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A talk with architect Mădălin Ghigeanu about Mediterranean influences in Romanian inter-war architecture.
After the domination of the Neo-Romanian style at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, especially in the capital Bucharest, the beginning of the 1930s was marked by greater stylistic diversity. The architecture of private homes began to adopt modernist, cubist and Art Deco influences. A trend initially called "Moorish-Florentine-Brâncovenesc" was popular from 1930 until around 1947 in the big cities, mainly Bucharest and Constanţa. Although many private residences were built in this style and many architects embraced it, it was rejected in the beginning by the community of architects, before being completely forgotten after 1950.
The architect Mădălin Ghigeanu recently published a study of this style called "The Mediterranean trend in Romanian inter-war architecture" (Curentul mediteranean în arhitectura interbelică românească). He discovered that this style, which can more adequately be described as "Mediterranean", arrived in Romania from America, more precisely from California and Florida, via magazines and cinema. In America, the style was itself a form of Spanish colonial architecture, which drew on Iberian architecture infused with Moorish elements. Architect Mădălin Ghigeanu explains how this style was expressed in Romania:
"The main characteristics of the style are well-known. The most important and best-known is the stucco finish, which served not only an aesthetic role, but was also practical, because this finish coat is more resistant to changes in temperature. The earliest version of the style also featured a low pitch roof and Gothic elements, as well as Andalusian influences in the form of Mudéjar elements, a term referring to the Arab builders who remained in Spain after the Reconquista. These Iberian elements are characteristic to the earlier versions of the style. A more simplified version appeared later, that incorporated Italian influences from Tuscany and elements from the Italian Renaissance, with a raised ground floor and a simpler treatment of the upper floors. The final and more sophisticated stage of the Mediterranean style features Venetian Gothic decorative elements. So, it starts with traditional Spanish houses from America and ends with the Venetian Gothic. It must be noted that this style arrived in Romania in the 1930s, having already been exhausted in America."
During the reign of Carol II, the members of the royal family built several residences for themselves in this style, with the architect Alexandru Zaharia, a friend of the king, being the flag bearer for the Mediterranean style. The list of residences built in this style includes the Elisabeta Palace in the north of Bucharest, near Herăstrău Park and the Village Museum, and built for princess Elizabeth, a former queen of Greece and one of the sisters of king Carol II. Mădălin Ghigeanu tells us more about this structure:
"The first surprise was that this palace was built in the Mediterranean style, with elements similar to American houses, namely the circular tower at the entrance. This was a typical feature and something art critic Petru Comarnescu also mentioned in his book about his trips to America, where he noticed this circular tower which served no functional purpose, but only an aesthetic one. The other decorative elements have no connection with the Brâncovenesc or Neo-Romanian style. It was a style imposed by princess Elizabeth, a type of architecture that her mother, Queen Marie, disliked. Queen Marie only once came to visit, together with her other daughter, princess Ileana, but she only saw the ground floor, she didn't go upstairs. She could not believe it and she didn't understand the mishmash of heraldic symbols. For this is one of the characteristics of the Mediterranean style, the fact that the Californians who had built those homes assumed all kinds of titles and coats of arms. So, the palace was built after instructions from princess Elizabeth and the designs of architect Constantin Ionescu. It was finished very quickly, with works beginning in the autumn of 1936 and ending in December 1937."
Another building in the Mediterranean style is located right in the centre of Bucharest but concealed by the communist-era apartment blocks built behind the former royal palace. Mădălin Ghigeanu calls this building "the Florentine tower block". He says finding out the name of its architect and first owners involved a lot of painstaking research. He tells us what he discovered:
"The surprise was finding that the same architect had also designed other structures in the Mediterranean style. The building itself is one of the most interesting in Bucharest. Its most interesting feature is the beautiful and elaborate corner balcony overlooking two directions, with an arch and a column. This type of corner and this type of architectural structure can only be found today in the Florentine building, because normally corners are made stronger for structural reasons. Another surprise is the name of the original owner: the son of the Bulgarian foreign minister Hagianoff, who is also the owner of the Manasia estate."
Bucharest's Mediterranean architecture is indicative of the stylistic diversity of this city in the inter-war period.
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