Article magazine # 55


November 2006. Liviu Ciulei at “ARHITECTURA”

Post de: Mariana Celac

Interview by Mariana Celac
Photo: Irina Vencu, the Liviu Ciulei archive
English translation: Magda Teodorescu

Mariana C.: Some years ago, we met at a Festival of Architecture Film in the French Institute. Then, you chaired a jury that awarded the first prize to a film (directed by two colleagues, a filmmaker, and an architect) about architecture and power. I think it was ten years ago. Lots of events have happened since then; a new generation of architects came “to the fore.”

To my mind, the ideas promoted by the young architects are obviously opposed to authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Moreover, when they take a critical stand against the former sociological collectivism and its connection to forced functionalism, they also try to come close to the social level, yet in a different way.
Liviu Ciulei: I must admit I hardly know them. My stays in the country were quite short. From 1980 till 1986 I was the artistic manager of Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. I would come just for a fortnight and I paid my rent regularly. I remember that whenever I came home, my phone was out of order … and there came someone to fix it, although I hadn’t asked for it … So, I’m not very much aware of how things developed. Even after the political change, I spent little time here. Since 1987 I taught stage direction courses at Columbia University, which I did not enjoyed much; I didn’t feel at ease. In fact, I wonder how one should teach such a thing.
M.C. I wonder how one cannot feel at ease at Columbia University? Everyone wants to get there; the place is famous, after all …
L.C.  I can’t tell. Really. I felt I didn’t offer much to my students. Then I moved to New York University. I was a teacher of graduate acting … That was different! I worked with the acting students and staged plays. Each of the 18 actors I taught did two plays with me. Now they have important parts in films, television sometimes, and some in theaters. That is a good school of acting, maybe the best in the States. I enjoyed being there and worked hard till 2003. 
However, I like few things in today’s architecture in Romania. I don’t think that most villas are successful – there are some exceptions, though. At a quick glance, I found one quite interesting, one on Otopeni Road, as you drive away from Bucharest, on the left side. It has a thin canopy, seemingly inspired by Zaha Haidid’s designs … Again, it’s a hotel, on the way to Snagov … although I have doubts about urban architecture implanted in rural areas.
M.C. This afternoon they open the Architecture Biennial; there is an exhibition in the National Theatre, in the upper floor gallery. The inauguration is at six. Think of having Liviu Ciulei at this event … The curators are editors of “Arhitectura”. It was they that designed the Romanian Pavilion in the Venice Biennial this year.
L.C. I heard it was extremely interesting and was much admired. I saw in Bucharest’s Architecture Annual of 2003 a house designed by Mr. Hurduc who won the big prize – and I found it well deserved, as much as the 2006 prize for a vacation house in Pestera village, designed by Ion Raducanu.
Yesterday, during the ceremony in which they made me a Honorary Member of the Order of Architects I mentioned that theatre and architecture worked on the same subject: human being. Human being as an individual and as a social factor. Whenever we work in theatre, we have to be aware of these two factors. On the stage we create a universe in which the characters evolve, and architecture … in its turn, creates an universe – either individual (for the owner) or social (for socially useful buildings: offices, ministries, hostels, schools).
M.C. More than often, the architects show their work in images stripped off human presence. The user, common, crude life, daily life will trouble the formal perfection the architect is after. This is why I find it quite interesting when the young architects explore the limits of rationalism and rebel against its cooperation with totalitarian systems, because they seem to challenge things boldly and critically. I think it is an emerging state of mind when, like in the theatre world, creative reflection goes to that area between the visual “skin” and public event connected to social living. Where are we heading to? What’s going to happen to us?
L.C. Obviously, we live at the turn of a new era, and events happen in art as well. I like to call this new civilizing era, the social era.
These are my own theories, never tested, just some assumptions, as it were. Abstract art, the reemerging of abstract art marks the beginning of a new era. Any civilizing era began with a stage of abstract art. For instance, the ceramics of early Greek civilization started with geometrical, abstract art. First there were the curved line and two points that evolved into a wave, which was repeated afterwards. Then it moved softly to physical-geometrical form, and reduced man to symbol. It was followed by pre-classicism … I don’t have another label for it – a movement to reality, a static one though, expressionless. Little by little, classicism took over; it unites content and expression. Baroque came later as an exaggerated development, a convolution, a hypertrophy of the classic shape. Then, there was realism, which introduced feelings (see Laocoon statue) … followed by naturalism, and the great Greek art died.
M.C. So, you can see a kind of cycle, stages that return fragmentarily after a certain period of time.
L.C. That’s right, because it happened during Christian period as well, in Gothic. First, they drew the fish or the cross as abstract shapes. When the hieratic saints came up, art reached the pre-classical stage, which developed into classicism, then flamboyant Gothic corresponding to the baroque. Initially, the Gothic statuary was quite sever, devoid of feelings, then the image grew more complex and naturalism, that Spanish Gothic, with painted statues with meshes of hair and painted blood tears in high relief, was done for. This is how the Gothic died. The era of bourgeois society ended up in naturalism, too. 
In my opinion, every period started with abstract art; it seems to me that the emergence of abstract art in early 20th century was such a signal, even if we knew periods of return to realism, surrealism, photo-realism – they are not likely to stay. Picasso’s abstract art was influenced by African tribal, primitive art, while Matisse’s by cave paintings, and Mondrian’s by his return to geometry. Apparently, art develops its function to reflect the evolution of society. I think that we could call it the social age, although it might be labeled differently in future.
M.C. Is there a strong relationship between the social and the abstract? Abstract expression is hardly understood by the general public.
L.C. Yesterday, at the meeting at the University of Architecture I discussed the idea that man is a symmetrical animal with three asymmetrical organs: heart, liver, and spleen. If such organs hadn’t been there, we would have killed any artist working asymmetrically. So, we owe the asymmetry to these three organs.
I learnt to appreciate abstract art through architecture, because the latter is based on two elements that define the aesthetics of a building. The first criterion lies in the alternation of solid and void. The second consists in the relation between height and width. I think that these elements lead to architecture aesthetics.
Architecture made me understand the abstract, Rothko, Stella, and Klein, and those working with geometry almost exclusively. For instance, Rothko used to draw two squares, a dark red one and a light red one. Why was I moved by them?
Whom do these two equations, let’s say, address to? They address a certain receiver who, in his turn is governed by the symmetrical-asymmetrical relation, one who needs both “order” and “disorder”. Shakespeare called it “concord and discord.” As we are, we need balance and something to break it, order and discord, just like in music. This is how our aesthetic criterion is being built up, this is how we judge and, as a rule, everyone has his/her own criterion.
M.C. Yesterday, you mentioned something that took me by surprise. When talking about theatre sets and stage space, you said that sets are built in the void. I interpreted as a lack of restrictions, those with which architecture is struggling, but you cannot find in theatre. On the Mezzo TV I watched the performance with Prince Igor. The voices were marvellous, but my whole attention was focused on the stage setting Who was the architect who built the sets, I wondered. In the end, I saw your name, Liviu Ciulei. 
L.C. It was made of unpainted wood, and the performance took place at Royal Opera Convent Garden directed by Andrei Serban. Here is a drawing with the sets, with those folding balconies. I worked for two weeks on it.
M.C.  Yet, the sets were sculptural, endowed with powerful materialness. Was it then like working “in the void?” How did you handle the abstract involved in it, in this particular case?
L.C. The stage sets for Prince Igor mark a development of those for Lady Macbeth, which I did after I looked up to three domes of a wooden Russian church. I simply laid the vertical image horizontally on the stage. On top left and right, you can see the pendentives of the towers. As I said, it is also made of unpainted wood. My colleagues, the painters, wanted to paint it. I refused it absolutely. And the carpenters from the theater came to me and asked me not to paint it: “You’ll spoil it, if you do.” Yes, the Italian carpenters were magnificent, and built it like in 1600 with some old tools, some big hammers … 
M.C. Mr. Sturdza told me you designed a house in Sinaia.
L.C. Here is its scale model … I’ve just done it, when I returned to architecture. I said to myself that it’s not too late at 83. It is in Sinaia on a steep slope. The front entrance is at street level, garages and annexes, a staircase and an elevator to the living room extending onto a terrace; the bedrooms are on the upper floor, and you can build an apartment above with a loggia.
M.C. T-square and set square? Sketches? Pencil on transparent paper? Did you enjoy returning to the drawing board?
L.C. It was fabulous. I drew it in pencil, then in ink and the drawings were copied into the computer. At a point, I found it too symmetrical, and I didn’t like it. Then I created an asymmetry. Now it looks better. It was something simple, of no importance, but I enjoyed it to the full. I built the model myself…
M.C. I don’t think it was something new for you, since you work with models in theatre.
L.C. Yes, in the States a lot, more than it happens here; there you have to show a model. Always. Everything has to be explained to some beneficiaries or sponsors or theatre managers that cannot understand a presentation on paper. I made models for myself, whenever I wanted to check some proportions.
M.C. You said that the stage is a wasteland and stage space a void to be conquered.
L.C. Peter Brook calls it “The empty space.” He wrote a book with this title. He did an extremely interesting thing: Midsummer Night’s Dread between three white five-meter tall walls. They represented a reduction of the five hundred years of   l’italienne stage. The German call such a stage with three walls “a box to be looked at” – Guckkasten or Schaubuhne. They also have a word to name the actor, which involves a similar notion of being looked at: Schauspieler, that is, “a player to be seen”.
Above that box, Peter Brook made a metal catwalk with all sorts of electrical devices leading to a symbiosis of the essence of   l’italienne stage and today’s technology. In my opinion, Brook’s scenography said much about where we are and what we are. We live an eclectic period, partly resting on tradition, and partly heading to evolution. 
M.C. So, whenever you say, “void,” you mean empty, that is “waste,” without objects. You don’t mean “lack of matter.”
L.C. That’s right. Whenever the intense colored costumes in electric blue, strong green or red or orange, everything turned into a painting against that white background. The space colored due to the moving costumes.
M.C. Theater feeds on arts. Does it feed on architecture, too?
L.C. A lot. My early sketches were architectural. I knew no other way, and I wanted to impose in Bucharest, in Romania, the theatre modernity. They would do pictorial sets (in the Austrian tradition). Except for the avant-garde theatre, Marcel Janco’s and Ion Sava’s performances, the rest were classical with hanging leaves, painted columns, painted walls that would shake now and then.
M.C. Even in the 1930s, the visual medium in theatre – at the National Theatre or Bulandra Company, for one – was pretty conservative.
L.C. Yes, with some exceptions, though. Some new things were done in Iasi, where Ion Sava worked. And also Maican – that’s all. Sava was an innovator, and very impressed by Bragaglia’s work in Italy – he was a pre-precursor of modern stage design together with Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia.
Unfortunately, Sava died in 1946; he did the last performance with me. Then architect Toni Gheorghiu came up and I made him choose stage design. Thus, a sort of trend emerged with Ion Oroveanu, an extraordinary talented man. And Paul Bortnovski, who had an amazing sense of space. He is a great stage designer. I started my theatre career in 1946, so I had the chance to draw some modern sets until 1950, when the Soviets came.
During the period of socialist realism we were forced to embrace imitative naturalism. I did such sets as well. I remember doing some stage sets for a play, The Deputy from Baltics. I had to obtain the approval of the Soviet councilor and then have them built. For one single set, I had to make 17 variants. He was a wicked person. Once I did the stage sets for The Fire Citadel, and was standing by the director. “Who’s that actor? Throw him out!” he ordered pointing to him. It was Ion Manolescu, Romania’s greatest actor.
M.C. Such people were everywhere. At the Opera, too, isn’t it?
L.C. At the Opera, in cinematography. There was a truly narrow-minded Soviet councilor, who refused my sets several times. The one in the theatre was a real artful dog, a stage designer himself at the Comedy Theatre in Moscow, and when he returned to Moscow he applied some of our ideas.
In 1958, I made an effort to free myself from my architectural formation. There were times when I could do it, but sometimes it would come back.
M.C. There is a battlefield and much competition between the director, who organizes the entire message of the performance and the stage designer, who proposes space organization.
L.C. It requires understanding, sympathy, a symbiosis that sometimes works, sometimes not. When it doesn’t work, the director acts on a space that doesn’t belong to him. When they come to understand each other, things go on smoothly.
M.C. Could you choose between these two professions? How do you feel to be a director and give up on the stage designer’s attributes?
L.C. In many cases I did the sets myself, but I worked also with other stage designers. And we came along pretty well. I understood their proposal and adjusted to it. Sometimes I helped the stage designer to dare for more and try a new idea … 
M.C.. Now, are we in the house you spent your childhood? The place has a special expression; the front door of the next block is one of the most beautiful in Bucharest, and the living room window overlooks the National Theatre.
L.C. The house plan was designed by the architect Radu Udroiu for my family. When I got it back – it was nationalized for 55 years – I made some changes. I placed an elevator to the back, refurbished the attic, and converted it into an apartment. Some details, as the railings shown in older photographs, were moved to the upper floor to give it an “art deco” accent.
M.C. Bucharest is now fascinated with picturesque attics, sometimes a place for laundries and storage rooms.
L.C. It’s very nice now. I raised its roof on one side … and the ceiling was given a slight slope. 
Radu Udroiu, the architect of the house, had a great influence on me. On the bookshelves of the living room you can find all sorts of volumes about furniture history through centuries, volumes about history of costume, history of details, books on French academic architecture. He gave many architectural reviews from the 1930s and 1940s …
M.C. Can we say, then, that your first, clear relation to contemporary abstraction was mediated by architecture?
L.C. Yes, the first. When I was 14, Udroiu gave me a book written by Gauguin’s son. This is how I discovered Gaugin. In our home, there was no art book; my father was an engineer, but my uncle was a doctor, and he had a famous encyclopedia about Renaissance. He liked Renaissance painting a lot. I leafed through it several times. However, when I discovered Gauguin … I started visiting the antique bookstores. I discovered van Gogh and so on; I bought some books then. So, my introduction into modern art occurred quite early.
Of course, architecture opened my horizons. I met Horia Creanga, the greatest romanian modernist, in flesh and blood – he was a friend of my father’s. I was interested in both art and architecture.
I used to draw a lot, and my drawings were neither bad nor good. I started drawing sets for my high school plays. I don’t know why. Whenever I found an unwritten page of a book, I would draw a stage set.
I couldn’t have done the sets without studying architecture. My father wanted me to study engineering and take over his Building Society, but he made a big mistake. In 1939, at Christmas, we made a tour of Italy. I wasn’t 15 yet. I was shocked by the beauty of Florence, Rome, and I told my father: “I won’t do building engineering, I want Architecture!!!” .
And so, I came closer to this stuff.

Special thanks to Mr. Liviu Ciulei for the permission to publish the drawings and pictures from his personal archive