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Cățelu, the only neighbourhood in Bucharest with long porches, like in the country, the genius of a great architect, Tiberiu Niga

Of all the neighbourhoods built during the communist period in Bucharest or in the country, none can compare with Cățelu. Between 1955 and 1959, near Baba Novac, the people’s power ordered the construction of a group of ground, first and third floor dwellings, most of them with only one small, modest room, a complex surrounded by inner courtyards with oases of greenery, with alleys, gardens and playgrounds for children or places for workers to chat. The Puppy Experiment, an example of shared, intimate, almost rural living in a big city.

The project to interpret traditional architecture was designed by architect and professor Tiberiu Niga, renowned for his high quality buildings constructed in interwar Bucharest. Past, present and future in Cățelu, the story of a unique and atypical neighbourhood, below, interview with historian Răzvan Voinea.

In the 1950s, the People’s Council of the Capital entrusted the architect Tiberiu Niga with the construction of a low-cost, fast-rise neighbourhood.

They called it “Cățelu” not out of affection for man’s best friend, but because that was the name of the road that led to the village of Cățelu. Even today, the names of the streets in Cățelu bear the mark of the era in which they were laid out: Entrecours, Năzuinței, Amieteniei or Cutezătorilor. Cățelu, a neighbourhood of single-storey houses, with small rooms and long, shared porches, with pedestrian walkways and arcaded passages, a minimal housing estate built in a hurry for the homeless. After the great earthquake of 1940, the ceding of Bessarabia and the arrival of refugees in Bucharest, after the bombings of 1944 and the Second World War, the capital was experiencing an acute housing shortage. In the 1950s, the People’s Council of the Capital entrusted the architect Tiberiu Niga with the task of finding solutions for the construction of a neighbourhood that could be built quickly and at low cost. The proposals of the team of architects led by arch. Tiberiu Niga aimed to solve the problem of mass single-family housing by achieving maximum comfort and economy.

This is how arch. Tiberiu Niga presented the project “A minimal housing district in Bucharest, lots 3 and 4, Mihai Bravu Road”, realized together with Arh. I. Antonescu, arh. S. Bercovici, arch. A. Dâmboianu, arh. M. Dâmboianu, arh. I. Florea, arh. R. Shelman, arch. N. Stoicescu. The presentation was published in 1957, in Arhitectura magazine.

“The main aim was to demonstrate through projects and calculations that the investments planned by the People’s Council of the Capital for provisional works could be directed, with better results, towards definitive works”.

Arh. Tiberiu Niga: “In order to improve the housing situation in Bucharest, the Executive Committee of the People’s Council of the Capital initiated, at the beginning of 1955, the construction of temporary housing in shantytowns. In this situation, the East workshop of the Project Institute – Bucharest proposed a different solution for the minimal housing, which aimed to solve this aspect of housing through definitive constructions, with a simple execution, achievable with almost the same effort, materials and equipment as those foreseen for the provisional barracks, but which by their external appearance and comfort would fit in with the vision and provisions of the general outline for the systematization of the Capital.

Arch. Tiberiu Niga: The main goal we pursued was to demonstrate through projects and calculations that the investments planned by the People’s Council of the Capital for provisional works could be directed, with better results, towards definitive works, which would contribute to the endowment and beautification of the Capital (…). The proposal of the Project Institute – Bucharest, materialized in a site study within the Tudor Vladimirescu district with six sites for approx. 6000 apartments and preliminary designs for several types of two-storey blocks, focusing on the solution of minimum housing in various ways, was approved by the Chief Architect of Bucharest and subsequently by the Executive Committee of the People’s Council of the Capital, which ordered the immediate start of work on site no. 5, considered the most suitable for the first stage.

“Land areas have been set aside for children’s playgrounds, landscaping and planted open spaces”

Arch. Tiberiu Niga: The 18 m space between the alignments of the buildings was designed to be created on a lawn background with a central 3.5 m wide paved driveway, with widenings for parking, concrete slab sidewalks and planting groups of all sizes in a free, unaligned composition. The areas of land between the bottom alignments of the buildings have been reserved for children’s playgrounds, landscaping and planted open spaces, provided, like the front gardens, with benches and light fittings.

The project signed by arh. Tiberiu Niga’s project envisaged the construction of single-family apartments, with minimal built area, mostly consisting of a single living room with outbuildings (kitchen, shower and pantry), a single room cool in summer and easy to heat in winter.

Florin Biciușcă, architect and professor at the Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism, has written a very nice book about the Cățelu neighbourhood, “Experimentul Cățelu”, Paideia Publishing House, 2007. There you will find an analysis of the Cățelu housing, but also a story about housing, seen from the subjective angle of the architect who grew up in the Cățelu neighbourhood.

“The cluster of collective housing was intended as post-disaster housing (the disaster in this case being war)”

“An example of good architecture can be found in Bucharest, between a street called “Stejarului” (if they still call it that) and Cățelu road. It is a group of collective housing, built in 1956-’57 and which housed many of those displaced by the war from all corners of the country and especially from Basarabia. It was designed as post-calamity housing (the calamity in this case being the war). It was transitional housing and not containers with a pre-determined shelf life, which were to be abandoned as soon as the situation was settled”, Florin Biciușcă, Experimentul Cățelu, Paideia Publishing House, 2007.

“The prisons not only connected the dwelling to the courtyard, they were spaces for socializing, connecting people”

“The complex was composed of a series of modules gathered around inner courtyards. The modules, with ground and first floors, comprised studios and two-room apartments, which were strung along porches stretching from one end of the building to the other. The prisps, facing the inner courtyards, facilitated access to the dwellings, but had a very important role in the life of the people here; they not only linked the dwelling to the courtyard, but were spaces for socializing, linking people as well”, Florin Biciușcă, Experimentul Cățelu, Paideia Publishing House, 2007.

“The public, semi-public, semi-private and private spaces are exemplarily supported by a wealth of spaces, making the housing complex worthy of its housing name”

“Very valuable is also the manner of composition of the ensemble. It is not an original version of the layout of the spaces, but a reiteration of the traditional type of organisation in which the transition from public to private space is made through a succession of thresholds of privacy, the spaces slowly losing their public character and gaining privacy. This is what happens here. From the streets bordering the group of dwellings, alleyways open up, one passes through a series of gangways, one lands in the inner courtyards and then, crossing the long porches, one enters the apartments. The public, semi-public, semi-private and private spaces are exemplarily supported by this jumble of spaces, making the housing complex deserve its name of housing”, Florin Biciușcă, Experimentul Cățelu, Paideia Publishing House, 2007.

“People’s lives revolve around this porch”

“The exceptional idea of this complex, the brilliant idea, was that porch. Wide enough to be more than just a functional corridor, the porch was not just an intermediate space, a buffer between inside and outside, but the community’s coagulator. People’s lives revolved around this porch. Besides the young wives, who were kept at home by the family mentality and the young children (despite the political activists’ wish to contribute actively to the country’s progress), there were grandmothers and women with more life experience, ready at any time to offer wise advice”, Florin Biciușcă, The Puppy Experiment, Paideia Publishing House, 2007.

“After 1944, the communists were totally unprepared and did not have a clear picture of what they called “the new socialist city””

The history of the Cățelu neighbourhood has also been researched by historian Răzvan Voinea, who is currently working on a history of housing between 1944 and 1958 in Bucharest and on the collection “Cartiere bucureștene”, which he coordinates at Studio Zona Publishing House. Răzvan Voinea, what was the Cățelu experiment? Why was it called that? It sounds quite clinical.

Răzvan Voinea, historian: It sounds like that because it’s an exaggeration. It wasn’t an experiment, that’s how it appeared in the scientific literature after 1990. But in the 1950s there were a lot of “experiments” related to architecture and urbanism. After 1944, in fact, the communists were totally unprepared and did not have a clear picture of what they called the “new socialist city”. That’s why they experimented a lot with the organisation of urban life, they borrowed from the Soviets the idea of housing blocks, there are many different projects started in the 1950s where we can hardly find a rule. They designed and built blocks of flats in blocks, in a socialist realist style, the blocks in Ferentari, which continued a line of functionalism from the late 1930s, the workers’ blocks in Grivița and Pieptănari, the blocks for ITB at the end of Giurgiului road, the masonry dwellings on Mihai Bravu road, no. 227, a neighbourhood geographically close to Cățelu, but different in design. It is the one about which arch. Tiberiu Niga, in his article in Arhitectura, mentioned that it started at the initiative of the People’s Council and consisted of temporary barracks. The 1950s were a very experimental period for socialist architecture, based in fact on the ideological uncertainties of the “socialist city”.

“The people of Bucharest like to think they have all sorts of founding myths” Is it true that the communist regime built the Cățelu neighbourhood especially for the Basarabian refugees?

Răzvan Voinea, historian: It is a myth. Bucharesters like to believe that they have all kinds of founding myths. They say that the Match Factory was built by Swedes, although it was executed by the Society for Cheap Housing. About the Salt Road subdivision they say it was built by the Russians, although it was also built by the Society for Cheap Housing, for the War Ministry. A similar case is the Grant housing estate (which residents say was built by the Germans) or the houses on Lânăriei Street (built by the Town Hall), which residents recall were built by the Americans. 600 families moved to Calțelu and there may have been Basarabian residents there as well. The wave of Bessarabian refugees arrived in Bucharest in 1940, when Bessarabia was ceded, and continued until ’44, ’45, as people fled from the Red Army, but I don’t think a neighborhood was built in 1955 for refugees from 1940 or 1944. The houses were built by the Town Hall, by the People’s Council, and mainly workers from the Tudor Vladimirescu and 23 August districts moved to Cățelu.

“The architects preserve the national form of rural, vernacular architecture, but also add this part of the urban working class” Cățelu is a working-class neighbourhood, but it has this particularity: the houses have porches.

Răzvan Voinea, historian: Prispes represent the influence of the vernacular, the imprint of architect Tiberiu Niga. According to the theories of the time, the new architecture in the Stalinist socialist city was supposed to be national in form and socialist in content. Architects were encouraged to experiment with these forms, and in practice they kept the national form of rural, vernacular architecture, but added this part of the working-class urban, based on the production of blocks of prefabricated elements and the distribution of housing to workers, not to the wealthy classes, as the communists believed it had been before 1945. This is how workers’ housing estates emerged in the 1950s, but they kept the height of their housing low. They are ground and first floor buildings, and later some two and three-storey buildings were built.

“A radical solution was needed to build temporary housing as quickly as possible.” Have you been to the Puppy? The apartments are very small, the hallway also has the function of a kitchen, bathroom and pantry, as the arch. Tiberiu Niga.

Răzvan Voinea, historian: I’ve been in several of these apartments and yes, they are very small, I think they are at most 32 square meters. But we have to understand the context in which these small apartments appear. Let’s not forget that in the 1950s there was a serious housing shortage. After ’44 until ’54-’55 almost nothing was built in Bucharest, there were at most a thousand houses built. It was a period in which the effects of the great earthquake of 1940 and the bombings of 1944 were being felt, plus the demands of the Red Army who requisitioned all the accommodation in Bucharest. A radical solution was needed to build temporary housing as quickly as possible. That is why the project in Mihai Bravu 227 was started for temporary housing, which had to be demolished later; they had also been built very small. There was a need to house as many people as possible in the shortest possible time and to have time to build the large neighbourhoods that appeared after the 1950s, such as Titan, Berceni, Drumul Taberei and so on. It is only in these neighbourhoods that the habitable surface area increases.

“On the ground floor of these housing units, after 1990, the porches begin to be closed” The prism represented the common housing, specific to those times. Workers shared a large porch, if they still lived in small spaces.

Răzvan Voinea, historian: It certainly increased communication between neighbours, but the porches were also used for storage, people kept their pickles, bicycles, baby carriages outside. The porch was used more as a small storage space, the inhabitants didn’t have that inside. On the ground floor of these dwellings, after 1990, the porches began to be closed. Each tenant enlarged that hallway by taking a piece of the porch and increased the surface area of their home.

“The Puppy complex is in constant need of renovation, the residents accuse the Town Hall of not taking care of the neighbourhood” What is the spirit of the Cățelu neighbourhood now?

Răzvan Voinea, historian: Unfortunately, it’s a pretty sad one, honestly. The residents of Cățelu, some of them being the same since the 50s, had more of a communal spirit until 1989. After 1990, generations changed, new people moved into the neighbourhood and a lot of them started to privatize their public space. They set up their own gardens, took over the space that was for everyone else and made it their own. There is also a rather low degree of intervention by the City Hall, which is not working on replanting trees, sidewalks are not maintained, everything looks pretty bad. Of course the complex is in constant need of renovation, the residents accuse the City of not taking care of the neighbourhood. After 1990, the number of cars increased, many owners used the small piece of yard they had to make garages and concreted the spaces. Where there used to be green spaces, playgrounds for children, there are now parking lots, which upsets older residents of the neighborhood.

“We are analysing the Cățelu neighbourhood this year, together with the working-class blocks of Vatra Luminoasă, Bucureștii Noi, Panduri, Drumul Sării, Drumul Taberei and others” Did the residents of Cățelu buy these houses?

Răzvan Voinea, historian: Initially, the housing was given for rent, a rather low rent was paid, less than 10% of the salary. After 1966, the law changed and you could also have your own property, and some people managed to buy their own homes even before 1989. Most people bought them after 1990. We are looking at the Cățelu neighbourhood this year, together with the workers’ blocks of Vatra Luminoasă, Bucureștii Noi, Panduri, Drumul Sării, Drumul Taberei and others. The project we are implementing together with the Studio Zona Association and Dash Film, financed by Norwegian funds, tells the story of the housing blocks from 1954-1958 in an extensive archival research that will result in documentary films, exhibitions and books, which we will present to the general public starting in January. Historian Cristian Dumitrescu, architect Ioana Alexe, photographer Alex Iacob and the Dash Film team (Dan Radu Mihai and Pătru Păunescu) are working on the project.

Why Cățelu remains unique In conclusion, of all the neighbourhoods in Bucharest, why is Cățelu atypical?

Răzvan Voinea, historian: First of all because it is the only neighbourhood built in this way. Neighbourhoods based on the influence of socialist realism were also built in Vatra Luminoasă and in Drumul Sării and in Bucureștii Noi, and so on. There have been other buildings, but exactly on the size of the Cățelu district there has never been such a project in the whole country, as far as I know. From another point of view, the Cățelu district combines very well the green space with the built space, there are relevant urban indicators for urban development that have not been respected since then. Cățelu has a lot of green space, playgrounds, gardens that compensate for the lack of interior space. From this point of view, in other neighbourhoods, for example in Titan, blocks of flats have been built that have normal surface areas by the standards of the time and today. However, like the Titan district, half the country has been built. That’s why Calcutta remains unique.