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Mass housing and collective experience: on the notion of microraion in Romania in the 1950s and 1960s

Juliana Maxim a a Department of Art, College of Arts and Sciences, University of San Diego, California, USA Version of record first published: 17 Mar 2009.

To cite this article: Juliana Maxim (2009): Mass housing and collective experience: on the notion of microraion in Romania in the 1950s and 1960s, The Journal of Architecture, 14:1, 7-26

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Mass housing and collective experience: on the notion of microraion in Romania in the 1950s and 1960s

Juliana Maxim

Introduction

The striking history of Romania’s postwar architec- ture is often told in numbers: 6,000 dwelling units were built in the year 1950, 30,000 in 1960, 120,000 in 1970 and 150,000 in 1975; 1 340,000 dwelling units between 1956 and 1960; 2 and between 1960 and 1975, the figure stood at 1.12 million flats. 3 The numbers are staggering, and powerfully suggestive of masses in motion, millions of lives neatly tucked into white flats, streaming in and out of factories, pouring into parks and stadia. To Western readers, the Orwellian ring is unmistak- able, and, unsurprisingly, anonymity, monotony and crushing homogenisation have been the tropes that have driven up to now examinations of the architec- ture of postwar socialist regimes. And although it is easy to suspect that socialist architectural reality was more complex than the one obsessively tallied by the official literature, there have been very few efforts towards a more nuanced understanding of socialist architecture’s tasks, goals and overall ethos. Using Romania as a case study, I will attempt to colour socialist urban planning’s terse image by tracing architects’ efforts to reconcile mass housing with softer notions of neighbourhood and collectivity. I hope thus to complicate a series of assumptions about the purely utilitarian and ration- alist character of mass housing inside the Soviet bloc. I will do so by showing that the relentless pursuit of efficiency and industrialisation was always combined with experiential and expressive concerns, a dual architectural enterprise that I wish

Department of Art, College of Arts and Sciences, University of San Diego, California, USA

to relate, ultimately, to one of the favourite terms of the politically charged language of socialist regimes, ‘realism.’ Much of socialist architecture’s reputation as impersonal, and as lacking a sense of community, stems, in part, from socialist regimes’ own modes of self-representation. Discussions of the 1950s and 1960s in Romania, as well as in most of the Soviet Bloc, often assessed the architecture of the time in terms of cost and speed of production and assemblage. Good architecture was that which best answered the pressing housing needs of a rapidly swelling urban population, and thus was bound to favour, for instance, prefabricated panels over detailed craftsmanship, or to express tremen- dous concern for the number of square metres of housing for each inhabitant, but only minimal inter- est in the treatments of the fac¸ ade. In other words, the emphasis on norms and quantitative advance- ment determined at once architectural practice, and its frames of representation. The misreading of socialist architecture as unidi- mensionally oppressive has been amplified also by its perceived foreignness. Difference, or at least singularity, has been an obdurate trope of studies of the art and architecture of the Soviet Bloc, and an over-simplified reflection of its political isolation from the West. The separation, within the history of twentieth century architecture, of the Soviet world from its European counterpart, is due, in no small measure, to the socialist regimes’ own desire for specificity, for an architecture that would

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convey a radically different political, social and econ- omic construct. Sources of the time insist on archi- tecture’s unprecedented qualities: ‘Within world architecture, soviet architecture is essentially a new phenomenon, that develops according to laws that are proper to socialist society. It is absolutely normal that the construction of large ensembles has, in soviet times, its own specific features, its original character, its own criteria.’ 4

A shift in scale: from house to housing

The ‘newness’ of architecture under socialism derived primarily from a radical shift in the scale of the architectural object. From the early 1950s onwards, socialist architects successfully redefined the act of inhabitation by replacing the individual house with collective mass housing, thus transform- ing architectural design into urban planning. This new paradigm could only occur alongside a trans- formation of architectural practice: the socialist state became the main, if not the sole, commis- sioner of construction work; architectural con- ception was no longer an individual pursuit and instead occurred in design collectives composed of large numbers of architects; and the object of archi- tecture was no longer the single building, but was always formulated at the level of the neighbour- hood, the district and even the city. In Romania, one of the first pieces of legislation of the newly installed socialist regime concerned the positioning of all design-related activities at the city level. Starting with the ‘Decision Concerning the Construction and Reconstruction of Cities and the Organisation of Activities in the Architectural Domain’ of 1952, and continuing through a series

of decrees, the Central Committee of the Romanian

Communist Party mandated that the planning and design of all housing projects be coordinated nation-

ally, through the State Committee for Architecture and Constructions (CSAC), and at the city level, through the newly-created position of municipal architect-in-chief. The legislation also called upon newly organised planning collectives to put in prac- tice the principle of complex housing estates, also termed ‘cvartals’; finally, it defined the planning and construction of residential ensembles as the main goal of the architectural profession. 5 In 1964, in what amounts to an alternative ‘Charter of Athens’ of the socialist approach to the city, Horia Maicu, then the chief architect of the city of Bucharest, recapitulates the standards of what had become, by then, current practice. His

‘Principles of urban development of the capital’ state as the first goal ‘[t]he realisation of a unified territory, developed through structural units, with large ensembles of dwellings and facilities.’ Third

in the list of priorities comes ‘[t]he creation of a par-

ticular life within the residential ensembles, achiev-

able through the total satisfaction of the needs of

a complex existence and of advanced comfort, in

correspondence with the structure of the cities of our socialist society.’ (emphasis added) 6 Such commitment to design on the scale of the multiple and the collective, apparent from the early 1950s onward, did not come easy to Romania’s

architects, who, mostly trained in a Beaux-Arts system before the socialist regime’s ascent to power

in 1947, had no experience, so to speak, of collective

housing. Prewar publications on urban planning repeatedly spoke against collective housing,

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thought to foster dangerous communist tendencies, and to be unfit overall for the Romanian workers’ mentality and habits, which were considered quin- tessentially rural. 7 In an exceptionally candid 1954 article describing the planning and construction of Vatra Luminoasa, one of the earliest residential ensembles commissioned by the new regime, the authors explain that their initial preference for indi- vidual housing had been sternly contradicted by the State Committee for Architecture and Construc- tion (CSAC), which had decided instead in favour of four-storey buildings of 40 –50 flats each. The same article reveals that the architects of the time saw mass housing superseding the single-family home not only as a political act, but as project with import- ant consequences on the city form: ‘It is not longer relevant to design in two dimensions – that is, in height and width – but also, necessarily, in the third dimension, depth. Whatever we say, we have to acknowledge that, until now, the third dimension was still just in reference to fac¸ ade elements.’ 8 Emblematic of a practice in a state of flux, the article announces a design principle that will underlie much of the 1960s’ developments: a pro- gressive abandonment of a directional, street- oriented understanding of residential buildings in favour of a newly-found urban ‘third-dimension’, and a condemnation of the traditional preoccupation with fac¸ ades as narrowly decorative and outmoded.

The microraionmicroraion

Contemporary architecture has moved away from the building – modest or significant – that was considered not too long ago as a self-sufficient object and thus relatively independent from its

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surroundings, and on to more complex problems, concerning large residential ensembles, urban structures, or territorial organisms. It is now

seeking to solve increasingly ample problems with a deep social content. A building today is considered an organic component of a totality,

] At the

centre of architectural concerns, holding a princi- pal place – internationally – are large housing ensembles. 9 Each architectural object should be designed not only as a comfortable, durable, and beautiful construction, but also as a component of the architectural complex. 10 In thinking about housing, the shift that occurs in Romania in the 1950s consists not only in transform- ing the individual dwelling into collective blocks of flats; but also, and more importantly, in abandoning a traditional conception of the city as an accumu- lation of individual parcels containing single build- ings in favour of larger, state-owned land units shared by several, and perhaps dozens of buildings. These two principles, the block of flats and the appearance of much larger land units that could accommodate an ensemble of buildings, coalesce, in 1960, in the notion of microraion, which becomes the official modus operandi not only in Romania, but also in all states of the Soviet bloc. Publications of the time contain numerous and intense discussions of the notion of microraion , but its definition is perhaps best summarised in the architect Marcel Locar’s (1902 –1983) article on socialist urbanism, published in 1960. In Locar’s words, the microraion is a residential ensemble con- ceived so as to constitute an organic unity, aimed at

the two being mutually dependent. [

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connecting its inhabitants through the everyday use of shared social and cultural institutions, a point always reiterated in all writings. The microraion was intended to occupy a clearly defined territory, delimited by streets with intense traffic or by other strong dividing elements, such as waterways, or rail- ways. To achieve a certain functional and experien- tial cohesion, its territory was not to be crossed by important streets, and pedestrian and car traffic were to be, preferably, separated inside the micro- raion. The maximum distance between any dwelling and public transportation should not be more than 500 metres. Locar suggests that the size of the microraion should not go beyond 10–12, 000 inhabitants, although there seems to be, in the pub- lications of the time, little consensus over this figure. 11 The microraion shared many of its principles (and origins) with the western notion of the neighbour- hood unit, which had been developed in the context of the large capitalist city; in the context of postwar Romania, however, the discourse sur- rounding the notion tended to foreground the microraion’s ability to overcome the capitalist div- ision of the city’s surface into small, fragmented units, and the repetitive logic of the row and of the urban grid. The emergence, in the late 1950s, of the microraion as the basic planning unit of the socialist city testifies, indeed, to a search for urban expression and a thinking about the city in ways that cannot be solely translated into numbers. The shift from the efficiency and economy of the grid to the formal playfulness of the microraion is visible in Romania’s break away from the early Soviet-inspired model of the cvartal, such as

Floreasca (1956–58), which organised identical buildings into regular patterns orthogonally aligned with the street grid (Figs 1, 2), in favour of more picturesque, less predictable and entirely un- geometric arrangements of buildings of various heights and footprints that characterise the large housing estates from 1960 onwards (Figs 3, 4). That the spread of the microraion as a norm for urban development functioned as an open criticism of the grid’s uniformity and monotony is an argu- ment often encountered in architects’ writings of the 1960s: ‘The simplicity with which [the Floreasca district] was conceived, the uniformity in height, the positioning of the housing blocks, the lack of concern for facilities, and the use of a restricted range of block types, led the almost 3,500 flats to seem monotonous and without personality.’ 12 Although mostly composed of mute, abstract buildings, the microraion is shaped by a search for formal effect. Unlike the grid, it does not proceed through the systematic repetition of a single build- ing type, and instead reads as a collection of forms; if a building type is repeated, it is as a short, rhythmic series, each element of the series dif- ferentiated either by staggering, or by varying its orientation (Figs 5, 6, 7). The grid was formed by the addition of identical elements and therefore could be endlessly extended (Fig. 8); by contrast, the microraion is a fully constituted, unbreakable, organic and finite entity inside of which each housing block stands as an irreplaceable com- ponent. Two new neighbourhoods in Bucharest, Balta Alba (a district built on the site of dilapidated quar- ries and brick kilns, and developed at lightening

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speed between 1961 and 1966, during which 36,000 flats, or 1,087,000 square metres of built surface, housing 100,000 inhabitants, were con- structed) and Drumul Taberei (1965– early 1970s), show how the disappearance of orthogonal circula- tion axes, now replaced by sinuous, intricate paths, prevent the organisation of buildings into rectangu- lar city blocks (see Figs 5, 6 below). The repetitive city block of regular size and formed by a regular street grid is abandoned; instead, the settlements occur according to a system in which progressively

smaller urban units nest inside each other (Figs 9, 10). Fully-formed urban units incompatible with expansion, both Balta Alba and Drumul Taberei occupy territories that are clearly bordered on all sides by arteries of rapid circulation. When those arteries don’t exist yet (as in Balta Alba’s south- east corner, Fig. 11 below), the district implies such strong boundaries in the orientation and positioning of its buildings. The larger territory of the district is subdivided into clearly individualised microraions (marked by the dotted lines in the map of Drumul

Figure 1. Aerial view of the Floreasca housing district (1956-58), Bucharest. Published in Arhitectura RPR , 6

(1964).

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Figure 2. Early phase of the Floreasca district, planned according to the cvartal notion.

(1956 –58, architect

Corneliu Radulescu and associates) ‘The new neighborhood ( cartier ), which is by itself a small town able to accommodate 11,000 inhabitants, consists of 5 main groups in which the residential buildings are oriented linearly, along the pre-existing streets of the old

parcels. Most of the 84 buildings are built from standardised elements, have uniform height (ground level þ 3), and occupy 30% of the land, which results in a net density of 450 inhabitants per hectare. Collective services – most of which have been located in the central garden – consist of 2 schools, 4 preschools, a public bath, a laundry, a cultural centre with club and library, a film theatre, and a general store.’ From Grigore Ionescu, Arhitectura RPR 1944 –69 , pp. 66 and 68.

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housing and collective experience: Romania Juliana Maxim Taberei (see Figure 9 below), where the neighbour- hood

Taberei (see Figure 9 below), where the neighbour- hood unit or microraion is designated, in the caption, as ‘housing complex’). Balta Alba, for instance, contained six residential neighbourhoods ( cartiere ), each subdivided into two neighbourhood units ( microraion ), all of them served by a cultural and administrative centre and a large recreation area around two central lakes (see Figures 10, 11 below). Although hier- archically related to the whole, each subdivision

enjoyed a significant amount of functional auton- omy, and contained at least one commercial centre, medical centre, nurseries, schools, sport and recreation facilities, and administration build- ings. Differences in size and plan between micro- raions suggest a search for a distinct character, and a clear stance against visual monotony, mostly attempted through the variation of building types, their position and rhythm. For instance, in Balta Alba, in some microraions the buildings obey an orthogonal arrangement (while the streets connecting them loop and wind free of geo- metric logic); in some others, buildings are distrib- uted, fan-like, in a progressively rotating series (see Figure 11 below). Finally, within each microrar- ion , smaller residential groups of 4 –5 blocks of flats are formed. These units of decreasing com- plexity and size corresponded to a similar hierarchy of social relationships, so that the city provides the stage for a range of encounters, from the most inti- mate and everyday, to those in a larger, less familiar community.

The building no longer stands in relationship to a street, but to the neighbourhood

The characteristics of these large ensembles are their organisation in complex structural units (in decreasing order of size and complexity, these are the district (sector ) – neighbourhood (cartier ) – neighbourhood unit ( microraion) – residential groups), the mixing of spaces for dwellings and facilities, and the spreading out of the buildings, with important effects upon the architecture of the street. 13

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Much of the microraion’s character is determined by the demise of the street as a place of urban experience; instead, large, collective green spaces that occupy most of the unbuilt-up surface come to constitute the places of social interaction. Indeed, along with the street itself, the traditional opposition between the public nature of the street and the private nature of the individual residential plot is abolished, and the land surrounding the resi- dential buildings is now neither private nor public, but uniformly collective. Along with the street, the

small private gardens that had previously defined the experience of private dwelling in Bucharest, disappear in favour of common lawns and green spaces. (The balconies or loggia, which become systematic features of the socialist flat, can be seen as a compensation for this loss of private exterior space.) The streets that remain are of two very different categories: inside the microraion , pedestrian paths meander through green spaces, and narrow winding lanes, having fulfilled their sole function

Figure 3. Aerial view of the Balta Alba housing district (1961 –66), Bucharest. Published in Arhitectura RPR , 6

(1964).

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Figure 4. Partial plan of the Drumul Taberei housing district, illustrating the subdivision of the district into microraion or superblocks, each of them bordered by important axes of circulation, and following a different internal organisation. Pedestrian paths are visible, as is the predominance of green spaces. From Grigore Ionescu, Arhitectura 1944 –69, pp. 134 –5.

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housing and collective experience: Romania Juliana Maxim of delivering motor traffic to a single building, dead-

of delivering motor traffic to a single building, dead- end at its doorstep; around the microraions, large thoroughfares or boulevards that traverse the entire housing estates as corridors of rapid transit, and with which intersections are kept to a minimum. These lines of heavy traffic act also as boundaries between microraions , as markers of inside and outside. The life of the population is to occur away from them, in the green interstitial spaces and along the secondary paths inside the microraion (Fig. 12). Such a decoupling of dwelling and rapid circula- tion is clearly seen, for instance, in the planning of Drumul Taberei, where the choice of a circular thoroughfare is aimed at reducing the number of high-traffic intersections (see Figure 9 below). The thoroughfare loops without interruption, as narrow lanes peel off to the side to penetrate each subdivision ( microraion) of the district. Although buildings are arranged orthogonally within each microraion , the circulation pattern does not conform to a grid, but turns this way and that, is interrupted, and progresses sinuously, looking more like park trails than places of efficient, rapid and economic motion (see Figure 4). Buildings, rather than streets, are what provide order, struc- ture, and visual identity to the microraion . The abandonment of the linked notions of street grid and city block deeply transformed the relation- ship between street and building by interrupting their traditional connection – an act of severance that further explains the socialist attacks on the idea of an architecture of fac¸ ades. The street-corri- dor, with its double function of urban transit and dense housing, framed on both sides by a tight

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succession of fac¸ ades, was considered particularly inadequate:

Because of the way in which buildings are dis- posed on the land, the microraion transforms the traditional physiognomy of the street, which used to be fragmented in parcels and flanked on both sides by buildings that formed a closed edge. Thus, the street-corridor constituted an artery that had circulation as its principal function. Instead, buildings are now freely distributed throughout the territory of the microraion and thus can achieve optimal orientation. 14 Thus, another consequence of the emphasis on large residential ensembles and the corresponding criticism of an architecture concerned with individ- ual buildings, is a radically diminished importance of the street front and therefore of the building’s

of the street front and therefore of the building’s fac¸ ade. Indeed, once detached from the

fac¸ ade. Indeed, once detached from the street and situated in a large, collective, park, the building’s four sides become equally important, and only

Figures 5, 6. Plans of two microraions inside the Drumul Taberei housing district, Bucharest. Published in La˘ za˘ rescu, Urbanismul ıˆ n Romania .

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Figure 7. Model of the Balta Alba housing district. Published in Arhitectura RPR , 6 (1964), p. 17.

Figure 8. Model of the Floreasca housing district, 1957. Published in Arhitectura RPR, 7

(1957).

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district, 1957. Published in Arhitectura RPR , 7 (1957). 16 Mass housing and collective experience: Romania
district, 1957. Published in Arhitectura RPR , 7 (1957). 16 Mass housing and collective experience: Romania

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subtly different. In one of the several Soviet writings on planning that were regularly translated in the pages of Romania’s official architectural publication Arhitectura RPR, we read a similar analysis of this transformation:

Our architects don’t need to deal with a front and a back fac¸ ade, but instead, in most cases, with build- ing parts of equal importance, where each side is a principal side, each is a fac¸ ade. It is easy to imagine the new compositional problems that arise, when confronted with an architecture that wrenched itself away from the conventional framework of the frontal plane, [and inserted itself] in the real space of the city, in the space of life itself. 15 Socialist planning thus revises the traditional relation- ship between architecture and city, as buildings no longer encounter the city one-on-one, and immedi- ately, through street fac¸ ades, but only through the mediation of a group or neighbourhood. It also

follows that in a socialist microraion , a single building has little capacity to accrue meaning by itself, but signifies only as part of an ensemble; the ultimate outcome being that a building, in this conception, is never understood (or represented) by itself. The weakening of the differentiation between the four fac¸ ades and the abandonment of a street front, two aspects that have directly contributed to the reading of socialist housing districts as anonymous, were thus initially seen as a way to direct signification towards larger spatial units. It is tempting to find in such ‘collectivisation’ of buildings a spatial meta- phor for their inhabitants’ own overcoming of individualism.

Balta Alba and Drumul Taberei – the demise of the urban street

In the new housing districts and their microraions , blocks of flats are moved away from the street,

Figure 9. Map of the Drumul Taberei housing district. The dotted line indicates the limits of the microraions (here called ‘housing complexes’). The black triangles indicate schools, the white triangles, nurseries. The circles designate commercial centres. Published in La˘ za˘ rescu, Urbanismul ıˆ n Romania , p. 62.

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Figure 10. Map of the Balta Alba housing district. The dotted line indicates the limits of the microraions (here called ‘housing complexes’). The black triangles indicate schools, the white triangles, nurseries. The circles designate commercial centres. Published in La˘ za˘ rescu, Urbanismul ıˆ n Romania , p. 47.

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in La˘ za˘ rescu, Urbanismul ıˆ n Romania , p. 47. 18 Mass housing and collective

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and towards the interior of the plot; they are also released from the orientation of the street, and positioned according to other factors, such as sun orientation, winds, views, or overall visual effect. The diminishing role of the street in giving shape to urban life can be documented in the design process for the Balta Alba district. Although the first steps of the project traced the major circulation roads (the four thoroughfares that limit the district

to the north, south, west and east), the interior cir- culation arteries remain fluid until the very last stage. It is the positioning of buildings, their spacing, their orientation and their number, as well as their dimensions in plan and height, that take pre- cedence over the tracing of the interior streets, which clearly come after-the-fact. In 1963, with less than a third of the district com- pleted, the buildings of Area 1 (upper North-West

Figure 11. Model of the Balta Alba housing district, 1965. Design collective: Nicolae Kepes¸, Nicolae Porumbescu, Aurel Ca˘ ciula˘ , Sully Bercovici, Margareta Dıˆ mboianu, Victoria Gıˆ lca˘ , Ana Keszeg. Published in Arhitectura RPR , 4

(1966).

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Figure 12. Circulation diagram for a microraion , showing the differentiation between vehicular and pedestrian paths. Transiting car traffic occurs on the microraion’s edges. Published in Arhitectura RPR, 6 (1960).

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housing and collective experience: Romania Juliana Maxim corner of the district, and designated in the literature

corner of the district, and designated in the literature as Balta Alba – Institutul de Inframicro- biologie) are firmly in place, with detailed flat plans, while the interior street that moves through the microraion’s centre keeps changing its course, first stopping abruptly (Fig. 13), then becoming a loop (Fig. 14), eventually meeting another east-west interior street, to emerge into one of the main north-south boulevards (see Figure 11 above). Throughout the final design stages, the buildings are firmly positioned, but the street comes and goes, hugs the buildings, then distances itself from them; the architects seem to consider its exact location almost a matter of decorative concern.

The microraion is clearly a pedestrian realm, with transiting motor traffic severely curtailed (see Figure 12). At first sight, this radical decoupling of pedestrian traffic from motor circulation – which is expelled to the edges of the microraion – seems a direct application of the functionalist doctrine of the Charter of Athens, which divided the city according to functions and separated rapid car circulation from residential areas. But the resemblance to functionalist planning stops there. It is the mixing, rather than the segregation of functions that deter- mines the microraion’s unity and organisation. Each unit contains at least one primary school, several nurseries, playgrounds and several local commercial centres. Often, one can find a small medical unit, or a cinema, or a post office, or another facility of local utility. Much like the residential buildings, most elements of daily use are not lined up along the main transit corridors, but instead scattered within the microraion , their independence from the street reinforcing the inward convergence of neighbourhood life. In Drumul Taberei, for instance, schools and nurseries are placed at the centre of each microraion. Only commercial centres stand in close proximity to the large boulevard, but they are not addressing the street exclusively; instead, they offer access from all sides, and can be equally reached on foot from the heart of the neighbourhood unit and by car from the main road. In other words, they, too, lack a clear front and back (Fig 15; see also Figure 9 above). The reduced porosity of the urban unit, added to a relative functional autonomy, concur to make life inside the microraion one single, uninterrupted experience.

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The agenda of social integration

If the Romanian socialist city discards the tra- ditional notion of the city block in favour of the microraion , it is not solely for the sake of effi- ciency and a rational densification of land; although these two aspects are certainly part of

the reasons why the microraion replaced a more traditional urban fabric, the success of the micro- raion in the 1960s came primarily from its pur- ported ability to function as a tool of social integration and of the abolition of class divisions. The microraion’s organisation was meant to be

Figure 13. Plan of the Balta Alba district in 1963. Area 1 (Balta Alba – Institutul de Inframicrobiologie) is the N-W corner of the district (on this plan, the upper left corner). Published in Arhitectura RPR, 4 (1963).

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Figure 14. Detail of Area 1 (Balta Alba – Institutul de Inframicrobiologie) of the Balta Alba housing district, 1963. Published in Arhitectura RPR, 4

(1963).

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housing and collective experience: Romania Juliana Maxim homogeneous enough to prevent architecture from introducing

homogeneous enough to prevent architecture from introducing economic and social differen- tiation, while still providing a sense of neighbourly intimacy and belonging. One of the main figures of the architectural profession in socialist Romania, the architect Cezar La˘ za˘ rescu formu- lates clearly this agenda of integration:

The residents of the new ensembles generally come from different backgrounds, have diverse professional profiles, and, as an age group, occupy the base or the middle of the population pyramid. Once settled in their new location (as a result of being assigned to their new flat, or because of new jobs) they try doubly to adapt at once to the other newcomers, as well as to the pre-existing collectivity. 16 The desire for togetherness that undergirds the planning of the socialist city is revealed in the

many statements that lament its lack: ‘What was not fully successful, despite the programmatic prin- ciples, was the constitution of a physical framework favourable to social cohesion and to human inter- relationships’, La˘ za˘ rescu wrote about the urban pro- jects of the 1950s. 17 The terminology used in the publications of the time to designate these new spatial units of urban life reflects the desire to promote the microraion as an instrument of social cohesion. Although a vast range of scientific-sounding terms was avail- able (such as microraion , raion , sector, complex housing unit, etc), the new housing developments were consistently referred to as neighbourhoods – cartier – a much softer term with almost bourgeois (and certainly Western) connotations. 18 The sediment of such understanding of the city by neighbourhoods is still perceptible today in the

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[Central U Library of Bucharest] at 05:49 09 November 2012 language of Bucharest’s inhabitants, who will

language of Bucharest’s inhabitants, who will often mention their (socialist) district as a mark of identity. The search for spatial frameworks that would intensify and transform social interactions, and counter the alienation of the big city, which turned out to be the defining project of socialist planning, was also the principle behind urban sol- utions developed contemporaneously in the radi- cally different political context of a democratic Western Europe. The self-sufficient neighbourhood unit, with its de-centralised and shared institutions,

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and its accent on parks, was receiving significant attention in the postwar period throughout Europe. Many West European countries built ver- sions of the microraion in the 1960s, but it is the urban projects undertaken in the Netherlands in the late 1950s by architects such as Lotte Stam-Beese (1903 –1988) and Jakob Bakema (1914 –1981) that I would like briefly to invoke in order to show the striking parallels that existed, for a decade or so, between Western European and socialist planning ideas. In the case of Stam-Beese and Bakema, such proxi- mity is not surprising: Lotte Stam-Beese and her husband Mart Stam (1899–1986) had been active, and influential, in the Soviet planning brigades of the early 1930s, where they had been in charge of planning new residential districts and industrial towns (such as the development of the city of Orsk). Mart Stam, upon the couple’s return to Amsterdam in 1934, became Jakob Bakema’s architecture pro- fessor, and Lotte Stam-Beese and Bakema worked together on at least one urban project, the plan for the Rotterdam suburb of Pendrecht. There is significant overlap between a project such as Balta Alba and Pendrecht. Both establish the neighbourhood unit as a basic module of urban design. Both decentralise everyday insti- tutions, such as schools, medical facilities, parks, shopping facilities and even utilities, such as heating plant and electricity plant, which they distri- bute throughout the modules of the district. Both produce an urban environment that substitutes the collectivity of the neighbourhood for the traditional publicness of the street or the plaza. Both projects imagine the city as composed of increasingly

Figure 15. Diagram of functions inside the microraion . At the centre of the microraion stand the green spaces, immediately surrounded by education facilities (schools, nurseries.) Commercial facilities are on the outer edges of the microraion . The thin diagonal lines signify housing. Published in Arhitectura RPR, 6 (1960).

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Mass housing and collective experience:

Romania

Juliana Maxim

complex, telescoping units of collective life, which would start from the smallest form of association – such as, in Romania, the stairwell (the flats served by the same staircase formed a unity) – and progress towards larger ones: the building, the sub-neighbourhood, the neighbourhood, the urban sector, and finally, the city itself. Both install, within the city, layers of increasing size and com- plexity in terms of their facilities and political weight. 19 Despite extensive formal similarities, and despite a shared reading of the neighbourhood unit as an incubator of collective feeling, the emphasis put on the residential estate as the basic sphere of urban life acquired different connotations under socialism. While both Dutch and Romanian archi- tects counted on the neighbourhood to enhance collective life and to function as a transformative device, the aim and content of that transformation was formulated differently. In the Dutch case, it meant an amplification of a long-standing tradition of civic involvement, and aimed at recovering indi- vidual characteristics within conditions of mass living and a neighbourly sense that would combat the anonymity of modern life in the city. 20 In the Romanian case, it was not as much individuality that was promoted, as the demise of the traditional social structures of the extended family, and their replacement by an entirely new form of collective life, based neither on family nor class, but on shared urban spaces. The novelty of life inside the socialist microraion was conceived at once in pragmatic terms (access to basic facilities, sewer, running water, etc.), and in ideological ones, in the undoing of old social net-

works based on the extended family. La˘ za˘ rescu, for instance, expressed the social novelty of the micro- raion in terms of improved material housing con- ditions that would ultimately transform life itself:

The new residential ensembles received real inter- est from the population, even amongst those groups not urgently in need of lodging. What proved to be most attractive was the quality of the flat, its salubrious character, all its modern sanitary fittings, and the proximity of basic facili- ties. Thus the new ensembles came to constitute a different mode of life from that of the old neigh- bourhoods. 21 The microraion actively determined such ‘a different mode of life:’ from the importance of pedestrian paths, to the shared institutional resources, to the size of the flats, to the extensive provisions for childcare outside of the family, its physical structure promoted participation in the abstract collectivity achieved through multiplied urban encounters. The small size of the flats, for instance, most of which had only one or two bedrooms, made it clear that urban life was to be lived in small, mono- nuclear families of parents and two children, and was antagonistic to the co-habitation of the extended family and its forms of socialisation. Accordingly, domesticity was de-emphasised, and women were expected to integrate with the work force, as the modest kitchens and the numerous provisions made for nurseries and pre-schools within each microraion testify.

The city as work of art

The examination of some of the ideas associated with the microraion – the shift in the scale of

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architectural intervention in the city, the demise of the street in favour of the organic unity of the neighbourhood, the agenda of social transform- ation and integration – has shown that the micro- raion was in part a search to enrich, even transcend, the much-advertised efficiency of stan- dardised mass housing. Therefore, the attempt to discuss socialist planning as more than grim regi- mentation of life is perhaps best concluded by pointing at a circumscribed but intense effort, in the theoretical writings on architecture of the 1950s, to give the socialist housing district the status of a work of art. Far from being considered a purely scientific product, mass housing was also, in the late 1950s, one of the most cherished demonstrations of the artistic notion of ‘realism’ in architecture. Trying to counter the assumption that architecture, unlike the artistic image, could not reflect reality and there- fore could not be truly art, the magazine Arhitectura RPR published, throughout the 1950s, an impas- sioned discussion of architecture’s own claim to realism and, through it, to artistic status. The main argument stated that, while architecture’s principal aim was to satisfy practical needs rather than procure ‘aesthetic moments’, it was able to surpass a merely utilitarian definition and reach into the ‘ideological and artistic realm’ through compositions at the city scale. The abstraction of fac¸ ades, their lack of decora- tion and differentiation, the austerity of standar- dised construction that mark the buildings of the 1960s, are easily, and often, perceived as a refusal to signify. But while each residential building, taken individually, might be devoid of artistic qualities,

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it was seen as acquiring expressive attributes collectively. Much like in a Lego construction, aes- thetic and ideological content was shifted away from the standardised component, and towards the result of their complex combination. The Soviet essays of aesthetic theory that filled the pages of Arhitectura RPR throughout the 1950s, bore titles that militantly stated this idea: ‘The housing district – a superior step of architectural artfulness’, or ‘On the aesthetic qualities of mass construction’. Their content is equally clear: ‘In mass constructions, the dialectical unity between the utilitarian side and the ideological-artistic one manifests itself not in each single construction – which, taken separately, might not be a work of art – but in the comprehen- sive solution to urbanistic problems.’ 22 Among solutions for mass housing, the microraion embodied particularly well the notion of ‘realism,’ thus ensuring it a particularly strong claim to artistic status. The microraion was ‘realist’ because it corre- sponded closely to the needs of its inhabitants, and provided conditions of living and dwelling that were ‘of their own time,’ and in step with the material and cultural life of the present. 23 But more impor- tantly, ‘realism’ required an architecture able to offer its inhabitants an experience that went beyond the mechanical satisfaction of material, tan- gible needs. Striving to access the realms of the aes- thetic and the affective, socialist planning in Romania counted on the microraion actively to create a new social order and to arouse a sense of collectivity.

Notes and references

1. C. La˘ za˘ rescu, Urbanismul ıˆn Romaˆ nia (Bucharest, Editura Tehnica˜ , 1977), p. 44.

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Mass housing and collective experience:

Romania

Juliana Maxim

2.

G.

Ionescu, Arhitectura ıˆ n Romaˆ nia ıˆ n perioada anilor

13.

Cezar La˘ za˘ rescu, Urbanismul ˆı n Romania , op. cit. ,

1944–1969 (Bucharest, Editura Academiei Republicii

p.

47.

Socialiste Romaˆ nia, 1969), p. 57.

14.

G.

Ionescu, op. cit., p. 75.

3.

C.

La˘ za˘ rescu, Urbanismul ıˆ n Romaˆ nia, op. cit. , p. 52.

15.

Archin, D., ‘Ansamblul – treapta superioara˘ a ma˘ es-

4.

Colli, ‘Despre unele particularita˘ t¸i ale construct¸iei de

ansamblu a oras¸elor’ in, Trapeznikov, K., ed., Problema ansamblia v sovetscoi literatura (Moscow, State Pub- lishing House for Construction and Architecture, 1952), pp. 29–34; quoted in Sistematizarea, construc- t¸ia s¸i reconstruct¸ia oras¸elor s¸i a centrelor populate. Material documentar (Bucharest, Institutul de Docu-

N.

triei ıˆn arhitectura˘ ’, in, Trapeznikov, K., ed., Problema ansamblia v sovetscoi literatura (Moscow, State Pub- lishing House for Construction and Architecture, 1952), pp. 35 –44; translated in Sistematizarea, con- struct¸ia s¸i reconstruct¸ia oras¸elor s¸i a centrelor popu- late. Material documentar (Bucharest, Institutul de Documentare tehnica, 1954), p. 31.

mentare tehnica˘ , 1954), p. 22.

16.

C.

La˘ za˘ rescu, op. cit. , p. 57.

5.

Hota˘ rıˆ rea Comitetului Central al P.M.R. s¸i a Consiliului

arhitecturii (Bucharest, Editura pentru literatura

17.

Ibid. , p. 50.

de Minis¸ tri al R.P.R. cu privire la construct¸ia s¸i recon-

18.

Cartier, from the French quartier, progressively replaces

struct¸ia oras¸elor s¸i organizarea activita˘ t¸ii din domeniul

the much older ottoman term of mahala in the late nineteenth century, as part of Romania’s project of

For a good discussion of the Stam-Beese/ Bakema

politica˘ , 1952). See also G. Ionescu, Arhitectura ıˆ n Romaˆ nia ıˆ n perioada anilor 1944 – 1969 , op. cit. ,

19.

modernisation of language and culture.

p.

66.

project, see Cornelis Wagenaar, ‘Jaap Bakema and

6.

Horia Maicu, ‘Probleme de sistematizare a capitalei’,

 

the Fight for Freedom’, in S. Williams Goldhagen and

Arhitectura RPR , 6 (1964), pp. 8 –13; 10.

R.

Legault, eds, Anxious Modernisms: Experimentation

7.

D.

Marcu, G.M. Cantacuzino, R. Bolomey, et al , Planul

in Postwar Architectural Culture (Cambridge, MA., The

Director de Sistematizare. Rezumat at memoriului

 

MIT Press, 2001), pp. 261–277.

colectiv (1935).

20.

Ibid. , p. 269.

8.

N.

Sburcu, ‘Locuint¸e noi ıˆ n cartierul Vatra Luminoasa˘ ’,

21.

C.

La˘ za˘ rescu, op. cit. , p. 50.

Arhitectura RPR , 9 (1954), pp. 19 –25; 19.

22.

G.

Minervin and M. Fedorov, ‘Despre calita˘ t¸ile estetice

9.

Gustav Gusti, speech at the 9 th Congress of the IUA

ale construct¸iei de masa˘ ’, op. cit.

(International Union of Architects), Prague, July, 1967:

23.

For what is, to my knowledge, the best discussion

published in Arhitectura RPR , 6 (1967), pp. 2 –8; 2.

of the notion of ‘realism’ in architecture (although

10.

G. Minervin and M. Fedorov, ‘Despre calita˘ t¸ile estetice ale construct¸iei de masa˘ ’, Arhitectura RPR, 5, 48 (1958), pp. 23–25, first published in Architecture USSR, 2 (1958).

in a non-Soviet context), see Stanford Anderson, ‘Sachlichkeit and Modernity, or Realist Architecture’, in, Harry Mallgrave, ed., Otto Wagner: Reflections on the Raiment of Modernity, proceedings of the

11.

M. Locar, ‘Pentru dezvoltarea urbanismului socialist’,

Otto Wagner Symposium, Santa Monica, November,

Arhitectura RPR , 4 (1960), pp. 5 –7; 5.

1988 (Santa Monica, CA, The Getty Center for

12.

Traian Sta˘ nescu, ‘Noi ansambluri de locuint¸e ˆı n capi-

the History of Art and the Humanities, 1993),:

tala˘ ’, Arhitectura RPR, 6 (1964), pp. 14–22; 15.

pp. 322–360.