About the Private in the Public and the Public in the Private

We are on the train. Already for many hours. We feel a bit like in a Wes Anderson’s movie – blue, brown or orange elements on the train and the passing Romanian landscape. On the left side small towns by a river, on the right the Transylvanian Alps.

We have prepared a lot. We have contacted local experts and prepared interview questions, we discussed and researched Bucharest from different sources. Let’s get back once more to our preliminary research, other people’s statements about Bucharest and our expectations from the last few months.

During the totalitarian era, public space was highly controlled and policed by the state and top-down planned. The regime created an atmosphere of fear, where an individual actually controlled him- or herself. No personal manifestation was allowed in public space. “Public space was a politically and socially empty space, an impersonal and representational territory, in which the power of the system was exerted over the people in a concrete form” (Axinte & Borcan 2017). The revolution in 1989 and the change of political system brought in liberating feeling – Romanians were excited to take action in the politics and the civil society, in the economy, in the media or culture – also in form of interventions in (physical) public space, which, paradoxically to the functioning in Communism, became to be understood as a common good accessible to everyone. But most of the (private) activities were also accompanied with a drawback – everybody “became” and owner and claim the right to act freely in his or her own interest. The paradigm in the society shifted to the opposite extreme – instead of sharing the space collectively, it was used as a free resource for private interests. It applied not just to individual manifestations (parking on the pavement, fencing the lawn in front one’s flat, extending ground floor apartment), but also large private developers and partly to city administrations, which often acted like private entities. This led to extreme individualization, (almost) complete privatization and so the extinction of public space.

But the turmoil in the past 25 years “brought up” also new generation of architects (and other experts involved in urban and community planning), who are trying to give the public space back to the public – through participatory action-based research and design processes to create “open and inclusive, flexible and reversible” places. Many architects found out that “the ‘classical’ professional tools with which [they] were equipped [from the architecture school], such as the site analysis through historical plans, aerial views, street fronts or drawings and abstract models, namely methods of objectifying urban phenomenon, were useless when one wanted to engage with people and the city’s life” (Axinte & Borcan 2017). They started to look for methods from different fields of art or social sciences, which worked better for studying the everyday life. Bukarest turned for them into both a laboratory and a playground; the research methods were walking the streets and looking at the city, observing people’s behaviours, engaging in ad-hoc conversation and participating in the everyday city, findings were documented and archived in narratives, drawings, photos and texts. We adopted these ideas as well for our research and exploration of Bucharest, many of them we will have to chance to discuss personally with the local actors.

We can assume that Bucharest still seeks a way to negotiate social rules and social life. What we want to know is where these negotiations are heading and which actors are challenging this negotiation. Using different methods, we want to explore the public space. We want to explore Bucharest by walking (strolling) and positioning our bodies in public, but also privatized space. We want to understand the means of access to places, at least from our privileged situation, but also from the point of view of other people. By interviewing different stakeholders – architecture and planning offices, student initiatives or district communities, residents and users of public space, and the profiteers of privatisation – we want to get a better insight. Based on the experiences of actors with interventions in public space, we would like to get to know the possibilities in Bucharest.

We ask our self: What mix of felt and real private and public space creates spaces in Bucharest which are accessible, have a sense of belonging, responsibility and contestation. To what extent does the space that we in Vienna describe as public in terms of the ownership and design possibilities of a “public space” in Bucharest differ and which potentials and methods emerge from Bucharest’s issues?

Nevertheless, we do not feel perfectly prepared. After 19 hours rattling train arrives in Bucharest and throws us into the big city jungle, which seems to us still quite unknown. We are looking forward to the next days.


Mazarine, Karolína and Hannah


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