Sunday, 20 October 2013

The strange charm of dereliction

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Museum of Archaeology "Vasile Pārvan"

I published this deeply irresponsible article in the Bucharest Daily News back in 2005 and it was and is a cri de coeur. Someone pointed out that it was printed next to a worthy article calling for more investment in infrastructure, by my friend, Dan Visoiu. It is a synopsis in one page of the book I am writing about the Paris of the East.
"Bucharest has a lot to do in order to become a city worthy of the status of a European capital." 
This headmasterly admonishment was made by Jonathan Scheele, the soft-spoken British civil servant who heads the European Commission Delegation in Romania, at last week's "Investment Opportunities in Bucharest" conference.

Am I alone in dreading the day when Bucharest becomes worthy of the status of a European capital? To my mind it's the nicest European capital because it is unworthy of Mr Scheele's esteem. What other capital in Europe is nearly so unself-conscious, so unlike the
rest, so full of energy and shadows and yes so un-European, despite the satanic malls, hypermarkets, highly paid foreign consultants and other horrors of democracy? I know the streets become unfordable rivers when it rains. I know I should be pleased when the
potholes and the broken pavements are renewed with EU pre-accession funding but I am not. Irresponsibly I am elated by a beauty I find in the dereliction and have been since my first visit in 1990.


The wooden Ottoman Bucharest of 1830 where the men wore turbans and kaftans was rebuilt in the late nineteenth century in stucco and brick, its architects paying homage to Paris and an imaginary Orient at the same time. Later came Art Deco buildings that are unequalled anywhere in Europe. Bucharest was up to the minute in architectural terms before the war and ahead of for example Paris herself. But the faux-French surface of Carol I's Bucharest has been badly cracked over the last sixty years.


Nothing in this city apart from a score of churches is old but those parts that escaped the 1980s rebuilding feel more than half as old as time. I haven't passed the Museum of Archaeology for a couple of years ago but then behind its padlocked iron gates half-lost amid tall grass stood a long row of Roman tombs and statues, protected from the rain by a rotting eave. It seemed to me whenever I passed as if the Museum itself were becoming an archaeological object and I were the archaeologist stumbling across it for the first time.



The decrepit fin de siecle villas and filthy Art Deco masterpieces are becoming one by one a real estate broker's dream of avarice as they are painted and varnished to look the way they originally looked. But for me at least the ramshackle way the streets look now, especially under a melancholy November sky, has a greater beauty than when they are new and shiny.


The old town when I moved there five years ago was not a museum but a slum and the one part of Bucharest where you felt you were in the Near East. The gypsies were part of the reason but it went deeper than than. Now especially that it has been pedestrianised it is on the way to being a complex of restaurants and antique shops. When Bucharest starts receiving tourists in numbers it will go the unauthentic way of the historic centre in every other European capital.


Dirty, disreputable, frivolous but gloomy, full of laughter and misery, mercenary and mystical, improvised, exasperating and serendipitous, Bucharest is a city which either repels you or steals your heart. The kiosks which made a Bangladeshi friend of mine compare Bucharest to Dakar have been eliminated at Mr. Basescu's command. So have the packs of occasionally ferocious stray dogs but it will be fifteen or twenty years before Bucharest ceases to feel Third World. When it does will it have become almost as dull as Athens? Very possibly but let us hope if Bucharest must emulate European cities she can become not Athens but Naples.


But one problem cannot wait fifteen years and cannot be romanticised away. The gridlock in the centre of the city gets worse at a tempo so fast that the deterioration can be observed on a weekly basis. Road-widening and road-building unless very sensitive to the city's architectural heritage will destroy Bucharest's semi-rustic character. What after all is the northern stretch of Calea Victoriei than a country lane? Luckily the solution to the traffic problem is easy. Charge motorists for entering the city centre between 8-6 weekdays and encourage Bucuresteni back to their city's excellent public transport system. It worked in London and would work here. Does any politician have the courage to adopt this idea? Mr. Scheele, what do you say?


1 comment:

  1. incredible looking building. strange that anyone would think that derelict building and areas should be left as they are. What happens when those buildings crumble to the point of not being able to used and something horrible is put up in its place?

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