The NEO-ROMANIAN ARCHITECTURAL STYLE: a brief guide on its origins and features
The neo-Romanian architectural style is one of the most original and strikingly beautiful orders that emerged in Europe during the intensely creative years of late Victorian-era. The Romanians of that period wanted to create a style that would reflect the glories of their medieval past in the transforming architectural landscape of their country, just as the British created decades earlier at a larger scale the better-known Victorian neo-Gothic architectural style.
It represents an interesting blend between eastern Byzantine elements together with local peasant architectural and ethnographic motifs, also particular patterns of Ottoman art and even late Italian Renaissance themes. The style began to be in vogue among the well-to-do Romanians with the first years of the 20th century in pre-WWI Romania, area known as the Old Kingdom, and spread also within Transylvania after the World War One once the province became part of Romania.
A typical neo-Romanian style property looks on lines similar with the following example,
Here one can clearly detect the Byzantine architectural elements (i.e. short arches, thick and short columns, etc.) and the heavy, citadel-like aspect of the building, that all together represents a Romantic architectural metaphor intended by its creators to express the heroic resistance put by Romanians during medieval times as a Christian people against the relentless advance of the Ottoman Empire.
A neo-Romanian style house today is a valuable piece of property and a restoration project would be an extremely interesting and challenging, but rewarding endeavour.
The style reached its zenith during the inter-war period, with an abrupt end after the communist takeover in Romania in 1948. It has somehow been revived during the construction boom of the last decade, but in a minimalist modernist fashion, without the eclectic motifs and grandeur characteristic of the inter-war period.
I assembled here a few images from my postcard and photography collection, which together with short explanations would hopefully help you better appreciate the origins, characteristics, importance and value in artistic and period property market terms of this sophisticated architectural style peculiar to Romania.
Romanians are at their origins a nation of peasant farmers and shepherds. Their dwellings had basic decorations that were mainly ethnographic symbols characteristic to ancient aboriginal European communities that survived in less accessible areas of the continent (for example the Romanian ethnography has many motifs strikingly similar to the Celtic Irish, Pyrenees or Caucasian mountains communities). The house usually served immediate and very practical concerns for a people having to scrap a living in a harsh environment. A typical poor peasant dwelling form the region of the southern plains looked like in the illustration bellow, taken sometime at the end of 19th century.
The wealthier peasants on the other hand were able to build more sophisticated and solid houses that contained many ethnographic and also religious artefacts and decorations. The postcard bellow shows a house, suggesting that aspect, from the southern Carpathian piedmont region, dating from the first decade of the twentieth century:
A real high architectural style emerged in the Romanian lands during the medieval times and one can detect that only in the religious buildings, like village churches or monasteries built and endowed by the boyars (Romanian aristocrats) and princes (voivodes). These churches were typically a symbiosis of mainly Byzantine elements and local ethnographic representations like the rope motif or the symbol of the Sun, etc. A good example is the following image from Valcea County, on the Southern slopes of Transylvanian Alps in Wallachia. These architectural elements are now often found in the neo-Romanian style of architecture.
Another peculiar direction in the medieval church architecture was represented by the cases where Gothic architectural elements prevailed over the Byzantine ones. The classical such area is north-eastern Romania, in the province of Bucovina. A good example is Sucevita Monastery church from Suceava County shown in the image bellow.
That is a most interesting development, being known that the Orthodox church architecture is, as a rule, essentially Byzantine. The fact that Romania has many examples of Orthodox churches with obvious western Gothic motifs is the direct result of the geopolitical historical development of the old Romanian communities on the historic fault line between West and East, between the western and eastern churches. Their religious architecture therefore borrowed from both Gothic and Byzantine styles during the Middle Ages.
This interesting blend of Gothic and Byzantine was not followed, with a few exceptions, in the modern Romanian civil architecture. The best such rare example is the Buzau Community Palace (“Palatul Comunal”), in southern Romania, erected in 1903, in the same period when also the neo-Romanian style was launched. See the image bellow:
This style, which can be called, Moldavian Gothic that subordinates the Byzantine order has however been adopted in the religious architecture with the result that many Romanian churches built in the last one hundred years display this peculiar order (see the Timisoara Cathedral).
The neo-Romanian style eventually won the contest for preference among the public, after it was better promoted by royal patronage and also appealed more to the Romanian elite’s tastes, that after centuries of Ottoman domination felt culturally closer to the civilisation of Byzantium than the Gothic revivalism in the west.
The type of building which is at the core of the neo-Romanian style is “CULA” (pronounced more or less like “coolah”), a fortified variety of mansion built by the small boyars and wealthy peasants of Oltenia in south-western Romania, starting with late 17th century The building includes Byzantine style architectural and structural resistance elements borrowed from local church architecture and also peasant ethnographic features. See in the example bellow one of the most representative such buildings:
In fact the word “cula” derives from the Turkish “kale”/ “kule” meaning citadel or fortified place. The locals adopted it from their Ottoman overlords for that particular type of fortified dwelling that had a very practical purpose in times of instability: to defend the local lord’s family and possessions. The 17th century, when first cula buildings were erected correlates with the start of the long era of instability in the Ottoman Empire that ultimately led to its downfall two and a half centuries latter.
Another source of inspiration for the neo-Romanian style is from the architecture of palaces built for the Wallachian prince Constantin Brancoveanu (1688 – 1714) by Italian architects in a style that borrows heavily from late Renaissance villas of northern Italy. The photography bellow shows Potlogi Palace, now in a very sorry state, where one can also detect numerous elements strikingly similar with the grass root architecture of the cula buildings (some added during subsequent restoration works). That is the reason why sometimes the neo-Romanian style is called “Brancovenesc”. However the term “NEO-ROMANIAN” is more inclusive regarding the blend of styles and motifs than “Brancovenesc” one and therefore better suited to designate that architectural style.
The late Victorian era in Romania was a period of remarkable political stability under the efficient reign of the German origin King Carol I, and great economic prosperity when the country become one of the main grain exporters of Europe. Those facts were reflected in the developments of arts and architecture by the creation of works expressing the confident Romanian national identity. The neo-Romanian architectural style is an expression of that current and spiritual search dating from the last two decades of the 19th century when the seminal architect Ion Mincu erected the first iconic buildings in that style.
The style quickly gained popularity and in a short time by the start of the 20th century many affluent families throughout the country started building mansions or town houses in the new patriotic style. To better promote it among the public, a cula, the original type of the neo-Romanian style, was exhibited at the great 1906 National Royal Exhibition in Bucharest. The exhibition celebrated 40 years of prosperous rule by King Carol I and 1,800 years since the Roman Empire conquered the Dacians, the ancestors of today Romanians and therefore was intended as a celebration of nation’s ancient roots reflected in modernity.
One of the first iconic buildings in the neo-Romanian style still standing in Bucharest is that of Restaurant Doina (the old “Causeway Buffet”) created in 1892 by architect Ion Mincu. Here one can clearly see at its core the cula archetype with the fortified bastion as the main structural element and the decorative Byzantine components, peasant ethnographic motifs and also Ottoman decorative patterns.
Certainly the most iconic building in the neo-Romanian style is Villa Mina Minovici, now a museum and a good place to visit and get initiated in this peculiar and beautiful style. Unfortunately the building today is in a very sorry state, a reflection of the lack of interest from the contemporary Romanian government and public in its architectural heritage.
The neo-Romanian style made also powerful inroads into the modernist architecture of 1930s and 1940s, some of the most interesting such buildings being the Black Sea shore holiday villas built by wealthy and cultured Romanians in places such as Eforie or Mamaia. The example bellow is very instructive in that regard, where the cula core can be instantly recognised. Also on the left had side of the picture in the background, one can also see a villa in the classical neo-Romanian style, which suggest its intense popularity at the time.
After WWII the neo-Romanian style did not find any favour with the communist authorities that governed the country for the next forty-five years. The accent was put on the utilitarian social and industrial architecture. The communists saw the neo-Romanian style as one promoted by their class enemies, the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, and was abandoned. State tenants or companies now occupied the old grandiose buildings that slowly and inexorably fell into disrepair.
The latest building boom underway in post 2000s Romania saw a mushrooming of ugly, badly built country villas and town houses that blight the local architectural landscape. There are some few encouraging exceptions from this rule that stared, for the moment timidly, to incorporate elements of the neo-Romanian architectural style. Their cula core, the main diagnostic element for the neo-Romanian style, recognizes these buildings. I have bellow two examples of architectural project renderings that display attempts to incorporate that important element:
The neo-Romanian architectural style is one of the truly remarkable statements of national art in Europe, but virtually unknown by the large public in the West. Buying, restoring and owning such an architectural gem is a very serious, but rewarding enterprise. Many amazing neo-Romanian buildings are in an advanced state of disrepair today, plagued by the authorities’ indifference and ignorance of their present owners. In many instances they demolish or alter these buildings in order put up bland and bad taste modernist structures built from tacky materials. ©Valentin Mandache
©Valentin Mandache and https://viapontica.wordpress.com 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited
If you are interested in acquiring a neo-Romanian house I would be very glad to assist with the search on the ground, locating the property or special research in the local archives. I also offer assistance and advice regarding the restoration/ renovation project or in obtaining special grants for restoring listed buildings from the Romanian state, specialist banks or the EU. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the “Contact” page of this blog.
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