Think Piece - Garden City in Bucharest

Andrei Răzvan Voinea
Studio Zona, Bucharest

In the spring of 2012, we noticed a couple of curious streets with standardized single-family dwellings in Bucharest, clearly dated back to the beginning of the 20th century. It seemed strange that in Bucharest, the capital of the newly established Kingdom of Romania (1866-1948), hundreds of standardized dwellings were so rigorously designed and built, as the practice of urban planning was rather new. The traditional urban fabric of Bucharest at that time consisted mainly of narrow streets and alleys and piled up dwellings, lost in the maze of the pre-industrialized city. Therefore, hundreds of almost identical dwellings seemed unusual for the city and pointed to a common institution who designed and built them. Shortly, during the field work, we counted more than forty small districts (lotissements) with standardized coupled single-family dwellings and public institutions (school, churches, kindergartens) all over Bucharest. There was little evidence to understand who designed and built them, as no marble plaques or indicators on the facades were to be found, with the name of the architect or of the promoters.

It took some time to learn about The Municipal Company for Low-Cost Housing, the public company established by the Municipality of Bucharest in 1910, who, between 1911 and 1948, designed and built more than 4.000 dwellings for the working class. Little did we know that this company, dissolved by the communists in 1948, was one of the promoters of Garden City principles in Bucharest, principles which flourished in the fertile soil in Bucharest as early as the beginning of the 20th century. Before revealing the current project that we are working on, let me point out the most important three facts about the history of these lotissements and dwellings.

One - adaptation of the model. The Garden City principles adopted by their promoters in Romania changed from the initial Howardian concept in such a manner that any reference to them should be carefully argued. If one expects self-managed communities outside the city, this is the wrong place. However, in their writings and blueprints, the Romanian architects, engineers and politicians invoked the Garden City principles as a source of inspiration, although they stripped the social meaning behind the concept and focused primarily on the architectural and urban features.

Two - Promoters. One of the first Romanian promoters was engineer Cincinat Sfintescu (1887 - 1955). He studied at the School of Bridges and Roads in Bucharest (1910), moved to Charlottenburg to complete his studies (1913) and worked for the Municipality of Bucharest almost all his career. In 1912 he visited the most important Garden City projects in Great Britain. Sfințescu described the main projects from Hull Port where James Reckitt built 600 houses for his workers and New Earswick, built by Joseph Rowntree for workers and officials of his factory chocolate. He also illustrated Port Sunlight near Liverpool, Letchworth and Hampstead. Although it did not formally adhere to the Garden City Association, The Municipal Company for Low-Cost Housing had constant communication with the similar international organizations.

Three - lotissements. The main activity was mainly to design, and construct coupled dwellings grouped in lotissements while refusing to build any apartment buildings. All of them stand until today as remarkable, carefully planned districts. Between 1911 and 1948, The Company designed 25 lotissements, with more than 4,000 dwellings. Together with other project implemented by The Construction Company (1930-1949) and The Romanian Railway Company, one can count more than 5.000 dwellings in the current landscape of Bucharest which can be traced back to the Howardian concept of social housing and urban planning.

What is their current status?

Completely under-researched, the Company needed a history of its own, not just a page in the history of architecture and housing in Romania. But whom to write this history to? All the 4,000 dwellings are privately owned, and the memory of the Company vanished over the years, only to be present in the memories of the old inhabitants of the dwellings. Field research in the lotissements proved a collective amnesia, as while strolling on the streets and randomly inquiring from the current inhabitants about the history of the dwellings, we rarely found useful historical information. Only the old lodgers told aspects of the story that we expected, especially when confronted with the photos and documents from the archives. The rest had little information about the name of the architect, the company who built them or the year of construction.

Therefore, we decided that the research project will not end only in academic journals or social media, but we tried to tell the story back to the people. Why is that important? In contrast with capitalist counties, the memory of these pre-communist institutions was denied by the communist authorities. Many of the dwellings were nationalized or confiscated and, after the Revolution of 1989, many of them were sold to new families who had little interest in their history. Athorough research in the National Archives stretched over the last 7 years together with comparative inquiries about similar social housing projects in Europe clarified the history of the dwellings. Consequently, we decide to re-tell the story to the current lodgers by editing and printing brochures about the history of each of these lotissements and distribute them costless to all the 5.000 current lodgers. We can conclude that all the lodgers have in their libraries a copy of the history of their lotissement. In addition, we have organized to exhibitions about the history of the housing projects designed by The Romanian Railway Company (2015) and The Construction Company (2018) where the current lodgers attended and got more historical information about their own lotissements.

Furthermore, we have published two books where we have analyzed the history of Garden City and social housing in Bucharest, focusing both on the administrative and legislative context as well as on the evolution of these state companies. Firstly, arch. Irina Calotă-Popescu (University of Architecture “Ion Mincu” Bucharest), published in February 2018 her first book, based on the Ph.D. Outside the city center. Housing Policies in Bucharest, 1910 - 1944, covering not only the history of the Company for Low Cost Housing, but also the complicated set of laws and practices that governed the city in those years. Secondly, in March 2019, we launched the second book on this topic, A Suitable Model for Romanian Housing Imaginary: The Lotissements of the Municipal Company for Low Cost Housing (1910 – 1948), written by historian Andrei Răzvan Voinea. 

About the authors and researchers 

Studio Zona is an association formed by Romanian scholars, which aims to connect the community with the academic environment. You can follow us on and soon on Team:

·                     Dr. arch. Irina Calotă, assistant, University of Architecture and Town Planning “Ion Mincu” Bucharest: researcher, curator, graphic designer;

·                     Ph.D. Dana Dolghin, University of Amsterdam: researcher;

·                     Hist. Mircea Dragomir, Faculty of History, University of Bucharest: researcher

·                     Dr. arch. Andrei Mărgulescu, University of Architecture and Town Planning “Ion Mincu”, Bucharest: photographer, curator;

·                     Dr. hist. Andrei Răzvan Voinea, University of Architecture and Town Planning “Ion Mincu”, Bucharest: researcher, project manager.

Andrei Răzvan Voinea is historian, specialized in urban history. He graduated from the Faculty of History (University of Bucharest, 2008) and earned his M.A. in History at Central European University, Budapest (2012). He was Fulbright Fellow at University of Pittsburgh, Department of History of Art and Architecture (2016-2017) and defended his Ph.D at the University of Architecture and Town Planning “Ion Mincu” Bucharest