorway assembly, house buit in the early-1930s, Cotroceni area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

I divide the evolution of the Neo-Romanian architectural style in three main phases. The early one lasted from its initiation in 1886 by the architect Ion Mincu with his edifice in the national style, Lahovary house, until 1906 when the Royal Jubilee exhibition took place, showing to the public its grand pavilions, many designed in an elevated unitary manner that “canonised” the style, which marked the beginning of its mature phase. It reached an apogee after the country’s victory in the Great War and subsequently in the 1920s decade, when was adopted all over the territory of interbellum Romania. The late 1920s, and the 1930s decade saw the increase popularity and in the end prevalence of the international styles Art Deco and Modernism, which induced a crisis of expression for the Neo-Romanian, thus marking its late phase. The national style managed to strive through an imaginative synthesis with the Art Deco and also Mediterranean inspired forms, resulting in extremely interesting designs. The evolution of the style practically ended with the instauration of communism in the winter of 1947, under the impact of the ideologically driven architectural priorities of the new political regime. It continued to have echoes for another two decades especially in vernacular forms and in motifs used on post-war edifices.

The street gate and doorway assembly presented above belongs in its design outline and period when it was built to the late phase of development of the Neo-Romanian style. The wrought iron gate is inspired from Brancovan style church or altar doors, but expressed in coordinates close to Art Deco. The two gate posts are also derived from church or medieval citadel towers, conforming with the national-romantic message of the style. The door itself shows a series of square panels pointed each by a central disc, which can be understood as the outline of an ethnographic solar disc or an interpretation of a Greek cross. The wall surround of the door is basically an adaptation of a church door opening in reduced to essence coordinates of the Art Deco style. The doorway assembly dates from the beginning of the 1930s, and as the time progressed into that decade, the expression of the Neo-Romanian forms in an Art Deco “ambiance” became even more prevalent and captivating as a form of architectural language.

Art Deco sunbursts

Art Deco sunbursts
Art Deco-like sunbursts in the summer of 2012, Grivita – Domenii area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

I am a great fan of the cheerful Art Deco panels that depict sunbursts, rainbows or southern seas themes. In that spirit I have put together a real sunburst photographed last summer in Grivita – Domenii area of the city, a quarter that is still preserving its inter-war charm when it was built up in large part in the Art Deco style, then much in vogue in Bucharest, and the emblem of an insurance company, ornament that dates from the Art Deco era, located in the town centre. Looking at the natural sunburst is easier to understand the message, optimism and confidence exuded by the Art Deco panels of Bucharest and the culture of that beautiful time in the history of architecture.

Art Deco sunbursts
Art Deco sunburst as part of the composition of an inter-war Romanian insurance company emblem, University area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest

I tried to profit yesterday of the lull in between snowfalls and blizzards that affect Bucharest at the end of this January, and shoot a few photographs on the theme of atlantes and caryatides that embellish some of the historic buildings of Romania’s capital. If on the one hand the term caryatid (pl.-s/es) is well known, as the female figure appearing to support on her head the architectural structure above, the name coming form that of the sculpted goddesses that sustain the lintel of the Erechtheion temple on Athens’ Acropolis, atlantes, on the other hand, is somehow confusing for being the plural of the term atlas, the classical Greek god that support the world on his head and shoulders, a male counterpart of a caryatid. Bucharest does not have too many such ornaments, which are the province of the high historicist styles, encountered also sometimes on more modern buildings, but for a keen eye they reveal themselves on house corners, side streets or at the top of façades of some of the city’s historic edifices. Bellow is a selection of some of the most impressive atlantes and caryatides that adorn Romania’s capital, put in place in a period spanning from the mid-c19th to the 1930s, in styles ranging from neo-Renaissance, neo-rococo, Beaux Arts to classicized Art Deco.

Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Atlantes at the gate of BCR building (1900s, Beaux Arts style) in University Square, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Detail of atlas at the gate of BCR building (1900s, Beaux Arts style) in University Square, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Caryatides of Bucharest, residential and commercial building in Curtea Veche area, Lipscani quarter, dating from the 1890s. (©Valentin Mandache)
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Detail- caryatid assembly, residential and commercial building in Curtea Veche area, Lipscani quarter, Bucharest, dating from  the 1890s. (©Valentin Mandache)
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Atlantes embellishing a neo-rococo style building dating from the  early 1900s, Smardan Str. area, Lipscani quarter, Bucharest. (©Valentin Mandache)
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Detail of an atlas from the  composition embellishing a neo-rococo style building dating from the early 1900s, Smardan Str. area, Lipscani quarter, Bucharest
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Caryatides flanking the entrance of an 1930s apartment block (arch. Petre Antonescu) in Natiunile Unite square, Bucharest. (©Valentin Mandache)
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Detail of a caryatid (classicized Art Deco figure) at the entrance of an 1930s apartment block (arch. Petre Antonescu) in Natiunile Unite square, Bucharest.
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Terracotta caryatides on top of Stirbey Palace, neo-Renaissance style (Palladian inspiration), dating from the mid c19th, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Detail of a terracotta caryatid, Stirbey Palace, neo-Renaissance style (Palladian inspiration), dating from the mid c19th, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Atlantes and caryatides, Macca – Villacrosse covered passage, 1890s, neo-rococo style, Lipscani quarter, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Atlantes and caryatides of Bucharest
Atlas and caryatid- detail from the assembly embellishing the entrance of Macca – Villacrosse covered passage (1890s, neo-rococo style), Lipscani quarter, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

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I endeavour through this series of periodic articles to inspire appreciation of the historic houses of Romania, a virtually undiscovered, but fascinating chapter of European architectural history and heritage.

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If you plan acquiring or selling a historic property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to advice you in sourcing and transacting the property, specialist research, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the

The decorative stone of a Bucharest tube station

Politehnica tube station - ornamental stone
Politehnica tube station, Bucharest – ornamental stone, laid in the mid-1980s, photo Valentin Mandache

Bucharest’s public and private edifices erected in the last two decades, since the fall of communism, are, apart from the general forgettable design, built in high proportion using mass produced imported materials. Most of that is cheap, low quality, characterless and as regards the resulted architecture, can in my opinion, easily be categorised at kitsch. That situation also reflects the tastes and values of the actual generations engaged in building or renovating edifices of this town and country. They are in such stark contrast with the times of in the inter-war and subsequent communist periods when the architectural materials were in greatest proportion sourced within the country. That produced interesting and attractive results, with the ornamental and construction stone sourced in the Carpathian Mountains or in rocky hills of the province of Dobrogea, on the Black Sea coast, which are from that point of view a wonderful geological kaleidoscope, a bottomless source of high quality marble, limestone of different sorts, travertine, granite of various colours and grains, basalts, sandstones, etc.  I have in the image above a sample of that fabulous panoply of ornamental stone used in one of the grand communist era projects, Bucharest’s metro transport system. It shows the pavement of the Politehinca station, composed of red limestone peppered by Jurassic age marine fossils, which was sourced probably in the Apuseni (Western) Carpathians, the rock being formed in a geological age when those parts were a continental shelf covered by the warm seas on the Equator. My Dr. Martens shoes stand on a band of nicely granulated pinkish granite, sourced in my opinion in northern Dobrogea (it may also be from the Apuseni Mountains). The composition is evocative of the geographical and geological identity of this country, a fact which is no longer encountered within the pitiful built landscape of the actual post-communist years.

Little Paris pediment through wires & door

Little Paris through wires
Little Paris pediment through wires, the former American Library, 1890s building in the Little Paris style, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The two images in this article are from the building, which was, in the 1980s, at the height of Ceausescu’s communist totalitarianism, the American Library, the United States’ embassy’s cultural arm. I was a student at the University of Bucharest then and became a member of this library that constituted a true and proper oasis or refuge from the distorted reality and terror of the daily life in Romania under that primitive dictatorship. The building which was then rented by the embassy from the state, was given in the last decade or so, back to its former owners, the Gerota family, who have it now on the market to let out as office spaces.

The US embassy obviously took excellent care of this landmark edifice of La Belle Époque period Bucharest, which is one of the amplest and now best preserved Little Paris style houses of Romania’s capital. I had recently the opportunity to revisit the building and take a series of photographs. I hope that this visual sample presented here would convey something from its magnificence and sense of Bucharest’s character as the Little Paris of the Balkans.

Interior door, the former American Library, Bucharest
Interior door, the former American Library, 1890s building in the Little Paris style, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)