Romanians fight to hold on to industrial architectural heritage

Romanians fight to hold on to industrial architectural heritage
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest December 18, 2015

Half-hidden behind two 10-storey apartment blocks, the Assan Mill is a sorry sight. Bucharest’s oldest industrial building, founded in 1853, is barely standing after being ravaged by fire and scavenged for saleable construction materials.

Assan is one of many industrial buildings abandoned when the fall of communism meant they were no longer economically viable. The redbrick mill was built during the revival of Romanian national culture after the country emerged from four and a half centuries of Ottoman rule. “At first Romanians looked west to Paris, but later the new Romanian style emerged. This was unique to Romania and tried to encapsulate the Romanian identity in architecture,” explains freelance architecture consultant Valentin Mandache. “Recent history was dominated by the Ottoman Empire so they looked deep into the past, back to the Middle Ages.”

Assam was the first steam-powered mill in Bucharest and continued operating through the communist era. Today, side streets in the district still bear names like Strada Făinari (Baker Street), but its industries are long gone. Fires partially destroyed the Assan Mill and its roof has fallen in, but its owners – two Cyprus registered companies – are not allowed to raze it and take advantage of rising land values. Instead, nature is being left to take its course.

This is a common situation in Romania, where under the law old buildings deemed to be of historic interest cannot be knocked down, but are left to deteriorate – or in some cases speeded on their way by owners keen to develop the land. According to Mandache, many of these building are “left open to destructive processes”. “Thieves are a problem, but even worse are the owners who want to make a quick buck by selling the land. They let in squatters and sometimes set fires. It’s a disgrace.”

This is partly down to the long drawn-out legal battles in Romania as former owners tried to retake properties expropriated at the start of the communist period. “Buildings were left in legal limbo. Years passed, Bucharest changed, and many are now more valuable for the land than from the building itself,” says Doru Raduta of the Interesting Times Bureau, an NGO that runs alternative tours of Bucharest to fund its social programmes. “The owners want to build something new and get rich immediately, but the law says listed buildings must be preserved, so instead they let them decay until the state rules they are a public hazard.”

This strategy was used by communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, who wanted a pretext to demolish the historic Lipscani district in the 1980s. History intervened and Ceaușescu’s regime was toppled. Today, the district is still standing and is increasingly gentrified, but among the new bars and coffee houses are streets that are still home to strip clubs and massage parlours, interspersed by buildings propped up by wooden scaffolds and plastered with warning signs.

The World Monument Fund (WMF) recently added Bucharest to its list of 50 global sites at risk, saying the city “is threatened by abandonment and demolition of historic buildings, uncontrolled development, and inappropriate rehabilitation”. While similar scenarios are seen elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, and indeed around the world, “It is the extent that these challenges have grown to in Bucharest and the inability so far to address them that make this crisis into an issue of international concern,” WMF programme manager Yiannis Avramides tells bne IntelliNews.

Collectiv failure

Many examples of Bucharest’s industrial heritage have already been lost. In the eastern outskirts of the city, the ruins of the Chimopar factory are deserted except for a few stray dogs. Founded in 1896, Chimopar was once one of Romania’s oldest chemicals plants and a former provider of powder for the army. By 2011, however, it employed just 65 people, down from 900 in 1999, and was operating on a tiny corner of its former complex. Most of the older buildings were destroyed in two massive explosions in 1923 and 1979.

Access to the complex is under a wire bearing the legend “Access Forbidden”, but Sergiu Bogadan, a former street child who now runs tours for the Interesting Times Bureau, says it’s used a lot in summer by children playing football, paintballers (there are a lot of empty ammo shells scattered on the ground), and once he even surprised a group of people shooting a porn film there.

It’s not clear how long the remains of Chimopar will stay standing. Hypermarkets and giant hardware stores are moving into the area, while across a landscape pitted with craters and half-demolished walls new apartment blocks are being built.

Closer to the city centre, other old industrial buildings have been used – with minimal reconstruction – as textiles workshops, or as underground art galleries and nightclubs.

It was at one of these, Club Collectiv, which was hosted in a former tannery, that tragedy struck in October. Indoor fireworks let off inside the club set fire to insulation foam on a pillar, and the blaze quickly spread. 27 people were killed outright, and the death toll has since risen to 60, as many more died of their injuries or fell victim to infection.

Collectiv was one of four clubs in the former Pioneer factory, and police later revealed that the club’s owners had neither asked for nor received a permit to use fireworks. The owners were arrested, but public anger erupted against the district authorities and Victor Ponta’s government as the Collectiv tragedy became a symbol of the cost of corruption to the country. Around 25,000 people took to the streets on November 3, and the following day Ponta’s government – already undermined by a corruption probe launched into the prime minister in July – resigned.

Pioneer, just south of the city centre, was part of the second wave of industrialisation in Bucharest. In The Ark, an events and office space in the former customs warehouse and commodities exchange, the company’s programme coordinator Dorothee Hasnas has collected hundreds of pictures showing the area in its heyday. Back in the 1920s, workers at these factories lived in nearby Uranus, a thriving working class community, or were ferried to other parts of the city by its extensive tram network.

However, unlike the Lipscani district, Ceaușescu had no hesitation in bulldozing Uranus. 19,000 houses that were home to 70,000 people were destroyed, and a hill built from the rubble was topped by the massive Palace of the Parliament. The tide of destruction had nearly reached the old commodities exchange in 1989 when Ceaușescu’s regime fell.

Built in 1898, the commodities exchange was no longer needed under communism, and it was turned into a post office that handled packages sent from abroad. Older residents still remember it as a much-loathed location where postal workers would help themselves to the choicest items before handing parcels over to their intended recipients.

Like the Assan Mill, the exchange was later damaged by fire and stood empty, gradually decaying, for 16 years until Mihai Cocea and his business partner took a leap of faith and bought it in 2006. “We had the brave idea to buy our own building and turn it into a space for creative people and events. We had both known this area since childhood so we made the decision to take a risk and invest,” Cocea says, acknowledging that, “The crisis was not expected and we had to adapt.”

Transforming the derelict building into The Ark was an ambitious project that involved raising the roof to allow an extra floor to be added, and a new steel structure was built inside the original facade. From the front, the building looks similar to the old photos unearthed by Hasnas, while a modern glass structure rises up behind. “The concept was to have the nice old facade from the street like a portal, then go through it to a completely different experience inside – we wanted people to be surprised,” explains Mario Kuibus of architecture firm re-act now. “In the basement, we left the pipes and vents on view. We wanted to keep it simple and have a sincere approach, not to hide things.”

Tractor pulling

At the same time as Cocea was buying the old exchange, 180km from Bucharest a very different project was launched at the former Traktorul industrial complex in Brasov, a small city in Transylvania.

Investment company Ascenta was looking at Romania’s booming real estate sector for “a special project... something big and complex that others couldn’t do”, says Ascenta partner Silviu Savin, a London-based private equity investor before his return to Romania in 2006.

Savin started looking at some of the “relics” – huge, unprofitable state-owned enterprises – and acquired the Brasov tractor plant on a 120-hectare site close to the city centre. The crisis forced Ascenta to revise its initial plans and it eventually sold off over 80% of the site where it had intended to build a shopping mall. However, the firm continued with plans to build the Coresi business park, which opened in mid-2015.

Savin says the team and its architects – YRM, which previously worked on the Kings Cross reconstruction in London – took their time to assess the site and the existing buildings, some of which dated back to the 1930s. “We always wanted to keep the buildings, not as monuments but as working buildings,” Savin tells bne IntelliNews. “When we did the surveys, we found to our surprise that the 80-year-old buildings were in much better shape than those put up in the 1970s.”

Ascenta kept many of the original buildings but converted them to Class A office space inside. “We used many of the original materials, including gathering cobblestones from around the site to lay new pavements,” says Savin. Tenants of the Coresi business park include IBM, BNP Paribas and Raiffeisen Bank, and a new building due to open in 2016 has already been pre-let to Tata Technologies.

There are a handful of other examples from Bucharest. Another former military factory has been converted by a group of architects into Halele Carol, a multi-purpose space for exhibitions, performances and other events. Vienna-based property developer Soravia Group took over the former Cartea Romaneasca printing press and turned it into a business and commercial centre whose tenants include the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In north Bucharest, a former glucose factory is now the four-star Caro Hotel.

However, the examples of old industrial buildings that have been renovated and put to new uses are relatively rare. Except for the ban on knocking buildings down, the authorities have done little to preserve older architecture and are not always sympathetic to ambitious rehabilitation projects. “Corrupt and incompetent” is the verdict of most people who have had to deal with the myriad national and local authorities on this issue. A less harsh assessment is that overworked officials simply do not have the time or the resources to keep up to date on current trends in architecture. Nor does the government give the generous incentives to rehabilitate older buildings that exist in some other EU member states.

Factories and other buildings abandoned after the fall of communism are now deteriorating at a rapid rate. Enthusiasts for the country’s industrial heritage fear that by the time its value is recognised, it will simply be too late.