Vlad Bodogan: Architecture of oppression: an analyses of the socio-political implications behind the construction of Casa Scânteii

Casa Scânteii, a monolithic construction in the heart of Bucharest, was used between 1956 and 1989 as the main center of cultural propaganda, accommodating what Thomas Markus refers to as a Fordist machine, generator of dogmatic information[1]. Designed by Horia Maicu, the head of the Architect’s Committee during the regime of the Romanian Communist Party, the building is the mark of a totalitarian ideology and is best understood in the socio-political context it was built in.

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Author of the image unknown.

The Second World War imposed critical changes in the Romanian socio-political, economic and cultural systems. On April 13, 1948 the National Assembly announced the foundation of Romanian People’s Republic, adherent to a Stalinist constitution. The new regulations abrogate the right to vote, diminish the existence of multiparty and situate one power in charge of everything. The legislation abandoned the judiciary and executive authority, establishing instead the Department of State Security, conventionally referred to as Securitate – Romania’s secret police. The new legislation allowed the punishment of acts which are considered dangerous or against the state without them being specifically defined as crimes. The ambiguity orbiting around the legislative system, facilitated the control and violent oppression of the population,  allowing the installation and development of a totalitarian system through locally legal means. Economically, 1948 constitutes the commencement of nationalization, country’s banks and most of its industrial, mining, transportation and insurance companies becoming state property[2]. Thus, a relationship based on dependency is created, which situates the state over its population and allows an economic control which represses and disables individuals to emancipate and react.

Concomitant with the creation of Romanian People’s Republic, the newly born regime demanded changes in the social order and the inculcation of “socialist” values. The cultural sphere, as well as the socio-economical one, was strongly dogmatized; the cultural Stalinism presumably becoming a universal path to socialist revolution. Professional organizations such as the Society of Romanian Writers and the Society of Romanian Composers were prohibited and replaced with ones from the spectrum of the new cultural hegemony. The abolishment of Western culture lead to the incarceration of those promoting it – teachers, intellectuals, treating such acts as betrayals of the class principles, and therefore acts against the state[3]. The educational agenda was drastically changed: Russian-language became compulsory, Romanian history was re-written accentuating the connections with Russia as well as its contribution to national development throughout time. The Western roots were expunged while the Slavic ones were highlighted. Party leaders as well as authorities ordered or pressured artists, writers and architects to adhere to socialist realism as an ideological standpoint in their work. Following this direction, the establishment of a propaganda center was seen as fundamental, representing the next step in the reconfiguration of national values.

The 1950’s found Romania in an amorphous situation, sourced from the fast changes in the social order and inflicted by the new political power which sought the creation of a “new- man”, a product of the socialist ideology. A controlled society ruled through the spectrum of an absolutist dogma with anti-liberalization standpoints was hiding in the background of an apparent evolutionary post-agrarian state. Emblematic for the Stalinist era, buildings  and city planning were used to emphasize the individual-state relationship and vice-versa, a relationship based on control and order.

Casa Scânteii (The Spark House), comes as a manifestation of the new political regime, a symbol of the uprising socialist Romania, with sister buildings in Moscow (Lomonosov Moscow State University, Hotel Ukraine) and Warsaw (Palace of Culture), contextualizing it within the trans-national ideology. Its construction started in 1950 and an adherence to the Socialist Realist architecture principles is visible; the building relays itself on labor-intensive as well as time consuming masonry, indicating the leading role of the working class and the industry in the new-born state. Named after the Central Committee’s newspaper, Scânteia (The Spark), the building handled  everything in connection with the printed word. It became the main center of political propaganda and took the leading role in the implementation of a new cultural hegemony.

Being more than a newspaper building, Casa Scânteii was the interface of all activities in charge of the creation and control of published information, accommodating a printing and publishing combine with ‘big printing works, editorial offices of newspapers and magazines, publishing firms, libraries, and a large banquet hall’[4]. When completed in 1956, it would produce up to 3 million newspapers, 100,000 books, and 160,000 brochures a day. It was in producing 98% of the educational material, as well as the other publications mentioned above, all of them being under the censorship and control of the Central Committee. ‘Culture was just a form of propaganda while propaganda was the highest form of culture’[5]. Casa Scânteii was conducting the totalitarian manufacture of information, being in charge of propaganda and public repression. The self-enclosure and exclusiveness, marks of the Stalinist era, not only created skepticism around the objectivity of the news, but accentuates the antithesis between factuality and the controlled outcome of the information. False economic and production statistics were published, misinforming the population in regard to the real situation of the state, while promoting the direction of the Communist Party as beneficial to the proletariat. Therefore, culture became an instrument of power that legitimized the acts of a totalitarian state but nonetheless in need to hide its propagandist purpose.

Anders Åman states that ‘the approach to Casa Scînteii is a lesson in Romanian history’[6]. Analyzing the north axis which connects Piața Victoriei (Victory Square), the Arch of Triumph and Casa Scânteii , one can notice the way city planning becomes a statement in regard to the new political order. Piața Victoriei, named after the victory over the Turks in 1877 (settles Romania’s independence), leads to the Arch of Triumph which was built to commemorate those who fell in the First World War (the war ended with big territorial gains), and at last, Casa Scânteii, mark of the new, flourishing, socialist state. Consequently, the historical axis 1877-1918-1944 sets the focal point on the view-stopper Casa Scânteii, giving 1944 the greatest importance and symbolically abolishing everything behind it.

The assignment for the new building was composed in 1948 and solicited not only the expression of the new socio-political order, but highlighted the leading role of industry and the great importance of political propaganda as well. Advised by experts from the Soviet Academy of Architecture, the brief was orbiting around the following criteria: a monumental building, ideally located at the end point of one of the main streets – appropriate for it’s importance in the urban landscape -, with a symmetrical and monolithic appearance. Hard, sharp, technical lines, considered to belong to the bourgeois art, had to be avoided, instead, there must be a unity of architecture and sculpture, an interplay of profiles, an expression of beauty and enthusiasm[7]. Functionalist and formalist tendencies, representative for the western ideas of the time, have been rejected, whereas the socialist realist approach national in form, socialist in content was to be followed. Thus, the study of national and traditional architecture became essential, generating external ornamentation and detailing; soviet symbols – the hammer and sickle, as well as the five point star are placed together with traditional motifs.

The foundation was started in 1950, with the first phase of the building – the works – being commissioned one year later, corresponding with the 30th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party, on the 8th of May 1951. A total of 5000 men were employed, making it the most promising project of its time, lasting six years to be fully completed. The finished building has a constructed surface of 32,000 m2, a volume of 735.000 m3, and a maximum height of 91.6m – 101 meters including the red star on top, portraying the power and virility of the new regime. Horia Maicu, head of the architects’ collective, considers Casa Scânteii an echo of ‘man’s triumph over nature and over the social forces that have fettered him, his belief in the future, his firm course ahead under the guidance of the party of the working class’[8]. Prior to its construction, a colored perspective was carried by the builders, insinuating a working-class initiative, consequently detaching it from the ruling state, in the interest of creating ideological enthusiasm without revealing the cultural hegemony behind it.

Ludwig Schwarte states that

Architecture situates performances and makes the representation of the execution of acts possible. Built spaces configure fields of activities: they can identify, alleviate and make comprehensible activities which take place in them; they can incorporate labour, appropriate it or exhibit it publicly[9].

The building performs. It establishes symbolic relationships between individuals and the structured conditions of acting and actioning. In that sense, the monumentalism of Casa Scânteii encloses the educational act of media and transforms it. It creates conditions of creation in which the political dictatorship reveals itself as the one and the only power, a demiurge, or a puppet master over what should be free expression,  blocking the act of transformation which would generate from the free access to information. The accommodation of acting is replaced by the one of activities, which fallow and comply to certain sets of rules leaving no leeway for independent organs to act freely and unexpected. Casa Scânteii serves therefore as a strong symbol of the totalitarian state.

Casa Scânteii and the Danube-Black Sea Canal were ranked as the greatest architectural projects of 1950’s Romania that would reinforce the importance of industrialization in the post-war country. With the canal project failing, only the construction of Casa Scânteii was completed, giving it an unpredicted emblematic attribute, perceived as a monument of the new ruling party and a symbol for a developing and brighter Romania. Horia Maicu wrote an article in 1951 acclaiming the proposal for the well embodied architectural principles, as well as for it’s beneficial socio-political impact, but only five years later, he writes on the behalf of the Architects Committee, stating: ”We realized we did not create a consummate architecture”[10]. Triggering the radical change in the perception of the construct and of the architectural principles it adhered to was the de-Stalinization which commenced in the same time period. Casa Scânteii belongs to the Stalin era. It is the product of an extreme Soviet tutelage, that once taken out of that context becomes trivial. National Stalinism valued a self- enclosed and exclusive structure, which methodically works against liberalization and individual development. Its architectural manifestation generates structured frameworks which, through their monumentalism seem impenetrable by the common individual, dictating who can take action and to what extent.

The abandonment of Socialist Realism, as mentioned above brought significant changes in the perception of architecture and its purpose. Socialist realist architecture was criticized that instead of tackling the issues of mass-construction imposed by fast urbanization, its main focus was the inculcation of the new political regime, consequently disengaging the social attributes of architecture from its constructed expression. As a monolithic intruder in the urban landscape of the 1950’s Romania, Casa Scânteii was and remains a stamp of the stalinist dogmatization. It was used as a machinery of oppression, and it was build under the almost utopian idea that architecture can generate, solely through its form, social conditions of existence. Within the context it was built in, the relation between its form and function was powerfully clenched, whereas the antithesis between the two is visible once the control and overseeing was loosen. The fall of the regime in 1989 caused an almost instant change in name and the building adopted the label “Casa Presei Libere” (House of the Free Press), declaring the new direction of both the state and its journalism. The promotion of a capitalist freedom as well as the dissociation from totalitarian principles were considered duties of the new media. The democratization of the press is seen as an adherence to the western values, its activity being focused around the liberalization of information, the establishment of a free speech culture, as well as the division and spreading of information in furtherance of creating objectivity in news reporting.

To conclude, Casa Scânteii was a tool of cultural propaganda and a center of control and censorship on one hand, and a palpable statement of the totalitarian ideology on the other. Davarian Baldwin states that ‘culture is a weapon in our struggle for liberation’[11], therefore its repression facilitate an easier control and manipulation of the masses. With this idea in mind, the establishment of a consolidated source of dogmatized information was considered of high importance, as indicated by the monumental appearance of the building. Moreover, if the external aesthetic of the building is welded together with its initial function, one can state that the building performs and establishes conditions of existence within the regime it delineates. However, in the contemporary Romanian society, the antithesis between the form and the function of Casa Presei Libere accords it a different meaning. The construct becomes a stamp of the national Stalinism and by extent, national Communism; it is a reminder of the status the pre-revolutionary state had and the socio-political order of the time. Consequently, it is history, it is a representation of the past which after 1989 brings history to an end, allowing the remodeling and liberalization of society and its principles.

Notes

[1]Anders Åman, Architecture and Ideology in Eastern Europe during the Stalin Era: An Aspect of Cold- War History, (MIT Press,2/1993)

[2]Urban Larssen, CASA SCANTEII: CONTROLED MEDIA FACTORY, <http://vimeo.com/8097274> [accessed 20 December 2014]

[3]Henri Lefebvre, The production of space, (Blackwell publishing,1991)

[4]Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, (Verso,2011)

[5]Ludger Schwarte,Performative Architecture – Setting a Stage for Political Action, <http:// pavilionmagazine.org/ludger-schwarte-performative-architecture-setting-a-stage-for-political-action/> [accessed 10 December 2014]

[6]Thomas A. Markus, Buildings and Power: Freedom and Control in the Origin of Modern Building Types, (Routledge: London and New York, 1993)

[7]Tismaneanu Vladimir, Understanding National Stalinism: Romania Communism in a historical- comparative perspective, <http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/OP%2025.pdfJ> [accessed 5 January 2015]

[8]Ronald D. Bachman, Romania: A Country Study, Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989.

[9]Osman, Fernanda Emanuela, Note despre poezia agitatorică a anilor ’50, (Caietele Echinox, 7/2004, Literatură şi totalitarism)

[10]Horia Maicu, “Despre proiectarea Casei Scânteii” [On the Design of Casa Scânteii], (Arhitectura 1, 1951)

[11]Jama Lazerow, In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement, (Duke University Press, 2006), pp.10

Vlad Bodogan (b.1994) is an undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield, School of Architecture. He is an intern at PAVILION – center for contemporary art & culture –, and held the same position at BUCHAREST BIENNALE 6 – Bucharest International Biennial for Contemporary Art.