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George Cantacuzino: Romania's Forgotten Modernist

Despite a life that reads as a string of humiliations and disasters, George Matei Cantacuzino, ‘Romania’s forgotten modernist’, was a noble architect set upon by barbarians

Why do architects bother? Look, for example, at the life and career of George Matei Cantacuzino and you will struggle to find in it much of a reward for its protagonist. An artist and stonemason as well as an architect; a widely read intellectual liberal and teacher, full of Goethe’s ‘lyric enthusiasm’; a cosmopolitan at home in the grand homes and embassies of Paris and London as well as among the aristocrats of Romania; a hardworking and thoughtful architect who inspired what may well have been life-saving loyalty in his builders, Cantacuzino’s life and legacy read as almost nothing but a string of humiliations, disappointments and disasters; they ended in show trials; imprisonment; his traducing as an ‘enemy of the state’; censorship; banishment; and early death. Like many treated as failures by the cruelties of conventional architectural history, he did design a small number of fine buildings at the outset of his career, and these have survived: but this is a story of a noble person, in every sense of the word, set upon by barbarians.

He went on to design much else, but you wouldn’t know it: so much is demolished, vandalised, altered, mutilated

Cantacuzino was born in Vienna in 1899, the son of a Romanian diplomat. A family connection led him from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris to the restoration of the estate at Mogoşoaia, outside Bucharest; here, over 10 years from 1920, he restored and remodelled the exotic late 17th-century, somewhat Venetian, palace, its outbuildings and its gardens, and also learned the craft of stonemasonry. In partnership with the more experienced August Schmiedigen, and in love with Palladio, he then designed the splendid palazzo-like Chrissoveloni Bank in the centre of Bucharest, now restored. He went on to design much else, but you wouldn’t know it: so much is demolished, vandalised, altered, mutilated. Perhaps the most striking of all was his design for a British Institute for the Anglo-Romanian Society in Bucharest, with an entry pavilion derived from Palladio’s Loggia del Capitaniato; for Cantacuzino the commission must have suggested that his international career was taking off, not least because it followed his election as an ‘Honorary Corresponding Member’ of the RIBA alongside Giò Ponti and Wells Coates. But nothing happened: the War killed it.

Pavilion

Cantacuzino’s design for the Romanian pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair blends modernism with traditional flourishes

In Paris, Cantacuzino had turned away from Neoclassical masters in search of pioneer Modernists; his buildings follow a similar path. A few expensive early ones such as the bank are joyously, nostalgically Italian; some attempt a synthesis, as did his Romanian pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, with its white exterior and fancy marbles within; the cheaper stuff is mostly ‘Bauhaus Beach’. In this latter style he designed houses in the resort town of Eforie on the Black Sea; pretty much everything there, including the curvaceous Hotel Bellona, is wrecked or gone. The Ships’ House in nearby Mamaia, which looks amusingly like a battleship, lived no longer than its architect, and was demolished in 1960. Some large projects were executed but no one seems to know where they are.

Cantacuzino’s period as chief architect to the Romanian State Railways apparently produced nothing more than a fine portrait photograph taken on an official trip to Berlin in 1940. He is well dressed, but more than just a dandy: trim, confident, at the top of his game. And yet if this gazetteer is anything to go by (and much documentation of Cantacuzino’s work has itself been destroyed) he did nothing in this role beyond supervise the construction of a building designed by someone else.

Cantacuzino’s period as chief architect to the Romanian State Railways apparently produced nothing more than a fine portrait photograph

By 1940 ‘spiritual smog’ had descended on Cantacuzino’s country and continent, and this dapper, mustachioed and eternally optimistic figure who sought nourishment in Plotinus and Plutarch was on the verge of a terminal, 20-year-long catastrophe: Romania was run by dictators of one sort or another for the rest of his life. As an intellectual and liberal he was a natural target; he sent his wife and children to the safety of England in 1939; he visited them that Christmas; he never saw them again. His modernistic Carlton building, in central Bucharest, collapsed in the 1940 earthquake, and this provided an excuse to throw him in jail − which, as it happens, was a former monastery he had exquisitely restored.

Here fellow prisoners, who had been building workers, rescued him by smuggling him into a tower. He emerged from this to be forced by the dictator Antonescu to work on an official residence. In 1944 his house and beloved library were destroyed in an air raid. A false dawn came in 1945 when he designed two fine office buildings, but the Soviet takeover resulted first in intimidation; then betrayal (by the French Legation); then a show trial; then finally exile to the Moldavian town of Jassy, where at last he succeeded in designing a pretty Neoclassical square. And then death. To seek his monument you have to look around you harder than usual.

George Matei Cantacuzino

Author: Dan Teodorovici

Publisher: Wasmuth

Price: $45

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