A lost city: Photos of Bucharest's past

By Tessa Dunlop
Bucharest, Romania


Andrei Pandele was a young architect when he began photographing his home country, Romania, in the 1970s. His camera captured a period of huge change under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. For some, his stunning photos are now a painful reminder of a time of destruction, and a life lost.

"It's cool! I really like it." Born in the year of the 1989 Revolution, Paul is one of a new generation of Romanians - multilingual, well-educated and ambitious for his country.

He is understandably proud of the giant House of the People, once Ceausescu's palace. After all, it's now home to Romania's fledgling democracy and only trumped in size by the Pentagon building in the US.

We are hovering in one of its many airless, pointlessly large halls, waiting for a conference on sustainable tourism to finish in the never-ending room next door.

I don't share Paul's sentiments. The vast slabs of marble feel suffocating - we may as well be stuck in the centre of an outsized wedding cake.

Photographer Andrei Pandele is emphatic: "The Palace? Ha! It is a wall in the way of the people. A dam, even."

We have met in a tea shop in the old Jewish quarter of Bucharest. There are photographs from his collection on every wall.

They're exceptional images rarely caught on camera, but then Andrei is an exceptional man - tall, dignified and handsome at 65.

It is thanks to his fearless vision that Ceausescu's relentless attack on Bucharest can be seen stage by stage - as if peeling away the layers of an onion.

"I was an architect," he explains. "I could find plans [and] approximate what they would destroy. Not exactly, no-one knew that. They were wild, totally out of control."

Seven square kilometres of the city centre were destroyed to make way for the Palace of the People. Andrei wanted to take some pictures before old Bucharest disappeared altogether.

I've been coming to Romania for 20 years but I have never seen images like these.

A city caught in its very own Armageddon. Andrei preserved a Bucharest that no longer exists - the exquisite glass-covered market, the archways, cobbled streets, the vine-clad villas, the city once called the "little Paris of the East".

But in many of the pictures the mighty onslaught has already begun - innumerable cranes chewing their way through people's lives, the facade of the crazy palace looming up over the threatened cityscape. And then, in some others, there's just snow or dust and the desert of demolition.

Not a verbose man, in front of his pictures, Andrei becomes almost chatty.

"After two years of photographing the architectural destruction I decided that it was very bad, but it was even worse that they were ruining the lives of 22 million people. So I began to take pictures of everyday life. I think they are much more striking."

The next series of photographs showing everyday life under Ceausescu is like a haunting silent movie. We see desolate streets when there was no petrol, queues for food that never came, trams straddled by desperate commuters, useless cars buried under snow and a wedding party picking their way through the streets. No-one is smiling.

I can't decide which is more astonishing - the photographs or the photographer? How did he get away with taking pictures which so openly "denigrated the socialist reality", a crime that carried a six-year prison sentence in communist Romania?

Andrei explains that he was a part-time sports photographer, so he had a state-sanctioned excuse to carry a camera.

And he tells me I must understand the strange psychology of the state policemen: "Tessa, they are very aggressive with those who are afraid, but much less aggressive with people who are not at all afraid. I was confident. Don't hide if you don't want to get caught."

Andrei's brazen behaviour captured a vital slice of Romania's painful past.

Yet it took a full 18 years before he could show his photographs to an astonished Romanian public.

The people in power did not want to be reminded of what they had got so wrong. He had to wait.

Andrei shrugs: "I have seen women over 40 exploding in tears in front of my photographs, because they saw their life had been destroyed, but they realised it 20 years too late. And a lot of teenagers laughed neurotically - because they recognised something in the pictures that their parents had told them, but they had never seen for themselves."

My young friend Paul represents the generation that escaped that hell.

He's silenced by Andrei - his experience, his audacity, his pictures.

Later, as we walk back through the centre of Bucharest, taking in its schizophrenic appearance with fresh eyes, Paul quietly concedes: 'It is a pity Ceausescu had to build the palace complex right in the middle of the old city."

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