The artist, the poet and the activist

Here, at the basement of Dogarilor Apartments, we happen to be in a totally unique place in Bucharest. It’s a communal space for the people that live here. It has a kitchen, chairs, tables, and space to convene. This simple space doesn’t betray anything of the troubles ADNBA has gone through to get it here. And yet there it is – a sign of hope and endurance, living proof that within the complicated urban settings of Bucharest it is possible to create valuable space. Present are Andrei Șerbescu of ADNBA, Cristina Constantin from Abruptarhitectura and Justin Baroncea from Point 4. A pragmatic architect, a people’s poet and an action-architect. All three try to deal with the complexities of being an architect in a city that has no direction - fragile yet ultimately vibrant and powerful.

Indira van ‘t Klooster

“This city is complicated”, says Andrei, “Both in our practices and as teachers at the University all of us are interested in using the city as a lab, exploring it, finding new strategies. This hybridity, this flexibility, the constant transformation is very inspiring. The way we try to create public space, how we can adapt the city, plot by plot, gradually. It is very important to look at the city and learn from it. The urbanistic point of view of how to create neighborhoods and squares is more important than the scholastic way of doing architecture - we compromise all the time, but in a good sense.” Justin Baroncea agrees. “I’m interested in the way cities develop, what knowledge we can use from other cities. The problem is that we still don’t know how to build communities. We didn’t learn it recently, and not before WWII. We need to make proper public and private spaces. The model will be European, but adapted to the 21st century. We know how to do this in Cluj or in Basov, but in Bucharest it seems impossible to create that type of space. The city will interfere and spoil it. It is my goal to work on this. Building city is more important than making buildings.”

One of his experiments in how to create meaningful places for communities is “Magic Blocks”, a self-initiated project for which Zeppelin found funding. It’s a way of creating communal space in inner cityblocks, which resulted in several semi-temporary art projects. There was no real plan, they simply rang doorbells and started collecting left-over objects to create an artwork on the spot. “I am an action-architect”, says Justin. “We are working on projects from xxxxs to xxxxl. I redefine my position anew with every new project – with different production systems, partners, and processes.” Its materiality in all its forms that interest him, materials and their structural possibilities. Point 4 recently finished two tectonic houses and a monumental tower. “I like to work with garbage and with the newest materials at the same time. We are not specialized, we adapt to every context. We live in a big urban-social laboratory.”

Cristina is more hesitant. “I still don’t know what it means to be an architect. Andrei does big projects, Justin can handle used and new materials, but I prefer garbage and things you can make or find locally. Abrupt Arhitectura is just me and Cosmin Pavel. We work on small, personal projects. I find big projects too complicated. We mainly do private houses, exhibitions, interior design. Mostly in the rural areas, small cities or the periphery of cities.“ However modest her approach: their Garage House, built of left-over garage boxes, is quite famous (see A10 #49). Contrary to Andrei and Justin she prefers to work in small villages, as it offers more opportunities to work intuitively, on site. “Usually people don’t have the money to build a house at once. They start with the structure, a first floor, maybe a second, but we stay involved over the years and are able to establish long-term commitments.” That way they have worked on private houses, several churches, and exhibitions. “I doubt whether I am actually an architect. It’s not art, it’s more social actually.”

All in their own way work on building communities, as they believe that communities will fuel future developments. “Town planning is useless here”, claims Justin, “you need to build a community.” Which is not an easy thing to do. “I’m not sure whether my client will aim for a collective space again”, ponders Andrei. ”It brings a lot of other responsibilities to make it work, and to make use of it in a good way.” To get the collective space in Dogarilor Apartments was hard work, but working the the city has been an advantage. In the villages the role of an architect is much smaller. Locals are used to finding their own solutions. “People living in small towns or villages need something very specific, not something fancy. Sometimes they don’t know they need an architect at all. They begin by thinking they know better how to build their house and that the architect is just for the authorization of the paper work”, adds Cristina.

Either urban or rural, these communities need to be built small-scale. The bigger the project the more insecurity, because projects are stopped with every change of government. Even in conventional projects, with regular clients and processes, it’s difficult to keep control over the project. That’s one reason why ADNBA deals mostly with housing projects by private clients, who are more reliable. “But still, there are many risks. The risk of getting involved and fail, of staying involved while all other partners leave, of politics changing. The risk to innovate, even when the client is willing to experiment, like the flexible floorplans in the Dogarilor Apartments. The risk that a project may not get started or may not be finished. Those are not only business risks, part of my soul and ambitions are in it too.”

They all agree that in Romania there are hardly inspiring examples to build upon. “Western Europe has had centuries to find out how to make good public places. I don’t think we have that experience”, says Cristina. “They say the rupture came with the communist era, but it started earlier. Here we have to start from scratch every time and again.” “We could make better use of our history, and most important: slow down the commercial real estate developments”, adds Andrei. For Justin it’s just a matter of time: “Countries around the core of Europe will make different choices, and it will change Europe. One day we’ll see that Greece is not an isolated case. Banks need to change, government, commercial companies, they all need to change. Look at the developments in Madrid and Barcelona where Podemos-minded majors have taken power. Things will change. And Romania will change with it. And we will learn. Not from Dezeen, or national politics, but from local projects, with local craftsmanship and real needs.” Which is why Romania needs all three kinds of architect: the pragmatic, the activists and the people’s poets. Justin, Cristina and Andrei are living proof of that.