Graphic commons: Bucharest, a bohemian rhapsody

Recently I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to Bucharest, Romania, for work. The trip was so that I could attend an art and design education fair and to talk at a couple of high schools about our courses. This was my first such recruitment trip abroad, and I’m told you often only get to see a city from a car window and in the evening before flying back the next day. Thankfully though, because of the timings of our itinerary, I managed to get a little time to myself to wander the city and soak up Bucharest’s visual culture.


This was my first visit to Eastern Europe, and one, given the timing of the trip, that was over-shadowed by Brexit. Our host, locals and delegates from other countries all had an opinion, with none of them positive. The majority of Romanians I spoke to about it, (and Romania isn’t a country afraid of change, it could be argued), all thought Britain was putting itself in a ridiculous position.

One of the things that struck me about Bucharest from the outset, was that it is a country that is happy to wear its history on its sleeve—it is there in plain sight for everyone to see. Our hotel was very close to Revolution Square, the site of the uprising that saw Nicolae Ceaușescu toppled from power nearly 30 years ago.

Monuments to these tumultuous times have seen better days, and the local anarchists appear to show little respect for those that lost their lives fighting against the dictator. Some locals said the current government is the most corrupt in 100 years, so it appears a struggle continues. Given we were a week away from national celebrations of 100 years of independence for Romania, this is some claim given their more recent history.


I found the architecture fascinating as different periods and styles sat comfortably alongside each other. Brutalist apartment blocks, ornate gothic structures, palatial statements and elaborate Orthodox churches were easy bed-fellows.


Adorning many buildings were large adverts, there being little room for billboards. These are to be expected of any contemporary city nowadays, but what struck me in Bucharest was just how many domestic dwellings had these tarps stretched across them.


Despite the historical edifices, the city felt completely contemporary and a lively subculture was on display. There was little attempt to tidy this for the tourists—I don’t think I have ever seen so much graffiti and flyposting, ever.


Pretty much every building had some spray paint accoutrement and/or fly poster stuck to it. Despite this, I saw very little litter. The odd take-away coffee cup here and there maybe, but that was it. In mentioning this to our hosts, and the fact that I saw large swathes of people clearing fallen leaves from parks and roadsides, I was told that this was more likely to do with the forthcoming centenary celebrations. Or maybe they just weren’t used to the typical McDonald’s detritus we see in the UK.


Traces of interesting typography hung around in some closed down shop windows. This was difficult to date to me, not knowing the visual history of Romanian graphics. I could see aspects of both the 1960s and 1980s in this window, but given what I’ve said about architectural historical styles sitting comfortably together, this seems fitting:


Public art, while few and far between from what I could see in my brief foray around Bucharest, was dramatic when encountered. An oversized concrete book in a park and an exploding human form outside an Orthodox church were two of the highlights for me.


At the end of November it was cold, but I just missed the minus temperature nights, thankfully. The skies were leaden and grey the whole time I was there, but I have been told in the sun the city can be glorious. The local park I managed to stroll around before our flight back certainly gave that impression, although the closed ice-cream kiosks did send a shiver down my spine in the cold weather.


The feeling of France I got from some of the architecture—wrought-iron balconies on handsome stone buildings—was rewarded when I saw this situationist type slogan on a building development’s hoarding. ‘Look to the sky’ it says. Indeed, but it has since given me the earworm of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody every time I look at the photograph, which seems somewhat fitting.


Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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