Approaching Industrial Ruins in a Post-communist Landscape A design-driven transformative rethinking of industrial heritage in Romania.
Research stage: Intermediate doctoral stage
Large scale areas are being left permanently deserted by the continuing trend of deindustrialization. A particularly striking example of this phenomenon is observable in the states of the former Eastern Block, lasting from the 1980s to present day. The tendency towards urban and peri-urban decay has catalyzed the emergence of necrotic, idle, and uncontrolled landscapes, often in the immediate proximity of metropolitan centers,1 as well as the systemic erasure of industrial and cultural heritage in these regions.
The Romanian state and Romania’s institutional culture contribute massively to the problematic handling of its industrial heritage. “Until recently, heritage designation was mainly granted sites pertaining to faith, the Romanian nation, and historic and prehistoric pasts. Industrial and mining heritage registered at the Ministry of Culture listed nothing production or labor-related.” 2
This paper will aim to frame the structure of a research which intends to counteract the widely occurring process of cultural amnesia and to reframe awareness of Romania’s particular relationship with its communist past through a less pragmatic strategy: one that offers an impulse towards a softer approach to the decaying bodies of industrial ruins, framed not as “urban development assets” but as entities whose ties to a shared past have to be nurtured.
The use of narrative text, such as the one at hand, is decidedly not serving a descriptive means, as it is not intended to “translate” what is designed/drawn. Instead, it is meant to complement and support design-driven actions that ultimately lead to conclusions, which will be reframed in a scientific literary discourse. It is meant to illustrate a recursive process between setting the scene, surveying the territory (architecturally and culturally), proposing action (or un-action) and then critically reformulating the findings. Thus, the focus of this research falls on transformative processes in the existing reality of the sites, as well as in the realms of research and architectural design: the objective is to explore these complex yet inexact pursuits.
While maintaining and reclaiming such sites has been a focal point of architectural and urbanistic research and planning in Central Europe, the particular socio-cultural characteristics of Romania have not been closely examined, leading to maladjusted solutions in the few cases where the necessity for intervention had been identified.
The initial, ground-laying strategy for this research constituted in framing the particular cultural context that was chosen: turning a generic global architectural issue (transforming industrial ruins) into a hyper-specific, hyper-local one: transforming particular sites, in a particular region of a single country, that operates on a particular set of cultural idiosyncrasies.
These sites have flourished during and served as a backdrop for a tremendous historical trauma: the rise, and perhaps even more significantly, the abrupt fall of communism. After 1989, the consensus seemed to be a public and radical refusal to acknowledge any association with the socialist past, positive or otherwise. The current systemic ignoring of Romania’s industrial heritage can be traced back to an sudden cutting of the cord that linked communities to a common heritage (forged during 42 years of aggressive and invasive socialism), perceived to be devoid of any cultural-historical merit.
“The grief and pain associated with ruination is not only triggered by their decay but also by the inability to interact with them.” 3
This approach solidified the argumentation for the relevance of the research, framing the engagement with unvalued memory as imperative and necessary for the creation of a fully fledged cultural identity, by exemplifying not only the relevance of preserving and transforming ruins but the necessity to preserve and transform these very particular ruins of a shared industrial communist past into imaginaries worth engaging with in the 21st century.
The employed research methods oscillate between traditional architectural analysis and the speculative-ludic handling of three self-authored design projects in the city of Sibiu and Hunedoara (Transylvania), henceforth referred to as “Case Studies”: an initial design project which spearheaded a now successfully completed transformation project, a playful conceptual proposal for the handling of a derelict industrial site of gargantuan proportions, and an ongoing project, that harbors significant potential for a complex interweaving of intuitive design proposals as well as feasible implementation of architectural design.
Figure 1: Case Study 1, Fabrica de Cultura Sibiu, birds’ eye perspective drawing, watercolour
The process entails the retrospective investigation of the first Case Study, by reflexively analyzing the disparities between the initial design intent and the materialized form of the project, the speculative re-design of the second and third Case Study, and the narrative framing of this recursive and reflexive process.
Figure 2: Case Study 2, Fabrica Independenta Sibiu, birds’ eye view drawing, watercolour
Case Study 1 is representing a type of “paleoteric knowledge” 4, by which a finalized design project (employing a traditional attitude towards design) can be interrogated retrospectively versus the “neoteric knowledge” introduced by the other two Case Studies, which are forward-looking, working with designing, and intrinsically playful and speculative. The research is proving to be an ongoing conversation between the designer and the objects intervened upon, focussing on this recursive process rather than on a finished architectural product.
Figure 3: Case Study 3, CSH site Hunedoara, birds’ eye perspective drawing, watercolour
Two immediate directions of work were mapped out this far: the (auto-) ethnographic, delivered as narrative text, and the use of hand-drawn architectural representation as creative speculation.
The predominant use of hand drawings and watercolours is linked to the exploration of the imprecise, speculative nature 5 of the surveyed objects and the subsequent design proposals. Computer aided design drawings have been consciously excluded from this process, as these will impose a level of precision which might give the impression of a finalized action upon an object that isn’t in a constant state of change and decay. The other method of capturing the intricacies of the sites is filming particular scenes, as this allows a juxtaposition of aural elements, and photography during site visits.
A preliminary result (in the vein of the “conclusions” of a paleoteric learning process, mentioned a few paragraphs prior) to the finalized first Case Study was that despite architectural misuse and misapplication of the initial design tactics, the materialized project was successful and widely praised.
As a counterpart to the medieval city center, which has been sanitized and transformed into a tourist-friendly photo backdrop, Case Study 1, located in the industrial periphery of Sibiu, attracts a mostly local population. The initial design focused primarily on the reconversion of a structure that had been dubbed “the virgin ruin”, a skeletal concrete structure that had never been used. However, the strategy to reprogram this ruin proved unfeasible and another hall of similar proportions was chosen.
Figure 4: Case Study 1, virgin ruin, photograph and initial proposal
This host then underwent a conversion into a theatre space, designated specifically for the play “Faust” by director Silviu Purcarete for the “Radu Stanca” theatre. This intervention was based on this author’s initial design for the “virgin ruin” and executed with a local tender- supervising architect and under management and technical guidance of the directing staff of the Radu Stanca theatre. 6
Despite difficulties with site access and management, rudimentary and low cost interventions, and insufficient spaces for public assembly or waiting areas, the theatre play staged in the reanimated hall, is an ongoing production in Sibiu and sold out over its entire playtime. The site has been renamed into “Fabrica de Cultura” and now hosts numerous large scale events during the FITS.
One explanation for this success, related to the reconversion itself, could be that the disorder of the site matches a particularity of Romanian aesthetic consciousness, therefore visitors don’t feel alienated by the intervention which under a different approach would be a new, unusually pristine, and foreign object that clashes with familiar cultural sensibilities. This proposed thesis ties into the initial approach to view the research through a hyper-local lens, rather than a generic one.
Figure 5: Case Study 1, Fabrica de Cultura, imagine collage, initial design of the “virgin ruin” juxstaposed with finished execution photography
By approaching the handling of post-communist industrial heritage through this frame of particularly post-communist Romanian disorderly aesthetic, the course of action can be reframed into something intensely locally specific, as envisioned in the initial argumentation, in order to avoid the grafting of ideas that may have worked before, elsewhere, but that would ultimately alienate the local population. For it is the local inhabitants, not the tourists, that have been forgotten during discussions about Romanian heritage preservation.
The argument for the particularily “Romanian grotesque” can be anchored in the works of local thinkers, notably Emil Cioran (author of “A short history of decay”, 1949, and a Sibiu native), or Augustin Ioan (author of “Architectura supra-realismului comunist”, 2012) and several others. These discourses will, however, not be included and analyzed in further detail here, as this endeavour would reach beyond the scope of this paper.
A paranthesis: a similar approach, can be identified in the work of Rem Koolhaas’ preservation tactics for the Eremitage in St. Petersburg, evidently a vastly different project topic, but where a similar idea was developed: “that perhaps dilapidation itself was part of Russia’s history”. 7 This argument solidifies the initial thesis of this research’s approach to post-communist preservation of heritage.
Returning to the landscapes to be handled, Case Study 2 and 3 are now using this “impolite” approach via the aesthetic of the grotesque and uncanny, which emerged without specific intention in Case Study 1, by firstly identifying the agents within these sites that can be operated upon as “hosts” 8. These bodies are personified and each necessitate different revitalization tactics, from doing nothing, to minimally invasive, to large scale interventions.
In both cases, the “minimally invasive” method seems to currently be the most viable strategy, but as this only works through an intimate engagement with the site, which has not been surveyed in over a year due to COVID travel restrictions, the design process thus being negatively affected.
There are other reasons for a design approach that proposes doing “barely anything”, or rather more radically, “undoing” 9. As the viability of a design proposal for Case Studies 2 and 3 can not be verified a posteriori, after a finalized and monitored built intervention, the epistemological direction must change. Success of a hypothetical proposal could be deducted from other similar case studies, but these are few and far between in Romania.
A preceding experiment was tested on Case Study 3, in the city of Hunedoara: a minimally invasive strategy that proposes a zero-intervention approach to the buildings on site, but instead reactivates the gargantuan landscape by using the rail tracks that pass through it, to insert parasitic objects 10 of varied use, meant to act as temporary attractors for ephemeral cultural action.
Figure 6: Case Study 3, CSH Hunedoara, site plan/pictograph general approach rail tracks
The following segment of the paper is focused on Case Study 2, arguably the most complex of the three, situated like Case Study 1 in the city of Sibiu. In the case of this site, it must be argued that the prudent approach would be two-fold: a few large scale, more invasive urbanistic interventions in order to link the site to the surrounding city and activate its perimeter, so as to create a porous landscape that can sustain different smaller interventions, and smaller, minimally invasive interventions that will enable activation and preservation, through un-doing and freeing spaces, in order to lay bare the spacial qualities of the site, and prepare the site for interventions without architectural intent, merely setting the stage for the local population to reclaim the scenery.
Figure 7: Case Study 2, large scale interventions to site
The main prerogative of the intervention is to clarify the structure, the organization and the circulation 7 between and within relevant building ensembles and the spaces between them. Introducing emptiness and substraction to the creative process will help clarify not only the objects themselves, but the relevance of the “pre-existencies”. “No construction if a sign of respect to the place, territory or city and an ethic that assumes that economic values should not be the only to validate future actions.” 9
The goal is to reintroduce autonomy to the site, and refuse the “exaggerated form of involuntary newness” 7.The trick is, however, to stage action (or un-action) so effective, that preservation appears as having been conducted with architectural intent.
This autonomy is also linked to enabling emancipatory use of the site, so a programmatic direction will be specified: focusing on local crafts (until now only represented for instance during the yearly “Pottery fair”, or temporary Roma craft workshops of brass hollow-ware). Other prerequisites for sustainable rehabilitation through programmatic enabling, such as the sites’ connection to local utilities, a strong human resource, a surrounding landscape that holds value for tourism, and funds that could be accessed through the European Union 3, are also met. The city’s cultural landscape is exceptionally vivid relative to its size and regional character: it ranks second in Romania by “Cultural Vitality Index” (0,88 according to a study commissioned by “Centrul de Cercetare și Consultanță în Domeniul Culturii, in 2010”). 12.
These methods for emancipating the site with minimal interventions, a first draft of which i have presented in my paper following the Ca2Re+ Trondheim conference, are structured with the afore-mentioned system defined by L. Wong which was now extended to more clearly adapt to the specific aesthetic categories employed. The buildings are defined as hosts and divided into a taxonomy of: entities, grouped, semi-ruins, shells, relics and fragmented ruins. This division will help define clusters of buildings to “operate” upon, and a temporal frame for phasing the interventions on the site. Three main types of ruins were identified for this purpose: the shell (heritage protected, only minor interventions within interior spaces possible), the fragmented (not protected, interventions necessary) and the relic (to remain untouched and minimally curated as a referential element on the site).
Figure 8: Case Study 2, clearing of an exemplary structure, creating the palimpsest
Facing the next steps of the research, it is imperative to continue framing the site’s and the town’s development without demonizing its industrial past, and by reconnecting these sites with the population’s shared regional cultural identity. The aim of these strategies of analyzing, undoing, and doing within a minimally invasive frame, is to emphasize the potential of life within it, as “ruination does not signal the absolute annihilation of building and organization but instead opens out to radically different forms of organization and organizing.” 13.
A certain conflict might arise between this proposal of a hyper-local approach and the fact that architectural design harbors certain universal qualities. The architectural language and the described tools used thus far for the three Case Studies do not differ vastly from techniques applied to other such projects. Another conflict could also emerge in a later stage, between the assumed acceptance of the local population of the rawness of the site, and the difficulties in arguing the minimal interventions through a lens that includes the sensitivities of profit-oriented city officials and invasive construction driven architects.
To employ Koolhaas’ parlance: “Preservation is maddening to conservative architects, because its formless aesthetics are not based on architectural presence or absence, which seems unnatural to them.” 7
The ambition of the research is to ultimately illustrate a novel approach, as it crystallizes through speculative reasoning which then informs the design process, and, most importantly, vice versa. An argument can be made that the reproduction of the architectural design per se must not necessarily be linked to a “transfer moment”, but rather that the pursuit for transferrable knowledge might prove fruitful in the interplay of design intent and cultural exploration.
- Frank, Ute. 2017. “Hiatus”. Birkhäuser
- Kideckel, David A. 2018. “Identity and Mining Heritage in Romania’s Jiu Valley Coal” Routledge
- Pusca, Anca M. 2015a. “Post-Communist Aesthetics.” Routledge
Victor Margolin (2010) Design Issues Vol. 26, No. 3 (Summer 2010), pp. 70-78 The MIT Press
- Pallasmaa, Juhani (1988) “The Thinking Hand”, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
- Popescu, Adrian (2016), “Fabrica de cultura in oglinda”, Tribuna newspaper https://www.tribuna.ro/stiri/cultura/fabrica-de-cultura-in-oglinda-116793.html
- Koolhaas, Rem (2014) “Preservation is overtaking us”, GSAAP Transcripts series
Wong, Liliane (2016) “Adaptive reuse - extending the lives of buildings”, Birkhäuser
- Catillo Sanchez, Alejandro (2020), n’UNDO en profundidad http://vimeo.com/379081205
- Corina, Cosmescu. 2016. “[RE]Fabricam Orasul – Trecutul ca Viitor – Ansamblul Industrial Independenta, Sibiu.” Arhitectura 1906 . May 16, 2016. https://arhitectura-1906.ro/ 2016/05/refabricam-orasul-trecutul-ca-viitor-ansamblul-industrial-independenta-sibiu/.
- DeSilvey, Caitlin. 2017. “Curated Decay”. U of Minnesota Press.
Prominski, Martin. 2019. “Design Research for Urban Landscapes.” Routledge
- Image References (all images copyright of paper author)