Alexandru Barnea Photograph Private Collection
Through colour photographs and slides, the Alexandru Barnea private collection documents the demolitions imposed by the communist regime in the centre of Bucharest following the devastating earthquake of 1977, which served as a pretext for the destruction or mutilation of many historic monuments. The policy of demolishing the architectural and urbanistic heritage has been considered one of the most aberrant and arbitrary measures in the recent history of Romania.
București Drumul Taberei 18, Romania 061344
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Name of collection
- Alexandru Barnea Private Photograph Collection
Provenance and cultural activities
The Alexandru Barnea private collection of photographs epitomises what might be called passive resistance towards the Ceauşescu regime’s policy of systematising the urban and rural landscape of Romania. The typical expression of this passive resistance was the immortalising on photographic paper or on slides of the historic monuments about to be destroyed. This passive resistance stopped one step short of public and open expression of disagreement with the policy, typical to almost all dissidents in the communist Romania of the late 1980s. At the same time, this passive resistance, which managed to preserve the memory of the destroyed cities, was not a political and cultural gesture tolerated by the communist authorities. The photographing of areas in course of demolition could only be done clandestinely, and any discovery of someone’s intention of photographing an urban area before the bulldozers destroyed it completely led to the immediate intervention of the secret police. In short, if the critical discourse of dissidents regarding the abusive demolitions served to completely discredit the Ceauşescu regime internationally by the end of the 1980s, the silent action of those who photographed the historic monuments condemned by the regime ensured the preservation of their memory for future generations.
The origins of this policy of demolishing the towns and villages of communist Romania are to be found in the theses of the Tenth Congress of the Romanian Communist Party (RCP) of 1969 and in the official documents of the National Conference of 1972. It was then that, among other things, “the objectives and principal directions of the systematisation of the territory and of the localities” were established, the ultimate goal being “the harmonious organisation of the territory of the country, […] the planned layout of its towns and villages, in concordance with general economic and social progress.” Two years later, in its session of 29–30 October 1974, the Great National Assembly, the simulacrum of a parliament that met under communism about twice a year to turn party documents into law, passed Law no. 58/1974 Regarding the Systematisation of the Territory and of Urban and Rural Localities. This law was not put into application immediately, but only after the devastating earthquake of 1977 had affected Bucharest to a greater extent than any other city, given its geographical position and the height of its buildings. This tragic event brought about the deaths of almost 1,500 people in Bucharest as a result of the collapse of numerous tall buildings in the city centre. The reconstruction of considerable urban zones thus became a necessity. The natural disaster provided the pretext for a reorganisation of the whole urban landscape of Bucharest and other towns. Indicative of the ideas behind the so-called plan of communist urban systematisation was the abolition after the earthquake of the Historic Monuments Commission, which had operated since 1892. Then, on 1 March 1978, the Council of State adopted a decree for the functioning of the Party and State Commission for the Systematisation of Urban and Rural Zones, thus creating the institutional framework for the application of the plan to massively restructure all the localities of Romania in conformity with the indications of the Secretary General of the RCP, Nicolae Ceauşescu.
It was the urban area that were the most affected, as the plan only began to be applied in rural areas in the late 1980s, provoking at the time the protests of numerous Romanian and Hungarian dissidents. The latter were concerned primarily at the effects on the pre-First World War architectural heritage of Transylvania, created during the Austro-Hungarian administration, and above all at the destruction of the rural heritage of the Hungarian community in Romania. In reality, this policy succeeded principally in devastating the towns of pre-First World War Romania, the so-called “Old Kingdom.” These towns, unlike those of Transylvania and the Banat, did not have a clear structure, as they had developed under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and implicitly beyond any Western influence as regards modern urban planning. In these regions, the communist systematisation affected not only town centres or the plan of principal streets, but also extensive urban areas. In the end, a total of twenty-nine towns experienced demolition and reconstruction up to 85–90%. Reconstruction on this scale involved the complete destruction of residential districts with individual dwellings, many of them architectural jewels designed by professionals in the pre-communist period. In their place were built so-called civic centres, which generally included a new central square surrounded by buildings intended to house local and regional Party and trade union organisations. In addition, a further twenty-seven towns in Transylvania, which already had a clear urban plan, similar to that of other European cities, but whose populations also included a significant segment belonging to the Hungarian community, were partially affected by the demolition, though not as radically as in the Old Kingdom.
The epitome of the Ceauşescu regime’s urban restructuring plans, however, was and remains Bucharest, whose centre is still presided over today by the symbol of the dictator’s ideas about urbanisation: the enormous House of the People, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, which in the meantime has become home to Romania’s Parliament. However the demolitions affected the whole city, through the building of massive new apartment blocks, of social housing type, including in the central zone, and through the destruction of numerous historic monuments, especially churches and monasteries. It is interesting to note that a considerable number of such religious buildings were shifted from their original positions to behind the new constructions, by means of a very complicated and costly technical operation that called for much ingenuity on the part of the engineers. Of course, by being moved they were saved from destruction, but with the loss of their visibility in the urban space they also lost all their past glory. In short, the urban systematisation plan was no exception to the way in which decisions were taken in a dictatorship, depending on the discretionary approval of the supreme leader. It should also be mentioned that these demolitions also resulted in enormous human suffering, as private properties could be demolished without any problem, because they were not at all protected by the law, while the compensation received for the loss of one’s home was far from covering the material losses involved. In spite of the critical positions expressed by dissidents in Romania and by Western journalists and politicians against these arbitrary acts of destruction, the Ceauşescu regime continued to apply the policy of systematisation until the last day of its existence. For this reason, the urban landscape of Bucharest changed radically in the course of the 1980s, and since then it has remained a silent witness to the dysfunctionalities of a political system based on a single party, in which the ideas of a single man can affect the lives of many individuals. The declaration of the General Assembly of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, 12–18 May 1984, resumes in a few words the essence of the transformations imposed through this so-called systematisation programme: “Never in our century has a human agency put into action a blatant and conscious peacetime program for the wilful destruction of the artistic heritage of an entire nation, such as we now witness in Romania.” (https://unknownbucharest.com/demolitions-of-the-80s/)
To give an idea of the scale of this radical change, it may be mentioned that, starting in 1977, over 10,0o0 homes were demolished and over 50,000 people were moved, generally against their will, into new dwelling places. To make room for the House of the People, a new administrative centre, and the Victory of Socialism Boulevard, the area in the centre of the capital defined in terms of its pre-communist urban reference points as Izvor–Mihai Vodă–Uranus was totally demolished. The scale of this immense demolition project was so great and the echoes it left in public consciousness so significant that after the completion of the destruction project, a saying inspired by the declaration quoted above and repeated in the public space of Romania by the architect Andrei Pandele, another photographer of the demolitions, became famous: “Bucharest is the only capital in the world to be destroyed in peacetime.” There are not many documents that preserve the memory of the stages leading to the demolitions that gave Romanian communism such a bad name. Among these few documents, the photographic archive that makes up Alexandru Barnea’s private collection is all the more precious inasmuch as its status was, until relatively recently, eminently private.
Alexandru Barnea’s archive of photographs, which marks several stages in the demolitions in the centre of Bucharest, is the direct product of a twofold passion on the part of the collector: as a historian and as a photographer. “I’ve been taking photographs since I was a child. My father had a camera from the time of the war, for 6x6 film, and he let me take photographs at archaeological excavations – it’s also from him that I inherited this profession. It from then, from my childhood, that I date my passion both for photography and for history, because in fact I was taking photos of history. When I went to the archaeological excavations where my father was working, I was in fact getting right up close to history, to the inheritance of history. One thing led naturally to another in both these directions: I cultivated this first passion in my immediate vicinity, taking pictures of friends and relatives. At the same time, I was also always interested in history, and my professional life has confirmed this interest. My first camera is more than half a century old. I still have it today and I think it’s still in working order,” says Alexandru Barnea about the beginnings of his passion for photography.
When he found out about the intention of the communist authorities to radically modify, by demolition, a large part of the centre of Bucharest, Alexandru Barnea understood the anti-historical aim of this ample project of demolition and destruction. “I knew people involved in the fields of construction, architecture, and art history – and from the information I got from them, I quickly found out about what was really going to happen. The district under attack was one with numerous monuments, both older and more recent. These areas were full of history. Well, over that history they drove a bulldozer!” recalls Alexandru Barnea. The demolition plan was conceived in a number of steps, and, at least in the initial phase, with great care regarding the feelings of the people who lived in the affected areas, as he also remembers: “They began in areas that didn’t have a great potential for uproar, with areas from which people were moved to, I think, more comfortable homes elsewhere. So as not to provoke uproar. In fact they were clever: many of the homes that they demolished first were quite precarious, and the heating was generally with wood. Now, in the new homes, there was improved comfort, which was appreciated by the people who were moved in the first phase. But later on, the great crimes were committed: monuments destroyed, churches demolished or moved, objects of architectural heritage flattened. I knew from the beginning that it would lead to this. That it would lead to these crimes. On the other hand, they didn’t talk about demolishing. That verb wasn’t good, appropriate, calming. They said the zone was being rearranged. It was all sold a project to beautify the area. That’s all the press said. Of course, in reality it was nothing of the kind. Or they would say about the destruction of those areas in central Bucharest that they were applying a “systematisation plan.” In reality, what was happening before our eyes was a crime. In reality, they were putting into practice, step by step, a crime against the heritage of this city, against its architecture,” explains Alexandru Barnea.
Shortly after understanding in detail the scale of this demolition project, Alexandru Barnea began, both out of professional interest and out of his personal passion for history, to study what was happening in the areas due to be modified, in the first place by a radical destruction of heritage. “After I found out that they were going to demolish, I did no more, in the first phase, than slowly observe this process. I observed step by step, by means of long walks; I observed with my own eyes what was being done or being prepared there. I didn’t take the camera with me; I just saw where this terrible project was starting and where it was leading,” recounts Alexandru Barnea. “At a certain moment, I started to take photographs. When I found out the sort thing that was going to happen, and seeing that already they were rigorously putting the destruction plan into application, I decided to take photographs, as many as I could, to save – I didn’t know for when in particular – what was still standing. Or at least to save parts of the memory of those places,” he adds.
The process of observation, as Alexandru Barnea calls it, began at the end of the 1970s and continued through the first two years of the following decade. The phase in which he took photographs of many places with a specific history within the Izvor–Mihai Vodă–Uranus perimeter began, systematically, in 1981 and ended in 1986. “I think I can say that my photos were born from the fear that everything would be destroyed, that everything would be flattened.” reports Alexandru Barnea. “As a trueborn Bucharester, I knew my city, and I wanted to preserve as much as possible of what gave it its charm in one period or another. I was very attached, and still am, to the streets of this city, to its monuments. Well, about my photos, what I managed to do in those five or six years is, we might say, a form of respect for the memory and for the history of the city I love. I think that, in relation to the destroyed heritage, what my photos rendered is – I don’t want to boast, but I don’t want to be modest either – the essential. We can’t of course, do everything, photograph everything. But I did a lot.”
He also recalls that he took about ten to twelve photographs a year in the areas affected by the massive demolitions dictated by the communist regime in the centre of Bucharest. At this rate, he managed to assemble a collection of some dozens of such photographs. He had to rein in this passion in 1986. “That year was for me, as the Romanian saying goes, ‘the sweet on top of the funeral cake’ [i.e. something particularly bad]. Because then I really was scared. I took the photograph from Schitu Măgureanu, with the House of the People that could already be seen. It was an area under surveillance, and I really was scared.” As regards the significance of the pieces that make up his collection, he adds: “I was conscious that I was saving a vanished world; all the time I was conscious of this fact. That was what I wanted; that was always in my mind. For people to see what had been lost of that architectonic richness, what exactly communism had destroyed.” Similarly, Alexandru Barnea explains that he was aware of “the fact that, although the communists pretended to be attached to the historical heritage, although they pretended to respect history, in reality they were opaque to all that. Opaque and – my photographs speak explicitly about this – even destructive. There was indifference and contempt and a destructive urge against all those periods that had built Bucharest and Romania. Specifically, in connection with the photographs preserved by the memory of my camera, these concern the systematic destruction of documents and elements of very special architecture – the medieval period and the beginning of the modern period.” Inasmuch as they were photographs that contradicted the official lines of the communist regime’s propaganda, their status before 1989 was exclusively private. They remained so for a good part of the period that followed the fall of the communist regime in Romania. A short study about a group of them, thirteen in number, appeared in a bilingual publication in Romanian and Italian. The story of these photographs was summarised by their creator and owner in the context of a public lecture held in early 2017 and organised by the Faculty of History, in close association with some of the Romanian researchers involved in the COURAGE project.
Description of content
The archive of photographs illustrating the demolitions in the centre of Bucharest in the communist period that are included in the Alexandru Barnea private collection number over fifty, thirteen of which have been published. Relatively recently, they were included as illustrative material, in a study published in Romanian and Italian. The rest, unknown to the general public, are stored in the home of their creator and owner. Originally, the images were immortalised in the form of colour slides, not on photographic paper.
The advantages of this type of photographic film are emphasised by Alexandru Barnea: “I took photographs at archaeological excavations every year. At a certain point, I gave up using developable film; I had used it too, but I gave up at a certain point. And I went over to colour slide films – a habit which I have kept up until now. Because they were more reliable, more durable. They are also the most faithful and, on top of that, they don’t need a sophisticated camera. They take the image very well, give it a very clear outline and keep the colours of that moment very well; they are very user-friendly and very practical. I have kept them till now in my archive; they are very precious objects, objects to which I am very attached, to which I have a strong affective bond. […] I have all the slides; they are mounted and kept in boxes. They can be reproduced; prints can be taken from them; some of them I have also digitised, for my personal use or to be shown in lectures.” And regarding the way in which he obtained film in the time of the “economy of penury” in 1980s Romania: “The slide film that I used was of East German provenance; it was very hard to find at that time. I sometimes used Romanian film, made somewhere in Mureş – indeed those were the only films made in Romania. Every year, every month in fact, it was a torment to obtain these films, because they could only be found with great difficulty in shops – ORWOCROM was the name of the films. I got them from a gentleman in a shop near the Gara de Nord. It was hard to get films and the processing of the slides was equally hard. My man there helped me with both; he was a very reliable help to me.”
In addition to the more than fifty snapshots kept by Alexandru Barnea, his private collection also includes the camera with which he took these slides. However for the owner of the collection, the photographs taken in the 1980s constitute the essence of his action of cultural opposition to an arbitrary policy of annihilation of an essential part of the national past. “I consider that the star items in my collection of photographs are the thirteen photos that I have published. But in fact I am bound affectively by many threads to all these photographs,” says the photographer who saved from oblivion a few places that were an essential part of the history of the city of Bucharest.
- photos: 10-99
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Important events in the history of the collection
- completely open to the public
- Barnea, Alexandru. 2004. "Bucureștiul sfârșitului de secol XX și demolarea unei istorii" (The Bucharest of the end of the twentieth century and the demolition of a history). In Deteriorarea tensiunii ideale în cultură și artă (The diminishing of ideal tension in culture and art), edited by Henry Mavrodin. Bucharest: Paideia.
Author(s) of this page
- Petrescu, Cristina
- Pătrăşconiu, Cristian Valeriu
Anania, Lidia et al., Bisericile osîndite de Ceauşescu: Bucureşti, 1977–1989 (The churches condemned by Ceaușescu: Bucharest, 1977–1989). Bucharest: Anastasia.
Axinte, Alex and Cristi Borcan. 2010. Evacuarea fantomei: Arhitecturi ale supravieţuirii (Ghost evacuation: Architectures of survival). Bucharest: Asociaţia Pepluspatru.
Giurescu, Dinu C. 1989. The Razing of Romania’s Past. Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Leahu, Gheorghe. 1995. Bucureştiul dispărut (Vanished Bucharest). Bucharest: Arta Grafică.
Nicolau, Irina and Ioana Popescu. 1999. O stradă oarecare din Bucureşti (An ordinary street in Bucharest). Bucharest: Nemira.
Popa, Ioan. 1992. Robi pe Uranus: Cum am construit Casa Poporului (Slaves on Uranus: How we built the House of the People). Bucharest: Humanitas.
Barnea, Alexandru, interview by Pătrăşconiu, Cristian Valeriu , November 01, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection