Information, Communication, Facilitation

One of the oldest and biggest NGO in Bucharest is the Association for Urban Transition (ATU) which engages with urban development and policy, urban culture and heritage, mobility and public space, collective housing and combating social exclusion for 17 years. We met with one of the founding member, architect Vera Marin, and her two colleagues who are involved in the URBOTECA project – urban researcher Gruia Badescu and anthropologist Alexandra Ștef.

Nowadays, ATU has more than 70 active members from various professional backgrounds – architecture, urban planning, social studies, law, urban economics etc. ATU was established in 2001 which makes it one of the oldest NGO, even older than the Romanian Order of Architects. The founding members felt the need for a think tank focusing on urban management and participatory planning, as there was no such NGO in the 1990s in Romania. They aim to negotiate between different stakeholders in urban development – public authorities, civil society and private developers. With their projects, they want to empower the civil society and encourage people to participate in discussion with other stakeholders with more economic and decision-making power. Since 2008, ATU is recognised as an independent research centre by the Ministry of Education and contributes to the methodologies development and consultancy for the city. In its educational projects, it cooperates with universities and their students.

In 2014, the ATU team developed an innovation/education lab – or an open planning office, as they call it – URBOTECA, which uses service design, gamification and behavioural economics to foster engagement. It is an urban living lab that seeks to define how participatory planning should look like. They have redesigned a van and thus created a mobile pavilion with which they travel around the city and organise workshops – in the places where development is planned or which lacks something. With the van and its facilities (stage, exhibition panels, flip charts, printers, projectors, seats etc.), they create different settings for an ever-evolving negotiation environment for various stakeholders. Its design is inspired by modern food truck culture – and should act as temporary vibrant public space which stimulates interaction, creativity and curiosity for participants. They aim to disseminate information on urban planning and design and help citizens to understand public programmes, projects and the local planning regulations – e.g. the General Urban Plan (PUG, for the city) or the Zonal Urban Plan (PUZ, for a neighbourhood). For that, they use data visualisation methods and strive to make all their educational materials visually attractive and understandable. They also launched a map which shows different current processes in the city based on open data from the municipality and explains basic urban terminology.

URBOTECA also became part of the Urban Education Live network, a platform which seeks to identify innovative methods for collaboration between academic or associated professionals and local communities.

ATU members told us they have a similar experience as we have already heard from other initiatives – the municipality has no agenda or vision concerning the urban development or public space, e.g. the investment department arranges the renovations of public space chaotically and without any design projects or architecture competitions. It does not react to the needs or potentials but depends on the money available, voting period or bribing. Often the public administration “works against the people”; therefore the initiatives subvert the public sector and try to fight for the public good. ATU members admitted the situation improved a lot after Romania joined the European Union in 2007, in 2009–2011 the “angry” architects managed to persuade the municipality and prepared an Integrated Urban Development Plan for the City Centre in which they demand good quality urban design and ensure enough public space, but it would be more difficult to regulate the quality of public space. Also, after the last parliamentary elections in 2016, the conditions worsened, and many active people lost hope.

 

References:

Marin, Vera & Calciu, Daniela (2018). Urban Pedagogy in Bucharest: URBOTECA by ATU. In Revistei Arhitectura, 2018(2–3)

Back with Enthusiasm

Baza is “an urban initiative set to unleash Bucharest’s latent energies” and consists of five young professionals from the cultural field – two architects, two city planners and a film producer. Their joint aim is to move Bucharest forward, activate its citizens and share their experience (also from abroad). We met with Maria Duda, an architect who studied and worked in Switzerland before coming back to Bucharest, where she started to teach at the Faculty of Architecture at the (private) Spiru Haret University and graduated at the Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urban Planning with the PhD thesis topic “Reality, Expectations, Offer. Current Public Space of Bucharest. Bucharest’s Central Plazas”.

Baza was established in 2016 and since then initiated and run various projects and events. They do not just design interventions in public space, but also research, counsel, help to educate through organising and leading workshops, lectures, conferences; they publish articles and radio podcasts (Urban Experience in which they interview experts) etc.

In her research, Maria conducted several interviews with the public, and when asking what public space means for them, the answers are parks (utopia of urbanity, no cars) and malls (clean, weather-proof, secure, no beggars etc.). They would like to have clean places, with clear identity and landmarks – to help them to orientate themselves in the physical space of the city.

An important project is an online application where architecture interns and their employers can share their working experience and evaluate each other. To become a certified architect in Romania, one has to gain years of working practice – which is often precarious and discriminating. The app should help to improve the working conditions, make the environment more transparent and motivate both sides to do their best.

The most actual project is the staircase for Kretzulescu, on which the collective has been working for 18 months, and they just got permit the day we met. The land, where it is supposed to be “built”, is owned by the church situated in the square and the project itself is funded by the Porsche Foundation, yet they needed a permit from the municipality. Maria said it was complicated; they were asked to arrange too many certifications (such as from firefighters, water and electricity infrastructure etc.), although the construction is very simple. The staircase will reconnect spaces that historically belonged together – the square with the loggia of an adjacent palace, in whose ground floor many facilities are located – e.g. bookshop, café etc. But it will be more than an accessibility point: it will act as a landmark, meeting point, resting area, waiting, reading and book launch space, a place for choir festivities or wedding pictures – simply serves all the everyday and occasional happenings in the space (Baza, 2017).

This brought us to a more general discussion about the situation of such initiatives like Baza and their activities in public space in Bucharest. Maria criticized the public administration for lack of interest, responsibility and visions for urban planning and public space, or even boycotting any public participation – when development projects are planned, there are no public discussions (officially there are, but not well advertised or the meeting spaces are not big enough etc.), the politicians decide “quietly”. But similar also applies to the private “donators” who funds such projects or initiatives. Maria thinks the foundations should not only provide money but also get involved in the chosen projects. And maybe it would help if they choose fewer projects, but better and help them with the process. Unfortunately, many projects fail on getting the official permission from the municipality.

But she admitted that the general interest in public space is questionable – they have worked on many projects, which led to disappointment in the end. Sometimes it seems that it is only us, architects, who are interested and aim for more lively public space, but actually, our target group – the people – does not care. As an example she mentioned a semester course with students, that was entirely voluntary for all participants (no honorary, no credits for it). They engaged for weeks with community work in one of the Bucharest neighbourhoods and in the end decided to organise a three days open-air cinema festival. They collaborated with the NGO Urboteca, local cultural centre and got funding from the Romanian Order of Architects. After the semester, everything returned to normal.

It is a vicious circle – the municipality does not encourage active citizen participation, but on the other hand, the public is not prepared/educated to get involved in decision-making – that is also the reason why so many initiatives and NGOs emerged in Bucharest. The exceptions when the people claim the public space are during protests – which are recently more usual. Only then, they realise they need (real) public space – that public space is not (just) a park or a mall. During the communist era, the ruling party wanted to depolarise the people’s attention and moved several representative buildings. Civic action was not welcomed at all, and many public spaces were “protected” from mass gatherings (with barriers such as fences, walls or roads) – especially those with a particular identity, e.g. the People’s House or the Piaţa Victoriei [Victory Square] where the Government Office is seated. In many cases, the situation is still the same.

 

References:

Baza (2017). Little Improvements – A Stair for Kretzulescu. Baza [online]. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://debaza.ro/en/portfolio/items/romana-kretzulescu/

Community Architects

Alex Axinte and Cristi Borcan, two Romanian architects, set up the architecture office studioBASAR in 2006, shortly after their graduation. Since then, they managed to establish a strong position in the field of urban research (observation) and interventions in public space, they also refer to their working methods with the office’s subtitle “search and rescue”. The “search” dimension works across Bucharest, looking for overlooked urban conditions that people had come to tolerate. That leads to the “rescue” part of their practice, which can encompass a variety of architectural interventions, including developing single-family homes, exhibitions, and even a street installation of a pop-up pool made from stacked wooden pallets wrapped in foliage and filled with water. We met with Cristi Borcan in one of their realised project – the Tei Community Centre. We generally discussed the concept of public space in Bucharest but also what it means for an architect to be involved in a community project.

They, as architects, not only wait for someone to come and give them an assignment but they also proactively initiate and develop actions and projects within public space. Although they do not always ask for permission, they never do “guerrilla” (illegal) interventions – possibly they create temporary interventions or art installations (which comes under projects that do not require a permit), and if it is successful (favourite), it could turn into something more long-term. A large part of their practice consists of a process – be it practice-based research, participatory action research, community activation, live-education, civic pedagogy etc. But they work on bigger projects as well, but usually, aim to co-produce or co-design them with their clients. Their research and publishing activity was also presented Europe-wide. One of their first book focused on the “architectures of survival” – the study explores the history of evictions and the varying status of private property over the last 150 years in Romania.

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In the presentation Cristi gave us, he also talked about the Bucharest context – the changing perception on public space in different political regimes, the consequences of the earthquake in 1977 and following urban renewal or what changes came after the revolution. Interestingly, Ceausescu was not a fan of modernist/socialist planning and in the 1980s ordered to “complete” the urban structure of housing estates with eclectic buildings creating block structures along the streets. Next wave of densification (and loss of free space; this time much less regulated) happened after the revolution, after the retrocession of the properties. The “new” owners saw it as an investment opportunity and built the land up. The capitalist regime changes the public space into a commodity; the municipality became very weak in regulating the urban development after decades of top-down planning. But that was (or is) the demand of the liberated society – private property became sacred.

When talking about their work with communities, he emphasised how important it is to gain trust – usually through long-term collaboration and personal commitment. For instance, in the case of the Tei Community Centre, Cristi is official the owner of the “container” in the park. The studio continues collaborating with the community and its further development and events organisation.

 

References:

studioBASAR (2010). Bucharest: The State of Uncertainty. In studioBASAR (ed.): Evicting the Ghost. Architectures of Survival. Bucharest: Centre for Visual Introspection / pepluspatru Association. p. 108–112

Curry Stone Foundation (2018). studioBASAR. Curry Stone Foundation [online]. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://currystonefoundation.org/practice/studiobasar/

Sample Bucharest Community

One of the first communities in Bucharest is the Lacul Tei Initiative, we discussed their history and aims with its member Dorin Moldoveanu who we met in the Parcul Circului, a public park of which the neighbourhood community take care. They desribe themselves as “a group of ordinary citizens living in the Tei neighbourhood that decided to try to change the living in the area”. They established with the help of a local NGO CeRE (Resource Centre for Public Participation) who helped them with their first group meetings and public cafés where they collected the needs of the neighbourhood residents. The main identified issues were parking, cleanliness, citizens safety and houses term insulation. During the years, thanks to the community cooperation they have gained more power (in the eyes of politicians they represent more votes and thus are “louder” than single voices) and achieved some improvements.

In 2010 after the negotiation with the municipality, they got permission to park on one lane of the main boulevard (along the park) during the nights because there are not enough parking places in the neighbourhood. This was apparently the people’s primary concern, also because they used to do it before anyway but the fine was (is) half of an average salary. But there were always issues which motivated them to act.

There were always different interests claiming the park. The park’s name is actually according to the circus who seats in the park. They used to rent part of it (fenced off) and kept animals there. The community managed to free the space and open it again for the public. Also, the protested against building a huge statue of circus figures which would take away the free space in the park. In the end, the circus decided to place the statue in the middle of a bus parking place in front of the circus; this location did not raise any civil resistance.

The community group takes care of the park in the long term. They fight for the reparation of the irrigation system because during the construction of the office towers in the surrounding, the groundwater level was punctured and so the water level in the lake is declining which endangers the flora and fauna in the park. They make pressure on the municipality to care better about the park and their action led already to several improvements in the park – reconstruction of stairs, installation of litter bins etc. With the help of the architecture studioBASAR, they built new seating (over old battered benches) and thus create a favourite meeting (picnic) place with a view on the lake. They also organise many events – public cafes, lectures and discussions, neighbourhood meetings, night sky observation, some of them attracted hundreds of people. They regularly send newsletter and publish a newspaper.

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The group realised they need a stable meeting place – where they could also store the stuff (for events etc.). They got funding in the Urbaniada project by the ING Bank and in partnership with the studioBASAR adjusted a maritime container in the middle of the park in 2015. Although it is community-led “container”, their events are free and open to anyone. The façade was “vandalised” many times with graffiti and tags, after some time the group and the architects stop repainting it.

The Lacul Tei Community serves as an example for other groups, e.g. Matei David from the Cișmigiu Civic Initiative Group gained his experience here. The Community aims to test and validate a model of good practice for the development of other community centres managed by active citizens. Thus, the transfer from the citizen as a consumer of the public space to the citizen as a co-producer of public space, benefits by a format in a space of cooperation and solidarity, in which communities can find their identity and where the civic spirit can channel its energy (studioBASAR, 2015).

 

References:

studioBASAR (2017). Tei Community Center. studioBASAR [online]. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from http://www.studiobasar.ro/?p=8284&lang=en

From a Makerspace to a Community Center

We set up a meeting with a collective who revitalise a former cotton factory in the south of Bucharest. We took advantage of its location and decided to connect the meeting with visiting the Văcărești Natural Park.

The Văcărești Natural Park is the first urban natural park in Romania, only 5 km away from the city centre, being the largest green space in Bucharest. In 1986 Communist regime built a hydro-technical project but left it unfinished and unused after 1989. Gradually, nature took over and turned it into a place with unique diversity. It is a vast green area bounded by steep concrete embankments, the contrast of vast free space and urbanised land in the surrounding creates impressive images. There are few stops in the perimeter, where one can enter and go down to the park. There are few walking trails accompanied by educational notice boards about the local flora and fauna, at some sport are observation stations. It is good to keep the paths as the area is quite swampy. We walked from one side to another, but then we had to hurry up not to come late to our meeting.

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In the cotton factory, Iulian Canov took care of us – first he gave us a presentation about the whole factory area and later guided us through. We were astonished by the size and complexity of projects “occupying” space as we came to see the community centre La Firul Ierbii [Grassroots] which is actually a small part of a larger progressive and developing complex.

After the revolution and fall of the communist regime, the Industria Bumbacului [Cotton Industry] was “privatised” in the early 1990s – it was sold to the workers and former management. That was quite a good decision as these people had the best interest to manage it well. But when the factory closed in 2003, they did not really have a vision for the space. The buildings served only as warehouses, rented in pieces and lacked maintenance). Group of architecture students, including Iulian Canov, Tamina Lolev, Vlad Stoica who later established a studio Wolfhouse Production, were in need of a makerspace for their architecture models. As there was no such a place in Bucharest, they started to look for a convenient space close to the city centre and well connected to public transport. They found out about the cotton factory on the bank of the Dâmbovița River and approached the owners. Iulian said it was easier to negotiate with the private owners than with a public body – the agreement was conditioned only by the rent price, but a municipality might have different (hardly comprehensive) interests.

The NOD Makerspace was opened in 2014 and is the biggest makerspace in Romania. Initially, only friends from the architecture school shared it together but the interest grew, and today the space is accessible upon a membership. NOD is a “dynamic ecosystem that welcomes designers, artists, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs. Anyone who has an idea, an invention or a prototype and aims to develop it will find the tools and the manufacturing equipment to make any project come to life.” The space includes an open co-working space, 15 private studios and manufacturing and prototyping workshops; its equipment ranges from cutting-edge electronics to wood and metalwork tools via just about every other creativity-enabling tool imaginable. The space runs workshops and other community events on a continuous basis, and much of the extraordinary hive of activity within is visible from the street outside, with the aim of inspiring passers-by (Macdonald, 2018).

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Although its “central” location (it is basically only one stop by metro from the city centre), it is perceived quite remote from the centre (e.g. where the universities lie) and the group was aware that in order to attract a wider audience, they need to extend the offer of uses. The vision is to recreate the former factory into a large (independent) creative industry centre but with the locals (not all of them creatives) in mind.

Later, friends opened a rooftop bar which attracted a wider public, “hipsters” from the “city” but also residents from the surrounding neighbourhoods. More and more people got to know about the place, and different creatives decided to rent there a space for their studio and workshops. Although the factory used to be (and a big part of it still is) in a derelict state, the community work – mostly voluntarily – on improvements. With their enthusiasm, they were also able to get free materials from sponsoring firms. Thanks to many donations, the materials library MATER was opened – the first one in South-Eastern Europe. In comparison to only-members-accessible makerspace and co-working space, the library is open to the public.

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At the same time, there was a spare time on the ground floor for which they were looking for a use. Coincidentally, another civic NGO – the Urban INC – was just looking or a space to open for community groups and were able to finance the reconstruction and operation. So the community centre La Firul Ierbii [Grassroots] opened. It aims to provide neighbour groups and grassroots movements a space to meet (with facilities, e.g. beamer or flipchart), such a space for civic organisations is not at all usual in Bucharest (at least not provided by the municipality). It is offered for free for grassroots initiatives with public or common interest, but also other groups or companies can rent the space for events, depends on each ones’ possibilities. But the political situation in Bucharest has worsened after the last municipal elections in summer 2016, and many local initiatives lost hope, e.g. the UrbanINC left Bucharest at all and now is active only in Cluj.

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The community works so far on a very informal non-hierarchical structure, they all communicate together, but there is no umbrella organisation or a name for the cluster. The next plans are to open the area more to the public and connect it with the river across the street. They are organising a Dâmbovița Delivery Festival which will take place in summer 2019 and be part of the Street Delivery Festival. They want to change the perception of the river and urban water in general which they consider “the most unused public space in the city”. The Dâmbovița River has a reputation of a very polluted river because underneath leads a sewage canal that used to leak but was fixed.

We were really amazed by how lively the place is. If it is not completely successful in attracting the general public and mostly hipsters and creatives come, it is definitely caused by its location too – connected with the image of remote place among (abandoned) factories close to a very heavy traffic crossroad. But the community definitely strives to do their best to be open to everyone.

 

References:

Bogdan, D. (2017). Bucharest Believes in Design – the First Romanian Library of Materials is on the Roll. A City Made by People [online]. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://www.acitymadebypeople.com/journal/bucharest-believes-in-design-first-romanian-materials-library-mater

Macdonald, K. (2018). Creative Bucharest: Step Inside the Art Hubs, Bars and Co-Working Spaces Reimagining the City. The Calvert Journal [online]. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/9596/creative-bucharest-art-hubs-bars-co-working-spaces

From a Courtyard to the Biennale

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.

 

References:

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