beyond the façade / 2010 - group project: Emilia Tugui, Mihaela Tantas and Daniel Djamo
In spite of our general interest for the abandoned spaces pertaining to a post-industrial landscape quite present in Bucharest, we decided to focus our project on a much more mundane but often overlooked face of urban abandonment: the empty windows of closing shops. The downturn has made these a quite common view in all major cities around Europe and the globe and Bucharest is no exception: where only a few years ago shop windows were displaying an abundance of merchandise being now left empty and “moving out” or “closing” signs replacing the “sales” adverts in the windows, questioning our much too readily embraced capitalism. The capital’s high-streets, Calea Victoriei and Calea Dorobanti first came to mind but in the end we turned to an area where closing shops, empty shop windows and commercial space rental signs have become a defining part of the local specific – the area on Unirii Blv. (aka “Victoria Socialismului” Blv. – the Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism) between Unirii Square and Constitution Square.
Officially started on 25th of June 1984, to fall on the same day as the 40th anniversary of the “social and national revolution, of the free and independent development of Romania” (although the demolition and construction works had started more than one year earlier), “Project Bucharest”, of which The House of the Republic (now House of Parliament) and the Victory of Socialism Blv. were part, aimed to radically reconfigure the centre of Bucharest. Ceausescu’s last “grand projet” was an earlier dream, based on the monumental buildings seen in North Korea during his 1971 Asian tour. While he never managed to see his project finalized, and part of the initially projected buildings were never finished or even raised, the project itself has reached, if only partially, its goal: the new Civic Center is indeed monumental, the boulevard that it’s centered on is wider than the Champs Elysees it was planned to surpass, the “People’s House” now Palace of Parliament has become a new rather touristic hot spot and has assumed at least partially its planned function of center and symbol of power that radically modified, not without a cost, the city center.
Dominated by the hypnotizing image of the House of the People and hidden by the dense foliage of a seemingly local “Unden der Linden”, the part od Unirri Bld. between Unirii and Constitution Squares is though a vivid witness to the failure of the civic center systematization project. The rows of huge empty shop windows covered in tags and graffiti, the dozens of posters announcing that shops that have bailed the area and moved elsewhere and dozens of banners signaling flats for rent or sale (some still there from before the changing of the areas local phone numbers a few years ago), the vegetation that wildly invaded the pavement are present at every step of the way on both sides of the “fountain boulevard”. Among the few un-abandoned spaces are the two banks, the two temp recruitment offices, the luxury clothes and furniture shops and the two trendy cafes placed in a lonely and surprising symmetry on the two sides of the street. Even after 20 years, commercial enterprises are doomed to fail on the Victory of Socialism boulevard. Tourists and the few people out on their Sunday strolls prefer to walk on the tree-lined alley parallel from which the buildings and their ground floor impressive commercial spaces are not even visible. At night there are hardly any lights along the way and not too many lit windows either on the front side of the buildings, just the bluish glare of the TV sets the night guards on one of the sides of the street watch to make their shifts pass easier. The daily life seems to happen somewhere behind the marble “curtain” of the buildings: that’s where the neighborhood cars are parked, kids that are allowed out go to play, dogs are walked, carpets are swept, garbage is taken out and where people occasionally gather for drinks in the few bars arranged in the basement of one of the few buildings that escaped the demolition or converted from some utilitary space at the back of the newer blocks of flats. The boulevard, with its opulently ornate buildings, remains just a vivid example of an urban façade.
What we proposed for our project was to invite people to explore and interact with this abandoned façade. Since time did not allow us to develop the in-situ performance we initially had in mind, we opted for an installation that recreates a few shop windows for this boulevard which seem to be stuck in the past, as empty now as they were more than 20 years ago, irrespective of the type of shop anyone might attempt to open.
Drawing on this past and present emptiness and the arbitrary character of success (or rather in-success) of the shops on Unirii Blv. came the idea to organize the installation on the principles of a popular ‘80s game, “Bunul gospodar” (“good housekeeper”, the local version of Monopoly). Like in the original game, the itinerary around the shops is guided by the roll of the dice, taking the viewer on an “interesting and picturesque imaginary tour, “sprinkled” with historical and cultural landmarks, recreational spaces, cafeterias, shops etc”, just what the types of shops we picked (now long gone) were and could become if we were to translate the installation in life-size form in the abandoned window shops on the Unirii Blv. itself. Till then whether they rolled the dice or not, most of the installation’s shop windows were inviting the audience to interact and playfully explore what lies behind the façade.
this project was made as collaboration between a sociologist, an architect and an artist for the CIties Methodologies workshop, in October 2010