Trying to establish the value of grade 1 seismic buildings in Bucharest – step by step

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Although the issue of buildings with seismic risk often appears in structural engineering literature and catches occasional public interest in media, noticeably absent are studies that establish their architectural, social, and economic value. As a result, I was obliged to draw on literature peripheral to the focus of the thesis and other investigative methods to inform my central arguments.

Firstly, it was imperative to demonstrate the aesthetic value of these often unloved and disregarded buildings that are struggling with deterioration accelerated by the seismic activity. Appraisals of architectural styles found in Bucharest are available from a variety of sources. However, they rarely mention the decay, and none focus on the current challenges they face, nor do they envisage a prospect. Building on the existing objective assessment of aesthetics, I focused on identifying groups of Cat.1 and 1+ buildings that share similar architectural traits and origins. This facilitated the discernment of distinct levels of value within the large assembly.

Being a bureaucratic-centric country, the cultural and architectural value in Romania is established primarily by using the existing prescriptive legal framework. A detailed interview with Stefania Romascanu[1] from the Sibiu Department for the Protection of Culture and Heritage revealed the practicalities and limitations of implementing the legislation. The DPCH operates in close relationship with the Urban Planning Department, which grants planning permits. The interview with Lucian Carstea[2] from the UPD focused on a comparison of current and previous iterations of legislation related to heritage preservation, especially pre-1989 and the years immediately after the fall of the communist regime. Mr Carstea was familiar with some of the few remaining archive sources I accessed, all relating to the early years of the democratic state when the Government was under pressure to devise new legislation. I took the issue further when interviewing Ciprian Anghel Stefan from the ASTRA Museum in Sibiu[3], who explained in detail the process they follow when identifying cultural heritage related to the Romanian folklore and how they rebuild houses or structures.

Similar issues were discussed at the “Living with Earthquakes” conference at Jesus College, Cambridge, that I attended in October 2017.[4] Proposing a regeneration model for the earthquake-struck Marche region in Italy, the speakers discussed technical developments, ground response, heritage loss, restoration, and futureproofing. Of special interest were Prof. Wendy Pullan’s observations of changing approaches to heritage in the face of trauma, and her insightful remarks of possible applications in Bucharest.

Secondly, the feasibility of structurally consolidating all Cat.1 and 1+ buildings, as well as preserving important architecturally significant heritage, is mainly limited by technical aspects. Technical sources included the current studies published by the CERS programme[5] from the Technical University of Civil Engineering in Bucharest. The group established the current guidelines for the assessment of seismic risk in buildings in Romania[6] and produced a detailed digital model of the affected structures[7].
These were contrasted with techniques used by Cambridge Architectural Research Ltd.[8]. Although I am familiar with their recent research into new structural consolidation techniques[9], I mainly refer to older bracing methods as they are the ones currently employed by Bucharest’s local councils. Having been intrigued by the current slow progress in the consolidation programme, I have approached the Municipal Administration for the Consolidation of Buildings with Seismic Risk with an official enquiry, including details on occupancy levels of Cat.1 and 1+ buildings, expected progress in the consolidation programme, and reasons for the delay. They kindly replied with detailed information. I attempted to approach the Mayor of Bucharest, Gabriela Firea, with questions related to the consolidation programme, but she declined to answer.

Thirdly, to strengthen the case for heritage preservation in the face of decay, the public contribution of the endangered buildings comes into question. By investigating and recording the use of the buildings in my walks, I was able to establish the main economic roles they fulfil. Often the most architecturally valuable buildings tend to accommodate state-related institutions and therefore are indispensable to the population. However, the great majority are centrally located housing. As noted in urban regeneration planning strategies[10], aiming to prioritise heritage preservation should consider the impact it might have on the population and economy. Whilst trying to understand the challenges of living with urban decay and seismic risk, I rented AirBnB accommodation in 18 Blanari Rd, a Cat.1+ building. To gain access to more endangered buildings and get acquainted with the housing market, I went apartment hunting and discussed the intricacies of buying or renting a flat in a Cat.1 or 1+ building with estate agents. I would like to thank the 3 agents I approached for subsequently understanding my reasoning for initially concealing my intentions. In a subsequent official interview with Valentin Florea[11] we discussed the expectations and challenges of selling “new” flats in old, seismic risk buildings.

Still a way to go, but feeling more confident that this information will come together in a systematic appraisal. Stay tuned.

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