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The land of opportunity

Historical urban tissue around an old mahala - Borroczyn plan, 1846, Sfințescu copy. Image credit: © Tudor Elian

Tudor Elian

I grew up in the ‘90s in Bucharest. In the first decade of post-communist transition, the city seemed wild to me. Even in semi-central neighborhoods, entire blocks had been left demolished or in ruin, abandoned after the largescale plans of the fallen regime had been abruptly stopped. I still remember very vividly traversing such areas by tram, seeing what seemed to be urban wastelands or looking at the concrete skeletons of unfinished flats, noticing small fires burning during the night. People left behind by the ancient regime and by the new system found refuge there. My family would call these places “the dead city”. Much later, I grew to understand things a little differently. In fact, Bucharest has always been the result of two ways of thinking, making and experiencing the city.

The first, the so called „planned city”, focuses on producing regulated and coherent urban areas where the public interest shapes private land. This coincides necessarily with attributing clear boundaries and functions to places, be they built or unbuilt.

The second way, is shaped by informal negotiation and local customs, by a continuous friction between private and “common” land: a city open to opportunistic use(s) and to happenstance. One of its historical embodiments is the maidan – a historical type of unbuilt space intended for the social life of the neighborhood; its "vague" character allowed for free and diverse uses. In the ‘90s, homelessness along with many other far less tragic informal spatial practices had found a temporary solution in this type of free space. And the maidan had gradually slipped into the interstices left by the planned city – both private and public, built and unbuilt, single and multilevel. In the current decade, it appears there is no space left for this more informal city, especially as all the unbuilt plots or blocks in the city are aggressively consumed by new gated developments.

While these two distinct urbanities have each been associated with urban and rural habits respectively, both are quite urban in nature, albeit indebted to two very different urban traditions: one more western, the other (post)byzantine.

It is hard to see a future for the later. That being said, its persistence would align with contemporary approaches to urban design and politics, such as the rising relevance of the discourse regarding the urban commons. Is it possible to think of such urban situations as a social and historical heritage worth preserving? Is there still a place for the wild city?

Tudor Elian is a Romanian architect, curator, exhibition designer and academic based in Bucharest. His personal projects and collaborations address spatial practices, urban behaviour, banality and active heritage, through temporary interventions, non-formal pedagogies, field research, publications and, more recently, exhibitions. He is the co-author of the Romanian Orthodox Church Centre in Munich, Germany, alongside arch. Şerban Sturdza and arch. Matei Eugen Stoean.

Since 2012, he has been teaching in the 2nd and 3rd year design studio as well as theory seminars at the “Ion Mincu” University of Architecture and Urbanism. Here, he is also part of the team developing the live project pedagogy. As curator of the Image and Sound Archive of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest he is focused on finding new, imaginative ways of opening its collections to researchers, artists, creatives and the general public.

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