Art and Architecture

Serban Bonciotat Kombinat – Industrial Ruins of the Golden Age
Exhibition – Romanian Cultural Institute, 1 Belgrave Square, London SW1X – 8PH , until 21st May
Book - Serban Bonciotat, with texts by Bruno Andresoiu, Augustin Ioan, Anca Nicoletta Otoiu, Liviu Cheleca and Gabriel Simon; Igloo Publishing Bucharest 2007, ISBN 978-973-88398-0-9( )

In our mental maps of the ‘new’ Europe (‘new’ like we found it in the back of a cupboard with some old maps) Romania is rather a ‘Black Hole’ – a mystery for urbanists. A few urban images sneak out – painted wooden churches, ‘Dracula’ castles ( a fiction that keeps the tourist Euro flowing inwards), Ceaucescu’s demolitions and the excesses of the ‘People’s Palace’, the depressing blocuri communisti , a few restoration projects in Transylvania…..and that’s about it.
Kombinat shows in luscious and seductive saturated hues across full page spreads and fold outs a Romania the industrial ruins of what Romanians call with a stinging cocktail of irony, nostalgia and bitter memory (think Hertha Muller) – and sometimes humour too as in Tales from…..the ‘Golden Age’, the ‘epocii de aur’
The exhibition at the Romanian Cultural Institute (until 21st May) shows a Romania that is not well known in Romania even – the hectares of ruined industrial plants and factory assemblies (the combinat of the title) that were built to modernize and industrialise as part of a central and relentless plan by the Communist regime that was established after WW2. They produced steel, concrete, chemicals, fibres ( I even had a Next suit that was made in Romania) that few could afford there. Some of the very ones that are shown here in decay are shown in architectural black and white in full smokestack production – in the dark night – in celebrations of Romanian architecture of the 1960’s.
Abandoned as uneconomic, useless without the fixed market and rigged prices that kept them running in crazy locations, they gradually crumble away – invaded by weeds and saplings, spilling who knows what, the home of wild dog packs and scrap seekers. Just like Rome in the 1700’s in fact, just in full colour rather than engraved line, Piranesi on acid.
But how do we read these seductive, ambiguous images ? Are they an aesthetic paradise of mysterious forms and curious colours, carefully composed and empty of almost all human life and hard to scale, with their lakes of red slurry that could be seas on a distant planet, brickwork that could be the tombs of emperors? Are they nostalgic wonderment – what giants could have built these massive and wondrous things, in such obscure places, and what on earth for? Or are they relentless, f32 sharp, objective record of the damage done and left by unwarranted industry on the Romanian rural landscape, which until then was a land of peasant farms in the name of ‘progress’?
The exhibition photographs give no clues – even the wood panelled gallery in the Romanian Embassy gives it a dada-esque air (but then Dada is one of Romanian’s gifts to the world). But the texts that accompany the Igloo book (a bargain too at about 20 euro) suggest a social purpose, almost a call to action, in the great tradition of the English writers of the 1930’s.
But Kombinat dodges the issue a little as polemic – where are these sites (there is no map), how big are they (there are no plans) ; is this a full survey, are there others; what is the state of the structures, the land, the water; what is the cost of reclamation; and what uses are feasible (beyond a Tarkovsky theme park)? To have the answers is too much to expect for a 20 year old free market planning system in an impoverished economy. I recalled Thomas Sharp’s English Panorama of the 1930’s and the conditions on Tyneside when I first saw them in the 1960’s. It’s taken Dunston forty years and a Garden Festival to get to Red or Dead designed housing. I fear Hunedora and Copşa Mică and Călăraşi and the rest may take a little longer.
But see this exhibition, buy the book. And weep for Romania.

APRIL 2010.

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