We went to Blaj in search of a fairytale palace and discovered an entire fortress that has awakened a community from a deep slumber. We went to immerse ourselves in history and happily stumbled across a promise for the future.
Blaj, the lost golden city of the 1848 national literature movement – was recently given the European Union’s greatest distinction for patrimonial renovation for it’s Cultural Palace renovation project.
“Many of the city’s residents spent their youth in this building, particularly when it functioned as the official cinema for the local area. Thankfully this played an important role in the public administration’s decision to restore the Palace. It would have been much easier to demolish the building and rebuild something from the ground up.” – Vlad Sebastian Rusu, the lead architect for the renovation.
The Cultural Palace was designed in 1930 by Bucharest architect Victor Smigelschi. There is very little information available about Smigelschi after his archive was destroyed in the World War II bombing of Bucharest.
He was one of many inter-war architects that were educated abroad and brought their considerable cultural knowledge back to Romania.
“Back then people looked at buildings as artwork. That is why we see these beautiful neighborhoods, villas and apartment buildings. The clientele understood the architectural quality of buildings that were in construction. Unlike today, when it’s… somewhat hard to find…”, says Vlad Rusu.
In Blaj, it is Victor’s uncle, also named Victor Smigelschi, that is more well-known. He re-edited and annotated the Bible at the end of the 19th century. The new edition is commonly known as Smigelschi’s Bible.
A SHORT HISTORY OF BLAJ’S CULTURAL PALACE
1930 / the construction of the building begins, as per the plans of the architect Victor Smigelschi. The government of Maniu and Tatarescu allocate 5 million lei for the project.
1936 / the building is inaugurated in the presence of King Carol II and his son, Mihai.
1939 / the building becomes the city’s official cinema.
1949 / the building becomes property of the Ministry of Arts and Information, under the name of Popular Athenaeum: “Horia, Closca and Crisan.”
1960 / the building is restructured and the cinema reopens with a new projection cabin. The Museum of History and the City Library are inaugurated inside the building. A regional radio studio opens in one of the building’s wings.
1992 / the Palace becomes property of the Greek-Catholic Metropolitan Church.
1996 / the entire interior of the building is destroyed in a re.
2011 / the Palace is acquired by the Blaj City Hall.
A CITY ON THE MOVE
The metamorphosis of this rare, interwar jewel was not the first major transformation in Blaj.
Blaj has emerged from its slumber as a result of the investments made by the German auto parts manufacturer, Bosch. In 2013, the German corporation inaugurated a third production plant, significantly expanding its factory to produce speed sensors for chassis control systems.
Bosch has invested over 50 million Euros in it’s Blaj manufacturing facilities and continues to hire more engineers and machine specialists. Creating a surge in demand for quality rental units and homes.
Bosch was also a generous supporter of the Cultural Palace, providing the sound systems and stage features for the performance theatre.
Over the past four years, Blaj has even become cool. The Blaj Alive festival is a summer event uniting 10,000 music, nature and freedom lovers on the Field of Liberty (Campia Libertatii) with some of the most popular Romanian and international bands.
Blaj has also benefitted from a local government committed to the city’s future. All city roads have been repaved. Public spaces are illuminated with LED lighting. And now, the city’s crown jewel,
the Cultural Palace, is the centerpiece of a city optimistic about its future. Mayor Gheorghe Valentin was recently elected to his third term with 80% of the vote.
GETTING STARTED ON THE PALACE
The City Hall never considered demolishing the building, but rebuilding it from scratch was a serious possibility. It would have been easier, especially since the Palace is not considered a historic monument. Given all the choices, the city sponsored competitions among students and architects to propose ideas for the building’s future.
What came next was a frenzy of activity. Students began writing essays about the Palace while architects drew up plans with elaborate descriptions of extensions for the main building.
The architect Vlad Sebastian Rusu, who wrote the winning project, believes that City Hall’s involvement in the restoration was a key element in its success. It was a very positive shift in attitude for local public administration to involve the public in the renovation.
Rusu muses about his first encounter with what was soon to be the construction site:
“The plaster had fallen off the walls and the great fire had left its mark, its raging effects being completely visible. It had been a ruin for 17 years and there was vegetation growing on the interior. But the brickwork was quite awe-inspiring and striking.”
Rusu’s first challenge was the lack of images of the building’s original interior state. He wanted the renovated building to incorporate elements from all of its periods of transformation, but the original design was the most important.
“We had a team of architects searching for the original designs and found a part of the initially authorized blueprint in the National Archives of Alba. This gave a good sense of what the original Cultural Palace looked like,” recounts Vlad Rusu.
The young contemporary of Smigelschi believes that the most impressive feature of the Palace is the finesse with which such a monumental building was integrated into its surroundings.
“The architect managed to bring the Palace to a human level with designs on its facade. From the outside, it’s hard to judge the size of the building. It’s a surprise when you enter and see the great hall and foyer, then the huge main room.
Wow, what an impressive space that you would never imagine when standing across the street in the market or simply walking by. The inter-war architects were determined to ensure that the buildings fit harmoniously into the existing architecture.”
The Palace restoration cost almost 1 million Euros. The funding came from a partnership between Blaj’s City Hall and the Alba Judicial Council.
“It was not a huge investment. We found solutions for the building’s restoration, particularly for its interior, that were not extremely costly. We refrained from investing in extremely costly building materials.
We used some of the existing bricks from the original structure in addition to the bricks that were used when the building was restored in the 1960s. This alternative was by no means an extravagance.
The larger expenses went towards strengthening the building structure, a new roof, ventilation, facilities and the stage mechanics,” explains Rusu.
The finished building is now a multi-functional building that hosts theatre performances, shows, concerts, exhibitions, movies and conferences.
“We could have opted to restore the building in its exact original design, but we found a contemporary solution to evoke its recent history. We decided to share the story of its restoration for the decades to come, so that those who enter it might understand its history.”
While brushing the dust off the exterior stone, which hid years of history, the restoration team decided that the 1996 fire was a dramatic moment that should not be forgotten. It was the building’s death and resurrection.
“We came to the conclusion that the fire should be the key element for the Palace’s image in the renovation process. The building’s traumatic history is transmitted in the interior design and painting. The exterior has maintained the original elements, facades and carpentry,” says Vlad Rusu
In April 2017, the European Commission and the Europa Nostra Organization announced the EU award for the cultural patrimony. There were 202 contestants from 39 countries. The jury of independent experts included 29 laureates from 18 different countries.
The restoration of the Blaj Cultural Palace received one of the 7 great awards for 2017.
The jury recognized the project for “renovating, not demolishing, the severely damaged building and for using minimal funds with maximum impact.”