THE BLOG
10/01/2014 11:35 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

An Architect of Change

Nicolae Ceausescu was not exactly a team player. He adopted the title conducator -- literally, "the leader" -- and constructed his own personality cult. He defied the Warsaw Pact by refusing to allow Romania to participate in the Soviet-led 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. He preferred to pick up leadership tips from Beijing and Pyongyang -- where Mao and Kim Il Sung offered larger-than-life examples -- than from the apparatchiks of Moscow. He cultivated court poets who sang his praises and arranged for the endless republication of his own pedestrian contributions to Marxism.

Ceausescu didn't stop at politics and culture. He wanted to transform the very physical structure of the country. He planned to wipe out what he considered non-viable villages and consolidate the countryside into larger collectivized units. He also reshaped the urban centers of Romania's major cities so that, among other things, there would be a large central square and a balcony from which he could address his throngs of admirers. It was one of his most enduring -- and disturbing -- legacies.

But Ceausescu's most ambitious infrastructure plan was for the Romanian capital itself. In the 1980s, he implemented a huge "urban renewal" project that destroyed a large chunk of the historic center of Bucharest. The new government-residential complex would be the architectural counterpart of his personality cult. By the time of his downfall in December 1989, this new Civic Center was nearly complete.

"It's a very big stretch of land: about five kilometers long and maybe one kilometer wide: so, five square kilometers," architect Mariana Celac told me in an interview in her apartment in Bucharest in May 2013. "Parts of it were historic. There was a part that was a late 19th-century industrial site along with what became a proletarian neighborhood at the beginning of the 20th century. There were more than 20 historic landmarks, including 15th/16th-century churches. There were also ghettos of very poor people. The ghettos were used to suggest that the new Civic Center would be clearing away old neighborhoods of no value and no interest. But there was also a part that was quite an elegant neighborhood built in the 1920s after the First World War. The variety of urban structures in Bucharest is remarkable.

Romanians called the urban destruction that took place Ceausima -- which combined the words "Ceausescu" and "Hiroshima." But because of the lack of publicity surrounding the project and the punishments meted out to dissidents, few spoke out against the new Civic Center. Mariana Celac, however, took the enormous risk of criticizing the grandiose initiative in an interview with French media.

"I could feel what was happening there -- the direct reality of extreme harshness for the people living there -- because at that period I had a very old uncle who was living there alone," she explained. "I went to him maybe two or three times a week with some provisions. Because of the construction site, which was filled with huge cranes, all the links between the northern part of the city and the southern part of the city were interrupted. There were very few places where you could pass to the other side. And I saw how the demolition advanced."

It was 1987 when she spoke out. "Until then I'd never spoken publicly," Celac said. "They asked me if I wanted to give an interview, and I said yes. I felt very good about it. If you have an opinion, you should express it under your name. Going into the open was maybe one of the most revealing and interesting experiences of my life. It wasn't easy because, you know, I have a family. My mother, who was quite an old person, was probably afraid of what could happen to me. But at the same time, just speaking about your feelings and your opinions was a remarkable moment."

Her friends rallied around her. But she lost her job. "The authorities basically believed that these were the opinions of an unbalanced person and there was no need to respond in any way," she said. "When I was fired from the institute, there was a meeting with my colleagues. During that meeting I was thinking of the meetings of the Stalinist era, when the outcome of such a meeting was the firing squad. It was not in my case, but I could understand the sort of emotional situation it could be if one's life was at stake."

Two years later, Celac became one of the founders of the key organization of civil society that emerged from the changes of December 1989: the Group for Social Dialogue. She continued to do her architectural work, including a fascinating project near a flood area of the Danube where architects and sculptors build more enduring structures out of local materials.

When she looks back to the changes of 1989-90, she assesses them as an architect would. "Such a change in the structure of the society is very much like an earthquake," she concluded. "During an earthquake, the forces that are usually keeping the building in place are those of gravity. But when the earthquake comes it is elasticity, the converse of gravity, that preserves the integrity of the building. It's the same thing with such a change."

The Interview

Let's start with your decision not to enter politics after 1989.

I decided not to enter into active politics and to try something different in terms of encouraging a moral renewal of Romanian society. And so I joined the Organization of Architects. It was quite an interesting period because the architectural profession had been heavily affected by the Communist regime and by the architectural and urban planning practices of the dictator. Going back to architecture at that moment, to revive it as a liberal profession, was very important. The lawyers or the doctors did not suffer as much under the influence and the pressure of Ceausescu as the architects.

In a way, immediately after 1990, things were easier to change. Such a change in the structure of the society is very much like an earthquake. During an earthquake, the forces that are usually keeping the building in place are those of gravity. But when the earthquake comes it is elasticity, the converse of gravity, that preserves the integrity of the building. It's the same thing with such a change. It's very visible now when the revolutionary movement is gone. The inertial forces are still there, and the influence of the old thoughts is much stronger and much more believable than it was at the very beginning. Of course, we were much younger. We were much more confident in what could be done. We were much more sure that no deep changes had occurred in the Romanian society, that communism had been sort of an external force imposed upon us, which apparently was not entirely true. Somehow it changed a number of things.

So I managed the Group for Social Dialogue. And I, together with a group of colleagues, started this process of the regeneration of the architectural profession. In a way, we succeeded because these big "factories of projects" disappeared, and the architects established smaller practices. This has been a way of entering and understanding the practice of an open society through this profession. We reestablished the Chamber of Romanian Architects, and we'd like to think that architectural practice is getting better. Of course, there is much more freedom and pride in the ways that architects are organizing their professional lives, and it has little to do with the quality of architecture. That depends on people.

I did a number of different things, all of them linked somehow to the idea of social dialogue, immediately after the first stage of changes when political forces established or reestablished the historic political parties and when there had been a number of clashes as some very strong forces tried to stop the protests. The Group for Social Dialogue, in my view, remained interested and engaged and in discussion with the upper layer of power and authority. But I was interested in what was happening at the grassroots level.

So I developed a number of projects. One was a study about what was happening in areas built during the worst industrialization period of Ceausescu's regime. Another project was organizing the residential area of Gypsy people especially in urban areas -- because the general feeling is that the Gypsy problem is a rural problem, which is not true at all. We established a group to work in the ghettos, which are quite big and can be found everywhere in urban areas. We tried to revive the traditional building materials and techniques used by very poor people. We've had good results in building good frames and safe housing. Somehow the Group of Social Dialogue remained connected to the upper echelons of the authority, and I went down to the grassroots.

Before I ask you more about these projects, I want to go back to the 1980s and actually ask you about a story you mentioned the first time we talked. You talked then of your experience in becoming a dissident in part because of complaining about "urban renewal" here in Bucharest. How did people find out about the building project that became Ceausescu's Civic Center? Did they only find out about it when the bulldozers started knocking down houses? Or were there articles in the newspaper that proclaimed this new project of Ceausescu's? How did you find out about it in the first place?

There had been very little in the press about the project. Even in the professional press there was practically nothing. There are two very good books, which we published through a small publishing house for books about architecture, about how the whole project developed. Ceausescu was so convinced that people approved of his project that there was practically no information or exposes about the project - even within the profession. From time to time, there was a small exhibition or plenary session of the Union of Architects where some sort of discussion took place, but nothing more.

And then there was the operation itself, the building site itself, which tremendously affected a great number of people. A lot of people had their lives really ruined. They were moved overnight into very small apartments, mostly unfinished, in a new residential area, and the site was cleared of everything.

Was that neighborhood known for anything in particular? Was it a historic neighborhood in any way?

It's a very big stretch of land: about five kilometers long and maybe one kilometer wide. So, five square kilometers. Parts of it were historic. There was a part that was a late 19th-century industrial site along with what became a proletarian neighborhood at the beginning of the 20th century. There were more than 20 historic landmarks, including 15th/16th-century churches. There were also ghettos of very poor people. The ghettos were used to suggest that the new Civic Center would be clearing away old neighborhoods of no value and no interest. But there was also a part that was quite an elegant neighborhood built in the 1920s after the First World War. The variety of urban structures in Bucharest is remarkable.

I could feel what was happening there - the direct reality of extreme harshness for the people living there -- because at that period I had a very old uncle who was living there alone. I went to him maybe two or three times a week with some provisions. Because of the construction site, which was filled with huge cranes, all the links between the northern part of the city and the southern part of the city were interrupted. There were very few places where you could pass to the other side. And I saw how the demolition advanced. In a way, I understood what was going in Ceausescu's mind. When you have a city, it seems much bigger because there are streets, and there are corners, and there are perspectives, and there are buildings. But when you flatten everything, the feeling is that the space is just getting smaller. You see just the big buildings, and there is nothing in between. So I saw how this whole thing developed and the reality for people living there.

The feeling still persists. Now there is this idea that the time has come for Bucharest to have a valuable city center: to clean up all the old insignificant parts and have, I don't know, a Versailles or a Westminster or a Buckingham Palace. People want to enter this congregation of big nations that have big capitals. As the memory of the hardships fade, this feeling becomes more prominent. Well, we have a Parliament, and this big space now in front of the Parliament. There is this large avenue that is, in my view, completely absurd because it goes against the natural evolution of the Bucharest city center, which is organized along the north-south axis. But the avenue goes from west to east. It's completely unnatural from my point of view. But somehow the city is absorbing it.

So you found out about it because you were going there several times a week delivering food for your uncle. When you talked about it with your friends, did you discover that other people were upset? Other architects?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.