Modern Eastern Europe
At the start of the 20th century, Bucharest was often called Little Paris. Like other parts of Romania and Eastern Europe, it was rich in medieval and 19th century architecture. But under German occupation from 1940, and under Soviet occupation from 1945 to 1989, much of this architectural heritage was destroyed. It was replaced by functional, badly-built, tasteless communist apartment blocks and edifices.
This is the familiar story of Bucharest’s decline and fall. It is only partly true. This is a story of what has been lost. But it is not the story of what Bucharest’s turbulent 20th century has given Bucharest, or of what Bucharest is becoming today. Bucharest today is undersold. It is a city in flux, changing in the hands of its young population, and increasingly rich in opportunities. Romania’s capital is re-inventing itself, and its recent history, and most Westerners are missing out.
What does Bucharest have to offer? In this introductory article addressing two of modern Bucharest’s strengths, we begin a series that will profile Bucharest as a young, dynamic capital.
Tech-literacy and professionalism
In the UK, Romanian migrants are typically viewed as hard-working. But they are not just hard-working: many young Romanians, especially in the capital, are also creative and skilled. Leading information technology news website TechCrunch exposed Romania’s glut of skilled labour in the coding/programming sector in 2012. But, by then, the article was already far behind the curve. Microsoft was already tapping the Romanian labour market, and game designer Ubisoft had already moved on the market back in 1992.
Bucharest’s workforce lends itself to the IT sector partly because of a Cold War legacy, namely a very communist emphasis on mathematics and sciences in higher education, an emphasis that persists today. Since 1989 computer sciences has become a leading field of study in its own right.
In addition to these purely technical subjects, dedicated colleges of administration also focus on economics and politics, while others deliver high-quality medical education. Other colleges and universities offer qualifications other subjects, from law to literature.
As a proportion of its total students in higher or tertiary education, Romania has more students engaged in social sciences, business and legal study than any other country in the European Union. Romania also has fully twice the proportion of total students engaged in engineering, manufacturing, and construction than has the UK.
Character, style and value
Central Bucharest is changing rapidly year by year. New construction projects, from shopping malls to luxury offices, are appearing. Perhaps more importantly, Bucharest is haphazardly harmonising its communist architecture with new builds – whether on the grand scale of the Marriott International refit of a Ceaușescu-era International Style building, on the Calea 13 Septembrie, or on a far smaller scale.
Refurbishments of older buildings also make homes for new cafes and restaurants with innovative menus, low prices, and idiosyncratic styles that lace the modern with the traditionally Romanian. Café Ludic, near the city’s centre, serves large, excellent meals, offers a beer-garden with a raised terrace and heavy wooden tables shaded by trained climbing plants, and is a hub for young people drinking beer and playing board games.
Some of Bucharest’s older, grander structures remain, some untouched by the 20th century. The gilded, luxurious Athenaeum concert hall sells tickets for classical performances at truly democratic prices. The building is unique. The hall itself bathes in a dim but rich, red glow under a low, domed roof. The main lobby of swirling marble lacks a bar, but quirkily offers a second-hand bookstore and vending machines in its place. The out-of-hours tours are given by elderly, reticent men, custodians of one of Bucharest’s strangest and most rewarding attractions, who speak almost no English, only a few necessary words, “Here, perfect acoustics…”