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Creating a capital

Romanian Modernism: The Architecture of Bucharest, 1920-1940 By Luminita Machedon and Ernie Scoffham.MIT Press, 1999. 407pp. £29.95

Two years ago the RIBA hosted an exhibition of Modern architecture in the Romania of the 1930s; it gave a glimpse of almost totally ignored architecture and urban design of considerable quality. The review (AJ 27.2.97) suggested that this epoch of Modernism would make an excellent subject for further research and architectural tourism.

Now MIT Press has published Romanian Modernism, which fills in more detail from this little-known era.At 400 pages, concentrating on the capital with its remarkable masterplan (the most advanced of its day), it is an excellent introduction to what now seems an extraordinarily prolific period.

Sherban Cantacuzino's foreword, 'On Being Romanian', is primarily a touching tribute to his father, George Matei Cantacuzino, whose stoic idealism saw him through imprisonment by the Stalinists; his final years after release, working in the precincts of Iasi Cathedral, read like a Tarkovsky film script.

The opening chapters introduce other pioneering figures, including Marcel Janco and Horia Creanga. Theory and practice were united in the projects, publications and polemics of this new generation. Then comes 'City in a Garden', on the development of Bucharest's 'green', low-density settlement pattern. The grand central boulevard must, in its time, have contained an unparalleled frontage of Modern buildings, all privately financed.

Here was a city that seemed a clear representation of what Soviet ideologues termed the 'architecture of the industrial bourgeoisie' - seemingly an early success for 'market economics'.

The new aesthetic didn't carry what came in this country to be seen as the stigma of council provision, and indeed became the fashion to aspire to.Unfortunately, it does seem that the effects of war damage, earthquakes and the Ceausescu regime have made present reality rather different from the period photographs.

The chapter on low-cost housing is, not surprisingly, the shortest, with the Vatra Luminosa district appearing as a somewhat grander version of Le Corbusier's Pessac of a decade earlier.

Subsequent chapters on villa and apartment buildings take up far more space, and there are many remarkable buildings; some of the villas tending towards a more ostentatious Art Deco.

It's good to see plans of some of the more notable examples; but a more selective overall approach, allowing for more detail, would have been preferable. That the majority of illustrations are period photographs raises the question of current condition - or even existence; an important omission as far as tourism is concerned.

The closing chapters show all too clearly how a Neo-Classical hybrid of Modernism came to be the style of authoritarian regimes. The results sometimes recall that famous cartoon by Osbert Lancaster: the near-identical Soviet and Nazi pavilions that he drew in Pillar to Post.

David Wild is an architect in London

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