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|Roma Kastellos - Preface
I don't think there's anyone who can walk past the palaces built by rich Roma without stopping to stare.
Nor do I think there's anyone left in Romania who hasn't heard of these gigantic houses, with their unmistakeable stylistic features: roofs with turrets and overlapping cornicing, a vague mix of Chinese pagodas and the gingerbread palaces of Bollywood melodrama.
Like many others, we were also not able to withstand the fascination these houses exert on anyone brought up with "normal" (visual) culture and traditional architecture. Whether this fascination is the result of a profound misunderstanding, the difficulty of describing this architectural phenomenon in terms of natural rules (or not so natural rules, but current practice in Romania) or personal pathology, I don't know and I'm not going to wrack my brains too much finding out, either. What's for sure is that in this area, we were able to find many interested and knowledgeable people willing to help us capture something of the essence of this bizarre world of Roma palaces. Our thanks go to each and every one of them.
Although unaware of all the difficulties we would encounter when we decided to start work on this book, our motivation seems to have been sufficiently strong to overcome all the inconveniences encountered en route. The result is not a scientific study dedicated to Roma architecture on Romanian soil, but rather a collection of images and articles which endeavour to articulate the uniqueness of a phenomenon of a remarkable vitality. This book doesn't claim to provide an exhaustive record - something which would anyway have been impossible, given the speed at which these houses are being built, are changing and transforming. But naturally, the subtlety of the title - "Palaces of...", and not "The Palaces..." - will escape no one... Paradoxically, and despite its vitality, there is as yet no other album in Romania which deals with this subject, despite the availability of studies, even serious ones, and interested parties, not to mention the rich visual material.
Is the reason for this absence the fact that this phenomenon is considered by majority culture activists as insufficiently serious to be dealt with in a serious book?
Is it because of the suspicious attitude of the owners of these houses, who imagine they will suffer prejudice if their own houses appear in some publication or other, despite their crushing physical presences? Are we dealing with Roma distrust of anything involving traditional methods of cultural dissemination? It's of little importance because this act of cultural injustice will from now on have been redressed.
What, then, is Kastello. Palaces of the Roma in Romania? Clearly, it's a book. An album which tries to capture the essential nature of the architecture practiced by the wellhealed Roma of Romania. The difficulty of classifying this architecture within existing, pre-established cannons can be seen from the title, which resorts to an act of linguistic invention in order to officialise the genre. Clearly, Kastello is a deviation of "castel" (castle), which is insufficiently expressive for our needs and already guilty of other overt meanings. Just as Kombinat made reference to the phantasmagorical and bankrupt world of the socialist industrial complex, Kastello, in our opinion, encapsulates far better the unique character of these mansions/palaces/large houses. This is a new word, whose phonetic roots make explicit reference to noble houses, but whose sound expresses stylistic freedom, versatility, disrespect for the rules, kitsch. It is, if you prefer, a castle impregnated by manele music.
All the same, and despite what it might seem, the album Kastello. Palaces of the Roma in Romania, is not - or does not wish to be - the print equivalent of a manele compilation, albeit this comparison might seem legitimate and justifiable to a certain degree. The serious approach adopted by this volume, and the texts it contains, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the repertoire of singer-songwriters with the names of food stuffs, towns or miracles, provides a strong argument in favour of not treating this book like a treatise on manele told through images. If this is not the case, then we will surely be the last to complain.
This album is split into three chapters, each representing a different, vaguely defined geographic area documented through images: the west, southcentral and east of the country. These don't fit perfectly with traditional regional boundaries; however, the similarity and differences of their architecture somehow confirms the fact that the Roma have their own spiritual geography, one entirely different to ours. The texts between these chapters are the work of authors of diverse cultural backgrounds - architecture, sociology, psychology - and thus offer varied perspectives of the topic. They are not directly related to the images, but rather offer a more general point of view. This journey into the world of Roma palaces is thus highly subjective and not academically structured, and for this reason is perhaps particularly well suited to the task at hand. Lacking any political, ethnic, racist or, less still, legal agenda, Kastello aims merely to bring (back) to the majority culture a phenomenon generated by a marginal culture whose size and importance merit this treatment. Regardless of whether we like these houses or not...
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|SUD - The South ... Tinseltown
For some ten years I've been observing developments in the districts / neighbourhoods / settlements of houses with turrets, overhanging roofs and inscriptions on cornicing featuring lions, deer and sun motifs. Initially few in number, turrets can now be seen everywhere, in compact groups and all sizes, landscapes, both rich and poor, and all situations, Tinseltowns, I hastily called them the first time I encountered this apparently new genus in the middle of the sleepy Teleorman plain, and this is how they continue to be known by people around me as well as enthusiasts, neutrals and fierce critics. Towns because of their well-aligned facades, like in middle-class housing districts; tinsel because of their gleaming sheet metal roofs.
A decade is a short time in building terms. A building aspires to stability and longevity. Not so in tinseltowns. These change so much and so fast that finding your orientation using physical reference points memorised even only a couple of months ago is no easy matter. From one gate to the next, every entrance is a building site full of heaps of sand, wooden scaffolding, spades, wheelbarrows and bucket-wielding women, the ever-present "unskilled" local workforce. The stucco facades, with their contrasting polygon forms of white and dark grey, have given way to the "alpine" chalet with two very steep sloping roofs and a mini-balcony in a triangular tympanum. After the alpine chalet, the next fashion was for roofs with fake green tiles like a McDonald's restaurant. These were followed by copies of new bank buildings with shiny tiling, domes and curved curtain walls. More recently, marble has taken the place of plasterwork and now covers the kastells, inside and out, from the ground to the roof.
The latest photographs, taken in Buzescu this spring by losif Kiraly, showed narrower pavements, an increase in the density of houses, and cornice lines two and three levels above the ground floor. The compositional vernacular had also been extended to include classical references. Over high chrome railings you see pediments raised on two cylindrical pillars the full height of the house, window architraves, front steps with landing, festive entrances with porches, loggias and arcades: axiality, symmetry, the solid materials of high architecture are replacing the fragile scenography of tinseltown. The villa/house/kastell retains and displays the stages of its development. The first investment (a single room built two generations ago) is now embedded in the multi-level structure of reinforced concrete of the latest reconstruction. In twenty years, the generic cell with its primary wall has become a three-storey property. All the classic dramas of the never-ending building site - roofs swept away by the wind, cracks in the floor and collapsing balconies, fractures in dangerously-thin pillars - are all plain to see. With phenomenal agility and using only the tools to hand, the components of the houses, from their structure to their finishing, from their form to their decoration, from their function to their colour schemes, mimic prestige and combine according to its inflexible syntax. The syntax remains, the rest changes.
From the look of things, we appear to be dealing with an offshoot, a subspecies, a new variety. But a subspecies of what? What hierarchically superior taxonomic grouping are we dealing with here? This is not folklore. Folklore presupposes refinement through repetition, slowness, long periods of time, an instinct wary of adventure. The folkloric scenario feeds on the rhythms of the rural world and the fixed points of nature. This is not the case with the kastells, which are based on an urban concept of density and events, power and hierarchy. But the kastell also sets its sights on "high" style. Are we thus dealing with "high style" architecture without the architects, to borrow Rudofski's phrase? Not quite, for architects were and will from now on be increasingly associated with kastell building sites. The surprising part is that the presence of a qualified architect and properly drawn up plans does not divert the general appearances of these houses from the intentions of the sub-species. Internal genes beat formal design. With or without an architect, the kastell is still a kastell when viewed a distance. Neither folklore nor structured urbanity, neither rural idyll nor neo-pseudovernacular, neither architecture as practiced by an architect nor ad hoc construction, neither experimentation without an architect nor an avant-garde experiment.
I have been intentionally avoiding here the word architecture. I don't believe architecture, as it is defined today, can be a hierarchically superior species of which the buildings described here form a sub-species. For the time being, clear and well-founded studies are few and far between due to the difficulty and uncertainties of conducting research, their emotional-cultural reception and the self-censorship of the critical endeavour for reasons of political correctness. Until we achieve a different state of mind, we will be dealing mainly with ingrained stereotypes divided "equitably" between superficial journalism, a limited array of architectural literature, studies of Roma culture and partisan public positions of equal inconclusiveness.
At any rate, when it comes to a kastell, or an entire district of kastells, there are more questions in circulation than theories or conjectures. Their penetrating spirit, dynamism, cumulative expressivity, the numerous challenges they pose, the attraction for distinctive features of various sources, the vitality and the large sums invested together with a social success that exceeds ethnic boundaries, the territorial dispersion and critical mass achieved - all these together have removed the kastell from under the sign of the picturesque. Kastells are supported by a substratum that can be compared, metaphorically speaking, with that which facilitated the journey of Jazz from the margins to a sub-species of high music with equal rights: hunger for identity, irreverence for what went before and authority, but an active mimetic spirit, freedom to take control over anything that can be used to realise your own design, the capacity to resonate with a growing audience, but also exclusion, sarcasm and negative publicity - as a vulgar, aesthetically crude, anti-cultural phenomenon. All with the advantages of uproar as a vehicle of fame.
Does there really exist in the internal destiny of the kastells the energy to push this now doubtful subspecies towards high style architecture, as happened with Jazz? We'll see what happens. In any case, the original tinseltown is being eclipsed. But the kastells are growing in size, spreading and multiplying; they are changing their "styles", have fans and detractors at home and abroad, and give birth to cultural polemics and administrative conflict. They engender many emotions, with the single exception of indifference.
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|Kastello - Reflection on "Gypsy Palaces"
Contemporary language designates at least two forms of reality by the term "gypsy palace". One contains houses, generally gigantic, belonging to the "moguls" of Roma origin, which the public despise for their ugliness and see as the cause of the dissatisfactory state of the city. Our petty-but-well-internalised-racism is blind to the fact that these are in no way inferior to the majority of houses built by the moguls of "indigenous origin" and no less detrimental to the city at that. The same conspicuous display of illiteracy, the same display of primitive wealth, the same design (to my mind a hybrid of "Ceaucescuist architecture" with the cheap "trademarks" of consumer society), that is to say, the same immorality: both are the product of first-generation nouveau-riche arrogance, of a lack of social graces and appreciation for the value of public space; a product of a self-idolatrous individualism which broadcasts its representative identity to the detriment of the city. From this perspective, these "gypsy palaces" neither add nor take away from the wave of poor quality architecture invading our cities - often at the instigation and as the result of the illegal manoeuvres of beneficiaries with expectations loftier than those of Roma origin.
The second reality is that in which communities, groups of Roma origin, formed according to different criteria (kin, trade relations, etc.), once they reach a certain level of well-being, settle in one place and together build an "ideal environment". This is the case of many new settlements, of which the best known is the extension of Buzescu. This village became known through an exhibition held in 2001 by Mariana Celac and Iosif Kiraly, an exhibition which at the time unsettled many and provoked many paradoxical reactions, ranging from curiosity (sometimes honest, at other times motivated by snobbery) to blind and aggressive opposition. This second reality, which again our petty-but-traditional-racism unfairly ignores and places in the same category as the first, has not been sufficiently researched and understood in spite of the special attention it merits. Why so?
Instead of providing arguments, I will tell a story. In 2001, I took a group of 3rd year students to the Mariana Celac exhibition. I was shocked: firstly, at what was on display; then at the reaction of the students. The exhibition documented the incredible expression of a lively contemporary vernacular with a stylistic unity (vocabulary, typologies, expressions, materials, etc.) the strictest planning regulations would find hard to match. According to its own rules - clearly commonly accepted by the members of the group, the creators of this ideal environment - a formal exuberance that is hard to describe existed through a free and joyful mixture of random designs and naive understandings with clear expressive choices. It was like a collection of fairytales: streets of silver "castles" tantalisingly fashioned with the sophisticated finesse of old jewellery. From somewhere behind its shining appearance, and also in spite of it, there shone a kind of drama: you felt a stab of fear, the sadness of the inevitably transitory. Technically speaking, things were pretty clear: the design had obviously been taken from the architecture of German Romanticism, the ornamental profusion of fine details had come from the East (I was to find out later that they had previously worked in Germany and Iran), the art of sheet metal working was clearly their speciality, and the large number of pillars covering different surfaces were of a extremely undersized fragility and waiting to be destroyed by the next high winds... But this was not the problem. Of course, this architecture did not easily fit with the customs/expectations of architecture students of the day, and neither did its exuberance, coherence or emotional significance appear to strike a sensitive cord with them: the most favourable reaction was laughter; others almost choked with indignation; not one of them initially displayed even the slightest hint of understanding. We then sat down on the floor (we were the only visitors) and started to talk. We were there almost three hours and it turned into one of the most pleasurable seminars in my experience. And we all left deep in thought. Some of the students told me they later went to see the extension of Buzescu. I went myself some two years later. What I had seen at the exhibition and had assumed then was now confirmed: the coherence, design, exuberance, fragility - most of all the fragility.
As a phenomenon this is rare. Contemporary vernacular architecture is normally represented by slums, illegal barriadas and a wide range of "soft architecture", all on the extremes of squalor. So this is a community, belonging to an ethnic group discriminated against par excellence and victims of an historical tragedy, which, once it had achieved a prosperous economic situation (by working as sheet metal workers abroad), wanted to settle in one place and build a place that was representative of its identity. Not as an expression of individual positions, but as a way of representing the group, with all its ethnic pride and its identity - an identity, however, that is hard to define so long it is not based on an established culture and recognised as such, and all the more so as this implies a radical change in the way of life and values which support the group; an identity hard to express in built forms while it has no architectural tradition to draw upon. We're dealing here with an identity-forming building process whose constituent mechanisms are different from the "national" phenomenon that was characteristic of the 19th century; this is a spontaneous building process, part of no political programme, deinstitutionalised, occurring only of its own will and means.
But isn't this also what the residents of the new "gated communities" want, to build a group identity? Here's the difference: the community in Buzescu is not "gated"; on the contrary, it is the extension of an existing village on either side of a public road accessible by all. The houses there don't even try to isolate themselves from the rest of the world and nor do they hide from the road and public space. As in a mediaeval town, the individuality of each house reflects a collective formal unity (of public space and the settlement) in which individual interpretations of the "model" have an equal say. They are situated in the extended part of an existing village of which they form a part (the most interesting one, as it happens); they do not express the contemptuous isolation from the city of "gated communities", which acts as an expression of financial status, but rather a desire to participate, with their new prosperity and newly-built identity, in Romanian society (finally with equal rights!)
In terms of architecture this is a rare phenomenon and clearly requires further study. As human ex-perience, however, it should not be viewed with the scientific eye of the entomologist; it should be treated with understanding. Why, then, with the exception of a few nit-picking architects, does the world so readily accept the pathetic phenomenon of "gated communities" - even envying them and aspiring to live in them - while at the same time being so unforgiving of "gypsy palace" settlements? Perhaps this book, which will surely meet with great success, will lead to a more sympathetic approach. Unfortunately, its attraction will owe much to the "exoticism" of the subject - though even this can provide a way of bringing us closer to the "other".
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|EST - The East ... The House as Public Body
In its oriental origins, the Roma cultural system was based on a religious identity of Manichaean and Gnostic origins (the eponym is the Christian heresy of the Greek term "Atsinganoi", the "untouchable, impure") that resulted from the syncretism of the Abrahamic religions with the Occult religions of the Ancient Middle East. For the "Athinganoi", life in this world meant atonement for a sin, the chance to return to the absolute not being this world but "shatryia", a celestial world beyond Good and Evil.
The radical theory according to which these different perspectives are expressed in terms of "individual-not-of-this-world" (Roma) vs. "individual-of-this-world" (non-Roma), reflecting two different opposing ideologies of salvation, individualistindependent (of secular Indian origin) and holistic (Christian European origin), could represent a way of understanding those things that have remained oriental in Roma culture, even where history has fashioned for them a western, European destiny.
At the dawn of the European Renaissance, the forced migration towards Europe as a result of the collapse of the Oriental Crusader states and the rise of Islam, implied a comprehensive social destructuring and adaptation to the strategies inherent to a "people without a state". Notre Dame de Paris, a modern operetta based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, which 10 years ago re-launched "neo-Bohemianism" in the West, posits the idea - rightly, in my opinion - that Esmeralda and her companions were asylum seekers (the story takes place in 1492 around the famous Cathedral in Paris). This is also confirmed by the safe-conduct granted in 1416 by Sigismund, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which granted Roma the freedom to travel across Europe. In this period Europe was under pressure from Islam, and the grounds given by Roma on "requesting asylum" were therefore religious. Colossal groups of Roma began travelling, especially on the pilgrimage routes to Compostella and Rome, which was probably for reasons of safety, as Christian charity and tolerance were assured for pilgrims. But these routes became over-crowded, and from the documents and art of the day we know that the economic pressures placed on "local budgets" by bands of paupers, "abnormals" (Foucault) and mendicant monks lead to crisis. "Subsidies" were cut, pilgrimage routes abolished. Leonardo da Vinci painted the monstrous face of the Gypsy Captain Scaramuccia (who later became Scaramouche, the cowardly swordsman from Commedia dell'Arte, a young Don Quixote), Giorgione, ominously, painted Tempesta (showing a naked woman in a field, breast-feeding her child under the gaze of her soldier-husband), a sign that relations between the majority population and the "asylum seekers" had progressed, between moments of ecstasy and fear, towards confrontation. There were hundreds of expulsions, under threat of death, excommunications, manhunts organised by the local communities. There is still no well-documented history of these times, but even so, it seems obvious that what we see today must have its roots in this past. The Roma "dukes", "voivodes" and "kings" of the 15th and 16th centuries were to reappear five centuries later as "bandits", "witches" and "beggars". "Life without a state" led to the creation of survival strategies that were different from those developed by a stable culture and the anomisation of Roma organisational culture, adapting it to the type of influence required for survival. A glance at imagology and the imagery of European art yields the same ubiquitous and quixotic image of the "nomad population", the "singing people", the same stereotype in its mediaeval and modern forms, in a perpetual coming and going through European sub-history: begging, singing, telling fortunes, pilfering, doing various subsistence work in a conserved, segregated underworld. Viewed as a "nomadic culture", the romantic expression of a redemptive, boundless freedom, the marginal Roma way of life, internalised in its cultural foundations, is in fact a paradigm for the interpretation of a transcendental schism, oscillating between self-hate and exaggerated ego, between one's own physical form (that seen from the outside, demonised, "hated") and one's own body (that felt on the inside).
Man (in this case, Roma), as a creature of fate, is defined by his behavioural dimension and his ability to cope with vulnerability. This is why a failure to adapt has created a wide range of "Roma cultures", whose "unity" is the product of a continual adaptive striving for existence/survival. Regardless of whether we call this alienation, existential absurdity, anxiety, estrangement, suffering, etc. or "disgenics", deviance, aggression, fear, etc., these are the contrary and restructured perspectives and mentalities of human fragility and defragilisation, a handicap, a social disease. In the pragmatics of fragility, the Roma are beings trapped in a perpetual temptation to compensate for their psychological deficit, which is interpreted as inferiority or weakness, through an excess of techniques of survival and influencing. This fact leads to over-compensation (false conscience, excessive self-esteem, abnormal/psychotic lifestyles), whereby the individual/group wastes away in the permanent readjusting of its own personality. The reasons behind this personality deficit have much to do with the repeated failure to embrace normality: the existential plan collapses and the individual falls back into his previous condition of the incongruent self, a magnified identity crisis, as a reaction to failure. Escaping reality and entering the irrational, as a niche of visibility and sublimation, is harnessed through particularism, "exoticism" (sangreardiente, as sexual "power"; "musical people", as a mediator of ecstasy; "witchcraft"/magic, as strategy of defence and intimidation), etc.
In terms of hermeneutics, in European culture, the binomial "body-soul" has survived, under the influence of Christianity, as the basic rule of an axiological and ontological hierarchy of the master-slave type, between the genuine, spiritualisedbeingliberated from the yoke of passion and its "non-domesticated" counterpart, which remained at the level of corporality and affect. Roma culture, whose ethnogenesis occurred outside European rationalism (or, at most, in its underworld), has continued to exhibit the psychological wounds of the soul, as an intersubjective dynamic of interiority vs. exteriority in which the body is "intimate", accessible only to the self, while the physical form remains "public", outside, accessible by the Other. Recovering the "intimacies" of the self (self-esteem), as a body, would be possible, however, by "negotiating" one's own otherness, the "public" body with the Other as a premise for recovery from the shipwreck of human dignity. Until this becomes possible, opulence, be it in form of houses like giant gingerbread palaces (pagodas) or the egocentric economics of the gift, as a resource of prestige, will, for traditional communities, be essentially the same as what bovarism is to modernised communities: an illusory victory over Evil.
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|Kastello - The Sprawling Mass of Romanian Real Estate Kitsch
Since 1990 Romania has been haunted by a new and powerful energy generated by the desire for private homes (houses, mansions, etc.) And we began to rewrite history... In the beginning there was the wall. The architects came later. The city was already inhabited. We began to build on the outskirts. The order was clear. It should be big (bigger than the flat in the block). We spent long enough in little rooms in blocks of flats. The more educated said it was kitsch.
The beneficiaries didn't care. They didn't falter. They weren't intimidated. They ordered palaces. Standard palaces were built. A street of carbon copy palaces appeared. The carbon copy street. The "Iancu Nicolae" pseudo-Tuscan palace. Tuscany was the (un)fulfilled dream of the minority Romanians with money. Gypsy palaces have also joined the sprawling mass of post 1989 Romanian real estate kitsch. Unfortunately.
Unfortunately because today, after years of blame, gypsy palaces are starting to loose their roofs. They're being styled. Unfortunately, if the attempt to differentiate them from kitsch is made by styling, they will only become "kitsch style". Both realities (pseudo-Tuscan palaces and gypsy palaces) are the symbolic expression of a minority group's search for legitimacy. Gypsy palaces deserve to be understood beyond the more or less informed labelling practiced both by specialist critics and other residents (the majority receptors). For they are the expression of a minority culture. A minority ethnic group expresses itself freely in a mature majority culture. The minority group needed "something else" in order to become "visible". But we all inhabit the same space. The majority mature culture interposes the critical apparatus between public and product. Cultural differentiation should express itself freely. The essential difference between the kitsch of the lancu Nicolae catalogue houses and the gypsy palaces is that the former represents a tautology, while the gypsy houses are a legitimate product, legitimised ethnically and through a unity of expression and sincerity of gesture. If, for lack of substance, the appearance of the pseudo-Tuscan palaces has begun to resemble kitsch, the gypsy palaces have found their identity as the unitary expression of an ethnic group. They stood up and became legitimate in Romanian culture. This gesture can also be interpreted socio-historically. Slaves until 150 years ago whether they liked it or not, gypsies found themselves in the streets as a result of their emancipation. They (again) became nomads. On the edge of settlements.
Ostracised until 1944, "hardened" by communism, "schooled" in the free market, after 1989 their accumulations of wealth, both small and large, allowed them to take revenge on history. They built themselves houses that imitated those in whose shadow their ancestors toiled: the boyar manor houses. Vengeance through outshining, exceeding. Made manifest on more than one level. Through an identityforming image. Of settlement. Of "situating" in something else. Gypsy palaces legitimise themselves through this "situating", while pseudo-Tuscan palaces are de-legitimised through "de-situating".
In fact there also exists an intermediary form between these two positions/categories. Intermediary but at the same time impossible. For nothing can be intermediary between two disjoined results. A hybrid is possible, but not of the pseudo-Tuscan Romanian palace and its gypsy counterpart. A hybrid only from the point of view of the gypsy palace. I'm referring to certain large "boyar" style houses which appeared in Timisoara in the early years of the 1990s. They were considerable houses. A hybrid of a house "by an architect" and that which later became known as the gypsy palace. It lacked the element of spontaneity, the unforeseen, the unplanned-for, which appeared later, and at the same time also betrayed the work of a trained eye in the background.
Something between two "authenticatables". Discord and a lack of a spontaneity in the "design".
A hybrid of the written architectural canon and the unwritten canon of the meaning known only to the instigator. Gypsy palaces have a meaning of their own. They are made in the image of their creator. I don't know how these palaces, which I call authentic and which I like to get worked up about in determining their meaning, are built. If I find I have something, perhaps too much to say about them, that tells me there must be some point to them. I also like to think they are participatory achievements. In the world of plans "conducted" by architects there also exist participatory works. Interdisciplinary teams use brainstorming to invent participatory schemes. This is why I like to think this "design" is a spontaneous gesture even without having a formal design. The craftsman brings a little knowledge, the beneficiary makes his contribution and the material supplies the rest. Negotiation takes place on site. The palaces in Timisoara were infected palaces. They got off to a good start, and the building process followed a scheme, but at a certain moment something deviates from the plan. Does it self-deviate?
The difference between the two palaces was clearly also the consequence of a placement in a certain physical context. Those in Timisoara were situated in an existing context, the others contextualised on the fly. Both had a course to run, but from different starting positions. The first required permission from the city hall, followed planning rules and either fitted or didn't. They had low spontaneity. They respected an urban consensus about communal living but did not attain satisfaction/integration. The others applied a clan-like form of communal living, and although they had high spontaneity, they also achieved an enviable level of unity. Unity of style became an exclusive quality. Maybe the "authentic" gypsy palaces, those we have in fact attempted to "authenticate", should be declared completed projects. They have achieved that "something else". Maybe unwillingly. Now actively soughtafter, this "something else" may loose its identity. Or, if the project is unfinished, let it retain its course. How? Just as it did thus far. I'm afraid, however, that being aware of this "desire" will upset this. And in this category we already have the pseudo-Tuscan palace a la Iancu Nicolae.
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|VEST - The West ... On Palaces
If we compare images of a journey through the tigānii ("gypsy areas") of the regions of Romania, we first see an amazing diversity of forms, colours and building techniques. We can split these into two large categories, one for the regions to the north and west of the Carpathians, another for those to the east and south. In the centre of Romania, in Transylvania, we find a gentle mixture, which we will not treat separately. The differences between the two categories relate to form, spatial composition, facades, colour schemes, concepts and the grouping in space of the "palaces". Similarities exist in the way a "palace" is used, the role it plays within the group, the way day-to-day activities are performed (or not) inside it.
The internal space is arranged differently for a nomadic population compared with a sedentary one. For the nomad, the borders of his property mean nothing, for his life, the existence of his family, does not depend on them. A sedentary lifestyle, however, begins precisely with the drawing of borders. Where these two mentalities have met, over the years different ways of managing the spatial dimension of this contact have always been found. These were established amicably at a community (village-camp) level, as long as there existed a state of reciprocal economic dependence between both parties, or arose as the consequence of a national ideology or policy (e.g. sedentarisation on the outskirts of villages in Habsburg Transylvania or deportation to Transdnistria). Thus, a form of social relationship has always been expressed in a spatial context reflecting real life situations, trends and ideologies.
Those Roma who were the most prolific builders in Moldavia and Wallachia belonged to the Kalderash. This group was not sedentarised until late on and did not undergo a process of assimilation like Roma in the territories under the Habsburg Empire. They are faced with a marginal social status while physically inhabiting an area peripheral to the "heart of the village". The villages of Ciurea, Ivesti and Liesti are all cases in point. Interestingly, even when, after 1989, they were able to perform alternative forms of economic activity, the Kalderash continued living on the periphery in these areas, unlike the "silk gypsies" from Timisoara and Resita, for example, who migrated towards the centres of towns that provided economic opportunities.
Physical segregation on ethnic grounds is still more acute in rural areas, especially for the more closely-knit communities, such as those of the Kalderash. The tigānie, as even the Roma themselves call the district in which they live, overlaps with the identical term tigānie, which is used to describe the social life of a group of Roma with it traditions and customs. In small and medium sized towns things were set in motion after 1989, with the Roma communities demonstrating a higher level of internal dynamics which saw well-to-do Roma showing a preference for the central areas of towns to the detriment of the old tigānie. Here, tigānie, as a physical space, is liberated from tigānie as a social space.
At first sight, we can identify three different building methods from a formal point of view. The differences lie in the different architectural models adopted depending on the "semi-nomadism" routes chosen in different regions. The "gypsy palaces" in Banat stand out for their resemblance with architectural styles of western inspiration (Neoclassicism, eclecticism), in Transylvania the style is more local while Moldavia and the south of the country feature many references to neo-Brāncovenesc designs of the early 20th century as well as local styles (the large houses built in the 1970s by the richest or most creative village members). The explanation for these differences is that many of the Roma from the west of the country moved to the West after 1990, returning home periodically, while those from the southern and eastern regions travelled mainly within the borders of the country - especially the Kalderash, whose movements over the entire southern and eastern areas followed a fixed schedule.
Beyond these differences, which refer to the aesthetics of the "palaces", there are, however, also some striking similarities in the way they were used. In general, these buildings are not inhabited: day-to-day activities would take place around them or in separate, far more modest buildings. A permanent feature was a room used for storing the contents of a dowry, though sometimes even a whole house might be used to this end. In the entire southern and eastern region, there are no bathrooms in the "palaces", something justified culturally by the strict separation of "clean" and "dirty" (vujo/marime) elements. Some Roma in Banat see this practice as dated, as an "old-fashioned" custom. There are also similarities in terms of formal language. Nowhere will you see large surfaces that do no feature the richest geometrical ornamentation. The roof, regardless of whether it is of the so-called "pagoda" style (in the south and the east) or with a split structure (as in the west), always receives special attention along with the main facades. Other permanent features are monumental staircases and a generously-sized assembly space (parlour), often on more than one level and used for important family and, implicitly, community events.
However, all this information about the appearance and location of the "palaces" tells us nothing about their role and importance. Architectural descriptions do not help us understand the motivation behind the financial investment made by the families who are building and have built these houses. Any interpretation and deciphering of the "gypsy palace" would require the approach of cultural science, so as to enable us to understand how living, building, community and nomadism can coexist in a single cultural space, which, reflected in built space, have given birth to one of the more dynamic phenomena in Romania of the last 18 years. How this phenomenon will continue to develop remains to be seen and does not preclude a drastic drop in its intensity. To finish, it is worth mentioning that only a small number of Roma actually have the financial means to build such buildings. The majority are prisoners of an identity that moves between social marginalisation and an often fragmented ethnic identity in full transformation.
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Discussions of "gypsy" palaces today focus public attention on traditional Roma groups, those that have created their own separate identities throughout history, not least thanks to their colourful culture.
The traditional Roma are former nomads (the largest group being the Kalderash or coppersmiths) who lived and travelled within Romanian territory from the start of the Middle Ages up until 1960. Their occupation and social organisation was different from those of the peasant or urban peoples which made up the rest of the population. Although the term nomad is used to describe them, the resemblances with the migrants that hit Europe up until 1241 are very few, and thus there is a need for a separate term in the future. By "nomads" we mean the groups of Roma who travelled along certain routes, within and between states, primarily due to their specific form of economic existence. This was an "ambulatory" type of travel, one which took place between the start of spring and late autumn. With the exception of the period between 1942 and 1944, when they were deported to Transnistria, and the forced "sedentarisation" practiced by the communists in the 1960s, these "nomads" provided a patch of colour in every village, market town or city, each of which acting as a different outlet for members of the group. They were clearly different from Roma who settled in villages by dint of their unmixed kin relations and retention of the Romany language. Without exception, the covered wagon served as home during the day, while the tent fulfilled the same function at night. Their movements did not take them far: only to the next town or village with a potential for trade, where they would set up camp and stay a few days.
These groups were normally made up of 10-15 wagons accompanied by 40-50 interrelated people. Sometimes the groups were even smaller, though they would also join to form larger groups of over a hundred members on special occasions. Smaller groups found it easier to meet their economic needs and maintain a low level of visibility. Whenever nomad families came together to form larger groups, the authorities would soon have them under observation and intervene to drive them away.
The ability to switch between social visibility and invisibility was the main weapon wielded by nomads faced with constant controls by local and national authorities. They were able to play this endless game thanks to their high mobility and deep knowledge of less-trodden paths. Their preservation of certain cultural traits in an almost unchanged form, in particular the Romani language, testifies to the success of their strategy in opposing state policy.
Their approach today is different. The constant switching between invisibility and visibility practiced in the past (depending on the needs and problems of the community) has today given way to permanent visibility. The parking of wagons and tents on the outskirts of villages close to forests (to be able to become invisible as quickly as possible) has been replaced by the erecting of imposing, highly visible buildings inside the villages. This visibility, however, is in fact only a facade to hide the insides of these dwellings. As before, the community is protected on the inside.
Why this partial change of strategy? The development of Romania post-1989 created an ideal framework within which to practice their skills as tradesmen, something which also led to the accumulation of considerable sums of money. Imitation is particularly prevalent, both in terms of economic activity (all adopt the same type of business after it is seen to be profitable for one member) and housing (where all used to have tents, now all have built similar looking houses). We are also witnessing changes within the Roma community itself. The most powerful family of a group, that of the Bulibasha, would have the largest tent and wagon and the best horses, etc. The diminishing role of the Bulibasha is also directly linked with the change in the hierarchy of wealth. Imposing buildings and luxury cars have the role of displaying the new power relations within the community.
Visibility is also the result of a growing trust in the strength of the community and the reduction or disappearance of threats to its existence. Their choice of dwelling, however, can also act against traditional Roma, owing to the ease with which they can be identified in the context of hostile government policies, of which history provides many examples. Becoming invisible is only still possible today by adopting the majority type of dwelling and at the risk of losing an interesting and valuable expression of their individuality.
The building of palaces can also be seen as a component of social and financial transition. Displays of wealth are found among all groups that have recently come into money. People not part of the Roma minority also build houses costing similar amounts, albeit the architecture differs. The appearance of new residential districts containing buildings costing hundreds of thousands of Euros places both groups, superficially occupying different positions, on the same side of the barricade. The same family, but living in different political, economic and social environments, will have a different cultural production.
The nomads in western Europe of east European extraction (most arrived in the west in the second half of the 19th century), especially those in France, are the victims of official policies which forced them to remain invisible by obliging them to live in the newly appeared "aires d'accueil" on the outskirts of towns. Their visibility was ensured through the mandatory carrying of circulation cards, replacing in the 1960s the anthropometric cards and many other forms of restriction which prevented the group from giving up their caravans and opting for a different type of dwelling. Keeping the group is a barrier to change.
On the other hand, groups of Kalderash in Brazil have built imposing houses which have remained largely unused. Behind each such houses there is a tent which is used as a dwelling by the family members. However, this tradition has been lost in mixed families in which the man is a gadjo (non-Roma).
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