On [Travelling Buildings]

Eng. Eugeniu Iordachescu

Interviewed by Laura Minca

Bucharest, 12th April 2012

Laura Minca:  Mr. Iordachescu, I would like to thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview, it is an honor to meet you.

Firstly, could you tell me how do you remember Bucharest before and during the radical demolition process imposed on the urban fabric by the communist regime? What was the atmosphere like during those tumultuous times?

Eugeniu Iordachescu: We need to start our story with a period prior to the actual implementation era, with the event that triggered the dictator’s idea to draft the plan for a series of constructions that would be earth-quake proof. The experience of the earthquake frightened Ceausescu. When the earthquake happened on the 4th of March 1977, Bucharest lost 31 buildings. Out of these buildings, twenty-eight were part of the 1949-1950 period (what we can also refer to as the nationalization era), and three were newly built. At the time, we lost around 1514 persons and over 10 000 were hurt. The damage was enormous, and was estimated at an approximate of 2 billion American dollars. However, the dictator was not in the country at the time and had to immediately return to Romania from a diplomatic visit in Algeria. During this time, a national mobilization campaign was initiated with the aid of the National Army Forces and the Civil Protection Forces in order to save the human victims trapped under the piles of concrete.

At the time I was the Technical Director of Project Bucharest. Our main work covered a broad area of programmes and was mainly concerned with the residential development of the city. Nevertheless, we also attended to the design of the commercial spaces, theatres, schools, kindergartens, and so on.

Action had to be taken and at the time our team was comprised of 1800 architects, planners and technicians. Nevertheless, our team was small compared to the extensive damage caused by the earthquake. Fortunately, we received technical support from other academic centers among which Timisoara, Cluj, Iasi and we managed to complete the teams. In the end, we decided each team would comprise of three specialists that would go on site and put together official reports describing the degree of the damage.

The three new buildings that I referred to earlier include a block of apartments in the ‘Armata Poporului’ area, one on Lizeanu Streetand the National Railway Calculus Centre. The rest of the damaged buildings were mainly located in the city centre area. As a result of the inventory the Institute put together, we were able to classify the extent of the losses into two categories: Emergency 1, and Emergeny 2.  After analyzing these documents and the magnitude of the devastations upon the urban fabric, Ceausescu concluded this was the perfect opportunity to reorganize the city. As a result, after a series of discussions with the Central Committee, he decided to launch a competition. Six teams comprising of the most prominent Romanian architects of the time were assembled.

Ceausescu did not have the ability to read urban plans, he did not have a clear vision of the city as a functioning whole. He asked for a landmark building to be designed, a building that would envelope the headquarters of the Central Party Committee, the Government and the State Council. As a response to his list of requirements, the concept behind the design of the House of People started to surface. We can assert this was the moment when Bucharest entered its mutilation phase.

Before we go into any more detail we should mention the fact that Bucharest’s circulation scheme was extremely ‘healthy’, functional ever since the 1800s: a radial structure encompassed by three concentric rings. Ceausescu asked for a straight line to be drawn through the heart of the city. This rupture had irreversible effects upon the entire circulation apparatus which was irreversibly fragmented; this is the reason behind today’s high levels of traffic. All the connection nodes and flows were interrupted, blocked and the era of a never-ending congestion emerged. Things deteriorated even more when the E – W axis was introduced as a perpendicular on the N – S axis.

The only way this problem can be tackled nowadays is through the underground network which the authorities are continuously expanding. Nevertheless, the four sectors resulted from the axial division are not fully tied together by the underground scheme and there are a series of other strategies that need to be implemented on the overground level in order for the city to fully recover.

Going back to our story, each team of architects presented their systematization studies following the lines imposed by the new circulation axes. Since Ceausescu was not able to read technical drawings, he asked for large models to be built – we created hundreds of models at the time spreading over large areas. After an intensive selection process the proposals of two teams drew the attention of the dictator and so we were asked to build a huge model which was 400 square meters in terms of surface. Due to the enormous scale of the model, an electrical bridge had to be built so that he and his wife could closely observe the urban schemes and make further suggestions. The aspect that needs to be pointed out at this moment is that they were the ones that dictated the outlines of the regeneration scheme while the specialists were there to execute their orders.

During one of these meetings, Ceausescu asked: ‘How wide is Aviatorilor Boulevard?’ The architect answered: ‘Roughly 70 meters between house fronts.’ Ceausescu said: ‘Let it be wider! Make it 90 meters wide!’.

This is how concept for the Unirii Boulevard surfaced as the axis that would link the House of People with Alba Iulia Piazza. The widening of the boulevard involved the further demolition of another row of houses and the losses were again massive. It was under these circumstances that the Uranus neighborhood was demolished in order to make room for the dictator’s most ambitious project to date – The House of Parliament.

We were the coordinators of the entire systematization plan. After a scheme was agreed upon, the Institute summoned four hundred architects, and we had to immediately start preparing its implementation. Nevertheless, I wanted to see with my own eyes the area that was about to be demolished. It was under this circumstance, strolling along the Unirii area that I ran into the Mihai Voda Hill neighborhood. The architects were enticed by the idea of positioning the House of People on an elevated site since the play of heights and scale would contribute to the grandeur the edifice was aiming for. However, nobody suspected what was about to happen. As I was wondering around the area, I discovered the Schitul Maicilor Church which I was only acquainted with from the drawings and plans I was working on at the time. This little church looked breathtaking on the backdrop of peaceful spring scenery. As I entered the interior courtyard, I met the vicar who explained to me that the church was also housing the workshops for a variety of hand-made religious objects. I was deeply impressed with everything I had experienced during that afternoon but at the same time discouraged knowing the dark future that was lying ahead. The church had been built in 1726. After I visited the area, the idea that I had to do something in due time to save these buildings started to haunt me. At the time I felt I could not make this happen unless I moved them outside the area destined for the House of People scheme. As I returned to the office, I told my supervisor that I would like to ‘move’ the buildings and although initially my proposal was not taken seriously, I systematically insisted that something needs to be done. As a result of the radical restructuring of the city and the imposed modernization of the adjacent rural areas the attention of the international press turned to Romania. Radio BBC, Detusche Welle, everybody kept a close eye on the development of these events. My request to move the buildings coincided with this negative outlook upon Romania and as a result, my supervisor came to me one day and said: ‘It has been approved! Start the work!’ Ceausescu used to come regularly to the sites and visit the evolution of the process, sometimes even twice a week.

LM: Did you have a defined technical plan for how you were planning to achieve the ‘translation’ of the buildings?

EI: I had a good idea of what I was going to do, but the system had to be perfected. After I researched the international press, I realized that the technique I was about to use was remarkably similar to the restructuring plan that Ludovic XVI employed for the widening of Paris’s boulevards: it was crazy! As soon as Ceausescu approved the scheme, work started on site immediately. One afternoon, Ceausescu and his wife arrived on site as the church was ready for the translation to effectively commence. As the visit came to an end, Elena Ceausescu told him: ‘They did it after all!’ Her comment suggested that we were given the approval to proceed with our plan, while the Party was secretly hoping that we would succeed in implementing it. Ever since that moment, Ceausescu supported the translation action, but she set herself completely against it. ‘Schitul Maicilor’ Church required five different movements in space in order for it to travel the 245 meters. It was a complex process but the technique I managed to patent in the end worked flawlessly. This represented the stepping stone for many other buildings to be rescued.

LM: Were you the first one to implement this technique?

EI: Yes, I was. Nevertheless, we must mention the remarkable efforts of the Yugoslavians to move Piva Monastery. Their process was completely different though: firstly, they deconstructed the entire building, then they numbered and labeled every part and finally they reconstructed it in a different place. In my opinion, through this technique the objective loses its integrity, its intrinsic value and spirituality.

LM: Did you use this technique for other buildings in Bucharest?

EI: While in Bucharest, I moved residential blocks while the residents where still in them, carrying on with their daily chores. Ceausescu started to like the process and its results: I received a decree after every single visit with indicators of distance weight, financial, time.

Suzana Gadea which was at the time the Secretary of the State Council in Cultural Affairs visited one of the blocks on Stefan cel Mare Street. As we were observing the process of translation, I explained to her that the water and light were still running and that even the elevator was working. She wanted to see it for herself and we took the elevator to the sixth floor. We met one of the neighbors and she asked for a glass of water. Later on I understood she wanted to check if there were any vibrations on the surface of the liquid as the building was travelling: none whatsoever! The telephone lines, the gas pipes, the sewage, they were all working while the residential block was moving! We used elastic coupling for all the connections, and none of the activities of the residents were interrupted.

LM: How does the process actually work?

EI: The buildings were mounted on train tracks and then pulled with the help of electric trolleys. We didn’t lift anything as the basis for our concept was keep all within the same plane. For example, the Antim Synodal Palace weighed over 9000 tons. We didn’t disrupt the library in any way; we didn’t want to take the books or archives out since they were fragile pieces and their arrangement would have been disturbed by any foreign movement. Everything should be kept in the same plane; this is the secret of my technique.

LM: How did you manage to insert the railway tracks under the buildings?

EI: There is a technological process I developed which is based on a set of different movements so that the transport elements can be introduced under the building. We used 30 cm wheels in diameter, fixed under the ‘tray’ supporting the underside of the building while being pushed by hydraulic jacks or pulled by electric trolleys on the railway tracks. If a rotation, a lifting or a lowering movement was required we would have the technical means to support the operation.

My idea stemmed from the way a waiter carries his tray: a rigid surface is holding the glasses in a horizontal plane. Therefore, as the waiter makes his way around the guests the safety of the glasses is not compromised. There is also a principle in physics – Navier’s theory – that states that a point in space can change its position only if there is a deformation of some sort affecting the plane it is supported by. If there is no deformation, this means that that point will remain fixed. Starting from this principle that the waiter applies subconsciously, instinctually, I managed to develop the translation technique. This method needs to be adapted however to each type of building; there is no fixed recipe for it.

LM: Which was the most difficult building you had to move?

EI: Mihai-Voda Church. At the time, I invited Leslie Robertson, the chief structural engineer of the World Trade Centre to take a look at our work. He was surprised to witness how the translation process operates and confessed he had never seen anything like it. As he watched me and my crew working under the building, he expressed his worry regarding the health and safety regulation policies. The whole responsibility was on my shoulders, I was the one that had to develop the entire array of health and safety measures to avoid any type of on-site accidents. I believe one can be as concerned with the safety factors the construction of the deliriously high Twin Towers involved.

LM: Is anybody else applying the translation technique in Romania?

EI: No, and I wished this technique had been further developed; it has an extraordinary potential to improve the current urban fabric of the city. During the ‘Golden Age’ a few objectives were saved and even Ceausescu understood it was a ground-breaking concept that could reach new heights. Even so, years after this technology was developed, it’s still not used! For example, why don’t we make use of it to save Matache Market? Why demolish such a valuable, historical objective? I recently submitted a proposal to move it, but I never received a response despite my efforts to relaunch the principle of ‘translation’. We could achieve so much nowadays through applying this technique to the right areas of the city.

LM: Is there a weight or surface limit that would hinder your method from working?

EI: No, there is no limit, only different technical procedures that need to be adapted and applied according to each building type.

+ Pictures – courtesy of Eng. Eugeniu Iordachescu and Eurogama.

Bucharest – Fuzzy Urbanism

Later on this summer Bartlett’s Development Planning Unit are organizing a series of workshops focusing on ‘the reality of the city as a laboratory for developing socially responsive design measures that provoke, stimulate, strategize, and reconsider the role of designers in promoting spatial justice.’ Based on the collaboration with local institutions, the summerLab will spread over three different locations as the backdrops for a series of emerging urban phenomenons:  ‘fuzzy urbanism’ – Bucharest, ‘liminal contours’ – Zurich and ‘occupation city’ – Rome.

Attending the Bucharest workshop will be a great addition to my research as it will offer me a different perspective on the post-socialist city while negotiating with the existing political and socio-economic trends and actively testing the various ‘boundaries of spatial agency’.

Bucharest – Fuzzy Urbanism

with Pietro Elisei (Planum.net – Urbasofia) and Maria Duda (Spiru Haret University)

‘The recent history of Bucharest is one of placated pressures, where the struggle of powers has always been softened by certain inertia of the political apparatus: the urban environment we can see today tells its story of failed attempts and discontinued wills, and is a highly fragmented one. Between 1982 and 1986 it underwent profound changes when President Ceausescu ordered the demolition of great portions of the urban fabric to make space for monumental buildings, which would celebrate the communist regime’s magnificence. Nevertheless, even the totalitarian regime was unable to achieve its aims thoroughly, and traces of this unfinished operation are still visible today: neoclassical axes remain incomplete and informal urban fabrics have grown up just besides them, empty areas dot the city centre and complete its series of disconnected landscapes.

The Bulevardul Unirii was conceived as the main axis of the new city centre, ending up in the soviet architecture of the House of The People. Just south of the palace, between abandoned factories and informal developments, the Government and the Church have decided to build one of the biggest orthodox cathedrals in Europe. The project has been object of a fierce debate: academics and many professionals and some local authorities claim its extraneousness to the area and its future strong impact on the surroundings, since it will probably become the hinge of following regeneration plans, resulting in higher land values and increased rents, which will threaten the lower social strata.

Bucharest summerLab will attempt to spell out the immanent contradictions of the city’s fuzzy development, interpreting the present tensions and conflicts and offering an alternative possibility of transformation: the clashing interests on the site of the new Cathedral and their possible alternatives will become the metonym of a possible wider urban strategy, attentive of the many heterogeneous realities of the city aimed at writing a new common narrative for its urban fabric.’

Metropolis – restructured and restored

As part of the ‘Future Everything‘  festival, Dieter Moebius performed a live, improvised score for Fritz Lang’s masterpiece – Metropolis at St Philip’s Church in Salford. The night started with Polinski‘s A/V  stunning debut as an explosion of graphics and sound that set the tone for the rest of the evening.

‘Maria: There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.’

moviebarcode

Today I stumbled upon the fantastic new concept called  ‘moviebarcode‘. The technique is relatively straightforward and embodies the compression of the scenes in a film into one single image. This is a great way to catch the ambiance and chromatic palette of a film but also the ‘pulse’ of its montage technique.

I decided to give it a try – below are a couple of examples (no ‘smooth’ finish applied):

The Fall(2006)

Metropolis(1927)

Amintiri din Epoca de Aur(2009)

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (2007)

Films List

These are some of the main titles I have been looking at including as part of my research stage. Since I am particularly interested in using the technique of montage as an applied methodology to the urban context, Sergei Eisenstein’s film are an essential stepping stone in getting acquainted with the basic strategies. Some of the titles are great references to the historical implications and ambiance of the communist era while others wrap it in a fantasy – like decor, allowing its theoretical ramifications and consequences to subtly emerge.

Romanian

  •          The Paper Will Be Blue (2006)
  •          The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006)
  •          Marilena from P7 (2006)
  •          CaliforniaDreamin’ (2007)
  •          The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)
  •          12:08 East ofBucharest (2006)
  •           Liviu’s Dream  (2006)
  •           A Trip to the City (2003)
  •           4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (2007)
  •           Arhitectura si Puterea (1993)
  •           Amintiri din epoca de aur (2009)

Foreign

  •           Nostalghia (1983)
  •           The Fall (2006)
  •           The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
  •           Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920)
  •           Alphaville (1965)
  •           Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
  •           October 1917 (1928)
  •           La commune (2000)
  •           Un chien andalou (1929)
  •           L’Âge d’or (1930)
  •           Dr. Strangelove (1964)
  •           Metropolis (1927)
  •           Che (2008)
  •           Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)
  •           Citizen X (1995)
  •           Nadie escuchaba (1987)
  •           City Of God(2002)
  •           Blade Runner (1982)
  •           Aelita – Queen of Mars (1924)
  •           Sleeper (1973)
  •           Just Imagine (1930)
  •           Playtime: Jacques Tati (1953)
  •           2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  •           Solaris (1979)
  •           L’etoile de mer (1928)