The Athenaeum

Time is a bully. Its complete refusal to pause, reverse, or even bounce around a little is stubborn to the point of cruelty. That may be part of why I enjoy travel so much. Good travel allows us to circumvent Time’s idiotic monotony when we recognize reflections of the past that escaped the tyrant’s metronome. Bucharest is a festival of just that kind of audacious chronological defiance.

Only here can a Byzantine church sip its pot of tea for centuries, watching the upstart Art Nouveau museum sass the neo-Gothic facade across the street, until both shrink back under the looming menace of Stalinist apartment blocks, brutes of prefab concrete and heavy slabs of once-white stone. Perhaps the architects of violent authoritarians thought they could evoke the strength of Ancient Rome, but in the end the weight only served to imprison Bucharest within itself.

But then Communism fell. And history continued.

Now when you walk these streets, those tenement blocks are receding into their clumsy place in Romania’s vibrant past, no longer casting oppressive shadows so much as highlighting the beauty they failed to squash, beauty that for me is exemplified by the Athenaeum. How appropriate that the cruel absurdity of authoritarianism is best revealed by a place named after the birthplace of democracy.

Built at the end of the 1800s (with support from the people of the newly formed country) this gorgeous concert hall aspires to and perfectly achieves the grand Western tradition, with all the neoclassical columns and geometric forms that we see in Europe’s most iconic buildings. Stand in the garden in front and the Athenaeum resembles the Pantheon in Paris. Except the massive drum that supports the dome evokes the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, hinting at something more if you go deeper.

Western Europe’s monumental architecture is mostly neoclassical, which was a rejection of baroque ostentation. Instead of palaces for Louis XVI, we wanted temples for the modern man, using straight lines and blank stretches of space to reclaim the geometrical simplicity of the Renaissance and dignity of Ancient Rome. Inside the Athenaeum you find something just as logical, but altogether more sensuous. But at the Athenaeum, those sharp 90 degree angles are replaced with elegant curves, walls are not left blank but filled with sumptuous yet structured decoration, and instead of black and white we find reds, pinks, and yellows that come right up to the edge of the voluptuous.

Like the greatest buildings (St. Peter’s Basilica for example) the Athenaeum is the perfect articulation of a moment, of a circumstance only possible in a finite time and specific place. This building could not have been built in Istanbul or Paris, only here in Romania where the heritage of both combined into something new. And it could not have happened under Ottoman suzerainty any more than it could have under Communist oppression, only in that precious belle epoque moment before the optimism of the age was obliterated by the carnage of World War One. Beginning just 17 years after the Athenaeum was finished, that horrendous conflict started in 1914 but didn’t fully end in Romania until 1989, when the country finally regained its status as an independent entity, not a pawn of outside empires, albeit eternally on the forefront of their surging.

Luckily, just as we can travel back through the murk of the 20th century to that shining moment before the war, we can then return to the sunlight of this moment, still shining despite the clouds. When I visited last month, this spirit was strong not just in the walls but in the air itself, where the music of a few practicing musicians rose up past the mural that celebrates Romanian history to dance under the dome of this special moment. No time travel required.