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November 25, 2020

Bruegel today

Three French youths, freshly graduates in urbanism, decided to study the post-communist evolution of three Romanian towns. For a year, they divided their stay in Romania between Iasi, Cluj and Constanta, filming countless day-to-day frames and interviewing various architects, professors or municipal officials. The resulting documentary, named ‘Construction site. The towns after,’ ran first in France, now in Romania too. What could have been an average short movie proves a real artistic revelation.
First, the subject is very suggestive not only for a strictly circumscribed research. The urban evolution is the expression of significant political and social changes. And the post-communist construction boom was chaotic like the lengthy transition, in a competition dominated by privileged relations, unhindered by the rigors of a coherent strategy of development. Communism (especially under Ceausescu) built much, but often poorly (the resources of the system were limited).

And, above all, without discernment: there was a time under the sign of an official collectivistic pathos, whose dusk also meant a radical crisis of urbanism strategy. The new social stratifications also reconfigured the structure of towns.
The forced industrialization promoted by Ceausescu, which led to an urban demographic explosion and the appearance of many new districts (with a typical aspect of communist architecture: repetitive, crowded and without personality, with an intended banal air) was followed by a normal rebirth of individual homes, sign of an emerging new bourgeois class. Even the newly appeared blocks of apartments, some in select micro-districts, were no longer imbued with the proletarian scent and instead answered the demand for increased comfort. This led to high discrepancies in the urban tissue, in line with the coexistence of social networks more autonomous against each other. Urban coherence also requires a significant degree of social cohesion, and this lacks a fertile cultural (and political) substratum at present. A quote printed on the poster of the documentary tries to characterise, in a concise formula, the paradoxes of the Romanian contemporary urban landscape: “we are a mix between corporate world and oriental bazar.”
In other words, the cultural sources of the current urban development allegedly are the organizational culture of specifically capitalist corporations and – against the background of the high degree of commercial globalization – a culture of paradoxical proximities and chaotic heterogeneities. All these are essentially imports, whose effects are often undermined by the temptation of the kitsch.
The documentary produced by the three French youths is also interesting because it presents the special world of those who make urbanism decisions. Political populism, the pressure of economic interests, the ambiguous position of “experts”, a conjectural legislation – these all discourage the visionary strategies which, in turn, should not be idealized. The surprising thing is the cultural perspective of official urbanism experts. At Iasi, for instance, the construction of a mall became a source of touristic pride. It is a planetary phenomenon, of course, in line with the present-day consumerism, but the lack of alternatives is discouraging. Reality is more prosaic: the architectural production yielded modest fruits in terms of peak art, during this last quarter of century.
If we look at the 50 places of Italy that entered the UNESCO `World Heritage List`, we notice that many of them represent models of integrating urbanism solutions with architectural landscape and refinement. This gave them a secular force of cultural irradiation. Where are such examples in today’s Romania? Where are the grand achievements of contemporary architecture, capable to become urban symbols? Let alone the local architectural patrimony too often allowed to decay, and the lack of solutions for its creative integration in a modern urban tissue.
But the strong point of the documentary is the kaleidoscope of urban pictures, structured in an inspired succession and accompanied by a suggestive background of rap and electro music, sometimes with local nuances. The result is a satiric puzzle with ambitions of urban ethnography. Anonymous characters, but in suggestive attitudes (such as an old woman in bikini, drying her mud in the sun on a concrete dam, or a circle of guardsmen in an eloquent mute choreography), along with landscapes sometimes hilarious, even grotesque through the unique blends, sometimes desolating, or strident through aesthetical indifference. This is the real Romania, sometimes displaying heterogeneity at the limit of surrealism, other times extremely provincial, despite the ambitions of an efficient modernization. Let’s not be cheated by the inevitable exoticism of such urban pictures, especially as they are inevitably selective. Gianfranco Rosi described in `Sacro GRA` the world of the outskirts of Rome, and the effect is rather one of magic realism. ‘Construction site’ rather ranges within the genre of social parables in sarcastic tonality, meant to denunciate insidious tendencies of social disaggregation, while focusing of a sufficiently distant manner, so the conclusions are unclear and slide toward less contextual anthropological interrogations. It is an attempt at surprising the day-to-day life in its appearance that is both nude (without demonstrative connotations) and incoherent – an already classical exercise of cinematographic aesthetics. It is as if Bruegel lends his perspective to a present-day documentary producer.

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