From Natural To Manmade Disaster: The 1977 Vrancea Earthquake: Megalomania Arrives In Bucharest (Part Four)

If a person lives long enough in Bucharest, they are bound to experience an earthquake. Most of these earthquakes are relatively minor, often in the range of 4.5 to 6.0 in magnitude. They offer a reminder that the city is within range of some of the most suspect terrain in Europe. Shockwave after shockwave rises to the surface from deep beneath the Vrancea Mountains. In the worst-case scenario, Bucharest is riven by this thunderous force causing the ground to ripple, buildings to buckle and a cacophony of calamity to bellow forth, echoing through the concrete corridors of Romania’s capital city. In the 20th century, few Bucharestians were able to escape this experience. Some felt it more acutely than others, specifically those who were in the city on March 4, 1977.

Epicentered - Region affected by the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake

Epicentered – Region affected by the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake (Credit: U.S. Geologocial Survey)

Fatal Fault Lines – Undermining Urbanization
By 1977 Bucharest was a massive city. It had been over three and a half decades since the last time it suffered a major earthquake. That was on November 10, 1940 when the city’s population stood at approximately 800,000. Such a concentrated mass of people in a highly urbanized area exacerbated the number of killed and wounded. The city had suffered more powerful quakes in the past, such as in 1802, but the population at that time had been only 35,000. Put in twenty-two times the amount of people in a much larger, more built up urban environment and the number of casualties was certain to multiply. This was the case in 1977. The population of Bucharest had more than doubled since 1940, growing to over 1.8 million people.

In a city that was bursting with more residents, apartment blocks and other large buildings served to expand the urban footprint. This mass urbanization was the upshot of policies by the communist regime that governed Romania throughout the post-World War II and Cold War eras. More people led to more structures, which in turn increased the likelihood that the next earthquake would cause catastrophic damage. Modernity and calamity were on a collision course encouraged by communist policy. All it would take was another slippage on the fatal fault line deep beneath the Vrancea Mountains. Every half century or so this had proved to be Bucharest’s undoing. Such a subterranean shift occurred on the night of March 5, 1977 just as many of the city’s inhabitants were turning in for the night.

Willful Destruction - Demolition of Enei Church in Bucharest

Willful Destruction – Demolition of Enei Church in Bucharest (Credit: Radu Stefanescu)

A Matter Of Luck, Fate & Structural Engineering  – Plunging Into Ruin
At precisely 10:55 local time the earth began to rumble across eastern Romania with an almost unimaginable force. This became dramatically visible in parts of Bucharest, specifically those with lots of buildings that were constructed in the period between the First and Second World Wars. The overwhelming majority of these had not been constructed with reinforced concrete. The sheer force of the earthquake, estimated at a 7.2 magnitude, sent 28 multi-story buildings across the city center crashing to the ground. The effect must have been terrifying. One building after another disappearing into plumes of dust, cries from the rubble, friends and loved ones buried beneath smoldering ruins. Those who were lucky enough to be in a building that refused to buckle looked on in horror. Were they to be next? What kept the structures In which they stood or slept from plunging into ruin? Could this really be happening? The difference between life and death was a matter of luck, fate and structural engineering.

Bucharest was quickly turned into ground zero for carnage caused by the earthquake. This was in stark contrast to the more powerful 1940 Earthquake (7.7 magnitude), where damage in provincial areas, especially Moldavia and Bessarabia, was greater. Conversely, nine-tenths of those killed or injured in the 1986 earthquake lived in Bucharest. Buildings that had withstood, but also been weakened by the 1940 earthquake now suffered a moment of reckoning many would not survive. Almost all the large buildings that collapsed had been constructed between 1920 and 1940. The immediate and dire consequences of this fact would not be lost on communist party officials, specifically the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu, who was out of the country at the time for a trip abroad to Africa. When the increasingly dictatorial Ceaucescu got back home and surveyed the damage, he saw the ruined areas as less a tragedy and more an opportunity to remake the capital into an ideal showpiece of totalitarian architecture. His future vision of Bucharest was as a socialist-realist architectural utopia. The 1977 Earthquake gave him an unprecedented opportunity to make this vision a reality.

Megalomaniacal Ceausima - Looking out over Constitution Square in Bucharest

Megalomaniacal Ceausima – Looking out over Constitution Square in Bucharest (Credit: Contessa Binter)

Ceausima – Systemization’s Failure
Anyone who has spent time in Bucharest cannot help but notice the endless rows of concrete apartment blocks that blot the city skyline in seemingly every direction. These buildings and other concrete concoctions. such as the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, were constructed in the years after the 1977 earthquake. Many of them appeared in the exact same place where buildings had collapsed during the earthquake. Other areas with both damaged and non-damaged buildings underwent demolition to make way for Ceaucescu’s systemization development plan. Nowhere was this process carried out with more thoroughness, lack of empathy and willful disregard for historical architecture than in the creation of the Centrul Civic in Bucharest.

The Centrul Civic as it exists today, covers an area of 8 square kilometers (3.1 square miles). It was overlaid on an area of historic Bucharest where a massive demolition had been carried out by order of the authorities. What the 1977 earthquake did not destroy, the Ceaucescu regime made sure explosives and bulldozers did. Damage caused by the earthquake paled in comparison to the aesthetic and cultural destruction carried out by the regime. It was so vast that a new term was coined for this destruction of Romania’s heritage, Ceausima. A word combined from the first four letters of the dictator’s last name and the last four letters of Hiroshima. This word summed up the wanton demolition and destruction that resulted in the reactionary reasoning which followed the earthquake.

Thus, a natural disaster became the catalyst, impetus and stimulus to further the policy of systemization. The upshot of Ceaucescu’s megalomaniacal scheme was the destruction of 26 churches, monasteries and synagogues in addition to an array of historic homes and cultural buildings in the area that would become home to the Centrul Civic. In their place came massive residential and civic structures made with marble facades and tons of reinforced concrete. Reasons for the creation of this architectural abomination were twofold. First and foremost, to create a legacy for Ceaucescu. Secondly, to withstand another earthquake. Each of these goals were achieved, just not in the way those who created them assumed. The legacy of Ceaucescu’s systemization program in Bucharest is one ghastly eyesore after another. As for the buildings’ structural integrity, they are likely to withstand another earthquake, but many Romanians probably wish otherwise.



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