Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 9, 2001
Luminita Machedon and Ernie Scoffham Romanian Modernism: The Architecture of Bucharest, 1920–1940 Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. 407 pp.; 306 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0262133482)

With each passing year, the geographic area of modernism seems to increase. Similar to the expansion of NATO, but lacking the political strife, modernism’s boundary gradually moves eastward to include lands that were abandoned to their own sphere of influence following the Second World War. In recent years though, Western art and architectural historians have begun to rediscover what was, in fact, the heartland of modernism: Central Europe. However Central Europe is defined—whether geographically, by a history of shared monarchs, or overlapping spheres of influence centered on one or another capital city—the boundaries separating the West from this heartland, now mostly linguistic, are gradually falling.

In books written by Vladimir Slapeta, Stefan Muthesius, David Crowley, Ladislav Foltyn, Akos Moravanszky, and Dora Wiebenson and Jozsef Sisa, to name just a few, Bohemia and Moravia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary have all recently been added to the countries Western art historians now think of as having a modern tradition. Indeed, what is now emerging is that much of what we think of as modern in art actually originated in these countries. To historians working and living in these countries, though, this is not novel; the eminence and contributions of native sons and daughters, even if not profoundly explored, has at least been known and celebrated for some time.

The country most recently added is Romania. With the publication of Romanian Modernism: The Architecture of Bucharest, 1920-1940 the boundaries of modernism move further eastward. The role Romania played in the emergence of modernism is significant but remains under-explored. A number of recent books do focus on Romanian modernism, such as Centenar Horia Creanga, (Union of Romanian Architects, 1992), Bucharest in the 1920-1940s: Between Avant-Garde and Modernism, (Simetria Publishing House of Romanian Architects, 1994), and Marcel Janco in Interwar Romania: Architect, Artist, Theorist (Simetria Publishing House of Romanian Architects and Meridiane Publishing House, 1996). But their limited printing and distribution—outside of Bucharest they seem impossible to acquire—means that they will not be enlarging the audience for Central European modernism. Works that have seen greater circulation, such as Stephan Mansbach’s Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans, ca. 1890-1939, (Cambridge University Press, 1999), which deals with a broad swath from the Baltics to the Balkans, and his article from the September 1998 issue of the Art Bulletin, “The ‘Foreignness’ of Classical Modern Art in Romania,” have discussed fundamental aspects of interwar modernism in Central Europe, and Romania in particular, but much remains to be both discovered and disseminated.

Machedon and Scoffham’s book, the “first English-language publication to address the phenomenon of Modernism in Romanian architecture between the two world wars” (introduction, 1), is an attempt to fill the gap. The two authors, a Romanian and an Englishman, set themselves the task of “penetrating the reasons why modernism in Romania was apparently so successful and had such an impact, and why Bucharest was able to accommodate considerable changes to its organizational structure and built fabric within a relatively short period of time” (introduction, 1). This question is explored over the course of eleven chapters, organized into two major groups. In the three chapters following the introduction, the authors explore the historical background of Romanian architecture and culture between the two world wars. They present a brief history of Romania and Romanian architecture; introduce Marcel Janco and Horia Creanga, two major artistic protagonists of the period; and discuss the major practical and theoretical periodicals—the means of visual dissemination—of the period. The second group, Chapters 5 through 10, considers various aspects of construction and urbanism in Bucharest: the garden city ideal and its insinuation into the urban fabric and design of Bucharest; as well as different variants of shelter: public housing, the private villa, and the apartment building. The last two chapters of this section focus on the public face of modernism: public programs and industrial and exhibition architecture. The book’s final chapter, “Liberation,” leaps to the 1990s and looks over the remains of the interwar heyday.

Although they do fulfill it, the authors have set themselves a limited and curious task. In considering the scope of the book, they write that they “make no attempt to judge the quality or the characteristics of Romanian modernism against the achievements of the Modern Movement elsewhere” (introduction, 1). Though this methodology may have merit in focusing their subject, when dealing with an artistic movement like the Modern Movement—whose geographic range is from the Soviet Union to Mexico, from Finland to Argentina and whose intellectual range is the world—such limitations seem, literally, shortsighted, especially given the close cultural and linguistic ties between Romania and Italy and France, which were, after all, two other significant springs of modernism. As the authors themselves say “[m]any Romanian students of architecture studied in France, Germany, and Italy, where they came in direct contact with the initial currents of the Modern Movement” (34). National manifestations and variants of art can and should be considered, but a kind of internationalism was fundamental to modernism, and so requires some inquiry into that larger world.

Beyond these self-imposed limits to the investigation’s scope, the book is plagued by a number of production problems. The authors assume too much regarding the reader’s familiarity with Bucharest. There is no reliable map explaining the city around which the entire book revolves. A number of maps taken from urban plans of the 1930s are reproduced, but at such a scale and clarity that only someone already familiar with the city can read them. Moreover, these maps are poorly placed. Those showing Central Europe both before and after World War I, for instance, are back to back on the same page, rather than on facing pages, making comparisons between the two awkward, which makes the book harder to use. The layout of photographs is also a problem. Although each photograph is numbered and labeled, the numbers do not appear in the text; one can read without knowing that there is an image of the building to refer to in the book. Compounding this are several runs of six or seven pages containing nothing but photographs, making, again, their relationship to the text unclear. Finally, the lack of color is a disappointment. While buildings, particularly modernist buildings, may lend themselves to black and white photography, Marcel Janco’s dadaist painting, though only two of the book’s many illustrations, can hardly be appreciated this way.

Despite these criticisms, many of which could be easily addressed in a revised edition, the book should be welcomed to the library of modernism. It brings into sharper focus the historical role played by Romania, and, by extension, Central Europe, in the development of modern architecture. It expands as well the visual resources of architectural historians and those interested in a tectonic approach to architecture. By doing so, it reveals the richness of twentieth-century modernism in this part of the world, and it may well generate the interest of other historians whose work will one day exceed it.

Samuel D. Albert
Hebrew University of Jerusalem.