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The Exuberance of Kitsch

I enjoy getting emails from readers of the blog. It always leads to interesting discussions. Seriously, drop me a line anytime, that's why my email address is on the sidebar.

One particular reader, (Cris T) and I had an interesting exchange recently. The observations resonated with me and I enjoyed our discussion so much I asked if I could post it here. It's edited for length and clarity, and has my own comments interjected throughout, but it should work.

The theme is Kitsch, that universal anti-quality of parvenus and superficial people everywhere.

We got to the topic in a roundabout manner, first starting at 'Romanian envy' ("Sa moara capra vecinului") and moving to consumerism along the way, but essentially, it came to this discussion...

(Me) I find kitsch to be a central theme in Romania. I look at interior design, home decor, and the kind of stuff a lot of people put value on. It's strange how a consumerist society like Romania has still not evolved beyond the simple act of possessing/having/owning to a mentality that values possessions only so far as they are "things worth having" with the said 'worth' rooted in an item's quality. But maybe twenty five years is not enough time. There is, however, a very practical reason we ought to educate ourselves as shoppers though: we're too poor a nation to spend money on low quality goods. We love to buy big, flashy, and totally impractical things.

(Cris - in Italics throughout) I totally agree about kitsch being a central theme  and definitively from the 90's to present day, it is the zeitgeist that has dominated Romanian development. There is this one house in particular that haunts me even today: it's a pistachio green house with strident red tiles somewhere near Floresti. Most of the new houses could be described as cardboard boxes with cutouts; a huge surface area but very poor design. Even the new apartment developments in Buna Ziua are ugly, and it would be better to not even get into color schemes because that would just give me a headache.

Not the green monster Cris was talking about, just an ugly, impractical behemoth (only 790k Euros, by the way)

Let me add here that if any two things will frustrate a home buyer in Romania, it's going to be the home's layout and its exterior colour. You will find oddly shaped rooms, awkwardly arranged bathrooms, rooms too large to be bedrooms and too small to be sitting rooms, and nooks and crannies that belong in a labyrinth, not a home. Oh, and one other thing, the quality of images that real-estate agents post to 'showcase' the homes.

Living on the coast of Spain, I really came to appreciate their use of brick for dressing housing flats. It is a material that better withstands the test of time and it also ties nicely with the dominant reddish color of the Iberian soil. Another element that I like about their houses are the fences which are embedded with perennial vegetation that sort of cheers me up while taking a stroll in depressing winter days when most of the green is gone. You can see a perfect example of this in Cambrils.

After five years in Romania, what impresses about this street is the orderliness of the neighbourhood. There is a certain uniformity that says "Yes, we're all in the same film". Most newly built Romanian neighborhoods look like they have Scarface, Zuckerberg, and farmer John all living next to each other. Nobody seems to think there's anything weird about it.

This other example is from Tarragona. What I find interesting here it's the use of the stone that it's visible on one side of the sidewalk. It used to be part of the walls bordering Via Augusta, the road that went from southern Spain to ancient Rome. Now they are doing their best to preserve the Roman heritage of the town, but 20 years ago it was decaying. The ruins of the Roman amphitheater were filled with trash and syringes used by junkies. In Barcelona La Ciutat Vella used to be economically depressed but now it's one of the most touristy areas of the city. So maybe we Romanians can still get our act together and preserve our heritage. Maybe we will see a new wave of Neo-Romanian houses being built. If Americans from the southwest can revive Spanish colonial why can't we do the same with our national architecture style?

I can only agree with this sentiment. I'd previously mentioned the trademark Brancovenesc style, mainly in the south of the country, but it's a shame to see these old buildings so dilapidated instead of restored and celebrated as part of our heritage. Same goes for any traditional architectural style whether Moldovan, Saxon, Austro-Hungarian, or Armenian.  

In the UK they are having a debate about preserving Brutalist housing and buildings. Park Hill in Sheffield has just gone through a restoration. It's much better than what is happening with our own Brutalist housing all around the country, the thermal insulation fad. But I personally would go in another direction when addressing our ugly communist housing buildings. Instead of doing something like the British did in Park Hill or how the Germans did it when restoring communist flats in East Germany I would take inspiration from Post Modernism and maybe specifically Deconstructivism  textures and partially dress the concrete buildings with wood mesh like structures. Wood is a vital and visible part in traditional Romanian architecture and I think it would also bring warmness to the cold concrete, making a nice contrast. Maybe a dash of steel and some green vegetation.

That would make a world of difference to our dreary commie blocks, and offer an alternative to the cardboard cutouts, the Rubik's cube hues, and partly isolated facades.

Cris also shared some architecture images. It's with great regret I say that you see this type of work only once in a blue moon in Romania.

Postmodernist houses with wood dressing

Closeup of  texture from the Seville Metropol Parasol

Texture, Central Bank of Iraq by Zaha Hadid

Supermarket interior in Budapest

Vertical garden Barcelona

In Cluj we have Brutalist architecture like Palatul Telefoanelor, Gara Noua, Biblioteca Academeiei Romane, Facultatea de Mecanica on Bulevardul Muncii, etc. These all need a good cleaning and they must be preserved. In Catalonia for example the resident associations, in addition to their payments for cleaning and lighting in common areas, insurance for the structural walls, sometimes have to pay a small extra fee for "derramas" or spills. They include pipe changing, restoration of crumbling facades, exterior painting, etc. The townhouse supervisor for each building is the one responsible for deciding when they will impose this extra fee on owners. Sometimes these fees are collected for a few months, but sometimes they can extend for years if the repairs are more expensive. Taking in consideration the fact that most Romanians have already paid their houses and don't have any mortgage, they should be forced to take responsibility for maintaining their buildings.

The issue of maintenance fees is a thorny one in Romania. You will have people sitting in a flooded building who categorically refuse to pay for repairs, especially if they're not affected, but even if they were. It's their home and they can do what they want with it, even if the entire building collapses as a result, neighbours be damned. That's the mentality. Of course, they should have to pay reserve fund fees as in any civilized country's homeowners association, but without heavy-handed coercive measures, you're better off talking to the walls themselves. As for the Brutalist architecture in Cluj, I'm somewhat torn. On one hand I wouldn't shed a tear if everything tied to the Ceausescu legacy were eradicated tomorrow. On the other, future generations, unscathed by Romania's dark past, will learn a valuable lesson from these buildings: Never again.

Biblioteca Academiei Romane, Cluj. Then...and...

I would also stop the building of ugly steel, glass and concrete buildings. We don't need more of that in Europe. Let NY, Dubai and China do it. The Chinese cites all look alike now. Take, for example, La Torre Agbar in BCN dubbed "El Pepino" (the cucumber), its 142m of phallic form clashing in the skyline with Gaudi's mesmerizing Sagrada Familia. I would personally like to shoot the person responsible for approving that monstrosity. I think the Catalan nationalists that have ruled this region of Spain for 40 years only built it because, from a certain perspective, it appears to rape the cathedral. It's like sticking it to Franco and his Catholicism.

A shockingly astute observation, I must admit...

And if we are talking about churches how about this sacrilege (Hadambu Monastery):

They've done a tin roof restoration instead of using traditional wood tiles. As a consolation, at least it's black...but can't be compared to the roof of Barsana Monastery.  The Orthodox Church has committed worse infringements to our  national patrimony, but I take it personally with Hadambu Monastery after visiting it back when it used to have wood tiles.

What do you know, the Romanian Orthodox Church is scrimping on labor and materials for the restoration of a historical monument in favour of this highly controversial mega-cathedral in the center of Bucharest. Talk about priorities.

It's delusional to think that this only happens in Romania. In the Vall Fosca, one of the most untouched valleys in the Pyrenees lies a small maze like village called Espui. The beauty of the village streams from it's "arquitectura negra", a type of peasant house, typical of the mountain regions of Spain, constructed from natural stones, small windows with wood blinders finished in rounded, dark slate stone tiles, sustained by metal hooks that also serve to break down the slippery ice accumulated during winter months. But because nothing can stand in the way of progress and money, some genius developer had the bright idea of building a ski resort there, coupled with rows of new buildings able to accommodate a few thousand tourists. It went bankrupt leaving behind desolated fields, a concrete aerial lift base, shaved in the middle mountains and unfinished buildings covered by new modern and shiny tiles that totally obstruct the view of the picturesque village.

On a even more depressing note, we have the development of Certeze village, back on our "mioritic" plains.

Cris shared this YouTube link from a Romanian TV channel, but for the international audience on this blog, you'll find that this subtitled min-documentary tells quite the story.

And kitsch abounds: Mandrie si Beton (Pride and Concrete) 

I don't know if this village should be bulldozed or transplanted to the Guggenheim in Bilbao next to Jeff Koons dog making an open air exhibition on kitsch art. Everything is possible...

Indeed, Cris, as a certain British author on our shores is fond of pointing out, "in Romania anything is possible, everything is impossible, and nothing is ever as it seems."*

I'd like to thank Cris for all the insight and the opportunity to 'discuss' this aspect of Romania Living. Also, for the idea...I've been thinking I could make a habit of this - of hosting other discussions like this one on the blog. My voice is one of millions and my opinions are just that. If you want to share yours too, let's talk.

*Times New Romanian


  1. Daniel StPaulJanuary 28, 2016

    Matt, for some obscure reason, your latest post reminds me of the my social studies class (the Golden Epoch/Era in days of yore) when the teacher would qualify some particular notions/categories as having a class (social class) or historic (depending on the moment in time) character (in the sense of essence, identity). Well, if, basically, kitsch is a matter of taste (but what is “taste”?) there might be some who would gladly assume/presume that kitsch does have class AND historic characters. Professor Eco used to say in his semiotics course that a china figurine (second half of the 20th century) is a sample/an example of a kitsch object but 1000 china figurines constitute a cultural/civilizational sample of the second half of the 20th century (western) society ( isn’t it interesting how quantity becomes “decisive”?). Since your post mainly dwells upon architectural kitsch, how do we look today at Marie-Antoinette’s hameau (hamlet) at Versailles? But, in general, what is the role of mass production in “judging” antiquity mass-produced artifacts (Tanagra terracotta figurines, priapic amulets etc.)? Relax, you don’t have to bother answering, your post just made me think that doing some conscience awakening practice is not a bad idea and I’m glad for it.

    1. It's interesting how kitsch is such a delicious subject for us all. Maybe we can't escape it so long as we don't escape class, politics, geography, and history...which we can't, so we continue to discuss, and even to'innovate', on it (ie. Kundera's "Totalitarian Kitsch")

  2. Daniel StPaulJanuary 29, 2016

    P.S. Often times it’s the aesthetic implications of kitsch that make our radars flare; yet, as Andrei Plesu confessed, its discourse may prove to be an intellectual challenge as well; he was enthralled by the (lyrical) mind-boggling subtlety of a manea: “Te iubesc, da’ nu pe tine…”

    1. I'm no Andrei Plesu, but that line is indeed enthralling.


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