The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1315] Sponsoring the Resistance.The Golden Poverty


I was standing there, impassibly, drudgingly carrying my heavy photo camera, fondly asking him why he didn’t sell his house as well. “Most of the village residents chose to do so”, I said.

The man did not reply immediately. Speaking slowly, in a weak voice he expounded to me in simple words that his house is as much a container for his soul as his body . “How to sell my ‘walled soul’?” He asked in wonder, almost naively.

Suddenly, up from the house veranda, he looked deeply into my eyes and asked abruptly:

“Are you a student?”

“Yes, I study Architecture”.

“Architecture, you say? Dear, you don’t just need to study architecture... Architecture - you need to be brave with it.”

There are some people who have gold and other people who are rich - and that gold cannot buy their richness. Poverty in a land of gold is a peculiar and intriguing topic, revealing a fact that should be stated from the beginning: poverty is not just a consequence of what you don’t have (money, shelter, utilities, food) but a consequence of what you can’t/couldn’t do with what you have/had. It is not only about the scarcity of certain factors (health, education) but maybe about the prevalence of others (context, power etc.).

I had quite a talk with Vasile, because I enjoyed listening to him. His dignified and wise simplicity is the result of his immutable relationship with nature. He is one of Rosia Montana’s inhabitants who set his jaw to remain in his home, refusing to sell it to the Corporation that wants to buy all the village houses, in order to pursue the mining works at the Gold Mine. He has had no job for 9 years (hence he has no income for his family), their old house (inherited from his father, gold miner too) is falling, but he is determined not to leave the place, as many of the neighbors did: those who have sold their properties due to poverty and received a house in the nearest city instead.

Rosia Montana is a gold mining area known and exploited since Roman times. It is the oldest human settlement in Europe with long-lasting tradition in the exploitation of precious metals, and one of the most resourceful mines in Europe today. For the last 15 years, a Canadian mining company had been attempting to re-open the mine using cyanide in order to separate gold from ore. The Rosia Montana project could become Europe's largest open-pit gold mine operation, entailing serious environmental and social impacts and risks: 4 mountains crushed, 3 villages destroyed, an 8 km long and 400-metre deep crater and a 215-million cubic meter cyanide lake that will remain there forever. Re-opening the mine would do little for Romania’s long term economic development, the Canadian Company acquiring over 85% of total earnings from the 4000 tons of gold, 2300 tons of silver, 300 tons of uranium and countless other rare metals. This issue drew international attention and over 1038 influential people from all around the world joined the civil society, supporting the protests and singing against this project.

Lucrative natural resources, such as copper, diamonds, gold and tin, can provide poor countries with large revenue streams that can be used to alleviate poverty. However, the recent empirical records show that mining is more likely to lead to poverty exacerbation than to poverty reduction. In explaining why mining’s actual track record on poverty reduction has generally failed to live up to its promising potential, I conducted a study analyzing similar situation around the world. Kalska Mine from Burkina Faso, Bagega Mine from Nigeria, Zimbabwe Gold Mine, Iga-Barrière from Democratic Republic of Congo, Mount Ida Canakkale from Turkey, Kumtor gold mine from Kyrgyzstan - and many others - expounded similar symptoms of unduly exploitation, and every story is intricate in it’s own way. In Senegal, a gold mine displaced farmers from their fields, leaving hundreds without jobs or a decent way to make a living. “The relationship between the immense richness of the mines and the extreme poverty of the surrounding populations is shocking”, retorted Senegal's president, Abdoulaye Wade. Radu Colda, local resident of Rosia Montana, confessed that “this gold seems to be cursed: whoever extracted the gold failed to get rich”. Considering this, I have assigned this phenomenon the name of „Golden Poverty”.

If architects talk about the feeling of space, only a homeowner can talk about the feeling of place and hence about property. In the first instance Vasile taught me that an architect’s responsibility is higher than that of an individual, because he has to defend architecture in an integrated social context. Sorin Jurca, another resident, confessed: ”These are tough times (…) but I won’t sell my house either. This way, I feel somehow that I don’t sell my country”. I invited my friend Vasile to accompany me on a village tour. I, with my photo camera, was struggling to match his fast pace. The former city center, which was once full of life, is now quiet and frightening. Silence…seems so loud. Poorly maintained buildings and tired, scared faces behind the windows. “The pain is inevitable. The suffering is optional”, said Vasile quietly, looking at the woman who did the laundry while her husband was chopping firewood in the yard. Winter was approaching and the frail house had to be warmed up. “I preferred not so suffer”, he confessed. In the street, in front of a camera, a man was giving an interview: “We don’t have any basic utilities here, no pharmacy, dispensary… so I left this place to give my children a better life”.

Rosia Montana has exclusively relied on mining activities as a source of income, but the decline of mining since 1948, caused a decrease in the living standard of the community. Moreover, the Romanian Government declared the region a mono-industrial mining area, fact that averts the residents from finding other income sources; this is why over 80% from the population is unemployed. The long term poverty affected areas with valuable architectural heritage as well, and from the 317 buildings included in the Protected Area, the mining Company succeeded to acquire 233 of them and to deport three quarters of the villagers. Moreover, over 150 acquired heritage buildings were deliberately left to decay and collapse.

This frontispiece aimed to epitomize the effective parameters of the situation. Having returned home, with my heavy camera that I had dragged around with superhuman efforts, I realized that I only took very few pictures. At first, I hated my camera. Then, I forgave it when I realized that I actually merely could shoot the pain of people. Therefore, I set up a meeting with a colleague from school, Natalia, deeply involved in this case as well. An architecture student, she was there, for the third year in a row, at the Rosia Montana Summer School organized by the local community and architects, with the participation of young architecture students from all around the country.

The programme is organized and supported by the “Architecture. Restoration. Archeology” Association and by two local NGOs: “Alburnus Maior” and ”Save Rosia Montana Campaign”, initiated since the very beginning by local residents, which over the 12 years of its existence, have become the largest social and environmental movement in Romania. Their campaign has now gathered over 100.000 active national and international supporters. As a result, “FanFest Festival” , “Adopt a House” and “Rosia Montana Summer School” are the their main events throughout the situation therefrom is popularized.

FânFest kickstarted as one of the fastest growing and most vibrant social movements in the last decade in Eastern Europe. For a week, FânFest transforms the small community in the Apuseni Mountains, carrying out various activities and gathering about 7000 participants who either stay in the homes or camp on the lands of people in Rosia Montana. Their goal is to revitalize the local comunnity by initiating new directions and strategies and bringing together people and resouces.

While FanFest revives the spirit of community, the “Adopt a house in Rosia Montana” initiative creates an independent and participatory system of salvation, conservation and enhancement of the built heritage values of Rosia Montana proceeding on a secondary, physical level, which addresses the built environment. The programme is connecting local owners of buildings, who do not have the means to maintain their homes (houses almost collapsing or dilapidated) and people who want to help: donors or volunteers. All vernacular miners’ houses, churches or public buildings of the village are the focus of this programme, the long-term goal pursuing change through the power of community-based and volunteer-supported preservation activities.Stefan Balici, vice-president of one of the organizations involved in the case, asserted: “The status of the built environment is inextricably linked to community conditions. The community was badly amputated, a large number of its members deciding to sell their property due to poverty hence a part of the built environment is abandoned.” Therefore, the funds obtained by the “Adopt a house” platform are implemented during summer through “Rosia Montana Summer School” which in 2014 celebrated its 10th edition. From the edifices that were already successfully included in the programme can be mentioned: 3 Miners Houses from XIX Century, The House with urban influences no 331A, Greek-catholic Parish House XVIIIth century, Traditional farmhouse ?arina no. 1248, Unitarian Parish House and the Unitarian Church and House in the Central Square no. 321. The building conservation workshops with local and outside labour, volunteers and young architects, provide meaningful, hands-on activities meant to strengthen community ties all through nature-friendly traditional approaches to construction. “Our communities are gaining strength by joining forces and working together” said Carmen Bardanca, representative of the community in Corcoesto, Spain who joined Rosia Montana in 2014. “With our actions we tried to illustrate how we can interpose through education, conservation and restoration, using local resources and causing a significant positive impact on community life. This model can be imported anywhere, but at Rosia Montana, where the population was decimated, impoverished and prevented from developing, it proves even more necessary. In this context, all our actions involve local people - craftsmen, manufacturers, suppliers of materials or services - and local inhabitants or young volunteers ” also declared Stefan Balici.

I invited Natalia to recount me about one project she has been involved in. “Unitarian Parish House” is a project situated in the village center that we are very found of. So far, we restored the roof, replacing the old, rotten roofing structure. The consolidation of stonewalls on the ground floor has proceeded, and the first story floor, that was partially destroyed by fire, has been refurbished altogether with the outer façade. The ground was given to public use, while the upper stories are now inhabited. There is a wonderful feeling to perceive the impact of a new-born house for the entire community. Don’t disregard the power of the powerless.”

Once it acquired national accreditation, the programme has been internationally acclaimed: “For many years I have been working on campaigns - in particular around renewable energy. But never before was I so inspired by the creative campaigning tactics I’ve heard about the Save Rosia Montana campaign”, said Glyn Thomas, campaigner of the World Development Movement UK.

Social architecture is often conjured with pride by architects, invoked in speeches but neglected in practice. Can we assure, ensure or insure people against poverty? We like to say that we can change people's lives through community-oriented design solutions but we don’t actually realize the truth. That should be not all about an actual intervention. It is about helping them to help themselves. That’s the direction that for me is the most important.

The issue is fascinating in many ways. Firstly, it implies a world-spread but unvalued phenomenon which I entitled Golden Poverty that raises the question: How can wealth acquired from natural resources make its way back to communities? Secondly, is a profoundly social project. Architects do not just go there to rehabilitate the residents buildings : people are advised how to switch career or how to introduce their building into a touristic circuit, in order to earn money for survival. The architects understood that not only a good roof over your head is what should be offered: they engage society, teach crafts, help them to help themselves. “Poverty is not natural. It’s man made and can be overcome and eradicated by actions of human beings” were the words of Nelson Mandela. ( He considered the “action” in the first place, no the money or the resources.) Thirdly, the project is already in its 10th year of implementation, and it will not stop here. It has been regarded as a mission by those involved. What would I repeat or change about the project? It is too complex to imagine a strategy different from what works for now, but I am sure I will struggle more to promote the project: that is what I do now and what I will keep on doing, because in my opinion, rehabilitating architecture means rehabilitating the genius loci, and thusly rehabilitating people from despair and poverty.

The project does not evolve only as a response to the mining project that fights for supremacy there. This was, definitely, the impetus, but the goals changed with the project ascension. Helping the disadvantaged community, helping them to defend their property actually lead to the increasing in strength. Sponsoring the resistance was the incentive; a blooming community – the finality. In Rosia Montana, greed and poverty become two sides of a crisis where the human factor was stuck in the middle. “Many beautiful things reveal their value through this dialogue with the pain. Getting acquainted with grief turns out to be one of the most unusual circumstances for us to appreciate architecture.” said Alain de Botton.

This story is about young people making a difference and is particularly valuable for a post-communist country in which community spirit was frozen for 51 years. This is the most feverish activity in Romania where now, slowly, the social dimension of architecture is discovered. "Social architecture" had a totally different meaning in Romania before. Archeological research in the Roman mining galleries of Rosia Montana’s revealed written wax tablets which constitute the oldest written proof of our nation, dating from February 6th , 131 B.C. If the birthdate of Romanian people was recorded at Rosia Montana, here the nation is born again: through architectural purpose, by young people with initiative.

I departed Rosia Montana, leaving Vasile on his house veranda, with my blood twittering and my soul grieved and empty . Unfortunately, my heavy photo camera was almost empty too, but I was not upset: I found a reason for joy. Architecture does not require only investing energy from people. Architecture can return energy to people, becoming a weapon or a shield in itself, having a redeeming effect for society, who's spirit lies beyond material accumulations.

Students around the world : Don’t just study architecture. Be brave with (or through) it.

Students in action inside the community.

Students and volunteers working on a miner house rehabilitation.

Workshops that engage local residents and volunteers.

The central square of Rosia Montana captured in its pain by my friend Vasile Dorolti.

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