The Mutilation Of An Architectural Masterpiece

Alright, we’ll go ahead and say it – the new bookstore in Lipscani is a nauseating disappointment. The local media is touting this as a great renewal of an old building – and it’s garnering quite a bit of attention. Unfortunately, it seems to be catching people’s eyes for all the wrong reasons. Before we get into the details of this statement – a statement that’s likely upset a number of people already – let’s go backwards in time for a moment…

We all know that Bucharest is a mixture of old and new, historical and beautiful, historical and not-so-beautiful, communism and modernism, and that’s alright – we accept that. Architectural diversity is one of the things that helps make Bucharest a unique place. But let’s face it – there are only a handful of true architectural gems remaining in Bucharest (funny thing, a lot of these buildings seem to house the offices of public notaries). Are these gems not worthy of restoring or renovating in a way that preserves their architectural integrity? Now, we don’t own these buildings, so of course, it’s not our given “right” to judge what someone does with their own buildings [investment] however doesn’t it seem fit to make mention of the fact that “they’re not making any more old buildings”?

So, “Preserving the architectural integrity”… let’s call this “Architectural Conservation” for the sake of this argument. What is Architectural Conservation? Well, according to Wikipedia, Architectural conservation describes the process through which the material, historical, and design integrity of humanity’s built heritage are prolonged through carefully planned interventions. The individual engaged in this pursuit is known as an architectural conservator. Decisions of when and how to engage in an intervention are critical to the ultimate conservation of the immovable object. Ultimately, the decision is value based: a combination of artistic, contextual, and informational values is normally considered. In some cases, a decision to not intervene may be the most appropriate choice.

Romania as a Country is not shy to the concept of Architectural Conservation. They “conserve” and effectively restore most older churches and monasteries (really they wouldn’t dare to have it any other way for fear of being banished to some mystical place of torture for all eternity), and there are certainly a number of people that have successfully resurrected some old buildings, homes, and even smaller Romanian villages.

Carturesti Bookstore Lipscani RomaniaBut let’s go ahead and use the new Carturesti bookstore in Lipscani as a perfect example of what NOT to do. Like with many “conversion” hack-jobs, this bookstore makes no attempt to indicate visually that “the bottom line” should be valued among all else. We’re taking the big presumption here in this article that the developers were attempting to “mix a little old with new” – breathe new life into an old building.. yada yada yada – so assuming this to be the case, we still find that “modern” should not be synonymous with “shoddy”.

Upon entering this newly opened bookstore in Lipscani, one could not help but notice the vast open spaces and the “impressiveness” of this building. The foyer gives way to a soaring sky-light at the pinnacle of four levels of floor space plus additional intertwining mezzanine levels and a sub-ground floor. The problem with this “picture” though, is that you’re looking on the surface of this interior, and allowing your mind to fill in the blanks with what it “used” to be and what it “could” become, rather than what it “is” in current reality. This current reality, for us (and yes, this is an opinionated article), is rather disappointing (or shall we say disenchanting). If you want to know what it feels like to enter this bookstore, imagine that you’re a big nature and wildlife lover… you’re going on “photo-safari” to the African Sahara, where you know you’ll enjoy immersing yourself in a timeless, wondrous, and natural experience – an experience almost untouched throughout time. However, when the day finally comes and you land at the airport and are whisked away to your final destination – it turns out that your visit to this natural paradise is drastically flawed. You find out that you’ll be staying in a modern resort complete with its’ own private petting zoo where you’re of course free to take all the photos you want and enjoy all of life’s history through the eyes of an all-inclusive resort.

Upon closer inspection of the building, the anticipation one had prior to walking through the doors quickly fades to more of a “wtf” feeling. The crown molding, columns, and balustrades have been well-kept – the spaces seem to be “sans-drywall” so that’s certainly a “plus”. However this is where the  attention to details seems to take a bit of a detour. Of course, like all “euro-new” they’ve once again emptied the coffers of Romania’s “White Paint Depository”. Surely we could be wrong, but when this building was in it’s prime, it more than likely did not contain the color palette of a biological research facility. Once you get over the shock factor of the “clean white” look (yeah, that’s sarcasm), your eyes are then drawn to the handrails and railings. It’s difficult to explain why these railings are so out of place, other than simply saying “the railings are so out of place”. Forged steel, improperly primed, and more akin to something you’d see rusting away on the promenade of the Jersey Shore rather than that of a decorative ornament in a once-stunning building. In fact, there were spots on the handrail where the paint was already beginning to bubble away. Hopefully the construction company didn’t actually “bill” for their work. Next on the list, the poured concrete stairs. If it isn’t bad enough that the stairways are predominantly poured concrete (adding to the institutional feeling) they’re also painted white. As of yet, the bookstore does not provide one with house shoes or booties to wear while walking around inside, so you can imagine the mess that’s made atop the snow-capped stairways. Now for the final “fail”. Apparently, the proper restoration of the crown mouldings ran the budget down quite a bit. This is reflected in the “afterthought” of bookshelves (this is of course a bookstore, and although the bookstore may simply be a temporary tenant, it’s definitely adding insult to injury) can and should be removed, there they stand – precariously. As if from the leftover bin at IKEA, these bookshelves do NOTHING to enhance the feeling that you’re in an old building. In fact, they do quite the opposite (when was melamine invented?). Imagine buying a vintage Rolls-Royce, ripping out the dash panel, and replacing it with a shiny new piece of cardboard. Nothing wrong with that I suppose. What’s new is good, right?

What’s our final word on this? While we don’t know if this is a permanent home to the Carturesti bookstore or not, we do know that the “idea” behind this may have been conceived with the best of intentions. Many of our team members from Bucharest Expat come from a real estate background, so yes, we do “dare” to say what we’ve said. If you’re going to be the “caretaker” of a building such as this, please do your best to preserve it the way it was – not the way you think it should be – this is always a recipe for disaster (if you’re thinking to yourself “well, so you think we should restore communist buildings to the way they once were”, then clearly the point of this article has eluded you entirely).

The great part about this building is that the failures can indeed be rectified. Stairs can be fixed, carpeting can be changed, colors can be re-done, railings can be removed, and shelving can be discarded. As this article is being written three days after the grand opening, there’s a great chance that what we’ve pointed out is already being addressed. If that’s the case, then congratulations to those involved in this project – you’ve done a great job. If however this is not to be the case, then we beg of you “please… for the sake of history…. no more renovations!”

El-AteneoThe truth of the matter is that this is a good example of how Romanians (in particular Bucurestians) are turning their interpretation of reality into actual reality. They “like” the idea of things – of venues – that could be considered “high society” or “the place to be (and to be seen)” – connections to the modern, western, capitalistic (and materialistic) cultures – ideas that quietly but constantly tap everyone here on the back of the shoulder and whisper “hey, you want to embrace me”. What winds up happening in this attempt to copy is actually quite interesting… they (the emulators) actually wind up creating their own culture – their own uniqueness. This goes both ways too. Consider that in the US, there’s an astonishingly large number of people who try to emulate the “European” lifestyle with laughable results. With the majority of these latter individuals having never actually traveled to Europe, their “template” is flawed from the beginning. So what does that have to do with the building at hand? Well, for starters, nobody was actually around to see and experience what this building was like when it was originally built. Our reference point for this (aside for archival photos) will be examples of other buildings from the neo-classical time period (nineteenth century) that HAVE been brought back to their original splendor (in most major cities around the world where fine architecture is predominant, its’ actually illegal to poorly renovate such structures). Like the Americans that have never left their backyard – others must embrace this worldly outlook in order to best preserve icons from the past so that future generations can “see history” as it should be. Then again, this begs the question; When it comes to renewing an older building is it better to do something rather than nothing? I mean, this building is now “good” for another handful of decades, where had nothing been done with it, it may have deteriorated to the point of new return. For that, and possibly that alone, we congratulate the team behind the opening of this “bookstore”.

But this is a bookstore you say – in an architecturally significant building – that’s never been done before! Oh, but wait. It has. Not only has it been done before, but its’ been done really, really, really well. In closing, we’ll show you a photo of the El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires. We’ve been there, we saw it, we experienced it, and we love it. So should you. The old theatre building, completed in 1919, has been meticulously restored to its’ prior “splendor” and … you guessed it, it’s a bookstore! El Ateneo Grand Splendid has been voted the second most beautiful bookstore in the World.