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The architect Gheorghe Leahu kept a secret diary in the period 1985–1989. In view of the risk of being arrested if the diary was discovered by the Securitate, he stored it in his garage, in a black cover, under some spare tires. After work, Leahu would write in this diary about aspects of his daily life and personal impressions. In the context of an increasingly repressive regime during the 1980s, this was a way of venting an intellectual’s resentments in communist Romania. In his diary, Leahu reported in detail on the severe shortages which affected everyday life in Romania in the 1980s, on the absurdity of the policies of Ceauşescu’s regime, and on the ridiculous nature of the official propaganda, especially the cult of the dictator’s personality.
Leahu was very critical of the regime in the pages of his diary. According to these notes, day to day life in Romania in the 1980s had become a fight for survival, a desperate struggle for food and other consumer goods, and professional activity, a long line of humiliations, caused by the arbitrary and absurd interventions of the holders of political power in the activity of architects. He also constantly criticised the policies of urban restructuring of the capital. In one of the passages dealing with this topic, Leahu noted the effects these policies were having on the identity of the city, but also on everyday life: “Old buildings are being demolished at an infernal pace, many new low-quality buildings are taking their place, the city is losing its personality, it is being completely transformed, the blocks of flats are steamrolling over entire neighbourhoods with gardens and backyards and decades– or centuries-old trees. Instead of life in a quiet backyard, we squeeze into blocks of flats like worms on the vertical, subject to barbarous austerity measures, with hot running water only five times a week, for two hours, always in the cold during the winter, we are becoming depersonalised like soldiers of a blind army of workers” (Leahu 2013, 56). The diary, published in 2005 by the Civic Academic Foundation under the title: Arhitect în “Epoca de Aur” (Architect in the “Golden Age”), constitutes a valuable historical source of information concerning everyday life in Romania in the 1980s. The content of the diary and the conditions in which it was written reflect the atmosphere of generalised fear, frustration, and helplessness in which many Romanian intellectuals were living in the 1980s.
Watercolour painting was for Gheorghe Leahu a form of escape from the constraints imposed on the activity of architects under communism, which became more severe in the last decade of the regime. In the 1980s, Ceauşescu intensified the process of urban restructuring of Bucharest, which entailed the demolition of entire areas in the centre of the Romanian capital to make room for new boulevards. These actions were legitimised by the concept of “urban systematisation,” which was presented in the official discourse as a process of modernisation through which the city would acquire a new socialist identity. The watercolours painted by Leahu in the 1970s and 1980s portray urban landscapes, especially in the old centre of Bucharest. In addition to their artistic value, these watercolours represent, according to their author, a “source of documentation” concerning the architecture of the Romanian capital before the demolitions brought about by the so-called “urban systematisation.”
A selection of these watercolours was included in an album that Gheorghe Leahu sent in 1986 to the Sport Turism Publishing House, entitled: Bucureşti – arhitectură şi culoare (Bucharest – Architecture and Colour). The album was passed by the censors, even though its introduction made no mention of Nicolae Ceauşescu. (Although this was not an official requirement of the publishing houses, most authors did refer to various quotations from the Secretary General in order to get their books published, so in the end, this reference became the norm, while its absence was seen as an ideological failing on the part of the author in question.) After the album was printed in 1988, the 4,500 copies were withdrawn before reaching the bookshops and destroyed. In addition to the failure to mention Ceaşescu’s name, another cause for the withdrawal of the album was the fact that it contained watercolours representing many old churches. Their presence contradicted the policy of the communist regime of discouraging the protection of the architectural heritage of the capital. Some employees of the printing house managed to rescue several copies, which they delivered to the author. The volume was republished in 1989 in a censored edition, and again in 1991, this time in an edition free of any censorship constraints. This volume, as well as others published by Leahu after 1989, represented an important component of the post-communist visual identity, and promoted in the public space a nostalgic approach to the old centre of Bucharest.
Given the severe constraints that the political authorities imposed on the activity of architects in the communist period, for Gheorghe Leahu watercolours became a form of escape. According to his testimony, Leahu was attracted by “architectural watercolour” painting because this activity allowed him to choose both the topics and his approach to them, thus offering him a creative freedom which was not possible in his professional activity. Being passionate about the architectural heritage of Bucharest, he chose to paint mainly picturesque landscapes in the old centre of the Romanian capital, and in other cities in Romania as well. He believed that painting “architectural watercolours” was also a way of leaving behind a testimony to the urban heritage which was in danger during those years. Because of Ceauşescu’s megalomaniac ambitions of reshaping the Romanian capital according to his vision of what a socialist city should look like, entire areas of the city were demolished during the 1980s.
Several of Leahu’s watercolours depict the Văcăreşti Monastery, one of the most important historic monuments in Bucharest, demolished in 1986. One of these watercolours, painted in 1976, is entitled “The Văcăreşti Monastery before the Storm.” The painting presents a panoramic view of the monastery complex built at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The title given by the painter to this watercolour contains an unintentional allusion to the monument’s tragic destiny. As head of the Bucharest Project Institute, a state company in charge of architectural projects in the Romanian capital, Leahu was appointed in 1984 to coordinate a team of architects in designing the new Bucharest court of law, which Ceauşescu wanted to build on the site of the Văcăreşti Monastery. Together with his team, he supplied the authority with twelve different plans for the future building which preserved most of the monastery complex. Their efforts were unsuccessful because in 1986 the authorities decided to demolish the entire monument. Thus, the watercolour became a source of information about one of the most valuable historical monuments destroyed by the urban policies of Ceauşescu’s regime. It was reproduced in some of the architect’s albums and books. One of these books, published in 1997, was dedicated to the demolition of the monument: Distrugerea Mănăstirii Văcăreşti (The Destruction of the Văcăreşti Monastery).