Saturday, September 12, 2009

Beyond the Shell: Impressions of Post-Communist Germany and Romania

Though it was far too short and hectic for my taste, I was grateful for the chance to recently travel to Europe. Part of the trip consisted of revisiting old haunts while the other entailed exploring a new place of which I had lots of curiosity for. My itinerary through the former East Germany and Romania offered a vivid glimpse of the changes that have occurred since the Communist control. In the case of reunified Germany (or more accurately the Western acquisition of the East) a massive transfer of wealth from the West was infused to rebuild an entire East to the point that it is has become more 'modern' than its Western counerpart. Romania, which went through the typical motions of electing ex-communists before pursuing pro-market and pro-American foreign policies, is rebuilding from a much lower base and a more devastating architectural legacy left by its swiftly executed dictator, yet it it still is blessed with gorgeous landscapes and endearing traditional architecture. Though I've been living in the U.S. for a long time, my background of having lived in Europe and maintaining close family ties there have colored my impression during my travels. It is not enough for me enjoy Europe's visual delights without trying to get a grasp of what goes on beneath it all. If there is one lesson from this trip, it is that what is built and the life that goes on within it are not always harmonious. In one place, what was built was but an elegant shell concealing social rust and decay. In the other, a rusting and decayed shell was giving way to a recovered social vitality and optimism.

Federal State of Saxony, Germany

I returned to this area of Germany for the first time in 12 years, visiting friends that I have known since my year as an exchange student three years after the reunification of East and West (I also share my impressions of the place here). Upon arriving to my final destination in the beautiful hilly countryside outside Chemnitz (pop. circa 300,000), the physical changes to this area was striking. Whereas I had left Saxony with memories of crumbling roads, dilapidated and dull gray building facades, old Trabants and Wartburgs (defunct East-German car brands) and dreary Soviet-era architecture, what I now saw the opposite: the roads were the newest (and fastest) in all of Germany, facades were colorful and painstakingly restored, Trabants were almost nowhere to be seen, the ugly towers were re-clad with aluminum, glass and balconies. Overall infrastructure is well known to be newer than in the West, with better phone lines, broadband and power grids. Giant wind turbines dotted the landscape, standing majestically on the wheat-covered hills (surely the farmers were remunerated generously for them).

The quiet village where I had stayed also showed signs of transformation. A brand new industrial zone with clean modern factories had been built in what had once been pasture. The main stone bridge over the river had been renovated (twice), a new residential subdivision blossomed with meticulous flower gardens (very German) and all the houses transformed with new facades, additions and of course solar panels on the roof (heavily subsidized, it was admitted). Older, out-of-the-way country roads were being gradually being closed off to cars, left to disappear over time. as newer roads and ramps were opened to replace them. A spectacular 150-year old stoned viaduct bridge ceased servicing trains, remaining now a s a local landmark and the site of yearly festivals in the area.

In other towns the changes were visible everywhere. Local parks with the newest play equipment replaced former abandoned factories. Public squares were graced with gleaming restored city halls (Rathauser) and new paving. The central districts of the larger cities like Chemnitz and Dresden have been subject to a major face lift and some reconstructive surgery. Where once were over sized hard scape plazas flanked by faceless concrete slabs so beloved during the Soviet era, there are now reconstructed blocks built in a modern but conforming traditional style. Sleek shopping malls wrapped in shiny curtain wall now anchor the pedestrian experience in the urban core, and once vacant historically significant buildings have been transformed into new retail spaces. Streetcars and buses gleamed, and the stops increasingly built in the high-tech vocabulary of glass and steel. Even some of the old communist landmarks such as hotels and convention halls were spruced up, looking more like nostalgic 60's architectural relics of the West than the soul-crushing monuments to an oppressive region that they really were.

What was obvious to me and probably to many others is that German obsession for tidiness applies in the East just as much as it applies in the West. Forty years of Communism did little to dampen this, and, given enough resources, Saxony other federal states that once made up the GDR now live up to their current name of the "new" federal states (die neuen Bundeslander). To designers like myself, who imagine all sorts of ideal environments in a new and untainted state, Saxony must have been a feast for the eyes. But just as cleaning one's house is in truth an act of temporarily covering up the uninhibited way we live day to day, I perceived the conspicuous new-ness of everything I saw as covering up a larger more sober reality of this area of Germany. It was a reality that has afflicted all the former East German states ever since reunification with the West nineteen years ago.

Behind the veneer of new facades, new roads and new shopping centers lies a place stricken by chronic high unemployment, low birthrates and few young people. Despite the sacrifices of brought on by additional taxes (e.g. Einheitsteuer ("Unity Tax") that help fund the rebuilding of the East, and no matter how much subsidy the the central government has issued to Western companies to expand their businesses, the unemployment rate still hovers around 15 percent. Many of the youth continue to head to the West for work, with cities like Munich, Hamburg and Frankfurt offering abundant opportunities in spite of their older buildings and relatively worn infrastructure. New apartments remain vacant due to the lack of demand and one major city I visited implemented of planned decline, in which apartment blocks built during the communist era were singled out one by one for demolition to make way for open green space.

If one word could characterize my most recent experience in this region, it would be that of 'quiet'. Beginning with the arrival in Dresden's brand-new but mostly empty airport, to taking a ride on the traffic-less Autobahn and then in visiting the town and city centers throughout, I was left to wonder where all the people were. In the idyllic village where I stayed, a place with a 600-year old history, was planning to close its century-old elementary school building due to lack of school-aged kids. Everywhere there was evidence of consolidation, in which there was a deliberate abandonment and demolition of old roads, factories and apartment blocks and a determination to update and often reprogrammed what remained. From an aesthetic point of view, the results were quite nice, and for the visitor, the stress-free calm was a welcome relief. But in the eyes those who were living there, there wasn't much to look forward to, much less any sense of fulfilling the promises made to them upon reunification.


Leaving quiet Dresden and arriving in Bucharest, there was an obvious contrast, to be sure. It felt kind of like leaving the U.S. to go to Mexico, which in reality Romania had much in common with the latter country in terms of socio-economic development. But despite many decades of brutal communist dictatorship, and having being situated in the roughest neighborhood in Europe, Romania today seems to be in better shape than our own neighbor to the south. While I was surrounded by an overwhelming sense of insecurity in Mexico, I was at liberty to go anywhere, take any taxi or bus, and trust almost any stranger. Romanians, who speak a Latin-derived language, like to compare themselves to the Italians and Spanish, except that they happened to be stuck in the wrong corner of the continent. After experiencing a post-communist economic rut during the 90's, it was clear that the country was on upward trajectory if one were to judge the abundant construction cranes, new shopping centers, office buildings and the fleet of re-vamped Dacia cars zipping about. It wasn't chaotic as much as things simply felt a bit un-regulated, with people appearing to do things as they pleased that in more prosperous countries would have been curbed by social custom. The cultural and religious traditions of the place ensured a consistent moral order, but the fluid economic circumstances prevented an overriding civic order from taking shape.

Like any post-Soviet survivor that was not the recipient of decades-long generous flows of money coming from a much wealthier half (i.e. Germany), the built fabric of Romania has been struggling to keep up. Car traffic is a problem, express highways are rare, and many of the urban plazas still need repaving. In the larger cities, the brutal, overly monumental and dreary Soviet architecture was everywhere, while in the smaller towns along the Carpathian mountain range, older buildings and charming houses were proudly dressed in the local vernacular. As many who have traveled to Romania will tell you, the countryside is quite beautiful and pristine and more revealing of the country's culture, while the cities' dehumanizing Soviet architecture rob them of their appeal.
This notion actually reveals something about Romania that isn't as obvious in countries to the West, namely its essence as a mostly rural society which is still trying to establish a mature urban identity. In spite of Ceausescu's top-down approach in radically urbanizing the Romanian landscape with mega-housing blocks, broad boulevards and palaces and monuments to his megalomania, the ubiquity of cottage gardens adjoining houses situated in dense city neighborhoods acts a reminder of the peasant origins of many of today's city dwellers. Once these cottage gardens, which produce some of the freshest, tastiest produce you'll ever eat, evolve into flower gardens that have no other purpose other than aesthetic delight, then a mature and authentic urban culture will have truly taken root.

By virtue of being Romania's capital and its largest city by far, Bucharest manifests the most obvious example of an authentic urban identity. Compared to the placid lethargy that characterized the city centers of eastern Germany, the hustle and bustle of Bucharest was strangely exhilarating. If one were to look past the grossly over-scaled boulevards and soul-crushing Soviet style architecture that characterizes much of the city, what I witnessed were the unending stream of cars, buses and trams, with herds of people catching the subways or crowding the sidewalks. Bucharest felt alive, as people who were preoccupied with the daily stresses of work or school were walking and driving in a purposeful way that is characteristic of commercially driven urban areas.
Contrast this with the leisurely, an thus purposeless, way that people walked in pleasure cities such as Dresden. Another major difference is the role of graphics in the embellishment public spaces. One clever way to mask the dreary Communist-era buildings was to drape them with large billboard advertising and neon signs. It’s a common thing to see in most large commercial capitals throughout the world, and it manifests a yearning to play a part in the globalization of commerce. But in more regulated urban environments (such as Dresden), billboards and large lighted signs are eliminated, leaving just the signs above street storefronts. This lends a more orderly appearance, to be sure, but at the expense of taking away surrounding feeling of vitality.

Comparisons: Beauty or Vitality?

My recent trip to these two different countries revealed various aspects of cities that are both important but sometimes remain contradictory. In Germany, the towns and cities exhibit a cultural preoccupation with environmental perfection both in the landscape and in the built fabric. Saxony truly was 'picture perfect' in a way that Romanian cities never could be. At the same time, places like Bucharest illustrate the importance urban vitality brought about by rising economic activity and a low level of regulation, things that won't necessarily arise in eastern Germany now or even in the future. The irony is that Romanians would love to grace their cities with even a fraction of architectural masterpieces found in even in most modest of German cities (which the abundant examples of turn-of-the century Hapsburg-inspired villas in the Romanian mountain towns attest), but the people in Saxony would never tolerate the level of urban vitality brought about by rapid economic development. Judging by the unending series of large illuminated corporate logos crowning the top of mostly faceless buildings, it is clear that Bucharest is an attractive place in which to do business, helped certainly relatively low barriers to entry and a flat income tax. In Germany, the policy since reunification has been to impose higher taxes on everyone while implementing regulations on the newly acquired federal states in the East that have long applied in Western states. This had the effect of dampening the East's competitive advantage over the West and preventing local industries and specializations to develop independently.

In my view, the economy of the former East Germany will remain depressed so long as the mechanism to attract development though lower taxes or suspended regulations. And while the results are visually attractive in the form of new construction, a cessation in the subsidizing of East German economy will spur incentives for locals to form their own companies and eventually become independently competitive. This naturally would have demanded some pain and sacrifice at the outset, as the Romanians know all too well, but it would have resulted in a people proud of accomplishments that can own. Instead, Germany opted for unity and security, ensuring a generous social safety net long before enabling a self-sustaining path toward economic self-sufficiency. The result has been an unending bitterness in the local population, disappointed that the promises made to them upon reunification have not been fulfilled and frustrated that any development in the East was in reality a colonial policy run by West German conglomerates. I didn't detect that same kind of bitterness in Romania, since their perspective is shaped by such a difficult past. Most of them have had a hard life, which makes them quite generous, and there is an overriding desire to open up to the world around them, whether through their embrace of Western alliances (EU, NATO) as well as their extraordinary facility for foreign languages.

Beyond this comparison between two contrasting European countries lies a debate about the kind of things cities should strive for. Is it all about looks, as many urban planners would more or less suggest? Or is it about what lies beneath: businesses, industries, institutions and the policies that beget and strengthen them? It's sort of like the difference between San Francisco and Houston: the former a beautiful destination for the elite leisure class with most of the inelegant hustle and bustle taking place in the outer reaches of the Bay Area, while the latter is a rather architecturally unremarkable place known for its traffic, pollution, energy companies, ports and industry but still a thriving and diverse city with a highly mobile middle class. One is posited as the ideal by planners for those cities wishing to emulate it in the search of an authentic urban feel, while the other is quite urban in every way except in form. One loses an important regenerative demographic (families w/ children) even as it gains more tourists, while the other gains those as well as other groups due its abundant opportunities and affordable lifestyle.

So far in my experience, I've been more drawn to the less glamorous 'cities of opportunity', partly because these cities are oriented towards the future, a kind of future whose appearance is undefined and open-ended. This irks a great share of my architect and planning colleagues, who are vested in the notion that the future must follow a carefully designed plan, its shape already defined by masterplans and zoning regulations. For them, the lives of people must be governed by the constraints of a wisely designed environment, such as forcing them to live in density and take mass transit. By ordering the activities within in a city in such a precise manner, it becomes mechanistic in quality, and ultimately quiet and lifeless. I seem to revel in places where the order sort of breaks down, such as traffic jambs, semi-legal private bus companies, or neighborhood districts that take on a radically different ethnic character. What is so appealing about such nodes of disorder? They are reminders of a genuine, familiar humanity that designers are all to eager to conceal by way of design, which has to do with the art what should be. The honking of horns, the tacky hanging of retail signs and ingenious reuse of forgotten spaces remind me of people at their most resourceful and most improvisational, and hence, at their most real.

This is not to say that the people who live in beautifully manicured towns are any less real, only that there is a far larger social and economic reality to what we see. Most designers could not begin to understand all the things that people do in cities and should not pretend that their designs can completely account for all urban activity. While architecture serves to more concretely express how a place's inhabitants see themselves, it cannot by itself generate more urban dynamism. Buildings are shells of activity within, activities that are the result of business, and government policies and cultural influences that regulate it. The shell can be immaculate, but it does not reflect the human vitality within it for as long as it changes over time. In Saxony, the shell has reached a near-perfect state, but its vitality has yet, if ever, to return. The brutal shell that characterizes Romanian cities like Bucharest has indeed a long way to go, but it was evident that the people have begun come out of this shell. It was fascinating to observe it from eye-level.

Additional reading: This article by Gerald Robbins goes into further detail with regards to understanding the current mood among East Germans. He observes that the rapid growth of the Leftist party, comprised mostly of ex-communists and Stasi officials, may have something to do with an emerging romantic nationalism for the former German Democratic Republic.

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