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Architecture of oppression: an analyses of the socio-political

implications behind the construction of Casa Scnteii

(pic.1)

Vlad Bodogan
registration no.: 130149170

The fallowing essay will discuss the way architecture have been used as an oppression tool,
how it can become a statement of power and control, as well as the way it creates restrictive
frameworks where self-development and any other kind of creative acting is obstructed. Casa
Scnteii, a monolithic construction in the heart of Bucharest, was used between 1956 and
1989 as the main center of cultural propaganda, accommodating what Thomas Markus
refers to as a Fordist machine, generator of dogmatic information1 . Designed by Horia Maicu,
the head of the Architects Committee during the regime of the Romanian Communist Party,
the building is the mark of a totalitarian ideology and is best understood in the socio-political
context it was built in.

The Second World War imposed critical changes in the Romanian socio-political, economic
and cultural systems. On April 13, 1948 the National Assembly announced the foundation of
Romanian Peoples Republic, adherent to a Stalinist constitution. The new regulations
abrogate the right to vote, diminish the existence of multiparty and situate one power in
charge of everything. The legislation abandoned the judiciary and executive authority,
establishing instead the Department of State Security, conventionally referred to as Securitate
- Romanias secret police. The new legislation allowed the punishment of acts which are
considered dangerous or against the state without them being specifically defined as crimes.
The ambiguity orbiting around the legislative system, facilitated the control and violent
oppression of the population, allowing the installation and development of a totalitarian
system through locally legal means. Economically, 1948 constitutes the commencement of
nationalization, countrys banks and most of its industrial, mining, transportation and

Thomas A. Markus, Buildings and Power: Freedom and Control in the Origin of Modern Building Types,
(Routledge: London and New York, 1993)

insurance companies becoming state property2. Thus, a relationship based on dependency is


created, which situates the state over its population and allows an economic control which
represses and disables individuals to emancipate and react.
Concomitant with the creation of Romanian Peoples Republic, the newly born regime
demanded changes in the social order and the inculcation of socialist values. The cultural
sphere, as well as the socio-economical one, was strongly dogmatized; the cultural Stalinism
presumably becoming a universal path to socialist revolution. Professional organizations such
as the Society of Romanian Writers and the Society of Romanian Composers were prohibited
and replaced with ones from the spectrum of the new cultural hegemony. The abolishment of
Western culture lead to the incarceration of those promoting it - teachers, intellectuals,
treating such acts as betrayals of the class principles, and therefore acts against the state3.
The educational agenda was drastically changed: Russian-language became compulsory,
Romanian history was re-written accentuating the connections with Russia as well as its
contribution to national development throughout time. The Western roots were expunged
while the Slavic ones were highlighted. Party leaders as well as authorities ordered or
pressured artists, writers and architects to adhere to socialist realism as an ideological
standpoint in their work. Following this direction, the establishment of a propaganda center
was seen as fundamental, representing the next step in the reconfiguration of national values.
The 1950s found Romania in an amorphous situation, sourced from the fast changes in the
social order and inflicted by the new political power which sought the creation of a newman, a product of the socialist ideology. A controlled society ruled through the spectrum of
an absolutist dogma with anti-liberalization standpoints was hiding in the background of an
apparent evolutionary post-agrarian state. Emblematic for the stalinist era, buildings and city
planning were used to emphasize the individual-state relationship and vice-versa, a
relationship based on control and order.
Casa Scnteii (The Spark House), comes as a manifestation of the new political regime, a
symbol of the uprising socialist Romania, with sister buildings in Moscow (Lomonosov
Moscow State University, Hotel Ukraine) and Warsaw (Palace of Culture), contextualizing it
within the trans-national ideology. Its construction started in 1950 and an adherence to the
Socialist Realist architecture principles is visible; the building relays itself on labor-intensive as
well as time consuming masonry, indicating the leading role of the working class and the
industry in the new-born state. Named after the Central Committees newspaper, Scnteia
(The Spark), the building handled everything in connection with the printed word. It became
the main center of political propaganda and took the leading role in the implementation of a
new cultural hegemony.

Tismaneanu Vladimir,'Understanding National Stalinism: Romania Communism in a historical-comparative


perspective', <http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/OP%2025.pdfJ> [accessed 5 January 2015]
3

Ronald D. Bachman, Romania: A Country Study, Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989.

Being more than a newspaper building, Casa Scnteii was the interface of all activities in
charge of the creation and control of published information, accommodating a printing and
publishing combine with big printing works, editorial offices of newspapers and magazines,
publishing firms, libraries, and a large banquet hall4. When completed in 1956, it would
produce up to 3 million newspapers, 100,000 books, and 160,000 brochures a day. It was in
producing 98% of the educational material, as well as the other publications mentioned
above, all of them being under the censorship and control of the Central Committee. Culture
was just a form of propaganda while propaganda was the highest form of culture5. Casa
Scnteii was conducting the totalitarian manufacture of information, being in charge of
propaganda and public repression. The self-enclosure and exclusiveness, marks of the
stalinist era, not only created skepticism around the objectivity of the news, but accentuates
the antithesis between factuality and the controlled outcome of the information. False
economic and production statistics were published, misinforming the population in regard to
the real situation of the state, while promoting the direction of the Communist Party as
beneficial to the proletariat. Therefore, culture became an instrument of power that legitimized
the acts of a totalitarian state but nonetheless in need to hide its propagandist purpose.
Anders man states that the approach to Casa Scnteii is a lesson in Romanian history6 .
Analyzing the north axis which connects Piaa Victoriei (Victory Square), the Arch of Triumph
and Casa Scnteii , one can notice the way city planning becomes a statement in regard to
the new political order. Piaa Victoriei, named after the victory over the Turks in 1877 (settles
Romanias independence), leads to
the Arch of Triumph which was built
to commemorate those who fell in
the First World War (the war ended
with big territorial gains), and at last,
Casa Scnteii, mark of the new,
flourishing, socialist state.
Consequently, the historical axis
1877-1918-1944 sets the focal
point on the view-stopper Casa
Scnteii, giving 1944 the greatest
importance and symbolically
abolishing everything behind it.
The assignment for the new building
was composed in 1948 and
4

Anders man, Architecture and Ideology in Eastern Europe during the Stalin Era: An Aspect of Cold-War
History, (MIT Press,2/1993), pp.136
5

Osman, Fernanda Emanuela: Note despre poezia agitatoric a anilor 50, Caietele Echinox, 7/2004,
Literatur i totalitarism,48-64.
6

Anders man, Architecture and Ideology in Eastern Europe during the Stalin Era, pp.135

solicited not only the expression of the new socio-political order, but highlighted the leading
role of industry and the great importance of political propaganda as well. Advised by experts
from the Soviet Academy of Architecture, the brief was orbiting around the following criteria: a
monumental building, ideally located at the end point of one of the main streets - appropriate
for its importance in the urban landscape -, with a symmetrical and monolithic appearance.
Hard, sharp, technical lines, considered to belong to the bourgeois art, had to be avoided,
instead, there must be a unity of architecture and sculpture, an interplay of profiles, an
expression of beauty and enthusiasm 7. Functionalist and formalist tendencies, representative
for the western ideas of the time, have been rejected, whereas the socialist realist approach
national in form, socialist in content was to be followed. Thus, the study of national and
traditional architecture became essential, generating external ornamentation and detailing;
soviet symbols - the hammer and sickle, as well as the five point star are placed together with
traditional motifs.

The foundation was started in 1950, with the first phase of the building - the works - being
commissioned one year later, corresponding with the 30th anniversary of the Romanian
Communist Party, on the 8th of May 1951. A total of 5000 men were employed, making it the
most promising project of its time, lasting six years to be fully completed. The finished
building has a constructed surface of 32,000 m2, a volume of 735.000 m3, and a maximum
height of 91.6m - 101 meters including the red star on top, portraying the power and virility of
the new regime. Horia Maicu, head of the architects collective, considers Casa Scnteii an
echo of mans triumph over nature and over the social forces that have fettered him, his
belief in the future, his firm course ahead under the guidance of the party of the working
class8 .Prior to its construction, a colored perspective was carried by the builders, insinuating

Anders man, Architecture and Ideology in Eastern Europe during the Stalin Era, pp.138

Horia Maicu, Despre proiectarea Casei Scnteii [On the Design of Casa Scnteii], (Arhitectura 1, 1951)

a working-class initiative, consequently detaching it from the ruling state, in the interest of
creating ideological enthusiasm without revealing the cultural hegemony behind it.
Ludwig Schwarte states that



Architecture situates performances and makes the representation of the execution of


acts possible. Built spaces configure fields of activities: they can identify, alleviate and
make comprehensible activities which take place in them; they can incorporate labour,
appropriate it or exhibit it publicly 9

The building performs. It establishes symbolic relationships between individuals and the
structured conditions of acting and actioning. In that sense, the monumentalism of Casa
Scnteii encloses the educational act of media and transforms it. It creates conditions of
creation in which the political dictatorship reveals itself as the one and the only power, a
demiurge, or a puppet master over what should be free expression, blocking the act of
transformation which would generate from the free access to information. The
accommodation of acting is replaced by the one of activities, which fallow and comply to
certain sets of rules leaving no leeway for independent organs to act freely and unexpected.
Casa Scnteii serves therefore as a strong symbol of the totalitarian state.
Casa Scnteii and the Danube-Black Sea Canal were ranked as the greatest architectural
projects of 1950s Romania that would reinforce the importance of industrialization in the
post-war country. With the canal project failing, only the construction of Casa Scnteii was
completed, giving it an unpredicted emblematic attribute, perceived as a monument of the
new ruling party and a symbol for a developing and brighter Romania. Horia Maicu wrote an
article in 1951 acclaiming the proposal for the well embodied architectural principles, as well
as for its beneficial socio-political impact, but only five years later, he writes on the behalf of
the Architects Committee, stating: We realized we did not create a consummate
architecture10 . Triggering the radical change in the perception of the construct and of the
architectural principles it adhered to was the de-Stalinization which commenced in the same
time period. Casa Scnteii belongs to the Stalin era. It is the product of an extreme Soviet
tutelage, that once taken out of that context becomes trivial. National Stalinism valued a selfenclosed and exclusive structure, which methodically works against liberalization and
individual development. Its architectural manifestation generates structured frameworks
which, through their monumentalism seem impenetrable by the common individual, dictating
who can take action and to what extent.
The abandonment of Socialist Realism, as mentioned above brought significant changes in
the perception of architecture and its purpose. Socialist realist architecture was criticized that
instead of tackling the issues of mass-construction imposed by fast urbanization, its main
9

Ludger Schwarte,Performative Architecture Setting a Stage for Political Action, <http://


pavilionmagazine.org/ludger-schwarte-performative-architecture-setting-a-stage-for-political-action/>
[accessed 10 December 2014]
10

Anders man, Architecture and Ideology in Eastern Europe during the Stalin Era, pp.140

focus was the inculcation of the new political regime, consequently disengaging the social
attributes of architecture from its constructed expression. As a monolithic intruder in the
urban landscape of the 1950s Romania, Casa Scnteii was and remains a stamp of the
stalinist dogmatization. It was used as a machinery of oppression, and it was build under the
almost utopian idea that architecture can generate, solely through its form, social conditions
of existence. Within the context it was built in, the relation between its form and function was
powerfully clenched, whereas the antithesis between the two is visible once the control and
overseeing was loosen. The fall of the regime in 1989 caused an almost instant change in
name and the building adopted the label Casa Presei Libere (House of the Free Press),
declaring the new direction of both the state and its journalism. The promotion of a capitalist
freedom as well as the dissociation from totalitarian principles were considered duties of the
new media. The democratization of the press is seen as an adherence to the western values,
its activity being focused around the liberalization of information, the establishment of a free
speech culture, as well as the division and spreading of information in furtherance of creating
objectivity in news reporting.
To conclude, Casa Scnteii was a tool of cultural propaganda and a center of control and
censorship on one hand, and a palpable statement of the totalitarian ideology on the other.
Davarian Baldwin states that culture is a weapon in our struggle for liberation11 , therefore its
repression facilitate an easier control and manipulation of the masses. With this idea in mind,
the establishment of a consolidated source of dogmatized information was considered of
high importance, as indicated by the monumental appearance of the building. Moreover, if the
external aesthetic of the building is welded together with its initial function, one can state that
the building performs and establishes conditions of existence within the regime it delineates.
However, in the contemporary Romanian society, the antithesis between the form and the
function of Casa Presei Libere accords it a different meaning. The construct becomes a
stamp of the national Stalinism and by extent, national Communism; it is a reminder of the
status the pre-revolutionary state had and the socio-political order of the time. Consequently,
it is history, it is a representation of the past which after 1989 brings history to an end,
allowing the remodeling and liberalization of society and its principles.

11

Jama Lazerow, In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement,
(Duke University Press, 2006), pp.10

Bibliography
Anders man, Architecture and Ideology in Eastern Europe during the Stalin Era: An Aspect of ColdWar History, (MIT Press,2/1993)
Urban Larssen, CASA SCANTEII: CONTROLED MEDIA FACTORY, <http://vimeo.com/8097274>
[accessed 20 December 2014]
Henri Lefebvre, The production of space, (Blackwell publishing,1991)
Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary
Dialogues on the Left, (Verso,2011)
Ludger Schwarte,Performative Architecture Setting a Stage for Political Action, <http://
pavilionmagazine.org/ludger-schwarte-performative-architecture-setting-a-stage-for-political-action/>
[accessed 10 December 2014]
Thomas A. Markus, Buildings and Power: Freedom and Control in the Origin of Modern Building
Types, (Routledge: London and New York, 1993)
Tismaneanu Vladimir, Understanding National Stalinism: Romania Communism in a historicalcomparative perspective, <http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/OP%2025.pdfJ>
[accessed 5 January 2015]
Ronald D. Bachman, Romania: A Country Study, Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989.
Osman, Fernanda Emanuela, Note despre poezia agitatoric a anilor 50, (Caietele Echinox, 7/2004,
Literatur i totalitarism)
Horia Maicu, Despre proiectarea Casei Scnteii [On the Design of Casa Scnteii], (Arhitectura 1,
1951)
Jama Lazerow, In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary
Movement, (Duke University Press, 2006), pp.10

Picture sources (enumerated in the appearance order)


picture 1 accessed at: <http://www.wikisocion.org/en/images/9/94/Casa_Scanteii.jpg>
picture 2 accessed at: <http://s1.220.t1.ro/?mmid=6cfb252c31c0aab72>
picture 3 accessed at: <http://bp2.blogger.com/_yBuaXM1mcZE/SJgvu48pJkI/AAAAAAAABT8/
rCGCGGHcljs/s1600-h/decoratiuni_rotunde.JPG>