Behind the Big Picture

In the wake of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, the second issue of our journal has assumed the mission of extending the reflections on the subject of “Absorbing modernity” by emphasizing the importance held by individuals in defining and catalyzing this process. By restoring the merit of these characters in the (not always smooth) play of modernization, we aimed at overcoming the reductive approximations often encountered in contemporary historiography, such as, the schematic reading of architectural changes as having been determined by global factors and conditions, thus eluding local nuances, or the equally simplifying hypotheses of a path towards uniformity and erasure of specific differences. Our theme aims to challenge these interpretive threads, both distinctly shown in the Biennale discourse, by spotlighting local histories behind the apparent isomorphism of the “big picture”.

The volume glosses on the Biennale and explores this theme by means of two types of texts, equally meaningful: on the one hand, the original scientific research gathered in the Dossier; on the other hand, the reviews of recent cultural events and publications, which are given a greater role in the economy of this volume than the secondary status they usually enjoy in academic journals. These parallel readings are, in fact, complementary perspectives recomposing an image, equally three-dimensional and fragmentary, of an extremely complex and heterogeneous phenomenon. Yet they are essential in decoding the various contemporary representations of modernity. In this respect, the Biennale itself is seen from different angles in the reviews and presentations authored by Cristina Sucală, Andrei Feraru and TRACE.

As it has been stated in the call for papers, we are especially attentive to peripheral areas, where the modernizing message coming from a “central source” was cast over different cultural environments, not necessarily prepared to receive it. We assumed that in these “receiver areas” modernity was adopted and locally adapted through the decisive work of individuals, either belonging to the local elite or coming from other cultures. It was them that shaped the local or regional faces of this phenomenon.

As expected, the Romanian case is the most substantially presented in the Dossier. It appears in various temporal and theoretical hypostases matching the amplitude and typology of the characters under focus. Seemingly obscure figures or “founding fathers”, lonely heroes or collective characters, these “carriers” of architectural modernity range in a gallery that mirrors the transformations of Romanian society during the last two centuries. Ahead of their time, sometimes of their space too, these “aliens” act their part in the play of modernization, being more or less understood by their contemporaries.

The peculiarity of this position is verified against completely different geographies and historical contexts, in relation to the cases of two overseas “indigenous aliens”, thus offering a very fertile parallel reading. The first is the Australian architect Robin Boyd, brought to the fore by Emma Jones’ reflection on the local form and substance of a kind of architecture claiming universality. Her paper is an inquiry into a perennial and pervasive dilemma: in what way, and to what extent is the transfer of models from one cultural and physical context to another able to produce valid forms? The second is the figure of Paul Rudolph, portrayed by Anna Dempsey, Ben Youtz and Kelly Haigh. By looking into his work in the United States and abroad, in Southeast Asia, the authors emphasize the way architecture is not only a carrier of formal models, but also an agent for negotiating a localized modernism, and demonstrates the subtle adaptability and flexibility of Brutalist architecture, so often criticized as uniform and rigid.

Another parallel reading is to be found in Ana Šverko’s review of the Harvard University research seminar, From Riverbed to Seashore. Art on the Move in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean in the Early Modern Period. The project enlarges the chronological limits of modernisation and looks at its channels of transmission in the peripheral but dynamic territories of Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean Dalmatian Coast and the Black Sea, territories where the dialogue among cultures, the relationships of centre and periphery, of East and West, are highly formative and intricate as well.

The heroes of modernization in Romanian architecture appear in various hypostases, corresponding to a multi-layered typology. They stand out against the specific background of sudden modernization, alongside national construction. Politically and ideologically driven, the new condition stirred up the “old order” – medieval, latent and deeply rooted. The architectural forms taken by the Romanian absorption of modernity were (at least in the beginning) rather a question of individual option and interpretation, often in decisive manners. The process consisted mainly in (zealously) importing “visual models”; the theoretical motivations came later, conflictingly overlapping a cultural tradition unprepared to receive them, thus acquiring specific dimensions. They are mostly partial (with obvious parti pris towards the stylistic debates) and often conflicting to the point of neurosis (between the national spirit and the cosmopolitan character of the modernist internationalism). In this framework, modern architectural culture is a mostly discontinuous construction, supported, shaped and driven by the force of specific individuals.

Initially, modernity is imported together with its vectors. “Aliens” both by formation and professional practice, these “carriers” are essential pieces in absorbing specific forms of modernity, having a hard time fitting in a culture still deeply rooted in traditional practices. Horia Moldovan brings to the fore such a collective character from the 19th century – the architects hired by public authorities in order to fill in the lack of local trained personnel and to emulate Western administrative “best practices”. A similar “alien” is also present in Horia Moldovan’s book, Johann Schlatter. Western Culture and Romanian Architecture (1831-1866), reviewed here by Monica Sebestyen. Schlatter is one of those architects engaged in public practice (projects for buildings, public works, and restoration of churches) who contribute to the diffusion, in the Romanian space, of stylistic and tactical models proper to a modern culture.

Another type of an agent, iconic for a subsequent stage of modernization, is the native specialist educated abroad and returning to “play his part” in changing the cultural model. Bringing home not only forms, but also a specific content, such professionals are founding fathers of their own disciplines. They are, at the same time, natives and aliens, claiming themselves to belonging both to local and universal culture. The paper by Andreea Udrea and Irina Calotă presents Cincinat Sfinţescu, the founder of modern Romanian urbanism. Their essay dwells upon his foreign connections and upon the reflection on the local urban planning of his ongoing efforts to be up to date with the international scientific doctrine of his time.

The interwar period is marked by the emergence of a problematic relation, simultaneously antagonistic and synergetic, between “traditionalism” and “modernism”. Although various forms of this relation can be traced back to the first half of the 19th century, it is only after World War I that it is consistently theorized and thus serves as basis for professional stances. With the risk of oversimplifying, it may be inferred that, over the past two centuries, the general attitude towards modernity has taken two shapes: one of conflict, when it is seen as a foreign (alien) body, contradicting the local cultural pattern, and one of awe, when its manifestations are idealized and copied. These hypostases do not exclude each other. On the contrary, they sometimes overlap and coexist ambiguously within the same mindset or even person.

Between these two extremes are the “mediators” (raisonneurs or critical carriers of a modernizing message), whose role is often essential in shaping local discourse and practices in relation to modernity. The professional destinies of two such characters are shown in Gabriela Tabacu’s paper and Ruxandra Grigoraş’s review. The first one, architect Florea Stănculescu, tries to absorb the international Zeitgeist of modernity into a traditional genius loci, in order to mitigate the aforementioned contradiction. The second one, architect George M. Cantacuzino, directly tackles this opposition, trying to overcome it by theoretical elaboration. These examples illustrate two possible attitudes towards articulating a local kind of modernity. The review by Kázmér Kovács, presenting the volume On the Very Edge. Modernism and Modernity in the Arts and Architecture of Interwar Serbia (1918-1941), acts as a useful complement to the two papers mentioned above. The parallel reading of the Romanian case and of a potentially similar one is a good occasion for testing the initial hypotheses regarding the cultural transfer between center and periphery.

The part played by these “mediators” of modernity, which is very important up until World War II, is drastically diminished with the change of political regime. Although the communist period bears a hard message of modernization, although functionalist modernism becomes (at a certain point) the “official style”, architecture no longer expresses itself freely, but is almost exclusively articulated by political ideology. If judged through the sheer number of buildings, the communist period would seem to have been generous for Romanian architecture. But it surely has not been generous for the architectural profession. In today’s terms, the practice of that time would hardly fit into the definition of architecture. Architects were expected to comply with political demands, and critical reflection was, in fact, the last thing expected from them.

Against this setting, those who did not want to “fit in”, those who tried to break the ideological and behavioral blockade and who attempted to be different, become even more important figures. At least for a while, they acted as polarizing magnets, carriers of a free option towards modernity, even if this freedom was not granted to them. This volume discusses three such cases (architects Ascanio Damian, Mircea Alifanti and Şerban Sturdza), each of them embodying a different stance; every case is set against the background of a frozen cultural context, whose immobility was completely opposed to the spirit of modernity.

Damian and Alifanti also had a teaching career, and they both worked exclusively during Communism, but their professional destinies and dramas were quite different. This year marks the 100th anniversary of their birth, and these papers can also be seen as sITA’s tribute to them.

Architect Ascanio Damian, presented in the paper by Miruna Stroe, is an example of commitment to mainstream modernism, to the extent it could be manifest in the conditions of the period. A very strong and visible presence in the professional establishment, up to a certain moment, he remained anchored throughout his life both in the modernist dogma – even when it was called into doubt, in Romania too, and in the idealistic political leftist vision – including his taking a public stand against the excess of the regime in the 1980s.

Quite the opposite was Mircea Alifanti’s case, discussed by Ana Maria Zahariade and Radu Ponta. He was a concealed personality, a complicated, reflective, dilemmatic human being, who was professionally acknowledged but less visible. His stance on architecture is based on his “notebooks” between 1950 and 1980, documents now researched for the first time. Unlike Damian, Alifanti (a left-winger too) takes a rather “subversive” stand against the modernist mainstream (through his own way to design and theorize architecture) and the political arena (through his refuse to design under destructive orders), which he experiences deeply and with a sense of defeat.

The interview with architect Şerban Sturdza brings to the fore another type of “alien”, a misfit of the generation raised and educated under Communism. His resistance to the regime is exemplary, as is his resistance to the current commodification of architecture.

These two papers (on Mircea Alifanti and Şerban Sturdza) sketch out two cases of critical interpretation of modernity, a rare facet of Romanian architecture. They were not the only ones, but they both represent two solid self-built postures: Sturdza, by following a phenomenological path of authenticity and local-modern relation, which grounds his options; Alifanti, by following the path of rationalism with claim to objectivity, theorized as an almost impossible synthesis of classical and modern principles of composition.

Ioana Popovici describes another type of affinity towards the international tendencies of the same period. Her article is an interpretation of the constant presence of Japanese architecture in the only professional periodical in Romania at that time, and of the impact of architect Kisho Kurokawa’s visit in Bucharest. Given the quasi-total lack of real possibilities to connect to the international circulation of ideas, and the increasingly unbreathable professional atmosphere, the common tendency was to adopt (visual) models originating from exotic areas and apparently stripped of political ideologies. In this context, the influence (even unintended) which “aliens” like Kurokawa have had on the architectural imagery and representations in communist Romania is not so surprising.

Finally, two consistent reviews document a very special case of transfer of urban, architectural and behavioral models: the seaside. A “heterotopic” space, of freedom or, at least, of the illusion of freedom, the seaside of socialist countries (as it appears in the exhibition Enchanting views, commented by Michael Zinganel, as well as in the book Holidays After the Fall. Seaside Architecture and Urbanism in Bulgaria and Croatia, reviewed by Irina Băncescu) allows for manifestations of an exuberant and bright modernism, but a modernism still under political tutelage. In a way, it is a kind of absorption of modernity whose future was cut off by excessive modernization.

Ironically, the fall of Communism did not automatically lead to regaining the freedom of thought, and even less to critical thinking. Due to its inertia after Communism, the profession is much too vulnerable to the commercial appeal. If the Venice Biennale is right in claiming that modernity, itself, pushes towards a uniformity driven by profit and information, then the role of the “un-enrolled”, or “aliens”, is still decisive in building up interesting differences.

Ana Maria Zahariade, Toader Popescu

studies in History and Theory of Architecture • vol. 2 / 2014
Indigenous Aliens.
Mediators of Architectural Modernity
Published with the financial support of the
Chamber of Architects of Romania (OAR)