Book Review: Popescu, Le Style National Roumain. Reviewed by Maximilian Hartmuth
- Balkan Academic News Book Review 16/2005
Carmen Popescu, Le Style National Roumain. Construire une Nation a travers l'Architecture [The Romanian National Style. Constructing a nation through architecture]. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2004. 375 pp., 24 EUR, ISBN 2-86847-913-8 (Paperback).
Reviewed by Maximilian Hartmuth (Koc University, Istanbul). Email: mhartmuth@....
Parallel to the rise of nationalism, the nineteenth century Balkans witnessed an increased desire to articulate a reinvented national heritage independent of both Ottoman and European mainstreams in new forms of architecture, eventually giving birth to so-called "National Styles". While earlier a cultural emancipation from Ottoman-period models had been expressed through an occidentalization of the "oriental" urban fabric, first efforts in the study and preservation of the Danube principalities' own historic monuments were undertaken from the 1860s onwards.
With previous building mostly commissioned from local masters, and since the 1820s often in a "vulgarized" version of European Neoclassical architecture, the enrollment of a dozen young Romanians to the Parisian Ecole des Beaux Arts in the 1880s marks a turning point in both quality and innovation in Romanian architecture. Having become acquainted with the rising interest in regionalism not least through the lectures of Julien Guadet, the first of these students to succeed in translating nationalist ideology into an architectural vocabulary back home was Ion Mincu. For his Villa Lahovary (1886), Mincu ignored all accepted academic patterns at the expense of inspiration from a "national" tradition, or rather a set of eclectically fused traditional elements: a porch (typical for the Wallachian vernacular); carved wooden columns of peasant inspiration; the somewhat orientalizing accolade arches of Wallachian eighteenth century architecture; and ceramic decoration of Moldavian source. Signaling the acceptance of his new style for public architecture, he was awarded the commission for the Girls' High School two years later.
While Mincu's works stand out for their dignified modesty, his contemporary Andre-Emile Lecomte du Nouy, a student of Viollet-le-Duc, came to be the first to employ Byzantine influences to define Romanian national identity via architecture on a monumentalized scale. One more interpretation of a national architecture was offered by Ion Socolescu in elevating orientalizing aesthetics (ogee arches, bay windows) to the primary source of his oeuvre, which Popescu (64) links to the popularity of Orientalist architecture in the late nineteenth century Western Europe in which also Socolescu was trained.
Whilst it is constructive that Popescu does not commit the customary mistake of analyzing architectural phenomena in absolute disregard of their wider regional context, it is not entirely clear to me why she attempts to relativize the Romanian phenomenon by creating an analogy in particular between Socolescu's style and nationalist architecture in neighboring Serbia and Bulgaria. Whilst she asserts to identify "a similar orientalizing décor and similar compositions" (68), I really see the striking parallels only in the monumental works of Romanian architects Stefanescu and Antonescu which, dominated by massive semi-circular arches, arcades, and portals, indeed come very close to the byzantinizing aesthetic of contemporary Serbia.
In line with recent scholarship Popescu pays special attention to the nineteenth century fairs as displays of aspired identities. While still part of the Ottoman pavilion at the London fair of 1851, in 1867 at Paris the united principalities already participated as a separate entity. Situated between the Ottoman and Egyptian pavilions, however, the "oriental" image that was to be shaken off was thereby ironically reaffirmed. The significance of the 1906 "Romanian General Exhibition", to which Popescu devotes a whole chapter, is that the National Style - employed for all exhibition pavilions - eventually gained official political recognition. Thereupon, it moreover became the preferred choice for villas in upscale neighborhoods planned as garden cities ("parks"), which were considered a more genuinely Romanian way of dwelling by planners and architects. Multistory apartment buildings in dense urban quarters, on the other hand, were even at the beginning of the twentieth century - in a country of 80% peasants and industry and commerce only in its infancy - still a rarity.
The National Style's real period of glory, however, began with the creation of Greater Romania following WWI. In this new kingdom greatly enlarged by inclusion of formerly Austro-Hungarian and Russian territories, the style was employed as a means of homogenization in a vast territory of fairly diverse cultural traditions, and consequently came to be used with all administrative and public building (city halls, banks, post offices, museums, schools, etc.). With the exception of a few churches, and despite the strong national ideal existing in the formerly Austro-Hungarian territories, the style was, however, not adopted by the Romanian communities in Transylvania.
Nonetheless, the real threat to the emotional National Style in the interwar years came only with the advent of internationalist Modernism. A relative of Italian and German Fascist architecture, also the "Carol II. style" entered the stage; monumental in scale, yet with a simplified treatment of volumes. At the same time, the Romanian elite first discovered its seashore, and in search for a visual character that would fit its setting (re)turned to the Ottoman-period vernacular as inspiration for its modernist villas. Ever since its creation repeatedly confronted with the doubt whether one Romanian style or a national art (can) exist at all, it is nevertheless remarkable that the National Style managed to endure that long and effectively succeeded in equipping Romanian cities, foremost Bucharest, with such a distinctive and quite coherent architectural identity.
Positively, Carmen Popescu's work is not written for an art history crowd but can cater well to a more general readership interested in history or nationalism, without compromising quality. Those who do not read French, however, will have to be content with Popescu's concise chapter ( "National Romanian architecture: building national identity") in Michelle Facos and Sharon L. Hirsh (eds.): Art, Culture, and National Identity in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
The historical framework Popescu embeds her work into is rich and well-researched. Clearly the author's aim was to be more interpretative than descriptive, not serving the reader an accumulation of detailed analyses of individual works of architecture but really a comprehensive history. While also the text is attractively illustrated with visual materials (hundreds of photographs, drafts and designs, and a few maps), the only minor shortcoming is that Romanian diacritics seem to have been only accurately employed when reproducible with a French set of characters. In conclusion, Carmen Popescu's "Le style national Roumain" is a mature scholarly work that will certainly earn its place among the still sparse oeuvre of monographs on the architectural history of Southeast Europe.
Book Review Editors: Jelena Obradovic (jelena_obradovic@...) and Cristina Bradatan (cbradata@...)
© 2005 Balkan Academic News. This review may be distributed and reproduced electronically, if credit is given to Balkan Academic News and the author. For permission for re-printing, contact Balkan Academic News.