Reshaping the Historic City under Socialism: State Preservation, Urban Planning, and the Politics of Scarcity in Romania (1945-1977)

Thesis author: 
Liliana Iuga
Year of enrollment: 
Thesis supervisor: 
Constantin Iordachi
Full description: 

This dissertation analyzes the relation between planning and built heritage as part of the urban reconstruction process in socialist Romania. The argument challenges a common view that largely defined heritage policies in the Romanian context in terms of neglect and extensive destruction, and proposes instead to look at the construction and usage of the historical built environment as an economic, political and cultural resource. It states that, despite the ideology of radical urban transformation, preservation did play a role in the process of reshaping urban landscapes under socialism, which is visible in the fragmented character of urban modernization policies, as well as in the resulting cityscapes. The topic of demolition and reconstruction is approached as part of strategies of economic development and urban planning, paying attention at the changing conceptual, institutional, and legal frameworks. The study contributes to the literature on urban modernization during the postwar decades, emphasizing the peculiarities of the Romanian socialist project as an ideologically-based strategy of development.

Centrally-devised economic policies prescribed a moderate pace of urban growth in the first two postwar decades, to shift to intensive industrialization and urbanization in the 1970s. These stages coincided with the rise and fall of modernism, which was replaced by the imposition of a more compact urban model, stressing higher building densities. The ideological vision of radical reconstruction was challenged (and constrained) by two types of preservationist agendas. First, the Bucharest-based Department for Historic Monuments re-conceptualized the value of built heritage, stressing especially in the 1970s the need to preserve and incorporate portions of the old town into projects of urban modernization. However, despite the efforts of dedicated professionals, the Department’s activity was negatively affected by internal frictions

and a limited understanding of its scope. As a result, it failed to develop a stronger institutional and legal basis, which would have allowed its experts to negotiate from a position of stronger authority with political decision-makers. Second, confronted with economic constraints and the scarcity of resources, decision-makers themselves elaborated an alternative “preservationist” agenda, stressing the need of saving on urban land, infrastructure and even old buildings. In the 1960s and the early 1970s, Ceauşescu personally criticized demolitions as a waste of resources.

The second part of the thesis focuses on two case studies ̶ the cities of Cluj and Iași ̶ in order to argue for the importance of local legacies and visions in shaping the socialist project. If Transylvanian towns were perceived as having a compact medieval core worthy of preservation, in Moldavia and Wallachia the historicity of the old town was less legible in the inherited built fabric, and only individual monuments were singled out as heritage. The smaller case studies discussed in these chapters show how concepts regarding the specific character of the town were defined, challenged, and re-defined as part of urban redevelopment projects. At local level, the creation of new regimes of spatial and social order depended on the extent to which various actors could manipulate the infrastructure of a system that was simultaneously rigid and porous. It concludes that, despite the rhetoric of grand schemes of action, the approaches to urban redevelopment have been rather local and contextual.