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Bunești, the Romanian university built by students

Round house and cart

Building by day and attending lectures by night, these students are reinvigorating Romanian tradition

Close to Prince Charles’ Viscri village in Romania, architecture students are building a new university, the Bunesti School, with their own hands. They started from scratch. Tudor Elian, a student who has been to Bunesti every year since 2008, says: ‘When we first reached the meadow it was empty. We didn’t even know whether other students would come to the workshop.’ They did. Every summer, for two to three weeks, approaching 100 students would come in four shifts: they would set up their tents, build during the day and listen to lectures on everything from philosophy to the history of photography at night. A bit like the Bauhaus students or, rather, somewhat like an old monastic community. A bit like any other architecture workshops, except these students build in an ascetic spirit.

Every year, every day, everyone wakes up at seven to start work before it gets hot. They have lunch and a nap at 12 and then resume work at three. At seven, dinner is served, shortly followed by lectures at the table or singing to a guitar by the bonfire. There is also a cooking team, which changes daily. They cook with vegetables from the garden dug in the 2008 workshop, cheese and bread from the locals and other produce bought in the towns nearby. The only day that’s different is Sunday when the tutors and some students go to church or on trips in the area; others just wander down the hills or bathe in the river.

Lecture with philosopher Andrei Plesu

Lecture with philosopher Andrei Plesu

A lecture with philosophe Andrei Pleșu in the ‘Round House’

So far, the students have built the halls – 10 bedrooms in a circular one-storey building, a wooden summer outdoor kitchen with a bread oven, a dining room with exposed brick and a Mesopotamian vault, a wooden cellar hidden under grass and a two-storey timber workshop for woodwork. One of the bedrooms in the student halls has been transformed into a painted chapel.

Ana-Maria Goilav, an architecture lecturer at the Bucharest School of Architecture Ion Mincu, is at the heart of this project. She says she thinks of the workshops as ‘an adventure of architecture and survival’. Survival in precarious conditions, without the commodities of the city. She tells how some students, when they get back to their block of flats, can’t live without the windows wide open at all times. Or, for a while, they sleep on the floor and are taken aback when they see their own reflections in the mirror. ‘The measure in using resources and partial abandonment of one’s own self are habitual in the forest so that architecture, to paraphrase Renzo Piano, becomes again an ancient human necessity – that of shelter.’ Finding shelter in the dining room, built with their own hands, on a rainy night was one of the greatest joys, both Goilav and Elian remember. Goilav sees the project as ‘a gift from some students to other students’, a win-win situation in which the architecture students ‘discover for themselves and build for others’.

birck house building 2

brick house building 2

The brick refectory

The idea for these hands-on summer workshops converted into reality in 2008, as Goilav met her project partner – and future husband – Petre Guran, a religious-history academic who taught at Princeton University, among other places. He wants to set up a Great Books College at Bunesti – a liberal arts college that puts emphasis on primary rather than secondary texts and requires students to read important books of Western civilisation from Plato, Aristophanes and the Bible to Darwin, Dostoyevsky, Smith and Marx. But until the college is set up in 2018, the summer architectural workshops will involve similar humanities lectures by Romanian academics of great calibre. As Elian puts it, part of the spirit of the place is that ‘you learn from the way tutors are and not just from what they say’.

Goilav regrets the vanishing of the ‘architect-painter-sculptor-poet-writer-thinker’, and his transformation into ‘an efficient service provider’. She speaks of the Romanian architect of the 1930s who knew the building trade as well as a bit of Latin. Through Bunesti, she hopes to make architecture culture again.

The Bunesti practice focuses on natural materials and innovating harmoniously ‘with nature and not against it’. Most of the materials are locally sourced – mud from the meadow, wood from the forest, stone and brick from a neighbouring village.

Chapel 1

Chapel 1

A bedroom has been converted into a painted chapel by the students

The students also have workshops with local craftsmen and artisans. Often, education works both ways, as many craftsmen mix authentic traditions with contemporary kitsch surrogates. Broken by communism and mass emigration, Romanians have lost their traditions; only recently have they started to look back but rather than discovering lost tradition, they often invent it. With this in mind, one lecturer, religious anthropologist Anca Manolescu, commented that Bunesti has an ‘oldness practised with freshness and newness’.

After these workshops, a few students focused on wood in their architecture practices and two of them even opened their own carpentry practices. While some participants feel alienated by the religious focus of the Bunesti lectures, others start going to church on their return to Bucharest. But above all, the summer school fosters friendships. Last summer, they hosted a wedding of two of the students who started their relationship at Bunesti.

By 2018, Bunesti will have a teachers’ house, a library, three studios and the sanitary infrastructure in place. Once the Great Books College opens, the workshop-school will move to other meadows in the area to create a series of craft workshops. And, through buildings, more friendships will form.

surroundings autumn

surroundings autumn

‘Survival in precarious conditions, without the commodities of the city’: the accommodation building sits in a dramatic forested landscape