INTBAU conference, Sibiu, Romania
From globalisation to localisation in central and eastern Europe
After 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence, central and eastern Europe had all the makings of an architectural and urban conservationist’s paradise.
Here were entire cities, from St Petersburg to Budapest, that had been untouched by financially-driven development pressures. Here also was a rural heritage of immense diversity, from the wooden-built villages of the Carpathian mountain range to the masonry and stucco vernacular of the lowland plains, that was uninfluenced by the marketing of concrete roof tiles and plastic windows and doors.
Whether this huge reserve of raw heritage suffered from benign neglect or enjoyed the benefits of minimum intervention depends on a combination of expectation and point of view. Either way, it survived because its value as a resource for shelter and functionality was not challenged by market forces or fashion.
Yes, there were politically motivated exceptions, including the loss of countless religious buildings during the Stalinist era in Russia, and the destruction of a large swathe of inner city Bucharest to make way for Nicolae Ceaucescu’s vainglorious ‘People’s Palace’. And yes, many parts experienced the collectivisation of farms and migration to industrial areas and cities. All the same, and at least until the early 2000s, Romania’s population was still split equally between urban and rural, with the latter very largely self-sufficient in its daily needs.
The threats to the urban and rural heritage across the region have accelerated since the mid-1990s. Prague, for example, was placed on the World Monuments Fund Watch List of most endangered sites in the late 1990s as a consequence of threats posed by overheating in the development market. St Petersburg now hosts the glittering shroud extension (Dominique Perrault, architect) to the Marinsky Theatre, and Gazprom, the energy giant, is persisting with its 400-metre-high, phallic-like tower (RMJM Edinburgh, architect) across the river Neva from the Smolny Institute.
Planning policy and protective legislation across the region remain insufficiently robust. There is a strong
Sibiu, Romania: Piaţa Mare (above), Piaţa Mica (below)
Sibiu, European Capital of Culture 2007, is the subject of a regeneration programme based on a step-by-step philosophy, not one-off restoration.
sense in which democracy is interpreted by the immediate post-1990 generation as licence, and tradition is equated with a past that many wish to forget.
The issue of the future for traditional architecture in central and eastern Europe was the subject of a conference held in Sibiu, Romania, on 23–25 September 2007. It was organised by the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (INTBAU), whose patron is the Prince of Wales.
The theme of the conference was simple: how to reconcile the present-day aspirations of post-communist societies with their surviving, centuries-old built heritage, and to position the heritage’s conservation and creative continuity with complementary cultural and environmental agendas.
Robert Adam, architect and chair of INTBAU, gave impetus in his wide-ranging opening address to the need to establish and implement place-specific solutions. Adam spoke of
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Viscri, Transylvania, is typical of the hundreds of villages across Romania whose environment and way of life survived largely unscathed until the 1990s. Viscri has benefted in recent years from community and conservation initiatives supported by expertise and funding from the UK.
the homogenising effect of economic and media globalisation, the growing uniformity of consumer products and architectural expressions, and the decline of local cultures in favour of an increasingly North Atlantic model. He counterbalanced this by outlining the opportunities that information technology and satellite broadcasting were providing for awareness, understanding, and the revival of minority languages, community traditions and craft skills.
Adam characterised the antithesis of globalisation as ‘localisation’. Hosted as we were in a country with strong traditions of rural self-sufficiency, Adam’s concluding words, ‘the local is almost always sustainable’, rang especially true.
The expression of local identity through the practice of traditional architecture, and its integration into programmes of sustainable socio-economic revitalisation for urban and rural communities, underscores the ethos of INTBAU, its regional chapters, and its internet discussion and exchange groups.
The conference drew on presentations portraying theoretical models and practical solutions from across the region.
Among the most inspirational and best-received came from Magdalena Prosinka. She spoke of her community-based programme of awareness-raising, coupled with preservation and enhancement projects within Poland’s rich but undervalued heritage of
20th-century garden cities. Networking from the bottom up, education through hands-on workshops, founding on the ‘local language’ of heritage conservation, and allying this to community interests (rather than depending on preconceived and often highly selective notions handed down through a hierarchical state-controlled system) were all themes that struck a chord with the mood of the conference.
Within Romania in recent years numerous local and internationally supported initiatives have benefited both the urban and the rural heritage. In Sibiu, the conference venue, the urban regeneration programme is regarded by many as a model for the whole region. In villages across Transylvania numerous projects are being animated by specialists and funding from, among others, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom. Several presentations focused on these.
A notable contribution in Romania is the continuing Transylvania Trust/ IHBC project to restore and establish sustainable new uses for Bánffy Castle at Bonţida. The project is at the heart of socio-economic development in the local community. David Baxter, the IHBC representative with the trust, has reported periodically in Context on the progress and success of this heartening initiative.
The many development and marketing pressures across the central and east European region, supported by European Union structural funds
and private investment, are putting the conservationist’s paradise of 1990 at serious risk of becoming the conservationist’s nightmare of the early 21st century.
With this in mind the conference outcome, The INTBAU Sibiu Memorandum1, seeks to position the conservation and continuity of local architectural traditions centrally with sustainable socio-economic development. It emphasises the enduring quality of life experienced within established communities, the importance of the minimum intervention ethos, the avoidance of contemporary interventions that conflict with their settings, and the imperatives of community involvement and of using locally-sourced materials and skills.
‘Localisation’ is neatly summed up in article 3 of the memorandum: ‘Conservation and creative continuity must be grounded in an anthropological vision in order to enhance geo-cultural identity and safeguard local culture.’
INTBAU, The INTBAU Sibiu Memorandum, INTBAU, London (2007), sibiumemorandum.htm
Dennis Rodwell is an architect-planner and cultural heritage consultant.
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