Civil society steps in to preserve Romania’s past
5th January 2018
Romania – A dozen-strong group of volunteers gather at the stone base of a fortified Lutheran church in the small Saxon village of Filetelnic, Transylvania, as Eugen Vaida, head of Ambulanta Pentru Monumente (Ambulance for Monuments) gives directions on how to save one of the church’s 3-metre-high fortified walls.
The wall, part of which dates back to the 15th century, is crumbling from the top down as a result of water infiltration. This would eventually destroy the wall, as well as ancient inscriptions dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Sadly, Filetelnic is not a unique case: many heritage buildings throughout this region have fallen into various states of disrepair; from crumbling medieval fortified churches to abandoned Hungarian castles, from old war monuments to centuries-old Saxon homes. Poor state management, mass ethnic migration and a lack of funding (not to mention many decades of ruinous communism) have all taken their toll on Romania’s architectural heritage.
Vaida, a 36-year-old architect who runs Monumetum, an association charged with the preservation of heritage architecture, set up the Ambulance for Monuments as a pilot project in 2015 with a view to highlighting buildings at a critical state of disrepair. Ultimately, the aim is to intervene to prevent further damage before proper restorations can be undertaken. Often, as in Filetelnic, water damage is the culprit.
Monuments fit into two categories: those of national and universal value, and those of local and regional importance. Filetelnic is a Category A monument due to the unique cultural and architectural heritage of Saxon fortified churches. However, the list of monuments under threat in this region alone is estimated to be in the hundreds.
Civil participation is what often makes the emergency interventions — which generally require less than a week — a success. In Filetelnic, for example, the old Saxon school was opened up to provide sleeping facilities for the dozen or so volunteers, while a local restaurant provided lunches and dinners paid for with donations. Naturally, interventions are sociable events and, according to Vaida, “there is a new trend of young people who appreciate heritage.”
Marius Grunca, a 36-year-old financial consultant who volunteered with Ambulance for Monuments on its first intervention, a large baroque gate in Sambata de Sus, Brasov County, says: “The reason I volunteer is that Romania is still a materially poor country and it does not set a priority in preserving its past, history and culture.”
Transylvania is a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures, and the myriad architectural styles reflect this. In some parts, Hungarian castles stand adjacent to both Lutheran and Orthodox churches.
Transylvania was once a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, which from the 12th-Century onwards invited people from territories that today constitute France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany — to protect the area from Tatar and Ottoman invaders and to help develop the economy. The settlers became known as the Transylvanian Saxons, ethnic Germans with their own culture, and a language similar to that of Luxembourg.
Under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, many Saxons were sold to Germany for hard cash, and around 250,000 left following the fall of communism in 1989, in search of better opportunities. Today, only around 12,000 Saxons — mostly elderly — remain. Many Lutheran churches, such as the one in Filetelnic, not to mention countless houses, have been largely abandoned.
Abandoned Hungarian castles are also in high numbers in Transylvania. Following the fall of communism, many ethnic Hungarians sought restitution cases to get back their rightful properties. Some are being restored, but they are often big projects that require huge amounts of money. Many need emergency interventions to prevent them falling into a state which renders them beyond repair.
Valentin Madanche, an architectural historian based in Bucharest, says: “Transylvania is a huge architectural reservation of rural medieval architecture…most of the Saxon area was left empty of its creators and it had a devastating impact on that unique heritage.”
Mandache also believes that the Romanian government harbours a passive interest in the country’s heritage, and that the political climate in Romania, which is led by the Social Democrat Party (PSD), seldom helps the situation.
Mandache adds: “The PSD is preoccupied with freeing their colleagues from prison and robbing the economy and public money — architectural heritage is the last thing on their mind.”
“The state has money for new civic projects but they don’t care too much about heritage and old buildings being destroyed,” he adds.
It’s a sentiment in part shared by Vaida. “The ministry of culture somehow has its hands bound, the laws themselves don’t promote monument preservation and the punishment for the destruction of monuments is not effective and is complicated to follow through,” he says.
In the capital, Bucharest, heritage buildings have been aggressively renovated or defaced, with traditional wooden window frames and doors replaced by plastic frames for double glazing, or old structures knocked down to make way for modern buildings.
Projects such as Ambulance for Monuments, which is racing to save dilapidated old structures in southern Transylvania, can help to ensure the survival of the region’s unique identity.
“There should be a network of ambulances that are connected but not coordinated by a higher up — essentially, it needs to be a project of civil society,” says Vaida.
The initiative’s most important project to date has been the preservation of the 18th-century St. Nicolae Orthodox church in the village of Gherdeal, Sibiu County, which boasts impressive painted ceiling murals and a wooden alter, all of which was decaying due to water damage. Around 25 volunteers from across Romania gathered to save the monument, which involved replacing the whole roof.
Funding for the projects come from various sources. The Gherdeal intervention received funding from the Anglo Romanian Trust for Traditional Architecture (ARTTA), the Global Heritage Fund, and Romania’s National Cultural Fund.
William Blacker, a British author who has fought for the survival and protection of Romania’s traditional architecture for many years, and is the chairman of ARTTA, believes that the value of Romania’s heritage must not be understated.
“There are few countries in Europe which have such a variety and richness of historic architecture,” Says Blacker. “but neglect and inappropriate modernisation are tearing it apart. It is sad to see it.”
Blacker goes on to highlight the negative impact that EU funding can have — or has in the past — on Romania’s ancient buildings.
“A lot of EU money resulted in the rubbing out of Romania’s history, through extreme over restoration. I accept, of course, that this was not the EU’s intention, nor the Romanian government’s, but sadly it was the effect and many historic buildings of great value and importance have been irreversibly damaged,” says Blacker.
Indeed, there have been various cases where EU money has paved the way to ruinous effect: multiple cases of traditional materials, such as old weathered roof tiles and natural sandstones, being replaced with industrially-made alternatives like bright red tiles and concrete. In 2015, The Daily Telegraph reported on a case in Maria Radna, west Romania, in which it described the “brutal revamp” of a Franciscan monastery and other monuments which, through the European Union’s Regional Development programme, allegedly cost EU taxpayers more than €100 million.
The Telegraph described it as “a costly makeover that should have restored [the church] to full Baroque splendour, but instead it looks like a Disney castle built on a bomb site.”
Blacker added: “One only has to hope that EU funds will be spent in a sensitive way in future, and that the historic fabric of the buildings and archaeological evidence will now be properly protected.”
However, while Vaida agrees that EU funds have in the past been a “disaster” that led to “the destruction of monuments” he also says that he’s “not seen many politicians fighting to preserve or protect monuments.” He also believes that a way forward could be to “educate politicians” in heritage.
Politics and funding aside, one of the biggest problems that heritage architecture faces, according to Vaida, is a lack of specialised construction companies and craftsman capable of undertaking such projects. They do exist, but they are few. Romanian construction firm Temad has provided assistance on various Ambulance for Monuments project, by donating construction materials, tools, and cash. However, more is needed to rescue the long list of at-risk monuments.
In the Saxon village of Apold, Mures county, Ambulance for Monuments and its many volunteers are working hard to save the roof of an old disused railway station, another victim of water damage.
In the sunlit yard of the old station, two chained up dogs are barking, and plumes of morning smoke bellow from the chimneys as the Roma family, who now occupy the building, attempt to stay warm. Vaida and his volunteers are measuring and cutting new lats for the roof in preparation for the handcrafted tiles to be put in place. The quietness of the village is interrupted by a passing horse and cart, steered by two young children at the helm.
The new tiles were handcrafted using the traditional technique at a kiln in Apos, Sibiu County, which Vaida opened in 2015 with the support of ARTTA and Britain’s Prince Charles, who owns period properties in Transylvania and has a well-documented enthusiasm for the region and its heritage.
“Handmade tiles are one of the few products that can compete with industrial product prices,” says Vaida. “They age well and the quality is clearly superior to industrial tiles.”
The short delivery distance of the tiles plays a big part in keeping down the final costs of using them. The kiln has been fired up 10 times since it opened, producing 160,000 tiles over three seasons, but Vaida hopes to increase its production and make the old-style tiles more widely available.
In a letter to Monumentum, for the association’s second anniversary, Prince Charles said: “The roof tops in the old Saxon villages of Transylvania are an integral part of the landscape and a constant source of delight and inspiration to myself and countless others.”
The availability of traditional materials could be a decisive factor in preserving the region’s identity, as could local legislation that promotes preservation and restoration. Blacker says that making grants available for owners of traditional properties would also be a positive step forward.
Michael Tate, a British teacher who lives in Romania, bought a Saxon home in the village of Saschiz five years ago and has been carefully restoring his property.
“The problem is that people who do [genuine restorations] have either got used to doing work for extraordinarily rich clients or for foundations,” he says. “They often charge top-drawer prices, which are well out of reach for the average village person, who just wants to maintain their authentic historic house.”
Tate also laments some local foundations and trusts who, he says, “restore some facades and put up a plaque and get some newspaper coverage,” but who ultimately are “not tackling the real issue, which is convincing regular people to choose authentic methods over modern, destructive ones.”
“The identity of historic villages are collapsing because the majority of homes are owned by regular village folk who have no real motive to do an authentic restoration — this is what’s leading to the gradual decay of the traditional aesthetic of the villages,” he adds.
Bridging the gap between big restoration projects and restorations of common homes is an important task, that doesn’t appear easy to resolve.
In the medieval Saxon village of Viscri, Brasov County, the beautifully restored Lutheran church towers over its community as a large bus pulls up packed with curious travellers. Viscri is one of Transylvania’s most popular tourist spots, with up to 4,000 people a day visiting during high season. In recent years house prices have risen exponentially; it is now a desirable location for savvy Bucharest families who have upped sticks from the capital.
Even the long potholed road leading to Viscri cannot avert visitors.
Behind the fortification wall in Filetelnic the sun has cast a long shadow over the old Saxon cemetery. Through neglect, many of the headstones have sunken into the earth over time, dwindled like the community that created some of the region’s most distinctive architecture.
Volunteers are precariously perched on the wall overlooking the tombstones, digging out old lime mortar in order to get an even surface on which to rebuild. The wall is just one of hundreds of monuments that needs saving across the region, and as the night draws in, despite the upbeat mood, the overall size of the task ahead is daunting. All they can do is concentrate on one monument at a time.