Produced by Euxine – The Utopian Society in collaboration with Ștefan Cosma, Eclectico Studio on a curatorial concept by Carmen Casiuc
Silent Ornaments creates a dialogue with the spatial configuration and the facade elements of the so-called “Pherekyde building” constructed by architect Tiberiu Niga during the interwar period, on Calea Victoriei 122, at the intersection with Piața Amzei street. Emphasizing the psychological and functional dimensions of its architectural ornaments, the exhibition outlines a unique fusion between romance and rationality in the idealism of Modernism throughout the first decades of the last century. In the intricate play between retinal exuberance and its pragmatism, the modern ornament is proposed by the curator Carmen Casiuc as a sign of a narrative space. This imaginary plane is characterized by beliefs that changed the course of history, for better or for worse.
In the context of Europe being devastated by wars, the new built environment was aimed at converting collective living in ideal spaces, where the human animal would irreversibly progress to a higher moral sense. This concept, of a social transformation through the reorganization of the citizens’ emotional lives and their sense of community, established the arts and architecture as a tool to strengthen the relationship between the city and its citizens. Architects and artists alike sought to create a place for a shared experience of the rationalist Utopia that could make possible a perfect unity between reason and matter.
In his manifesto for Modern architecture, “Towards an Architecture”, published in 1924, Le Corbusier, the French architect, finds an expression of the union between intellectual and physical work in the ability of architecture to be both functional and beautiful. He even finds a perfect correspondent for this new ideal in the world of industrial design, comparing his buildings to steamboats and ocean liners, which demonstrated “the potential of highly-serviced mega structures to provide ideal living conditions.” To the father of the Esprit Nouveau, the fascination of naval design as a creative discipline free from obsolete schemes and conventions represents a kind of stylistic emancipation from a land architecture unable to meet the requirements of a new age.
The allegory between the ship and architecture is highly present in the “Pherekyde building” conceived by Tiberiu Niga. The windows imitate the portholes, the short and corner facades are rounded in a similar way to the interwar streamline ferries, access spaces formally replicate the wind tunnels of passenger liners, the green marble decorating the first floor resembles the sea waves, while the inner courtyard symbolically replicates the central castle of ships, as it is surrounded by two symmetrical bodies that formally resemble the stern and the deck. Anchored on the exterior facade of the building, we can even find the flagpole. Whether Tiberiu Niga was himself, like Le Corbusier, a frequent steamship passenger, traveling together aboard the Lutétia, the Patris II, and the Normandie over the Atlantic Ocean, remains unknown. It is also reasonably facile to observe that the materialization of this mental image is quite different. For both, however, the ornament becomes an integrating part of the architecture, with both functional and aesthetically pleasing features that participate in the configuration of a place of habitation and ignite a sense of unsettlement from the old social order.
The work of Alexandra Mocanu outlines the quality of the modern ornament for both its functional and aesthetic purpose. The liquid impression of the tapestry surface brings to the foreground the visual effect produced by the white veined green marble covering the ground floor. The energy of the painterly gesture duplicates the movement of sea waves, alluding to the sentiment of freedom found in the space of personal and collective imagination. One step closer and we discover that the ornamental effect of the textile image and the marble hides a practical function. On one side, the surface material of Niga’s building contributes to the salubriousness of the first floor – a place transited by both inhabitants and passersby, making the inner space of the building easy to maintain and hospitable to social interaction. The image suggested by Mocanu’s textile work is, beyond its aesthetically pleasing effect, an icon of technical virtuosity, playing as such a communicative role between the artist and the public.
The wooden sculpture of Arantxa Etcheverria replicates an architectural ornament similar to the entry gates of Niga’s building. The resemblance is first visible in the shape of the handlers. Once again, in the case of the Pherekyde building, this surface modulation of the door handler withholds a functional purpose. The aesthetic dimension of the real doors alludes to the change in the production of such design elements, which became standardized and mass produced during the Machine Age. Within this context, Echeverria’s work may refer to a stream of Modernism that has recognised the depth of ornament as cultural symbolism and its importance in continuity and communication. While one tradition has eradicated ornamentation as a crime of lavish use of materials, the industrial techniques and manufacturing made it possible to achieve a lot of complexity and intricacy with very little effort. It is perhaps in this sense that the Red Entry is an icon of the belief in technological progress as the step forward to a new chapter of human evolution.
If the revolutionary spirit ignited, at first, an urge to abandon ornament on building as a statement of rationality and productivity, this psychological energy also developed an imaginary plane of discourse that stimulated the collective faith and belief in the role that the mechanical machine plays in the gain of freedom for humanity. In the words of the US architect Robert Venturi, “When modern architects righteously abandoned ornament on buildings, they unconsciously designed buildings that were ornament.” The selection of furniture pieces by Ettore Sottsass, Paolo Pallucco, Bořek Šípek, Frank Lloyd Wright, Philippe Starck and Robert Wilson testifies the narrative space that the idealism of Modernism emancipated. Shapes and forms that could find an expression only in paper architectures and the holistic systems of urban planners that never got off the drawing board become emblems of technological advancement, with no reference to the real world. Freed from the burden of rationality in achieving a lot of complexity and intricacy with very little effort, the new structures are impossible to read without seeing the word “iconic.”
The testimony that modern ornamentation is offering us today concerns the impact of personal experience in how we ascribe meaning to matter. The grand narratives that have made room for a shared collective experience – of a voyage to a land of promise, of a Machine of social well-being – have collapsed. Fantasy survives, however, not as a didactic tool but as an expression of an ideal individuality, where thoughtfully integrated, intellectually substantial ornaments that make no meaning yet they construct new behaviors.
Euxine – The Utopian Society is a cultural association founded by Cristina Bută and Carmen Casiuc in 2021 with the purpose of promoting the common heritage of the Black Sea Region through contemporary art. It aims to create a community that connects the artistic scenes of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
The exhibition is part of the “Pherekyde’s Courtyard”, a project taking place between 15th of September and 10th of November 2022 that recovers the memory of urban systematization of collective habitation during the interwar period of Bucharest with the purpose of understanding its impact on the social and emotional life of the city.
The project is co-financed by the Municipality of Bucharest through ARCUB in the program “Affective City 2022”. The content of this material does not necessarily represent the official position of Bucharest City Hall or ARCUB.
Photography taken by Cătălin Georgescu