After the first days impression of Bucharest, we arranged our first meeting with the local experts (on public space) for Saturday afternoon – with Romeo Cuc, the curator of the exhibition Mnemonics in the Rumanian pavilion at this year Venice Biennale, and Matei David with Alex Oprița, members of the Cișmigiu Civic Initiative Group, which is also part of the Mnemonics exhibition. We met in the Liric Garden, the first project of the group, which is located in the courtyard of a house block. The meeting was fruitful, and it helped us to understand better the situation we have seen the days before.
Romeo Cuc is an architect and one of the authors of the Mnemonics project. The term Mnemonics is linked to the ancient technique of collecting memories: ars memoriae. The exhibition aims to represent the free space in-between Romanian soviet housing blocks through childhood memories. Therefore the logo of a key, a key hanging down on a child’s neck, which symbolises the freedom to play outside and come home independently. So except its main content of presenting different (changing) Romanian approaches to public space, an important feature to chose the project to represent Romania at the biennale was the positive storytelling. The young curator pinned down the issue – he grew up in one of the Soviet blocks, he can mediate the memories. The curating team asked different figures to tell their childhood stories, which were then translated into a playground in the Romanian pavilion. Although they are aware that Romanian culture (art, filmography etc.) is usually represented in a very serious way, this time they decided to omit all the issues traditionally connected to the Soviet housing blocks (such as lack of management of the open spaces, cars parking everywhere, poor quality reconstructions etc.) and to show the communist patrimony in a playful way.
At the exhibition, different current initiatives and community projects fostering the public or semi-public space are shown. One of them is also the Cișmigiu Civic Initiative Group and their gardens, which we had the chance to get to know. Thanks to Matei and Alex’s effort and patience, and their prior experience and learnings from another community project in Bucharest, a neighbourhood network developed with the goal to collectively re-design and revitalise the inner courtyard. Earlier, no communication among the neighbours existed and everyone acted in an individual manner. With the financial support by the cultural centre Arcub and later by the IKEA Fund for Urban Environment, the initiative was able to realise some improvements – plant a tree or paint a mural displaying the history of the place. Researching and mediating the history, for many already lost memories, turned out to be an essential part to attract the neighbour’s attention towards the condition of the shared space. Several events, workshops and a lot of communication helped to transform step by step some courtyards into a “people garden” (a place serving its residents). But the design or small interventions are just the tangible part of the transformation, the tools to connect people, but the most important aspect (and goal) is the process and the community creation. Long-term change is based on proactive communication and information and new interpretation of public space in a sustainable way.
We also asked about the Rumanian way of parking – it seems that the cars are allowed to park everywhere (there are 1.9 million inhabitants and 1 million vehicles in Bucharest). They said it is connected to the strong individualisation of the society after the fall of communist regime in 1989; according to the new constitution private ownership is basically sacred as a demonstration of personal freedom – it cannot be touched, moved or taken away. The consequence of this is that many Romanian claims the “right to park her/his car”, in front of her/his door; a car is not just a means of transport, but first of all a status symbol. Officially, the cars are allowed to park on the sidewalk, as long as they leave at least a meter wide space for pedestrians to pass by. But in reality, none controls it neither requires. Also, the Liric Garden used to be full of parking cars, especially during an event in the nearby concert hall the cars of the visitors parked everywhere, even in the inner courtyards. Now, the passages are closed with gates and the courtyard is not accessible for cars anymore. Even though the city officially owns the land in the courtyard and the public municipality was approached in that matter, it had to take the community action to change the situation.
Thanks to the Cișmigiu Civic Initiative Group and reinterpretation of understanding the space, the transformation could be achieved. Formally, any changes need to be approved by the city administration, but practically, it would be too tedious due to constantly changing circumstances (e.g. responsible staffing). Therefore, usually, only the consent of the neighbours is sufficient to legitimate the interventions (most of the housing stock was privatised, and nowadays 93% of the flats in Bucharest is own by the people who live there). The “archipelago of private spaces” (Ghenciulescu, S. 2010) is in this case recaptured by an informal group of neighbours. Although this particular place, enclosed by a tall block of houses, looks private, the initiative tries to open the space and discuss general burning issues that do not confine to the garden but factors in the whole environment, such as noise level, stray cats, beekeeping or bird protection.
For a successful participatory process in projects focused on fostering the public space in Bucharest is essential that the participants are involved continuously from the beginning. Every such process is usually painful and time demanding, often without visible results. But with enough patience, more and more people join and become active, and gradually the community becomes more sustainable, independent from the original initiator or facilitator.
Ghenciulescu, S. (2010). Non-public. Urban Space in Bucharest after 1989. In studioBASAR (ed.): Evicting the Ghost. Architectures of Survival. Bucharest: Centre for Visual Introspection / pepluspatru Association. p. 175–183