VIDEO: Ostentatious homes built by Roma community in Romania reflect their desire for prestige
Agence France-Presse has reported on the architecture of homes that have been built by Roma community members in Romania in the countryside and on the outskirts of cities. Asian-style pagodas with pyramid-shaped roofs reminiscent of "palaces" are just some of the unusual architectural elements used, reportedly expressing the marginalized minority's desire for social prestige.
Romanian architect Rudolf Gräf, the author of a study of the "palaces", says they bring into sharp focus some architectural elements that are typical of Romanian style. "Frequently these are executed in such a way as to be absurd and kitschy, but this Roma architecture paradoxically reflects a part of Romanian history, unlike the contemporary architecture being built by the Romanian state itself," he says.
The "palaces" feature impressive dimensions, richly decorated facades, gypsum statues, marble columns, and sometimes feature dollar signs or the logo of a famous German car brand. The buildings differ by region: In central Transylvania they are inspired by Catholic churches, in the Banat in the southwest they copy neo-Classical constructions, while in the south and east they reflect a neo-Romanian style reminiscent of the traditional homes of boyars or villagers, Gräf emphasizes.
Sometimes the homes are copies of official buildings that have somehow affected the owners' lives: In the village of Buzescu in the south of the country, Dan Finutu, a moneyed Roma man who passed away in 2012, built a replica of the courthouse where, in the 1990s, he was convicted and sent to prison for racketeering. The beginning of the building of these "palaces" is closely connected with the fall of the Ceausescu regime at the end of the year 1989 and reflects an attempt by the Roma builders to anchor their own identity after centuries of enslavement and then forced assimilation during communism.
"The first palaces were erected in the 1990s when some of the gold the Communists had confiscated from the Roma was returned to them," says Costica Stancu, a Roma community leader in Buzescu. The communist regime, on the basis of a decree in 1978, confiscated the gold jewelry that Roma women had been handing down within their families over the generations.
Other Roma made their money at that time by selling scrap iron or moonlighting and then built homes with facades that were meant to shimmer, to evoke respect, and to reflect the social hierarchy within the two million strong minority, most of whom still live in poverty. These "palaces", according to Gräf, are not just meant to express their owners' prestige and success, but are also a kind of competition between neighbors: More floors, more towers, and even more imposing columns are added to the original building depending on how rich the owners become and how their tastes change.
With a few exceptions, architects remain unaware of these buildings. "Their maintenance is very demanding. Many buildings in Buzescu already appear abandoned and some palaces under construction will not be completed for lack of money," says Stancu, who himself lives in a small single-family home with a little garden.
More than four million people have emigrated from Romania in recent years, and some villages are now inhabited just by the elderly. "It's not like it was before. People left, some went to Bucharest, others abroad. They want to make money there, to remain there," says 60-year-old Lidia as she stands in front of the imposing entryway to her own "palace".
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