“To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven.”
The attempt to objectify a utopia is a lesson to learn from. Before the undertaking had occurred, it would have been even better if we had known the ancient Chinese proverb from the title.
A Model from Literature
Commonwealth distributed food is an idea that loomed for centuries. We know that from Raphael’s travel to the New World, on an island called Utopia. Raphael was a Portuguese who joined Vespucci’s crew on their quest for Brazil. He eventually split apart from Amerigo and settled down on the uncanny island of Utopia. Then he spent five years merely observing the Utopians and their life style.
The island was ruled by a King and local commanders, who monitored enforcement of rules and advancement of society. Agriculture and the allowance of common goods were main activities of the residents. The food distribution system ensured that the communities had enough food to appease everybody. Hence, eating took place in large, common dining halls. A loud brass trumpet announced the time of the meal. Although people could still eat at home, the common dining was a less laborious or time-consuming option. As Raphael states, everyone’s needs for food were fulfilled, but the authorities and the respected old received the best of it.
By regulating the food intake, rulers assured that the island’s commoners received the exact amount needed of food in the right time. On the same token, people never took any food at home, although they could, accomplishing the authorities pursue of a healthy, pristine society. (from Thomas More, Utopia)
A factual Utopia
It was in the 1980s in Romania, when a communist urban project, known
as “Systematization”, was launched for the Capital. Bucharest had
undergone major changes in order fit to the new socialist pattern. The
objective behind the changes was to resettle daily lifestyles of the
citizens and conform the space, all for the good of the nation .
A striking intent of the project was the establishment of an
“agro-alimentary complex” in each community or neighbourhood. Designed
as giant public food places, these buildings had a double utility. The
first one was to serve as a warehouse-market, where goods were stored
and sold to people . The other function met was that of refectory or,
put in other words, large canteens. People would gather in the dining
hall of their neighborhood, at regulated hours, to have their cooked
meals. Most outstandingly, they would not pay any effort to prepare
food at home. Not to mention a further structural gain: little need to
spread the goods in uncountable stores, consequently saving a great
deal of resources. The purpose of establishing this type of places was
to let people save their time and energy for work. Moreover, it was to
reveal the redundancy of private kitchens in people’s flats.
The built structures were stylized in dome shape, within the socialist
architectural mold. In just few years, by 1989, the citizens of
Bucharest from the Pantelimon neighborhood and those in the Civic
Center were able to benefit from meals served at refectories. At the
same time, construction of other dome-shaped complexes started in
Bucharest and provinces.
Popular Culture and the Irony of Time
Actually, these constructions would have been rarely called
“agro-alimentary complexes”. Most Romanians nowadays and back then
would rather use the nickname “circuses of hunger” to describe these
establishments. It may sound like a simple joke, but this choice of
the name was based on the severe economic and political conditions
under the communist regime. 1980s was by no doubt an era of severe
restrictions for the common Romanian citizens. It seemed as if the
communist authorities were using hunger as a tool for making politics .
Most of the agricultural goods were exported in order to pay the
external debts and gather means to construct the gargantuan House of
People. As food was scarce in Romania and the little that was offered
on the market was rationalized, elevating such elephantine food houses
was nothing but cynical. It was for the round-shaped cupola, reminding
of circuses, that completed the alias name.
But what did those food complexes mean for the ordinary citizen? One
would argue that gathering everybody to eat in just one place was a way
to control people- what they do, say or act and definitely what they
ingest. The plan to eliminate kitchens would have reinforced the
individual control. These used to be the places where the family joined
to talk, for fear that in the living room, close to the phone, they
would have been overheard or monitored.
Given this, people had little choice but to inure to the food they were offered. At least, they would now queue indoors for it.
The revolution of December ’89 hailed a change on the perspective about
the communist projects. I would like to refer here to Michel Foucault’s
thought- historical events are not the battles or decisions, but the
shift of power, the reversal of accepted meanings. For what concerns
the half-built food places, these were anathematized and abandoned.
Their image soon became desolate, both a danger and an imagologic
aggression- rusted iron beams, eroded gray platforms colored only by
graffiti… There would be old cranes, piles of garbage and empty lots
around them. Occasionally, you could run across some homeless children
or street dogs. The ruler’s dream of feeding the people in one place
was now crumbled into the concrete ruins.
This outset was finally to be transformed, framed within the hastened
visual change of Bucharest. However, not all the buildings had the same
path. These finished- the one in Pantelimon neighborhood and at the
Unirii Square have been, respectively, integrated into the structure of
the market and shopping center. One in Timpuri Noi area (ironically,
New Times) was transformed into a private university. Other incomplete
complexes have been converted into three central malls of Bucharest.
Such buildings bear now a double symbolic encoding. Foremost, they are
representative symbols of capitalist economic model of
postrevolutionary Romania. On the other hand, they are imposed to the
cells of the city as self-referential palimpsests, the remaining
residues of a painful, hopefully forsaken past.
In Bucharest today there are no more “circuses of hunger” left per se.
Either way, all have gained new functionality or have been demolished.
The last one to fall was the Rahova complex, in October 2006.
The prospective path of what was once supposed to become food complexes
should not worry the mall entrepreneurs. In the new shopping centers
luxury and plenitude are the defining keywords. And besides, the
children of those who were supposed to ingest the food that the system
offered are now enjoying shopping.
A patina of time has laid itself over the hunger and sufferings that
people endured in the communist age. Images still remain, telling about
what would have been a utopia, a ridiculous plan to feed an entire
community in just one place.
Enjoy the food in your own kitchen!
PHOTO NO. 1
Thomas More’s Utopia – Communal Living
Copyright © The British Library Board
PHOTO NO. 2
The half-built alimentary complex from Militari area (photo taken in 2001)
Copyright © Lucian Fratila
PHOTO NO. 3
Details from Rahova Hunger Circus
Photo by Cornel
PHOTO NO. 4
The structure of a former Hunger Circus, now part of Pantelimon market, July 2008
Photo by Razvanmelody
PHOTO NO 5
The crumbling ruins of Rahova complex in October 2006, after a first, unsuccessful attempt to demolish it
Photo by Cornel