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‘Romania’s historic architecture school is in a state of flux’

Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism, Romania

Despite a continuous reputation stretching back to its origins as a school, founded 120 years ago by the Romanian Society of Architects, the ‘Ion Mincu’ University of Architecture and Urbanism (UAUIM) today is defined by change. For Europe, the democratisation of the Eastern Bloc has been played out in cities from St Petersburg to Bucharest, sometimes in scenes of confrontation but more often in subtle adjustments to the fabric of national culture. In 1990 Gheorghe Mulţescu, now Director of Enterprise at London South Bank University’s Department of the Built Environment, was an 18-year old beginning his six-year architecture degree at UAUIM.

‘In those times, architecture was seen by the state as liberal, intellectual, and even subversive,’ he remembers. ‘Actually, the subversive edge made it attractive to students. We were excited about what was going on.’ The dramatic fall of Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989 raised the curtain on Romania’s rejection of communist rule, a political change that translated into greater autonomy for universities which had, until then, been steered by government. This set the stage for new executive structures at UAUIM, and for widening access to academic study; the restrictive annual quota of 60 students more than tripled within a year.

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Section through an architecture museum for Bucharest, designed by fourth-year student Tudor Gherman

For Zeno Bogdănescu, Rector of UAUIM, ‘opening to international experiences of all kinds’ to engage with the community at large is vital to the well-being of the university. International diploma juries at the school regularly extend this invitation to the outside world; student portfolios have been reviewed by over 100 visiting academics and professionals since 2000. Through cooperation agreements, UAUIM invests enormously in expanding the horizons of its students; acronyms identifying relevant organisations and opportunities pepper the university website, promoting educational exchange through programmes such as Erasmus.

This outward-facing stance reflects changes at home. Before 1990 the career trajectory of a would-be architect was mapped out with some certainty. A university degree would lead to placement in a ‘Local Design Institute’, offering those with professional ambitions a range of opportunities but all of them centrally dictated. Different prospects became available to students such as Mulţescu: ‘Now you could not only set up your own practice, but also challenge the state control model.’

Alongside this new-found freedom came risks and difficulties that ultimately, Mulţescu suggests, led to a more robust architectural discourse, one naturally anchored to UAUIM. ‘When I started my degree, we thought we could change everything. Soon we found ourselves slowed down by the pace of the real world, which felt disappointing.’ This loss of momentum was a natural consequence of dismantling a political (and planning) system that relied heavily on authoritarian regulation. But it also arose because ordinary people interpreted their liberty in uneven ways. Some, including many property owners and developers suggests Mulţescu, thought: ‘now that we’re free, we can do whatever we want! We certainly don’t want to be told what to do by planners!’ They probably didn’t feel the need for architects either.

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Model from Adela Tipser’s first-year project. Students use timber and a single construction process to form a simple shelter

Since then, an obligation to manage the impact of political transformation − to understand change as a process absorbed by the city rather than as an instantaneous event reported on television − has become embedded in the institutional role of UAUIM. This obligation is felt in the emergence of a progressive attitude towards built heritage. The post-1989 desire to start anew − to tear down the past and build anew − led to significant architectural losses. But haste has now been tempered by a more enlightened approach to conservation, one which informs pedagogical priorities at the university.

A project for a museum by fourth year student Tudor Gherman, in a protected area of historical Bucharest, shows a respect for heritage represented not as a set of rules, but through dialogues, trade-offs and judgements in which the architect acts both as urban innovator and as custodian of the city.

The scheme negotiates between past and present, overlaying an explicitly new architecture onto historical urban tissue. A transparent floor in the proposed public square exposes uncovered ruins to the hustle and bustle of contemporary commerce, which is brought into the museum environment through retail activities.

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The transparent floor of the museum piazza allows a visual connection with the historic remains beneath

Other student projects suggest that a similarly measured sensibility has taken root across the school, from timber studies by first year Adela Tipser to the work of diploma student Ioana Cristina Popovici. In much of this creative experimentation we see what is often missing from schools better known internationally: a respect for context that brings new ideas into sharper relief.

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The main section through a renovation project by diploma student Ioana Cristina Popovici. The design aims to preserve a surviving part of the industrial revolution by remodelling a steam-powered mill and its surrounding site into a concert hall within a park to attract the artistically-minded citizens of Bucharest. An art gallery is housed in the silo. The design is inspired by the functionality of the mill and is modelled on the idea of being ‘inside the machine’

Readers' comments (1)

  • I would have liked to see more images of work by Romanian architects / students. The historical context is of mild general interest to those not familiar with the socio-political map of Europe. It would have been useful to contextualise the architecture but there is very little of it to be seen. On the whole, not very useful.

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