The Wavering Fate of a Communist Jewel: from Casa Scânteii to Casa Presei Libere
Which “little Paris” on Earth features a hefty piece of Moscow? Only Bucharest can really claim that status. The city whose belle epoque architecture replicated the charms of Paris to the point of being dubbed “little Paris of the East” curtsied to Soviet social realism, with the change of regime: it commissioned a monumental building to accommodate a sizeable printing house as well as the headquarters of the regime’s main written propaganda tools (the most prominent of which was Scânteia, the official daily of the Romanian Communist Party), while also demonstrating to the Soviet Big Brother Romania’s dedication to communism.
Casa Scânteii (The Scânteia House) was thus erected between 1952 and 1957. An “old regime” hippodrome which used to be called “the temple of horse racing”, built by King Carol I, was pulled down to clear the space for the new regime architectural statement, fashioned after Moscow’s Lemonosov University and Leningrad Hotel, with elements – oddly enough for a supposedly atheist regime – from Romanian monasteries like Cozia and Horezu (for example, the series of columns of the right and left low wings). It was formally inaugurated in 1960 to mark 90 years since Lenin’s birth (and win the favours of Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR leader of that time), and for 50 years it ranked as the highest building in Bucharest (104 metres/341 feet).
But what’s truly intriguing about this northern Bucharest landmark is the (somewhat embarrassing) ease with which it shifted between regimes, from monarchy to people’s republic and then back to democracy, by operating just minimal formal changes. As if not much had happened, the building carried on proudly from communist totalitarianism to (Romanian-style) new capitalism, through thick and thin, standing unashamedly erect at the other end of the avenue which opens up with King Ferdinand’s Arch of Triumph – once more, Moscow opposes Paris here, and the Soviet East confronts the liberal West.
To the point:
from 1957 to 1989, the building was called Casa Scânteii and hosted the crème de la crème of communist propaganda – all the newspapers and magazines, as well as a news agency which were subservient to the Party ideology. And then, in December 1989, almost overnight, it was renamed quite the opposite: Casa Presei Libere (The House of the Free Press), initially headquarters to a plethora of post-Revolution publications, currently renting space to various state institutions and small businesses, but still 60% unoccupied – which prompts critics to label it a huge waste of energy.
as befits any grandiose work of architecture, a work of art has to be placed in front of it. Namely, a statue. Well, Casa Scânteii looked out initially on a statue of communist prime-minister Petru Groza, which however was soon replaced by an even better figure of communist brilliance: Lenin himself. Pulled down in 1990 and today laid to rest and committed to due oblivion in the backyard of the Mogoșoaia Palace, that statue of the world’s chief Bolshevik was then replaced with none other than… a monument to the Romanian Anti-communist Resistance!...
So this building’s story is the story of switching between opposites as if it didn’t switch between opposites. Rather than taking ownership of its past and be converted into, if one may suggest, a grand museum of communism in Romania, and so remain consistent with its original goal (i.e. to glorify Soviet-inspired identity), it was made to take on opposing functions and symbols, which has gradually brought it to its current state: a decaying mammoth whose exact role is unclear, unimportant and unconvincing, lost somewhere in the hazy grey area of dubious past glory. Such is the glory of communism…
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