Examples, exceptions and models for protecting the Romanian cultural heritage


text: Sergiu NISTOR

© Daniela Puia

A survey conducted by ICOMOS Romania in 2002 revealed that, in the specialists’ opinion, the main threat to historical monuments was the carelessness shown by owners, historical monument administrators and the authorities. Ten years after such analysis, things have changed: the main threat to the heritage buildings has, in the meantime, been identified to be the pressure of private real estate speculators, which, unlike negligence or carelessness, does not operate slowly and stealthily, but suddenly, totally and with extreme brutality. The local public authorities and even specialised public authorities such as the Ministry of Culture or, in certain respects, the Ministry of Regional Development and Tourism, seem to no longer possess the institutional capacity required to efficiently enforce compliance with the laws. We sometimes wonder whether, considering the (in)efficiency of the Romanian authorities, we are still dealing with heritage protection proper (that is, with an administrative system involving institutions capable of carrying their mission through) or with heritage “defence” carried out by isolated guerrilla groups (by which we mean kind-hearted folk, specialists or NGOs). Against this background, The “Ion Mincu” Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, acting mainly through its Chair of Architecture History and Theory and Heritage Conservation, sets an example as a methodological framework maker and a trainer of young specialists.
The list of historical monuments lists over 29,000 historical monuments, archaeological and architectural structures.1
The Cultural Heritage Directorate within the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage currently employs 5 inspectors, plus other 3 retired employees that have been re-employed. They are directly responsible for 25% of the 29,000 historical monuments. The county directorates for culture (and national heritage, as they have been known until recently) employ, on average, 1.7 specialists per county, each of whom “takes care”, on average, of 500 monuments of local importance. In this context evincing few prospects for improvement, actions taken by NGOs such as MET can make a difference and change the negative course of the heritage destruction processes.

Aside from the attack of private speculators, sometimes it was the very concern of the local authorities not to miss certain European funds that led to several incorrect restoration projects or to marginalising historical monuments within certain urban restoration projects which used the heritage solely to gain eligibility points. This is proven by some monuments being “suffocated” by unlikely, Disneyland-like structures, by the disproportionate car parks occasionally placed right next to the barbicans or by the wiping out of authentic archaeological vestiges by the newly built commercial centres. There are also, however, examples of good practice such as the works conducted by the MET Foundation, the ARA Association or UAUIM at Dealu Frumos, which align the scale of the intervention to that of the context, in which the intervention inserts itself by resorting to technical means similar to those having generated the values the intervention aims to protect. It is in this area of works carried out on a fairly low budget that a true example is set in historical monuments restoration, in terms of quality and an adequate quality/cost ratio.
If we are to find a positive side to the real estate boom of 2004-2008, that would probably be the “re-awakening” of the interest of civil society organisations in protecting the heritage and, lately, in making the best of it; we are being increasingly notified by NGOs of law infringements, seemingly in compensation for the ever lower number of inspectors on the field. Corresponding to the increasing involvement on the part of the public, the mass media have also tackled the subject, a recent campaign by Digi 24 or one initiated some time ago by Antena 3 being the most recent examples in this respect.
The campaign title, i.e. “100 places to save in Romania”, can be changed at any time to the “first” 100 places to save, because the number of historical monuments in need of intervention in the near future amounts to minimum 25% of our heritage stock. Considering MCPN’s budgets in the years up to 2013, namely circa. 12,000 Euro/year, the current pace at which the restoration works are completed (between 5% and 10% of building sites), the reduction of “heritage morbidity and mortality” is an illusion, unless we take into account multiplying the number of the actors involved in protecting historical monuments and increasing the budgets and the financing sources. These two aspects, the precarious state of conservation of an important part of the heritage and the slow pace at which it is restored, owing to the lack of action of the public authorities involved, outline not so much the profile of a problem, but of a genuine crisis. Unlike a problem, the resolution of which may be found in the very mechanisms and internal resources of the system that caused it, a crisis cannot be solved unless the paradigm of the system that generated it is changed.
Solving the crisis of the built cultural heritage may start from three questions and is structurally similar to the health system:

How can we ensure the adequate state of health of our cultural heritage “population”?

When historical monuments are faced with health issues, how can we avoid a long-term illness or even worse, a malign evolution thereof? and:

How can we establish an “emergency medicine” system, which may rely, like SMURD, on an inter-institutional collaboration able to neutralise aggressive factors and to ensure an opportune and efficient healing intervention?

© Daniela Puia

Let us tackle them one by one.

I. Would any society build a health system that would ignore the importance of prevention, of general practice, assuming solely the mission of treating the ever increasing number of the sick? The answer to the first question presupposes the implementation of an accountability system for the owners and administrators of historical monuments for their state of conservation. However, in Romania, nowadays, such a system would face two major obstacles:
– Insufficient education of the public, owners and administrators of historical monuments, causing them to overlook the potential and values, including economic, of the heritage; and
– An ineffective system for supporting and encouraging

the continuous maintenance of the monuments. The exemption from the tax on buildings and the tax on the land plot taken up by the monuments, as well as the exemption from the repair works authorisation tax fail to reach the purpose for which they were established.

Per a contrario, those who fail to take care of the monuments in their charge and to use the funds made available by such exemptions are not taxed. The paradigm shift needs to change the system of exemptions and incentives towards one with a variable geometry, in which the owner’s commitment should be rewarded more consistently, through an operational financial support mechanism; concurrently, where one circumvents the fulfilment of one’s legal responsibilities, the sanction applied should be directly proportional.
A collaborative effort undertaken by MECTS and MC, aimed at educating young people as early as elementary school, is currently in its incipient stage; the purpose is to increase young people’s awareness and to make them more receptive, on leaving high school, to the valuable heritage items belonging to the “visible register”.

II. Ever since the early 1990s, when the first restoration sites were inaugurated after the Revolution, the duration of the interventions has been excessively lengthy. Occasionally, due to the discrepancy between the good intentions and the budgets, a restoration work was completed as late as 15 years after its commencement. That is, when the restoration was not abandoned in the first place without having been finalised! Multi-annual programming – covering not too many years, though – would be the key to answering the second question: how can we provide efficient healing in moments of suffering. In France, for instance, a restoration site is not opened before the necessary funding until completion of the works has been provided for it and usually takes four years at the most. A National Restoration Programme covering 300 objectives, several tens of which do not benefit from any funding, is not something commendable; it is merely an illusion that the problem has been solved. Apart from the illusory aspect, it is also a source of threats to the historical monuments themselves, which in this case resemble a patient whom the surgeon places on the operation table and whose thorax he opens, only to abandon him there and run to another sick man’s bed. Considering the current costs (circa 2,000 Euro/sqm), the National Restoration Programme can annually ensure the completion of complex consolidation and restoration works to no more than 20 objectives out of circa 300 sqm/ACD, that is a church, a belfry or an abbot’s house. To be effective, the therapy needs to be applied in the necessary concentration and at the right time. Within the current system, with the current restoration budget, even if we were to optimize the organisation of the restoration sites and to concentrate our resources, we can only open sites for a restricted number of privileged monuments (circa 50-60), over a four-year period, at a rate of circa 15 newly opened restoration sites per year. However, it is obvious that one or two newly opened restoration sites in a county will not solve Romania’s crisis. The paradigm shift should consist in restricting the use of the Ministry of Culture’s funds to the conservation, consolidation and restoration of those archaeological and architectural structures directly carrying cultural values and in the partners’ providing the co-financing of additional works such as extensions, additions or developments.

III. A third approach to the crisis consists in multiplying the actions to be taken by the actors involved in managing, monitoring, preserving and valorising the built heritage. This can be done, on the one hand, by inter-institutional collaboration, and, on the other hand, by developing skills and involving as many specialists as possible, pertaining to related or cross-cutting fields to the heritage field. No adequate role or scheme for collaborating with the town and city halls or with the county councils has been identified as yet, while these institutions have legal duties and even operational departments specialised in heritage management and monitoring. On the other hand, the decrease in the number of specialised staff within the county cultural directorates meant that the focus of their activity shifted towards office activity or, in certain cases, was restricted to internal administrative affairs. In the predictable context of an ongoing economic crisis, with consequences on the human resources available in public institutions, a minimum degree of efficiency in monitoring compliance in the field of historical monuments can only be ensured by a new scheme of inter-institutional collaboration. On the other hand, legislation and the authorities in the cultural heritage field should aim, like in jujitsu, to leverage the forces of the economy and the market from their assault on the cultural heritage and to use economic interests and processes to co-interest investors in protecting it.
As regards professional specialisation in the field of historical monuments conservation and restoration, the number of certified experts and specialists is currently insufficient, so that one third of the country’s counties lack the experienced professionals required to manage the restoration projects, while in the field of traditional crafts there is also acute lack of specialised craftsmen. Additionally, the abolition of the register of companies certified in historical monument restoration, in compliance with EU’s directive on services, has paved the way for the conclusion of profitable restoration contracts by firms lacking any experience in this field. The logic according to which MCIN should first conduct an expert’s appraisal at the offices of the architecture, engineering or restoration firm knocking on its door should be replaced with a pro-active, educational and formative scheme that would be able to convert the general practitioner into a specialist, by means of training and practice carried out on INP’s sites, among others.
A crisis is also perpetuated by the pessimism of those entangled in it. This is why the initiatives and pilot projects play an essential role in testing solutions and regaining confidence in the existence and efficiency of such solutions. The serious problems facing our cultural heritage need to be approached with a long-term vision and innovative solutions; positive experiences should be converted into success stories that should be ideally reproduced throughout the country. For this reason, the example set by some NGOs is important and it is equally important to show that it can be reproduced. The main heritage protection goals provided in the governmental programmes cannot substitute the understanding by the stakeholders in the cultural heritage field, primarily the public authorities, of the relationship between conservation and development, between heritage, creation and (re)creation. In valorising the cultural heritage for the present and future generation, in correctly positioning oneself with respect to the action strategies, in preserving and valorising the cultural heritage there are no main actors and extras; just like there are no pre-established hierarchies. All initiatives aimed at safeguarding or reviving the cultural heritage in some way, whether it is the action taken by companies aware of the necessity to train their personnel or the more modest initiatives taken by several NGOs, the formal education provided within UAUIM or the non-formal one provided in summer schools, deserve to be nominated as extremely worthy examples. It is now up to our actions and efforts to transform all the foregoing into more than mere exceptions.

1 Structure of the List of Historical Monuments (2010): 29,542 positions, of which 9,662 positions in class I (structures or archeological strata) and 19,880 architectural structures. Of the latter, circa 85%, i.e. approximately 17,000 are buildings or constructions classified by virtue of their historical, urbanistic and architectural worth, and circa 3,000 are commemorative or public buildings. Circa 25% are classified in group A, and 75% are classified in group B.

Excerpt from the volume “Confluențe culturale” [Cultural Confluences] – In Honorem Professoris Nicolae Lascu, Collection ACADEMIA, p. 233-236, Ozalid Publishing House, 2018.

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