Saving Mantuleasa. The street that inspired Mircea Eliade
Mircea Eliade, a leading historian of religion in the 20th century and one of the most valued Romanian writers, was fascinated with Mantuleasa Street in Romania’s capital of Bucharest. For Eliade, Mantuleasa was a street of mythical beauty, where the sacred infiltrates the profane. The street’s first historic mention was recorded in 1707 and was centered around its church, which was finished in 1733. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a residential area, mahala, for rich merchants, while in the early 20th century it became a select street in Romania’s capital.
Mantuleasa Street remains one of the most charming in Bucharest, its architecture elegantly intertwining neoclassical, neo-Romanian and modernist styles. Despite its value to the city, in the age of high-rise glass buildings, Mantuleasa’s delicate aesthetic fabric is hanging by a thread, as the street is threatened by the construction project of a modern building complex.
Eliade evoked Mantuleasa, near which he spent his childhood in one of his most well-recognised fantasy novellas, entitled On Mantuleasa Street. The fictional work tells the stories of Zaharia Farama, an old teacher and former director of the school on Mantuleasa street, which Eliade had attended himself in his early days. Despite the centrality that the school played in Eliade’s writing and life, the school was mercilessly demolished without an approval from the Romanian Minister of Culture in 2002. The terrain on which it once stood is now at the centre of an arduous battle between local residents and local authorities in Bucharest.
In April 2015, the mayor’s office approved the construction of a multi-functional building complex of both housing and office space. The project is to be built by Leader Properties SRL, which belongs to Avantia, a Spanish group of developers. The highest structure in the complex would be five storeys high and ten metres above the maximum height of 25 metres in this protected area. All that the remains for the project to become reality is approvals from the Bucharest general council and the ministry of culture.
The current conflict between the residents and the mayor’s office began in 2014, when the project received preliminary approval by the city hall’s planning commission, signed by Bucharest’s chief architect, Gheorghe Patrascu, for the construction of a complex of buildings on the former school’s terrain. Since then, local residents and NGO representatives have been vehemently protesting that project breaches the regulations corresponding to Mantuleasa’s protected area status, would not fit well in the architectural tissue of the area and would deteriorate the quality of life the other residents living on that street.
After granting its blessing in May 2015, the mayor’s office organised a public debate to determine the civil society’s opinion on the project. City Hall recognisedthat the debate was too delayed and that the mayor no longer has the capacity to intervene as the matter was in the hands of general councils. However, none of the latter participated in the public debate.
The local residents complained that the approval process lacked transparency as they have to make constant efforts to find out which state the project is in. According to legal procedures, the residents of the neighbourhood have to be invited to the debate prior to approvals being issued to determine whether and how they and their properties might be affected. The residents further emphasised that they have yet to see an impact assessment study regarding the manner in which the new building will affect the surrounding properties’ values. Apart from the building aesthetically breaking the harmony of the streetscape, the residents argue that the project will bring additional traffic to an already crowded area. It also enhanced the parking problem, thus further depreciating the neighbourhood’s living standards. The locals would like a new school be built on the property.
This is not the company’s first attempt to mutilate the street. In 2008 the Bucharest local council from Sector 3 approved the construction of 17-storey building. As a result of a public scandal, which came to light due to intense protests from residents and NGOs combined with a media campaign, the council repealed its decision. In 2010, Leader Properties, the owner of that property, proposed a new project, an eight-storey building, which was not approved.
A key reason why the company has been unable to see its projects come to fruition has been the local residents’ unified and undeterred action against it. Their efforts have, however, not ended the company’s pursuit, but only led to modified proposals, which do not maintain Mantuleasa’s aesthetic cohesiveness. Perhaps the only way to preserve this beauty is to build a larger citizen movement rallying together on behalf of Mantuleasa, capable of actively demanding change. With its crucial historical and cultural relevance for Romania, Mantuleasa has tremendous tourist potential for the capital city with so few architectural reminders of its pre-communist beauty.
Bucharestians have too quickly given up on their patrimony, bowing their heads to the questionable decisions of their local elected officials, removing vital pieces of history with careless contempt. It is time to stand up for their city and turn its future around.
Raluca Besliu is a freelance journalist from Romania. Over the past three years, she has published with multiple news outlets and magazines, including Al Jazeera, the Globalist and Yale Global.