Romanian Modernism and the Construction of a National Identity
In Romania, the transformations brought about by the Great War and ratified by the peace agreements of the "Versailles system” of treaties (Treaty of Versailles - 28 June 1919, Treaty of Saint-Germain - 10 September 1919, Treaty of Neuilly - 27 November 1919, Treaty of Trianon - 4 June 1920, Treaty of Sèvres - 10 August 1920), became the opportunity to complete a national unity process that had started in 1859 with the unification of two small principalities, Wallachia and Moldavia, under a single political identity.
This marked the first stage of a turbulent and challenging period at the end of which România Mare (Greater Romania) as it became known, was born. All of Transylvania, part of the Banat, which was divided with the Serbian-Croatian-Slovenian Kingdom, Bukovina, Bessarabia and southern Dobruja could be considered at long last united with the motherland. This is how, at the end of the hostilities and with the acquisition of these territories, the Kingdom (Regat) of Romania, which on the eve of the war was a basically an ethnically homogeneous, small State of about 130 thousand square kilometres, extended its geographical reach by 156 thousand square kilometres and its population by approximately 8.5 million inhabitants. These are the origins of a State which, with its 295 thousand square kilometres and 15.5 million inhabitants, became the largest and most populated country in South-Eastern Europe and, not including Soviet Russia the second largest of the entire eastern area of our continent after the reconstitution of Poland.
The early post-war period proved to be extremely problematic for all the countries involved in the conflict, both those that had won and those that had lost. The challenge presented by the formation of Greater Romania proved to be particularly complicated. The population's ethnic and religious fragmentation was only part of the picture, but there was also the demanding task of trying to harmonise such disparate and diverse territories, especially considering that, even after the "great union", a rigidly centralised structure had been preserved.
The central administration in Bucharest was obliged, almost overnight, to try to unite neighbouring regions that had very different economic, social, cultural and political situations; for instance Bessarabia and Bukovina. The former had been under the administration of the Tsarist State until 1917. It lacked infrastructure, had high illiteracy rates and was economically backwards. The latter had been an Austro-Hungarian province until 1918. It had a well-developed cultural situation and relatively sound economy with a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-denominational population that for decades had become accustomed to political confrontation through the electoral process. In just a few years, territories characterised by four different, well-established legislative traditions were subjected to a process of legislative and cultural unification. The process did not produce immediate effects and, compared to the situation of the former administrations, it was marked by severe difficulties.
The same applied to the infrastructural systems of the new provinces. Each system served its own territory: Ukraine and Crimea in the case of Bessarabia; Hungary for Transylvania; Cisleithania for Bukovina and the Banat. Furthermore, and from a strictly economic perspective, after losing contact with their main pre-war trade partners, it took quite some time before achieving an internal balance for the distribution of resources and to reorganise both domestic and foreign trade.
Hence, the goal of the country's new political organisation was to launch a great season of reforms, some of which were very innovative, e.g. the agrarian reform.
This scenario of precarious territorial balances and great optimism on the part of the government encouraged and stimulated the development of cultural activities. Initially, these activities had been concentrated in the capital city of Bucharest, but they now had to take into account the country's many, newly established cultural centres.
Up to the outbreak of the Great War the Romanian territory, especially the part linked to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had already been influenced by the architectural style of the Wiener Sezession.
To a certain extent, it was a style that brought together the many goals of modernism and had also achieved an international dimension. However, as in other areas of Europe, the projects linked to this movement were limited to social and cultural milieus from the middle and upper bourgeoisie and revolved mainly around industrial and mass production activities.
Consequently, much of Romania was not influenced by this style. The areas in which modernist thinking, based on the Viennese experiences of Hoffmann and Olbricht, was most present were Transylvania and the Banat. Architectural design in these areas was mainly produced by practitioners from Franco-German backgrounds and, more rarely, by local architects who had trained in France.
In Transylvania, the city of Oradea still retains the legacy of a style strongly associated with the work of a Hungarian architect who worked in the area, Odon Lechner, and of his pupils Jacob Dezo and Komor Maecell who designed the Prefecture of Targu Mures and redeveloped the "Black Eagle" shopping centre.
Transylvania was also influenced by another style that had been introduced by architect Eros Joska; it combined the thinking of the Wiener Sezession with the ideas of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and favoured a more linear form of architectural composition.
It was only at the turn of the century that Romania's national identity became the object of architectural compositional research thanks to figures like Ion Mincu who, in revisiting the decorative elements of movements influenced by the Wiener Sezession and Art Nouveau, shifted his attention to modernism and later to constructivist thinking, therefore focusing on the question of structure.
The cornerstone of this school of thought was that the knowledge and style guidelines required to create a new national stylistic identity, i.e. neo-Romanian, could be found in the cultural and technical legacy of Romania's past. The term “neo-Romanian” intended to mark the evolution of significant achievements of the past. The new element in architecture was not to create a break with the continuity of a style but was to embody its natural evolution, its reinterpretation at a higher level, and the consequent redesign of new projects in response to social needs.
At the turn of the century, Ion Mincu's influence together with the results achieved by foreign modernist currents stimulated a great deal of construction activity and encouraged renovation projects in most of the districts of cities like Bucharest. This led to the construction of the School of Architecture, designed by Grigore Cerchez between 1912 and 1917, the Museum of National Art (today's Peasant Museum) designed by Nicolae Ghica-Budesti between 1912 and 1938, and the present-day town hall of Bucharest designed by Petre Antonescu and initially built to be the Ministry of Public Construction. It is important to note, without citing this period’s many private architectural projects, that many projects resulted in a revitalisation of public cultural and administrative milieus buildings.
In Romania, the time frame of the Modernist era coincided with the economic and financial boom of the country, with national income levels higher than those of Belgium in the years before the Second World War. This favourable economic situation helped the whole country’s society and culture to adapt to modernity, but it also led to critical clashes between the drive for innovation and the Romanian spirit, inspired by Mincu's ideas.
The appearance of the rationalist current, which at times contradicted the natural evolutionary principle of Romanian architecture, led the two factions to seek a compromise. This produced architectural designs of a more neoclassical spirit. In pursuing classicism, the aim was to achieve continuity with the national spirit by designing buildings that would celebrate the glories of the nation. As in Germany during the same period, the appearance of many new public buildings was intended to reawaken a classicist type of national memory and was the rationale behind the Royal Station of Baneasa in Bucharest, designed in 1937 by Duiliu Marcu and the Victoria Palace designed by the same architect.
The classicist approach actually showed that architects were willing to celebrate a national identity that was still confused. Unintentionally this launched a season of cultural confrontation that fostered the influence of other nationalist ideals on Romanian soil and resulted in totalitarian policies that lacked any identity whatsoever.