Architect Marcel Iancu and his Modernist designs in Bucharest. Impressions by Adrian Yekkes

Adrian Yekkes, the insightful travel writer interested in Jewish heritage around the world, who last week came all the way from London to visit Bucharest, has just published his impressions about the great Romanian Jewish architect Marcel Iancu and his Modernist buildings that embellish Romania’s capital. I had the pleasure to be Adrian and his friend’s guide in the city and share with them my views about that unique creator. Iancu is among the founders of the Dada artistic movement and a gifted Modernist architectural designer. Bucharest was the place where he spread his creative wings, a trajectory unfortunately prematurely interrupted by the onset of the Second World War and the Holocaust in this part of the world. Adrian’s delightful article brimful of information can be accessed and read at this link:

Marcel Janco and Modernist Bucharest:

Neo-Romanian style tree of life as birthday card

Neo-Romanian style tree of life, mid-1930s house, Icoanei area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Two close members of my family celebrate their birthday in the second part of August. I thought that a fitting card for this beautiful occasion would be one of my architectural photographs depicting a remarkable rendering in the Neo-Romanian style of the tree of life motif. The card which I sent to my relatives contains the image presented above, where the tree of life is embodied by the flamboyantly decorated staircase window on the right. It depicts the origins of life represented by the three grains (holy trinity) at the base of the flower pot in the lower register, and then the springing up of life in waves of vine branches and grapes. The continuity and diverse events of life are rendered on the vertical sides of the wall opening, everything culminating in paradise, seen in the pair of majestic peacocks feeding from a grape in a cup supported by a cross symbol, grouped in the upper register. The window opening is occupied by a circular reticulation panel, which can be interpreted as the trunk of a tree: a palm tree perhaps, that has biblical connotations, or a rendering of  a medieval church window glazed with circular panes of blown glass. The opening is bordered by a beautiful rope, a ubiquitous motif in Romanian church architecture and peasant art. The top of the window is of broken arch type, typical of the Brancovan churches of the c18th in Wallachia, which is a motif borrowed from the Islamic architecture of the Ottoman Balkans.

I found during my fieldwork in Bucharest four such exquisite Neo-Romanian style three of life windows embellishing buildings erected in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. One of them, in many ways similar with the one shown in this article, can be seen and read about at this link: Magnificent Neo-Romanian style “Tree of Life” panel. Another such window decorates Prince Nicolae Villa in Cotroceni, which unfortunately is now badly damaged in botched renovation works perpetrated by uncultured contemporary Romanian proprietors.

Fresh impressions about Jewish Bucharest by Adrian Yekkes, a Londoner and travel writer

Recently I had the pleasure to be the guide in Bucharest of Adrian Yekkes and his friend, who came from London to see the remnants of the Jewish civilization that once thrived in this East European city, and also the creations of Marcel Janco, a founder of the Dada artistic movement and creator of remarkable modernist architectural designs in the 1920s and ’30s Bucharest. The very insightful article written by Adrian can be accessed at this link:

Adam and Eve in Art Deco and 1960s communist representations

The primordial couple, Adam and Eve, is a predilect theme in the visual arts. The architectural decoration is no exception in that regard. I found during my fieldwork in Bucharest two such representations, an Art Deco style bas-relief embellishing the pediment of a 1929 apartment house entrance, and a statue, part of the garden design of the garden of a mid-1960s communist block of flats, both shown in the photographs bellow.

Adam and Eve in an Art Deco era representation, 1929 house, Cismigiu area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The Art Deco era panel is, in my opinion, a fairly good artistic product, on classical or even Rodin-inan lines, inviting to philosophate about the symbolism of this couple in the conditions of the inter-war period, at the beginning of the Great Depression. I like the altar, with a base in three steps, and a three groove shaft, all conforming to the Art Deco’s rule of three, on which the two personages lean, engulfed within the radiation generated by the sacred fire. Adam and Eve in this instance look quite androgynous, which conform to the Greek classical norms of uncertain gender portrayal.

Adam and Eve represented as a pair of communist youth in a 1960s sculpture, Domenii area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The couple from the mid-1960s statuary composition is also a rendering of the Adam and Eve theme, but in the communist ideology coordinates that pervaded the life and society of Romania of that period. It represents a pair of Romeo-and-Juliet age adolescents, not of an aristocratic outlook, but in what were then considered healthy, study outlines of the working class individuals. The 1960s was a period of thaw within the communist world, after the harsh Stalinist post-war years, and in Romania in particular that was reflected in good quality artistic and also architectural productions (see for example the remarkable Modernist designs of the hotels embellishing the Black Sea resorts). This statue exudes something from that more propitious atmosphere and in my opinion is of a better artistic standard than the Art Deco bas-relief described above.

Adam and Eve in Art Deco and 1960s communist representations, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Glazed balconies of different eras

Bellow are three interesting images of glazed balconies/ verandas pertaining to the three main styles that characterize the architecture of Bucharest: Little Paris (last quarter of the c19th until the Great War), Neo-Romanian (late c19th – late 1940s) and Art Deco (1930s and ’40s). From what I found in my fieldwork, usually the glazed structures are not contemporary with the original building, but added as an improvement or embellishment in renovations works of the first or second decade after the edifice is put in place. The main attraction of a glazed structure, be it a balcony, doorway or light-well is in fact its exquisite ironwork, its frame, exemplified here in the second photograph showing the Neo-Romanian glazed balcony. Sometimes there are bits of original glass panes still surviving within the ironwork, which in the case of the historicist c19th Little Paris design comes in beautiful colours typical of the Victorian era coloured glass.

Little Paris style glazed balcony, 1890s house, Gradina Icoanei area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Neo-Romanian style glazed balcony, late 1920s house, Cotroceni area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Art Deco style glazed balcony, mid-1930s house, Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Late Neo-Romanian style doorway awning

Late Neo-Romanian style doorway awning, early 1930s house, Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

This is a small doorway awning of a type belonging to the late Neo-Romanian style, which unfurled between the late 1920s until the end of the Second World War. That phase of Romania’s national architectural design is characterised by a reduction to fundamentals of its decorative register, often expressed in Art Deco and sometimes Modernist coordinates, in a medium that made ample use of modern construction technologies, such as reinforced concrete, steel and glass.  The outlines of the awning are clearly reduced to essential, especially the arched corbels, embellished with the rope symbol, a religious as well as an ethnographic motif. There are also representations of other ethnographic elements throughout the structure, in the same abstract vein. The whole assembly integrates itself quite harmoniously with the rest of the architecture of the house, making it an interesting late Neo-Romanian design.

Late Neo-Romanian style doorway awning, early 1930s house, Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Late Neo-Romanian style doorway awning, early 1930s house, Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Bucharest Art Deco building top

Bucharest Art Deco building top, ate 1930s apartment block, Patriarchy Hill area (©Valentin Mandache)

This building is not much to write home about if one looks at its street and lower levels, but the top is an entirely different story, as the picture above testifies. It gives the impression of a river fall or rapid through the multitude of right angle steps and vertical ridges that embellish it. The rule of three, inspired from Egyptian mythology, so popular in the era when the Art Deco style was in vogue, is evident in the “straps” delimited by the straight vertical ridges and the grouping of the assembly of steps on the top of the building. There is also an allusion to the ocean line theme through the porthole window at the centre, the two small flag poles that flank the vertical ridges and the general impression of a liner’s command bridge exuded by this building top structure.

Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony

I found this small and exquisite Art Deco detail during one of my architectural history tours in Patriarchy Hill area of Bucharest. It forms part of the rooftop veranda of a house built in the late ’30s, on an ocean liner theme. In fact the shape of the balcony and the veranda fence are clearly inspired from a nautical theme, similar with the semi-cylindrical observation post/ cage on top of the bow of the big liners of that era. Bellow this more unusual balcony is presented in six different image processing sequences and filters, which I hope would better convey its nice proportions and architectural context.

Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)
Art Deco semi-cylindrical balcony, late 1930s house, Patriarchy Hill area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Art Deco in the heath of the night

Art Deco sight in the heath of the night, Domenii quarter, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Bucharest now goes, as many other places in the northern hemisphere, through a terrible heath wave, which has unfurled for a month now and is still going on unabated. The city in this period went through temperatures of over 35 – 37 centigrades or even higher, which in my opinion is an obvious sign of a the ongoing climate change. The nights are hot too, many people taking walks on the streets, going to parks or sitting on balconies at very late hours. I have been one of those strollers, walking in the last few days late at night up and down the streets of Domenii quarter, which is near the area where I currently live. It was developed in the inter-war period and contains some beautiful examples of Art Deco architecture. I found very interesting to observe how the architectural forms and all sorts of details show off in the clear-obscure of the discreetly lit residential streets of this quarter. The diverse decorations, motifs embellishing the old houses look like glowing or vibrating in very warm air, and the flying insects crowding around light bulbs complete the exotic atmosphere, which coincide with the southern seas theme (jungle and sunburst motifs, ocean liner shapes, etc.) so typical of Bucharest’s Art Deco architecture. Here are two Art Deco entrances shot during those late hours, which I believe relay something from what I have seen and sensed about Bucharest’s historic architecture in the heath of the night.

Art Deco in the heath of the night, Domenii quarter, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

A century old air vent

Air vent of a 1900s house in Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

Actually this air vent is about 110 years old. It is still in good working order, ensuring the ventilation of a brick lined cellar underneath a flamboyant Little Paris style house in Mantuleasa area of Bucharest. The period houses of this city were much better aired than the ones built during the communist and post-communist periods. Unfortunately those air vents and ducts are now fast disappearing, victims of the botched “renovation” or “modernisation” works performed by the uncouth contemporary inhabitants of Romania’s capital, with dreadful consequences for the integrity of the fabric of those historic buildings.