Stephen J Brown (He, Him, His)
As an architect, I am particularly drawn to the exploration of urban theories surrounding sustainable development and their pragmatic application to city environments to foster a more resilient and equitable public realm. Inclusive access to city life, culture, and natural environment are critical themes I seek to hold in balance with a sensitivity to humanitarian concerns, adverse climate conditions, and building economics within the political landscape of the city.
In the autumn semester I studied an exchange at the Oslo School of Architecture & Design, partaking the In Transit Studio that formulates a programmatic response to the displacement of people from humanitarian crisis. The studio addressed the war in Ukraine, and the movement of people into neighbouring transit countries, with the city of Bucharest, Romania as our site of critical enquiry. This investigation birthed the resultant project, that explores the adaptive reuse of an illegally built tower, into a collective centre to accommodate displaced people whilst integrating into a public space strategy to restore relationships with the surrounding urban landscape and serve the city at large.
The Cathedral Plaza
The Cathedral Plaza has short yet a eventful history. The plot was bought by MGM Management Group and in 2006 construction began on a 75m tall tower designed to accommodate corporate offices. However, with the tower being erected only 8m adjacent to St Josef’s, the city’s catholic cathedral, it swiftly drew a backlash from the archdiocese. A lawsuit was launched against the tower and was largely backed by the city through protest marches from the public, official statements from the city mayor condemning the construction, and opposition from the wider Catholic Church – even drawing the concern of Pope Benedict XVI. Shortly after construction was complete, the archdiocese won the prolonged lawsuit, and the building permit of the Cathedral Plaza was declared illegal. A demolition order was put out by the high court, yet, over the course of the past decade, this demolition order has been persistently suspended. Just over ten years on form the tower’s completion, it remains unoccupied.
Rather than performing a complex demolition that would come at both a high fiscal and environmental cost, the proposal seeks to redeem the Cathedral Plaza by restoring the broken relationships it has with its surroundings, giving it a newfound place in the civic landscape of the city.
Romania is one of the transit countries taking in refugees from Ukraine and the tower is firstly renovated as a collective centre to accommodate displaced people. This works as a programmatic solution as Romania, alongside Moldova, is the joint recipient of a $2 billion dollar grant from the World Bank, as part of a financing initiative to support transit countries in developing the urban capacity to host refugees from the war on a mid- to- long-term basis. Through such a grant, the project imagines the municipality being about to acquire the tenure rights to the real estate and from retrofit the tower into a collective centre.
To the south there is a public park aimed to give space for social gathering and to restore organic growth and natural biodiversity to the area, and to the north is an extension of the plaza to host a weekly farmer’s market, which can become a shared space between the refugees, the local community, and the cathedral’s congregation.
To link these two public spaces, the bottom storeys of the tower are renovated into a civic library designed to be a space for public dwelling. Here, the bottom four storeys of the tower form a continuous volume of public space, linked by a series of voids between floors and accessible form either side of the tower. This allows the civic landscape of Bucharest to flow through and then up into the tower, anchoring the collective centre in public space.
The final programmatic solution is to distribute the top two storeys of the tower to the cathedral to be used as an extension of premises to facilitate its midweek activities. On the west wing is an assembly hall to be used for seminars and formal events, and on the east wing is space for the community, for gatherings and events. Office space is retained throughout the tower which can be leased to local NGO groups and charities affiliated with the cathedral. Through this, and in giving the archdiocese a proximity within which they can mix with and serve the refugee communities, the proposal therefore empowers the archdiocese as major players in the emergency response, whilst establishing the cathedral as the primary presence on the site once again.