“There is a risk that most of the housing ensembles in the periphery will become favelas in 10-20 years.”
The fever of smaller prices dictates finishing and building solutions and that impacts on quality; these are the major dangers threatening the real estate market at present, say Andrei Șerbescu and Adrian Untaru from ADNBA architectural office. Thus, in the city fringes where such ensembles have been extensively built lately, houses have begun to age faster and uglier than those built in the 1960s – 1980s.
The quality of collective housing in Romania is the theme of the BETA 2018 Architectural Biennial from Timișoara to be opened on September 28 for a month.
What are people looking for, as a rule, when choosing an apartment?
It’s hard to define something very specific. A consistent theme in our design process is flexibility, but the way we particularize or subdivide things depend very much on the required design theme and housing type we have in mind for that place. So, both the units and compartmentalization within the apartment differ and fluctuate. Certainly, such elements like generous light through panoramic windows towards the city, clearness and freedom of its layout required almost everywhere, and so are the insertions of as many as possible aspects in a privately owned dwellings.
We believe people are in search of individuality whenever they look for an apartment. So, we try to find alternatives to a certain standard type of quasi-identical unity set in a row in a corridor and repeated on all floors.
How did Romanians’ perception as to housing in the last 20 years change from what you’ve noticed?
Now, after 20 years, we think that a cycle has come to an end. We’ve experienced the totalitarian systematization of the 1960s-1970s; in the 1900s and early 2000 we wished to escape standardization by overcoming the particular and applying atypical solutions, larger areas, but it turned out there were standards we couldn’t afford; on the other hand, there was neither a motif nor an analysis drawn on which to set such new principles.
Since they weren’t any coherent and well-defined solutions, such new models proved chaotic, so we’ve gradually come back to standardization and the models which proved to be successful on the market.
Now, we think we need to find another way of getting rid of standardization and find instead one shaped according to the market conditions.
To which extent is there a real interaction between architect and beneficiary / dweller in Romania?
In the case of collective housing, developed by investors, communication between architect and final beneficiary or dweller is wanting; as a rule, the developer takes care of it all. Moreover, if it there is one, then it appears relatively late, when the design is over, and it always concerns personalization. We have recently noticed that some forms of contact have been created through social media platforms or online public communication platforms, which help regain this lost contact.
To what extent are builders ready to tailor their offer according to people’s needs?
If we talk about developers, we think that a pretty stable market is in place. They certainly have to cut out their offer according to people’s requirements. However, there aren’t very clearly structured needs yet. They are collected and interpreted by selling teams, and sometimes the output can be truncated or levelled, which involves the risk of arriving at an over-standardized and undifferentiated output. Some developers cannot take the chance of evading a certain pattern, and thus we end up with a surplus of similar products which can’t be individualized. There is a high demand of new housing in the country; they sell everything on the market, and then we produce whatever has been sold out; all along this oversimplified cycle, it is space quality and individuality that suffer.
How can the end-user be a more involved housing actor?
We think that end-user’s education and information could contribute a lot to his or her becoming an active actor. For most of us, a house is the most important lifetime investment. Maybe the media or NGOs in the field could set up some social platforms that might guide or evaluate housing by providing brochures that could help buyers make coherent and well-informed choices. A well-informed client can evaluate a house sustainability through time. Otherwise, his or her choice would be hasty.
We hope that in the future people will be more informed in matters of economy, which would result in higher quality residential developments.
What major dangers jeopardize the quality of housing in your opinion?
One of the greatest dangers might be the huge pressure on the building budget, where the price prevails and dictates the finishing quality and the building solutions to the detriment of quality. In the peripheral developments we’ve noticed that houses age faster and uglier than the built stock of the 1960s-1980s.
We run the risk of witnessing their transformation into favelas in 10 to 20 years; they could become neighborhoods where nobody wants to live. Thus, we may resume the answer to the previous question on the well-informed end-user. We hope for an educated ‘consumption’ that would lead to quality housing space, one in which we feel happy to live, look at and walk in.
Vlad Odobescu has talked to anthropologist Bogdan Iancu about rethinking middle class housing
For some years now, an anthropologist has been riding his bike or has been travelling by tube to find out where Bucharest and its inhabitants are heading to. He is Lecturer Dr. Bogdan Iancu who teaches at the National School of Political Science and Administration (NSPSA) and belongs to a research team whose goal is to draw up a portrait of Romania’s middle class. How do the Romanian middle class eat? How do they dress up? How to they express their compassion for those around them? Here are some of the questions emerging from their inquiry.
The project began three years ago. Back then, Bogdan Iancu was particularly interested in the way the middle class would arrange their homes mostly built at the edge of the city. However, soon after he began interviewing various people who had moved into residential ensembles, he noticed they kept on talking about traffic or neighborhood issues. So, he switched his research and tackled up the idea of space, infrastructure and the way these people thought about their belonging to the middle class.
He explored the whole chain of localities surrounding Bucharest, except Pantelimon-Colentina. He even reached Crevedia, Buftea and also surveyed the new ensembles within the city.
He has recently revisited the periphery neighborhoods to finish an article he was writing. In one of such neighborhoods he bumped into one of his first interviewees. The man said he would abandon his apartment from the ‘residence’ and move somewhere in Baba Novac neighborhood so that his daughters could attend school and kindergarten there, and he could be closer to his job. “He spends around 1,500 lei a month on gas-oil and wastes too much time in traffic, a time he could use to earn some extra money,” the anthropologist tells.
People have started making such calculations, Bogdan Iancu notices. We are witnessing the phenomenon through which the former working class neighborhoods are reconsidered because they are better connected to city infrastructure. If you took a walk in I.O. R. Park or around Crângași, you’d have the hard proof to that trend, he says. “It’s like crazy. You’ll see how the crowd competes for a seat on a bench. And people are very mixed: from young middle class members to parents or retired grandparents. You couldn’t have seen that a few years ago.”
Those people who were once dreaming about the green paradise outside the city became more pragmatic: they want a lake, a park, a good, cheap market place, a tube station, a tram, a big, handsome mall, and that kind of living coherence they failed to find in those residential ensembles with fanciful names.
Vlad Odobescu: How did your project on housing start?
Bogdan Iancu: The research began three years ago as part of the project on Bucharest’s middle class material projects, coordinated by Magda Crăciun. Years ago we’d explored and taken some initiatives on housing in Bucharest. Yet now, with this project, I can join the already investigated paths more consistently. I was interested in the way they build, in the relationships between built spaces and neighborhoods. I also looked into the spatial gaps they generate.
Initially, I interviewed several people on what is called rather the material culture of domestic space, yet I realized they referred to dwelling only as a space for sleeping. There were fewer people who would consider it a space for leisure or something of this sort. Most of them discussed traffic troubles.
So, I switched my attention to spatial practices, spatial manifestations and the resulting geographies. I began, so to speak, with the material culture and gradually moved to space and infrastructure and the way my interlocutors saw their belonging to the middle class; how will some policies of access to infrastructure blow up somehow their own representations about their status, when things don’t work smoothly, when they feel the odors from the water-purification station, when the running water changes its color, when a power failure happens, when the residents of the First Home program storm in? Such things work like some oxidizing agents against your aspirational project, against your belonging to the middle class, against the very reason you chose to move in there.
I’d like to set the timeline of the whole story. When did people start to move outside the city, outside the existing infrastructure?
The first villas appeared in the mid-1990s, on the former farming lands. Because land was restituted, people from the villages surrounding Bucharest started selling it. Then the local councils would sell lots of land. Villas were built well after 2000. To take full advantage of the land, they built the first high rise blocks.
The first residential ensembles were built around 2000-2005. One big problem surfaced in 2008, when the crisis began and they would rather build for the First Home program. The latter was a way to further loaning and building industry; it was state’s decision to help both the financial sector and the building industry. After 2008, they started to build differently. This is why there are neighborhoods whose Face Book pages show a deep tension between the first residents and those who came later and congested the place. During the second stage, buildings got denser and higher, while in the third stage they will be even higher and denser. There is much bad feeling related to behavior, parking, garbage management and stuff of this kind.
Who are those who moved to the city edge during the first stage?
As I’ve read in some texts, because I couldn’t talk with these pioneers, during the first stage, like in the rest of Europe, there were the nouveau riche who moved in; right after 1990 they pulled it off, started some small businesses and put the network capital they had gained before 1990 into something lucrative. You can see this phenomenon all over Eastern Europe, maybe less in Hungary and Poland, yet it prevailed in Bulgaria, Russia and the former Eastern Bloc countries. They were the new upstarts. They could handle any sort of business, but in general they were entrepreneurs, because the loan capital was absent.
I should make it very clear that the way everything was built depended mostly on how housing was financed. Until 2000, the low and middle class couldn’t afford such loans; it was only the upper middle class who could take a loan. Jennifer Patico [an anthropology researcher] looked into Russia’s nouveau riche and the way people would perceive them, and found that immediately after 1990, they were thought as racketeers and deviants. And she reveals how after 10-15 years of gospel media these people are thought to be some heroes of transition to capitalism whose children learn how to play tennis, how to play the piano, and the people’s reactions have softened a bit. It happened with us, too: the first housing developments were perceived by most people as proofs of a questionable success.
From your discussions with those who moved in the periphery, could you tell what they expected from that place and what they found?
Interestingly enough, I’ve discovered there were but few who had a definite project on their mind. I thought so at first, when I started my research; I was sure that people would have a well-defined project which, depending on how things went on, they would accommodate or reject. The fact is that most of them hoped only to evade the city, because the city was something repulsive due to its traffic, pollution, and noise. Then they would begin to search and visit several ensembles. What’s more interesting is that more often than not, their decision to move depended on minimal aspects: a larger storage space, airy rooms and green areas. Then they would forget about infrastructure, because they were already used to heavy traffic. That wasn’t a priority for those who didn’t have kids. Once they had one, the trouble began: someone had to take him or her to school or kindergarten, which meant an additional ride. Someone had to leave home earlier. If they don’t have kids, they are stuck in traffic. Whenever they went to view an apartment, the realtor would take them when the traffic was at its lowest ebb. Then the apartment seemed airy because it wasn’t furnished.
Well, let me pick up your question again: they didn’t actually need consistent projects, chiefly because there were few who could decide on how they should look like. Most of them went and visited whatever was available. They wanted to see if it was spacious, if it had storage spaces, that’s all. What is worth noting is that some wanted an open space. Generally, they were individuals aged in-between 20 and 30 who hadn’t learned how to cook yet. Those between 30 and 40 would reject the open space because they didn’t want smells spreading in other rooms. Many would consider the neighborhood, which should be by a lake, by a river, by a forest or at least by a park. If you check the extended map of Bucharest, you’ll see how the natural environment becomes an irresistible space for these ensembles.
Then they consider the social proximity. As a rule, they avoid the Roma populated areas. I came across a well-rooted racism. In general, precarious vicinities are a kind of oxide agents for the project. It’s the same with infrastructure: when it’s missing, it turns the project rusty, it makes it old, it erodes it. In a word, these are the things they consider.
I don’t think I gave you a complete answer, but here is what I’ve meant: they don’t start from a project, they operate instead a selection of weaknesses and strengths on the way. As a rule, the apartment finishing blows them away and developers know it too well. They work more on finishing, which are bedazzling.
Who do they get mad of, as a rule, when such problems surface? They’d have every reason to be upset on the seller. Do they also manifest their anger towards the state that allowed such things to happen?
If something fails or is about to fail, they fight the developer first. Then they realize they are the developer’s prisoners, because the project hasn’t been completed yet and they haven’t reached the last drop that makes the cup run over. So, they give the developer some slack because they realize they’ll be able to take a stand only when the project is completed. Until then, the developer tells them that “By reacting in this way, you only make the potential buyers who might help complete the project run away.”
So, they do negotiate.
Oh, yes, at first. Next, these individuals, who escaped from the city and the contract with the state, will have to meet the state again. What is more, they want to get rid of the community, they want to see their ideal of autonomy fulfilled and all at once they find out they need the state to build a road, to reopen a road, to build a school, a nursery, etc. Maybe they can’t afford the proximity school, and state is an instant option, the actor they need. Such cases lead to interesting forms of association which are worth studying. Maybe none of these people ever dreamed of being leaders of resident associations, but they are faced with poor services. Such associations are ultra-active and put pressure even on changes of the interior: if you are allowed to have air-conditioning, if you are allowed to glaze in your balcony. Some associations are very tough; others are quite lenient; rules are established that allow or forbid things.
To what extent does their pressure on the state work?
In Greenfield’s case it does. Following the first stage, when there were rather reticent or, even worse, hostile actors, the Local Council of District 1 and the Municipal Council realized the voting potential of such good lobbyists. Thus, the residents of that ensemble are now supported, at least morally, and some initiatives start to materialize. They have been promised a school and a nursery in the neighborhood. That is a good example of what Ștefan Ghenciulescu called ‘urbanity without urbanism’. He says that having discovered that, and being helped by the state or other parties to overcome such crises, these places could be infused with meaning.
It’s possible, isn’t it!
Yes, very much so. But the individuals from those places hold privileged positions. For instance, the rally which took place on Prelungirea Ghencea was less successful because the neighborhood is inhabited by the lower middle class. In Greenfield, the fact that Mircea Cărtărescu lives there made all the difference. It became an issue of political symbolism no less.
I find the reaction from chunks of society to such rallies interesting. The first reaction would be like ‘Hop, it was you guys who wanted to go there, it’s kind of self-do, self-have!”
There are two sources of rejection. Judit Bodnar evokes some theories about degenerated phantasies and excessive privatism. Obviously, there are people who think they are a kind of degenerated projects. On the other hand, there are some who feel frustrated because they couldn’t afford it, and in my opinion the latter are wildly critical.
In an interview you described these residential ensembles as some “rural galaxies flooded by the city, yet which don’t have city benefits.” How do they get along with the communities existing nearby? As long as they are not Roma, since it seems that in this case things are pretty obvious.
I’ve noticed certain forms of accommodation: farmers sell tomatoes, bell-papers, eggs, meat, and they buy and fill their pantries. At the same time, there are some frictions. As I’ve noticed they manifest in this way: the new-comers criticize the space they populate because they discover its limits, while the others reaction is like ‘Hop, when you came over, didn’t you know what’s all about?” It’s just like you said before. The locals are pleased with what they have, and all at once they are stormed by some ‘odd strangers’. I followed a discussion inside a Face Book group from Tunari, where a lady would write: “You laughed because we’d come with mud-spattered boots to the market in Bucharest, but now the tide has turned.” Yet I think it’s only a Face Book reaction. At the same time, I’d like to pinpoint that it all depends on the zone; in fact, projects differ very much. For instance, the northern area of Snagov and its neighboring villages is opposite to the southern area.
What is the source of such differences?
It’s just an assumption: I could very well say that the north is inhabited by the upper middle class which had already lived there before the 1990s. The first who had a vacation house built there were high-ranking officials before the Revolution. Then, immediately after 1990, when building sites were started over there, they also moved there. There are permanently under-construction projects like Militari Residence and those nearby, or Popești Leordeni, which look very much like Vama Veche in a way: nothing is ever completed, the streets are throbbing with life and services. Interestingly, although the residents are complaining and say “wow, they won’t finish building the road and there’s much garbage here”, they are not in the least as demanding as the residents in the north. They feel they didn’t pay too much, so, end of discussion! “We didn’t put much money; we didn’t make a real effort.” And they tend to complain less. On the other hand, the cheaper ones have been somehow grafted on the mobility infrastructure. For instance, in Military Residence there is the terminus of 178 bus, which takes you to Păcii tube station. At the other end, in Popești Leordeni, it’s Dimitrie Leonida tube station. North and South are very dissimilar archipelagos.
Yet, there is one more difference: because not many housing ensembles were built in the early 2000 in the south, the projects came quite close to the edge of the former industrial sites, while in the north, their resources were the forest and the airport.
People referred to today’s residential ensembles as potential ghettos; this dark perspective has been pointed at already. What’s your opinion?
I think that when people talk about ‘ghettoization’ they mean isolation; yet, there are huge differences between a regular ghetto which results from space production achieved in the absence of state services and where people have to form associations in order to survive, and a ‘posh ghetto’.
The individuals from the residential ensembles feel they become political actors and thus form associations. Local councils also take them into account because they are interested in their votes. On the other hand, in neighborhoods like Popești Leordeni nothing of this kind ever happens because most of them do not change their identity cards for a very simple reason: they hope their children will attend a school or a kindergarten in the city. Again, this is very interesting; we’re talking about people who, in a way, are swimming between two waters.
In conclusion, I wouldn’t call them ghettoes but rather dormitory-cities or dormitory-neighborhoods. Those holding a lower profile are more suitable for living: they have access to the necessary functions of an urban space. I think all they miss is the post-office, the clinic, and the local police station. However, in the northern ensembles there are no pharmacies but medicine machines to make up for it. And it’s funny to follow their group comments: ‘Do you happen to have Augmentin? We need to take some extra antibiotics and we’ve run out of them.” And they’d arrange a meeting in the neighborhood. They do have a community life, after all.
Especially when it’s about running out of a thing or two.
That has nothing to do with what was going on before 1990, but, clearly, penury leads to association, to a form of mutual aid. People try to help each other and overcome their difficulties.
How do developers relate to legislation, in general?
In Bucharest and in the surrounding areas things, for instance, water is seized primitively. The fence is thrust directly up to the water course. There is only an access road that might stay in their way. The lake is simply surrounded and destined only to those who run the project.
In addition, there are other weird things happening; for instance, the dramatic effects on the environment. Many of such projects don’t include the sewerage main, and if the waste-water purifying station breaks down, they will drain it off in the lake, in the end. So, lakes are good to look at and to drain waste-water. Take the case of Mogoșoaia. If you go to the Mogoșoaia Palace and take a panoramic view from its bank anyone can see it clearly. They are building wharves there.
I’d like to talk a little about the idea underlying the exhibition within BETA 2018, which starts from the assumption that there are four actors and one of them, the end user’s voice, is hardly heard because the decisions are made before he could lift a finger. What can the user do so as to become more important?
I think it’s quite late to talk about it. One important thing is that a person shouldn’t be stingy if he or she decided to take out a loan; they could ask someone who could guide them through this landscape. Such services have appeared lately and they can help you imagine a project and set it within the grid proposed by developers and see if that fits there or not. Or, they may start by asking ultra-legitimate questions like: “How long does it take to get there?” “What amenities does it offer?” He’d rather see if the things he got used to can be found there. People never raised such questions and they should do it now: “What are the things I can’t do without?” They should make a short list and see what they can accommodate and what they can negotiate.
Clearly, they should be aware of such euphemisms like “15 minute-away from the center!” How can you live in Chitila and reach Bucharest’s central area in 15 minutes? And why the center? That is an interesting provincial symptom. Why should you get to the center if maybe you work in Pipera or Aurel Vlaicu or somewhere else? You finally understand that those people left Bucharest just to come back for fun, because you can have access to cultural events or have fun only in the downtown.
What are their alternatives?
The malls have become the most favorite cultural hangouts. That’s why the periphery malls are so successful. That’s why they open registries or other offices in malls; because the malls have turned into a sort of vent for all sorts of shortcomings.
There are lots and lots of fractures in this metropolis: people don’t complain as much as they should. What is more, once you take a loan or once you pay back that hard-earned money for 10 or 15 years you start performing an enormous self-persuasion semiotic labor by persuading yourself you didn’t do anything wrong and that ‘Well, I’ll be tied up to this place for 20 or 30 years!”
What I found very strange was the limited relationship between architect and user, how little they communicate with each other.
That also depends on the project financing, because the developer never sets up a discussion between architect and ‘beneficiary’; he just thrusts in their hands whatever each is supposed to be doing, at the price he had tailored just to maximize his profit, thus concealing as much as he can of what cannot be done. Architects are struggling for a project and try to do something about it within the financial constraints set by the developer. The developer becomes a powerful yet devilized figure.
Equally, this phenomenon led to the rethinking of housing spaces built under socialism. Some people reconsider their options and choose the socialist housing pocket and the zones containing parks, nature, and infrastructure. It is a whole tide of individuals who return to the city. The first tide of ‘escapees’ begins to return, which can be noticed in some of Bucharest’s zones. I met people who came back from the periphery and rented their homes to the youngster who are experiencing their dream; the latter will be the second tide.
How did they come to reconsider the former working class neighborhoods?
When housing becomes one of the consumer goods, when marketing slogans invite you to personalize your life and become self-sufficient, it’s but normal to reject socialist housing projects at first and rate them as leftovers of a matrix-system. This kind of idea was intensely cultivated after 1990.
From this viewpoint, there are but few that could understand there were several types of dwelling under socialism. Yet, all it takes is to visit cities like Brașov, Râmnicu Vâlcea, Craiova or Timișoara and see that there was a large variety of building types and some were quite good quality housing. As an architect you could have choices back then. Sometimes the projects were built in the fields but the infrastructure was reachable.
Obviously, there were also poor quality buildings, as it is today. However, at that time the urbanistic rules were observed. Housing was consistent and coherent. Today, many competing projects are overlapping; the new projects rival with the vicinities they belong to. Thus, at the end of the day all we can see is a tournament of phantasies.
It is especially inside the city, in the former working class neighborhoods built before 1950, that they choose to build taller buildings, thus creating a gap environment. I’ve found someone’s manifesto; the individual would drop by a block of this kind and tell those who lived there they should understand that one day they themselves might be surrounded by tall blocks.
Likewise, new lots of land have emerged on the former industrial sites inside the city. Naturally, they are super-attractive because they address those individuals who had searched for the ‘green phantasies’, and now realize they have no infrastructure. If we are talking about the socialist period, then it is a fact that the new ensembles are already well-connected to infrastructure. Such sites directly benefit from this capital: they are located within a 5-10-minute walk from the tube station, are well-connected to streets because they were placed on vast expanses of land.
I can also notice the phenomenon of ‘biscuit-blocks’. They are small blocks in the periphery. I call them ‘biscuit-blocks’ because they are 3 or 4-floor buildings on very awkward lots. They contain very cheap apartments in the semi-basement in front of which people park their cars. I know for sure it’s also illegal. Besides, their existence is an obvious sign of decline. We cannot realize what it really means for someone who, besides living in a poorly lit, cheap apartment, he can also see his neighbor’s car parked right in front of his window.
Once I talked with someone about the absence of education in matter of housing.
Let me play the devil’s advocate now and ask: what do you mean by housing education? Do you think that in Italy or Spain they teach it in schools? I don’t think education is the real issue; I do think people don’t set their minds to the things they really need, that is, beyond the tittle-tattle of the marketing gospel. They brand up advertisements that transform the domestic environment into a stress free zone. Nay, a dwelling is a relational space, you won’t play darts all day long there, will you?
In one of your articles you mentioned that we shouldn’t judge these people as they are judged for the decisions they made.
This is one of my research topics: I have to stop being biased whenever such issues are discussed in those areas. They are mostly design problems and they never come out of the blue. I wish people would understand and look at how these projects are designed; those misfortunes did not just happen; they weren’t mere biographical mishaps. They were all hidden in the details people overlooked. I would like to start a discussion from here: can people look into these “sub-finishing”? They put a lot of money, after all, so they must be careful with what they pay for. Fine, it’s not the hard-earned money now, but they’ll be hard-earned money in the future.
My message is that these people should be understood, but they, in their turn, should make an effort and realize how they’ve got themselves into such trouble. They shouldn’t oversimplify the matter and blame it all on either the city council, the developers or authorities. They should train themselves in political entrepreneurship and start being more than contributors who are given things “because they are tax payers”. This vision has been parachuted from different cultures and can’t be simply implemented here. If one’s domicile on the identity card is in Bucharest, how does one expect that the mayor from Popești Leordeni will do anything for him? One doesn’t count there as a political actor. One should clearly justify one’s position. If they want to be taken into account, they should apply for an identity card in the area they live.
I would also emphasize that there is a problem with purchasing, with the idea of property, more precisely. No one thinks about a rental. It seems that people think that unless the place belongs to them, they’ll be thrown out in the street. Many monthly loan payments are quite often more expensive than a rent, and the Robor index made the First Home Program have a chocking effect: there were people who found out they were supposed to pay 100 euros extra for their installment. And that is excessively challenging not only for homes but also for the chance of having one. I would like to propose these topics for further reflection: “Why should I buy?” “What should I buy?”
Interview conducted by Vlad Odobescu, published by Zeppelin on August 2018
Cătălin Crețu and Ideilagram propose an exploration of life in an apartment block through sounds
Cătălin Crețu is a composer, whose major interest is the studying and writing electronic music. He has a double specialty, both in engineering (he graduated from the Technical University of Petroșani) and in music (he graduated from the National University of Music of Bucharest. Ideilagram is an association preoccupied with studying architecture and city and, what is more, “one that brings together people who share ideas and visions, and fosters the interdisciplinary dialog”. Their exhibition fragment explores the distinctive or overlapping sounds of life in an apartment block.
Vlad Odobescu: What sort of experience do you propose to visitors?
Ideilagram: We propose two sound installations: “Voices” and “Neighborhood sounds”.
A translucent membrane wrapping the core and all experimental pods. It is through this installation – a filter-like framework – that the actors’ voices are heard by all visitors walking this passage before entering the installation pods.
In one of the pods visitors will find hanging 6 big felt cylinders in which they are invited to enter and rediscover certain sounds related to housing, sounds that will spark memories or conflicting states of mind.
Cătălin Crețu: A symbolic time travel through sound in forgotten dwelling spaces. While architecture, materials, technologies, and various approaches and standards have been altered, the sound flows remained unchanged, maybe they became denser. We live again older or more recent acoustical moments and states while walking in a sound-and-spatial labyrinth.
How did you come up with this solution?
IDG: Following the interviews we took last year, we found out some major actors that shape our homes; they are the developer, the administration, the architect and the dweller (or the end-user, as it is often called). From among them, the user barely interacts with the major actors, so, his or her voices are rather passive. Hence, we wanted ‘to make their voices heard’; each voice illustrates a large range of controversial issues, interests and aspirations that are displayed in parallel as collages cut out from these interviews. We mainly focused on the message, so we decided to completely sever them from any image or context and present it only as sound against an abstract background.
Close or remote human vicinity related to the built space or the city is one of the defining components of collective housing. When we shaped the structure according to the research results we also defined some essential themes and thought we could illustrate them as a two-term relation through sound. Sounds have been selected to illustrate topics like periphery vs. downtown (representing the relationship to town); seclusion vs. openness (relationships within the housing ensemble); old (communal spaces and their administration in the older dwellings before 1990) vs. new housing (after 1990); urban vs peri-urban facilities (various kinds of facilities for collective housing); diversity vs. segregation (the way in which spaces are inhabited; human factor); individuality in community (relationship between private, personal space and communal, shared space).
C.C. Sounds belong to daily live as a housing component, being either allies or foes to the dweller, a reason for joy or sadness, of meditation or distress. Our relationship to the soundscape depends on education, profession, state of mind, respect towards your next-door neighbor. To exemplify the old, we built traces of sound in the symbolic space.
What do you think a good place for living in should look like?
IDG: This question is rather personal and it’s six of us in the team! Here are, though, three answers:
A good space to live in means a space that can accommodate me! Where I and whatever I do or I am going to do can fit in. Thus, it should be a flexible, adjustable, accessible space full of light. It should be a space that can be reached easily and from where I can reach places which are dear to me.
It can be any place that you may instinctively call ‘home’. It’s that comfortable space where you are safe, sleep well and feel free of concerns. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a house or an apartment. It’s a place in which you feel at home with yourself.
It’s a space where my family and feel well. A place in which we can read, monkey about, cook, play, listen to music, enjoy the company of friends. A place from which I can easily dash out to town either by foot or by bike or by public transport.
CC: “It’s a space that protects our privacy, the clean zone in which I can think, create freely, where my quietness is not perturbed, in which my mind can fly unrestrained.
The Sad Story of Those Who Buy New Apartments.
It’s your money, but you have no say in the matter.
We discussed with architect Eugen Pănescu, from the Cluj based Planwerk architectural office, on housing quality and use of public space in Romania’s most dynamic city.
About month ago, there was an advertising blitz featuring a statement of the Cluj City Hall regarding the new mandate of its mayor, Emil Boc; it became viral among Bucharest’s inhabitants from my Face Book list. The advertisement showed new pedestrian areas, new buses, refurbished schools and green areas, things which you can barely see in the Capital.
A World Bank study found that over 15% of Romanians would move to Cluj because they felt attracted by the quality of city life. Such a power of attraction is measured up in the average price per square meter for an apartment, which in the Transylvanian city is the highest in the country in the second semester of this year: 1,510 euros, which is 14.1% higher as compared to the same period in 2017, according to a report published by Analizaimobiliare.ro. Cluj is the only big city in Romania where prices went up if compared to those before the crisis.
Still, Cluj faces many housing issues. The higher housing demand caused by the IT boom has not led to an increase of quality of the apartment built at the city’s edge. Should the buyer end up with four straight walls and enjoy his comfortable home, he would still have to cope with heavy traffic when driving to pick up his children from a faraway kindergarten or when going shopping in a supermarket located in the boondocks; he would also run the risk of being isolated from his social circle. In order to ‘fit in’ the First Home Program, many are just 2-room apartments, which makes them quite unfeasible for younger families in the long run. Both poor collective housing quality and public interest for improvement are the basic theme of Timișoara 2018 Architectural Biennial to be opened on September 28 and stay open for a month.
“During all these years, housing development has been passed over to developers,” says architect Eugen Pănescu (aged 42), who has been shaping Cluj’s center so as to make it more breathable. In 2002, Eugen Pănescu became a founding partner to the Romanian-German architectural office Planwerk from Cluj. He is also a delegate of the Chamber of Architects of Romania into the Professional Association of Romanian Urban Planners and in the Technical Planning Commission of the Cluj Local Council. Eugen Pănescu is Associated Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism from Cluj at the Chair of Urban Design and is Chamber’s representative into Architects Council of Europe.
Scena9: How is it to work with local authorities?
Eugen Pănescu: We started under very unfriendly conditions almost 20 years ago with one of the most challenging administrations, i.e., that of the then mayor Gheorghe Funar. At that time, we were an informal group of students working together with young Germans and Romanians, engaged in their summer school practice on urban themes. We made it our goal to put up a strategy for Cluj, which included housing and development, in general, and we thought we had no choice but to collaborate with the then administration instead of waiting for better days. And we took our roles seriously. On the one hand, it was better than we’d expected, on the other, we had to face the administration’s sluggishness at that time. We used to talk then over subjects that were completely strange even in professional circles. Anyway, it took quite a while until things started to change. Meanwhile, we became an association and then an architectural office. The fact that after 2007 we were allowed to travel without a visa was a major leap, whose effects we sensed immediately; all the more so, because at that time we were debating the quality of public space, public transport, density, commercial use of bikes, etc. What is more, the audience could see with their own eyes several images we had been showing for years and find it was all about a normal milieu which could have a huge impact.
We’ve noticed the administrations will change because their staff changes. Willy-nilly, that change can be clearly seen, at least in the few towns where we continued to have projects. We caught up with a different generation now occupying not only high positions bearing important responsibilities, but also administrative positions. Their quality, number and commitment have visibly increased.
Likewise, the perspective has been completely changed: the quality of urban development lies with the public administration, and to admit that you are accountable for it means a lot; to carry it out is also another huge leap.
Do you think this change for the better is strong enough?
It’s pretty difficult for such things to swing back. It’s like a cog wheel that sometimes runs slowly, then it begins to run faster, but it never swings back. What is more, this change does not occur only by changing the head, the mayor, but also by hiring new people. People take on their shoulders their own projects feeling they are accountable for them. To carry out a project in your own organization is like attending a tough school that taught you many lessons; so, there is no turning back. Subsequently, you want to make things run smoothly.
The Romanian legal framework is complete, hierarchically controlled, and any administration is free to take on that role seriously. There is, however, something cities don’t do now: they never check on the development quality. The latter has been passed over to developers. There are so few exceptions that – which is unfair to the latter – they don’t even deserve to be mentioned. Countrywide, it is like a hot drop on a burning stone.
What steps are to be taken for Cluj’s center?
There is an ongoing public debate, which has become a very good habit in Cluj. We’re debating some proposals meant to change some streets in the downtown; it’s not only about pedestrianization, but also about refurbishments, tree planting, a.s.o. In Cluj there is much openness and transparency prior to decision making.
If I were to set up the hierarchy of the major changes taking place in Cluj recently – certainly, we may speak about its demographic changes, investments, projects, competitions, infrastructure – on the list top I would place the manner in which decisions regarding large-scale public projects became more transparent. The CCLC (Cluj City Local Council) has been watchful enough and made procedure innovations by following some good advice.
There is also another very good aspect: the public authorities – from mayor down – are present in public. They are not in the least those mysterious persons you can see only at festivals, on tele or God knows where, or those whose messages you can read on Facebook. What is more, they don’t avoid talking with people, which leads not only to valuable decisions, but also to a higher level of optimism or, at least, to a lower degree of pessimism. And in my opinion that is a big problem with our cities, particularly in Bucharest, where you are ready to face a grosser blunder, while you gave up on expecting good things to happen. And when good things do happen, you distort their effect by spotting also the hitches. At Cluj, we’ve climbed past the hilltop and now we find ourselves in a good area, filled with general optimism. There are still mistakes; projects are being corrected or you wish for something you haven’t done yet; however, the level of expectation and optimism is high.
Now, you asked about the downtown. Rules in urbanism have been also changed and are adjusted to the current condition of the downtown. For instance, investments are approved without having to provide the fixed amount of parking places. The city changes by the book – and not only its center – to the benefit of pedestrians, thus enhancing public transport. The public transport lane has been defined, which will be also done on the east-west axis, between the large neighborhoods, on the most important transit zone. In parallel, parking lots are either cut or taxed incrementally, which I understand they’ve already done in Bucharest. I don’t know how it works, though.
Piața Unirii [Union Square] from Cluj before and after its fitting-out. Source: Planwerk
It seems that in Bucharest this measure hasn’t been linked with others.
Perhaps things don’t run smoothly at first, but that is the direction we should follow. In Cluj, everybody agreed; it’s like a rolling ball. Some things last for years.
In Cluj there wasn’t even a square meter of pedestrian space, unlike in other cities that had a historic center under socialism, cities in which a street, a pedestrian space or even a square was created in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. We were the first to discuss it in the early 2000. For many of us, public space did not count as a theoretical notion. In 2005-06, following years of presentations, public debates, articles in the media, the first little pedestrian street was opened. Then, the plan worked. What you need is patience: it takes at least five years from a design idea to its completion. This is why it is never too early to tackle such issues. Currently, they are implementing, one by one, measures for fitting-out the public spaces that were included in a traffic plan from 2005.
Cluj has been among the first cities that started doing such things. It was neither the first nor the only one, but what matters is the speed that made it catch up with the others which were one wee step ahead. Thus, after 20 years we can see such rapid effects taking place. Meanwhile, companies that can implement such projects have appeared. We couldn’t find anyone who could pave the first pedestrian street; finally, they found three old boys aged 80; they couldn’t even lift the flagstones by themselves, but they knew how they should be laid.
Piața Unirii [Union Square] from Cluj before and after its fitting-out. Source: Planwerk
How do you cope with southern and eastern cities? Architecturally, they are very different, and so are their politicians.
We had the chance to work at the other end of the country, on the seashore. We’ve drawn up the master plan for Limanu commune, which includes the famous 2 Mai and Vama Veche villages. At that time, we had a tough time not only with the administration of a very special commune, but also with the county administration, and what is more, with the national one. We were taught a good lesson. We also had an experience in Drobeta Turnu Severin; we’ve drawn up a plan for the public space and public infrastructure in the center, which hasn’t been carried out yet. Unfortunately for us, that is all; it’s a matter of distance, in the end. We’ve been tempted to participate into projects in Brăila, Iași or Craiova, yet they are far away and it’s hard to carry on a project at such great distance.
Is it only a matter of physical distance or is it also one involving different visions?
It [the difference of vision] is something I don’t really buy! As concerns the culture of public space and the use of public space, we, who live in Transylvania, can learn a lot from Moldova and, in particular, from the south. In other parts of the country, space is certainly used more extensively and socially than in Transylvania. I think one needs to use public space to meet people in a more open and social manner. Public space is used there even if it isn’t in a very good shape.
It’s my own opinion. Nonetheless, I’ve heard stories from other people who visited and also carried out investment projects in Moldova, Muntenia; they were all amazed at the number of people who use the public space. Oltenița, Călărași, Slobozia, included; there, people need space for various purposes: trading spaces, playgrounds, and also for old men who would sit and watch other people. They live their normal social lives, and there will be projects for them, I believe. I can’t see any difference in this matter.
It’s good to hear what you say, because we, who live in the south or east of the country tend to see Transylvanian towns bathed in an ideal light.
Oh, yes. Please, stop doing this. There are certain aspects that went well or maybe are known better, yet many of the good things are quite recent. At least the city of Cluj has witnessed a huge leap after Funar’s mayorhood was over; but if you look behind, there have been only 15 years. So, we spent a longer period under Funar’s mayorhood than without it. We are still experiencing the consequences of what happened during those years. We live side by side with those who voted for him, loved him, loved the Romanian standard and enjoyed speaking about the origins of our people. In a word, we are still living the whole story that drove us crazy and charmed the constituency for years. Such outcomes do not just vanish in thin air once the mayorhood is over.
New blocks are being built, and Cluj and its environs occupy the top of housing demand list. How can you integrate these neighborhoods in the city? What can be done after they were built in that way?
Let me begin with a sort of conclusion: in general, they built worse after the Revolution. At least in matters of distribution of density and public infrastructure. I don’t imply only the access distribution and green zones, but also things appertaining to education, culture and commerce. I’m talking about neighborhoods, not about the demolitions of city downtowns. The neighborhoods and – more often than not – the apartments were much better than what’s now on the market, because now the latter is focused simply on profit and nobody holds it responsible. It’s a great shame, because huge reserves from population’s money have been spent on real estate investments, and people have to pay back their loans for poor quality housing. It is not only bad housing – let’s say you are lucky enough to find a good apartment or house – but also poor quality zones. There are only a few zones that are similar to the planned neighborhoods under communism. Even if you’re lucky enough and own a villa or an apartment or a penthouse, a lawn and a golden retriever, a belvedere and a barbecue, you may find yourself in a squalid zone. It’s utterly outrageous what people have been allowed to be doing during all these years, sometimes on inconceivable sums of money.
Do local administrations have sufficient instruments to change things?
Yes, they do, because it all depends on the decision making and the planning system that have to be applied. It is there. And it is not only local administrations’ fault, it’s all about the quality of service that the professionals perform, which unfortunately has become quite low due to market demands.
You mean the developers’ demands?
Partly. And the developers seeing that nobody holds them responsible for it and that they can get with it easily, just do the same or even worse. They appeal to all sorts of seemingly amusing yet sad details, such as diminishing furniture size in a booklet photo just to make the room seem larger. They simply cheat on their clients. Or they change kitchens into rooms. Yet, at the level of neighborhood planning, they gave up on anything that would make them accountable for poor quality. Thus, in mono-functional zones with poor housing quality, no infrastructure has emerged; for them there is no hope. Since there is no public transport and one has to depend on the car or walk to school or work, people are socially isolated. It’s dangerous to ride your bike, because there is no bike path and roads are crowded. From my viewpoint, such issues are beyond retrieval.
Who is supposed to deal with such cases? Have you noticed any efforts from your architect-colleagues?
I’ve noticed the efforts from a few of my architect-colleagues. A tiny yet vigorous group, very dedicated and determined. They cover all age and education categories, from kindergarten to high school, with ever growing numbers. They can’t go everywhere, in all schools, but more and more of them carry out volunteering activities. In fact, they make up for the absence of urban education programs that should be run by the Ministry of Education. There is one particular association called “De-a Arhitectura” [Let’s play with architecture]. I also know the efforts of my architect-colleagues working in administration; they took their job seriously to the point of clashing with their co-workers, because they check projects, demand quality work, create booklets for clients or smaller developers to advise them on the procedures involving land parceling, on the risks, conditions, and so on. There are but few examples, as it always happens with us. Such efforts are not meaningless in the least bit, and I think they should be cherished, because it’s hard to take such tasks on your shoulders when you’re surrounded not only by carelessness, but also by hatred whenever you check on their projects, demand quality work, and send projects back to be redesigned. Many times this is seen as “job disobedience”. As a rule, such projects are not checked and nobody can see them. Unfortunately, this is the norm everywhere: absence of transparency and quality and punishment of those who wish to change things. And this is also the case of architects-in-chief.
Now, according to the recent legislative changes, the architect-in-chief has neither the rank nor the responsibilities of a public employee. He or she will be employed on the basis of commercial contracts like in a ‘limited company’. This is what the national administration and Parliament have offered us all: a number of persons or ‘limited companies’ elected under no legal provisions, with no responsibility in a domain of upmost public responsibility and under the threat of being ousted if they disobeyed their clients. The client is not the population, as in the case of public officers, but the mayor, who can say that if you don’t mind your business, he will choose someone else to be the next architect-in-chief. In my opinion, this is the black hole from the current legislation at the level of daily activities of urban development. We are all demanding that corruption be punished, but you don’t need to be corrupted in this field because things can be dealt without. By the law.
A major role in shaping the real estate market is played today by the First Home Program. It creates a good number of two-room apartments that can cover the bank loans. How viable are such apartments in the long run and which are the problems they pose?
The First Home Program is a financial instrument, yet its effects are very concrete and measurable in the built form of cities, in the apartment sizes, additional amenities either inside or outside the lot of land. They will never be feasible zones; the poor quality apartments will be immediately traded once their occupants can afford something different. Perhaps we need somehow to ‘furnish’ the average-quality housing sector. There are many apartments that people can’t wait to get rid of for various reasons: a child is on the way or you can now afford something better. I think the program will be closed or, if not, its pace will be somehow slowed down because its budget is increasingly limited, the terms are more complicated and loans are more expensive. In my opinion, this program is outdated, and people fear a new crisis is coming.
What signs can you see?
A slower building pace and dropping of demand levels. There are but few towns in which the demand is higher than the offer; Cluj is certainly one of them, which explains developers’ speculative prices and, which is literally a theft. In other towns the demand is constantly increasing, a thing that can have various causes: import of population, moving from poor housing to better housing or transfer of savings from black and gray zones, that is, by buying your apartment with a bagful of money, which is indeed a phenomenon. You can’t see this case of higher demand than offer in the rest of the country, and this is why the real estate market is dwindling. There are uneven levels of development in Romania. This is true not only for some big cities and their surrounding areas, but also for entire regions.
How can the user, the buyer, so to speak, be more involved in the housing issue?
The user’s voice appears when things have already been settled. This is the principal explanation. It emerges when the plan has been approved, the project completed, and the block already built – although there are still many who buy things that are still on paper, which is quite incomprehensible, and pay for something that does not exist, without even having a clue about it all. Even if the user’s voice is heard, that leads to some hand-on consequences if it finds the right niche, which is not, for sure, the developers’ ear, because the latter is deaf. A developer will always say: “We follow the market demand”; in reality he sees the market demands and lowers them a bit. At the end of the day the buyer has to buy, not because he likes whatever he’s buying. Or he buys because of the zone or I don’t know for what reason. You’d expect a client – the collective personage – be more aware of his or her purchase and look into various options. In fact, he or she doesn’t. Market rules are sometimes very different from what we’ve expected or what we’ve pleaded for. A client can be heard when he is aware of his rights as a citizen.
Interview conducted by Vlad Odobescu, published on Scena9 on July 30, 2018.