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ARCHIVES – AN ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE

ARCHIVES – AN ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE

text: Nicolae LASCU

When we talk about heritage we tend to associate it almost immediately with the valuable built heritage (buildings or complexes often found on the list of historical monuments), and, consequently, transfer the responsibility to monument conservation and restoration specialists. According to a broader definition, heritage includes all of the existing buildings – and urban and/or rural complexes, irrespective of their age: in other words, the architectural heritage also includes buildings (complexes) that are currently being built and which might be classified, in time, as heritage items. Undoubtedly, the actual buildings will always remain the most significant structures for a specific era or society; however, a broader and much more comprehensive notion of architectural heritage with a much more comprehensive meaning would also include in the architectural heritage the various categories of documents regarding constructions, which may be found in various archives – to be dealt with below -, as well as the publications on architecture and the city and the more or less specialised libraries in this field. Each of these – the archives and the libraries – possess, contrary to what many architects might think, a very important role in knowing a certain historical era, in understanding and appreciating the architectural phenomenon, the culture of a past or present era, of the architects’ personality etc.
In particular, what we may accurately call “the architectural heritage of archives”, less known and taken into consideration, has several defining features:

It is diffuse, in the sense that it is placed (whether stored or not) in various places (and locations): the registered headquarters of national archives (central and county), various ministries or other central institutions, higher education institutions, city halls, libraries (from the Romanian Academy Library to various county or municipal libraries), national or local museums, various religious institutions (monasteries, bishoprics, parishes etc.), former design institutes, current architecture firms, professional organisations, the families of former or current architects. To these we should add the archives from various countries, closer or more remote to us, containing revealing documents for a territory of the country, a period, an architect active in Romania etc. The modern Internet or Wikipedia search engines have lately been useful tools for accessing documents which, while not in their original format, but in a scanned or photocopied version (sometimes at a very high resolution), still enable one to identify sources of various documents that are sometimes fundamental to understanding our architecture, the influences and context of an era.

In certain cases, there are specialised collections, such as that of the Union of Romanian Architects – the Digital Archive, comprising the Archive of photographs and slides of Arhitectura magazine (1953-1989) and UAR’s Archive of photographs and slides. The Union of Architects also stores the archives of a number of reputed architects such as Constantin Joja, Ioana Grigorescu, Ion Enescu, and others.

Drawings and sketches for the Baia Mare City Hall, extracted from the details notebook of the architect Mircea Alifanti (generously put of our disposal by the sITA Journals and mrs. Ioana Florian)

It is a heritage with a peculiar dynamic; it might be described as “specific”. As a rule, an archival stock – which is potentially immense – is continually growing in terms of stock, documents etc., as they are archived (in specialized institutions or at their issuer) or come to supplement the existing ones, further to legal obligations, through purchases or donations. This natural tendency is subject to corrections. Part of them mainly relate to the lack of interest in this kind of heritage, often manifested (and it is not only the architects’ fault) by throwing away the entire documentation or just the incipient phases of a project: sketches, representation of an idea in sketchy drawings which are occasionally more revealing for the overall view of a building than the final project. What disappears forever, therefore, is that essential “laboratory” of a project’s evolution which enables us to get a deeper insight into an architect’s conceptions. On the other hand, it is a well-known and regrettable fact that a large part of the archives of the former socialist design institutes has vanished or was simply destroyed deliberately. Along with these archives have also perished the memory of this profession as recorded over four decades and any possibility to reconstruct the context in which the profession was practised, with its more generic or minute details, in a period that caused profound changes in cities through the large quantity of constructions of all kinds. In this context, it is important to discuss not so much their quality as the fact as such.

Urban planning plan, Sibiu, 1936 (Sibiu City Hall Archives, Mag. Or. Fund Sibiu, dossier U-9(b)

It is a heritage with a peculiar dynamic; it might be described as “specific”. As a rule, an archival stock – which is potentially immense – is continually growing in terms of stock, documents etc., as they are archived (in specialized institutions or at their issuer) or come to supplement the existing ones, further to legal obligations, through purchases or donations. This natural tendency is subject to corrections. Part of them mainly relate to the lack of interest in this kind of heritage, often manifested (and it is not only the architects’ fault) by throwing away the entire documentation or just the incipient phases of a project: sketches, representation of an idea in sketchy drawings which are occasionally more revealing for the overall view of a building than the final project. What disappears forever, therefore, is that essential “laboratory” of a project’s evolution which enables us to get a deeper insight into an architect’s conceptions. On the other hand, it is a well-known and regrettable fact that a large part of the archives of the former socialist design institutes has vanished or was simply destroyed deliberately. Along with these archives have also perished the memory of this profession as recorded over four decades and any possibility to reconstruct the context in which the profession was practised, with its more generic or minute details, in a period that caused profound changes in cities through the large quantity of constructions of all kinds. In this context, it is important to discuss not so much their quality as the fact as such.

It is a highly diverse heritage. A paper published a few years ago – Fondul documentar de arhitectură din România [The Architectural Archives in Romania]1 – tackles a lot of issues and presents many standpoints, and also performs an “inventory” of all types and categories of documents which form in the broadest sense the archives of interest to the architecture and urban planning field: original designs or copies thereof, whether implemented or not (from preliminary sketches and drawings to intermediary versions and the final execution project), competition projects, notes, contracts, building permits, correspondence (with the clients and the authorities), vintage photographs (including photographs taken during execution), memoranda, various manuscripts, personal details (family, education etc.), mock-ups, documents of events dedicated to architecture such as exhibitions and related catalogues, posters, pamphlets, etc. The architecture studio (be it a small individual office or a large firm) can sometimes resort, through the authors of the projects, to what one might call “verbal archiving”, one of the most interesting parts of a studio archive. Another category of documents are those that have reflected the relationships with the authorities (applications, memoranda, challenges, decisions, etc.), and which cannot be found among the printed and published documents. The “media” on which this information is stored – “traditional” (paper, tracing paper, foil, etc.), digital, CD or DVD – are all more or less perishable (especially paper, but let us remember that we do not really know the resistance over time of the electronic medium), so that this heritage is subject to decay in time.

It is an immense heritage, largely unknown, and, often, difficult to access. On some occasions one comes across archives solely by accident; on other occasions, a thorough knowledge of whatever theme can only be acquired after consulting various collections, located in various archives. In the happy cases, the archival documents can illustrate each step taken on the road towards the materialisation of the architectural idea: from the client’s request to the first sketches, intentions, to the final design and all the building stages. The volume of architectural archives cannot be quantified and I don’t think that this kind of information has any importance whatsoever. The fact remains, however, that the volume of documents with significance for architecture – and the city – is a very large one.
Paradoxically, maybe, the interest in archive research (i.e. the collections containing items referring to Romanian architecture and towns) has massively increased in the architects’ milieu only in the last 30 years or so, after 1989. In the previous periods (including the interwar decades), there were very few architects who resorted to archival documents for their studies and research. Paul Niedermaier, Eugenia Greceanu, Andrei Pănoiu and Mihai Opriş were among those whose important works focused on archival research. However, their large majority was grouped around the National Commission for Monuments and, therefore, their in-depth studies only served as preliminary steps to the restoration of historical monuments recognised as such (and already on the list of monuments). They were joined by archaeologists, historians and art historians, better acquainted with this type of research.

Archives of all categories became, after 1989, a relatively usual tool for architects. We shall not go into an in-depth analysis of the causes behind this fact; we shall only mention some of the most frequent reasons: (1) the legal obligation of all architecture offices to maintain their own archive and to keep an organised record of their own projects; (2) the new provisions regarding interventions on classified monuments, the documentations required for their classification or in the protected built areas. For all these categories of projects, archival research has become a mandatory element, required to determine the cultural value of that monument or area and, also, to substantiate the intervention mode; (3) academic PhD studies, targeting various monuments, areas or periods from our history resulted in doctoral theses that have often played a fundamental role in getting to know our architecture, our architects etc. At least in the large cities, individual or group research concerning local architecture or the evolution of the city has multiplied. The subjects most frequently tackled have been: architect monographs, architectural trends and styles, historical eras (from the Antiquity to the socialist era between 1960 and 1970); building typologies (religious buildings, public buildings, dwellings), monographs of a city in a well-defined period of time or urban typologies etc.; various architecture exhibitions, on a larger or smaller scale, organised in the 1990s by UAR and then by OAR, were largely based on information extracted from the archives.
Finally, it is, on the whole, a highly valuable heritage considering its potential, which, over time, will considerably enrich our knowledge of everything related to the built environment in Romania. However, it is relevant not only to architecture (and urban planning), but to our culture in general. After all, it is part of the national cultural heritage, alongside all the other cultural fields.

It is impossible to assess, even generically, the approximate value of these works made available to the general public lately (to which we should also add the numberless unpublished works), in an impressive number, and, surely, extremely varied: from vast doctoral theses and published volumes to studies and articles published in various magazines, to minor mentions. In our opinion, a debate on the quality of the various contributions in the realms of history, theory, critique in the last three decades on our (past and present) architecture would be extremely useful and would enable us to assess their role in the evolution of our architecture. Works of great value were published alongside others, wherein the archival documents (mostly charts) were published as such, in the form of image albums, with no accompanying comments or elementary references to the sources of those charts. This category is surely damaging, both for the architectural meaning of those archives, as well as for the entire field of the history of architecture. However, all these works, the fruit of careful archive research, may be deemed to be but an emerging effort to make the best of the rich archival stock regarding the architecture and the city. They contribute to the gradual research into the archival stock, also leading to an enrichment of the other architectural heritage represented by libraries and the literature on architecture in general.

Ion D. Berindei: convention for the Toma Stelian residence project elaboration, 1912, Bucharest (National Library of Romania, Saint Georges fund, pack CXCII, dossier 2, files 5-6)

However, these beginnings cannot overlook the highly complicated and complex problems raised by architecture archives, such as those connected to the necessity to have adequate storage (and research) spaces, the selection of the documents to be included in the future archives and the persons in charge of making such selections, the means of access to documents, the copyright or the rights established by various institutions possessing archives etc. In our professional circles, a debate has been going on for over two decades whether to establish an institution that might be in charge, among others, of laying the foundations of an architectural archive. Various names have been found for it over time, one of the most frequently mentioned being the Museum of Architecture of Romania. The name of such an institution, which is absolutely necessary, in our opinion, can be found, in various forms, in many countries worldwide, and it counts as one of the institutions of primary importance in the culture of that country. Certainly, there can be no question of a transfer of all the archival documents on architecture and urban planning from their current owners to a single place/institution, a place for study, research and various manifestations; the goal is to bring together in a modern format entire archives or individual documents extracted from such archives currently in the possession of active architects or of the families of deceased architects, and to initiate a system of information concerning all archives, collections or other documents currently in the ownership of various institutions.

Horia Creangă, H. Georgescu: Obor Market Halls, Bucharest, groundfloor plan, 1937 (A.N. - MLPC fund - General Department of Public Buildings, Building Department, dossier 87/1943, pl. 4)

The joint efforts made by the Union of Romanian Architects, the Order of Romanian Architects, the UAUIM and other architecture faculties in our country (being a well-known fact that most of the people with genuine skills in archive utilisation are on the staff of a higher education institution), may be conducive to the establishment of this structure that is extremely important for the architect profession. After all, it is in the best interests of the profession to have such an institution, useful and necessary to all. Because we should not deceive ourselves: in this respect (as well), we are considerably lagging behind other European countries (Western, as well as Eastern), who have known better than us how to value and exploit their architectural heritage. This is, presumably, the consequence of a low sense of historicity, and by that I do not mean the history expressed in dates and persons, but an awareness of how a solid professional culture gets sedimented over time. In this respect, we can only agree with what studioBASAR has stated in the abovementioned volume: “the archive of Romanian architecture is rather the history of an absence, of discontinuity as method and of fragmentary memory as paradigm”2.

1. Mirela Duculescu (editor), Fondul documentar de arhitectură din România. Raport preliminar de politică culturală [The Architectural Documentary Stock in Romania. Preliminary Cultural Policy Report], Ed. Simetria, Bucharest, 2011.
2. Op. cit., p. 152.

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