Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The architect

Iolanda Costide came to Britain in 1974.  She escaped from Romania two years earlier, using a month-long tourist visa to Switzerland to visit her grandmother.  When the visa ran out, she simply failed to go home.  

Her maternal great grandfather was a Swiss engineer who had emigrated to Romania in the late 19th century.  His daughter, Iolanda's grandmother, kept her Swiss passport and was allowed to return there in 1952.  Her father came from a Greek family who had settled in Braila; her mother's people were from Campina and had Transylvanian Saxon blood.  Iolanda's dad was a chemical engineer; he had been in charge of oil wells in Ploiesti when they were blown up in the Second World War.  The Communists sent him to prison.  

Iolanda resumed her architectural studies at the Lausanne Polytechnic; she had courses in  architectural theory which were a revelation.  Her boyfriend, a Romanian who was also studying architecture, got out of the country several months after her, and they married in Switzerland.  

Two years in orderly, conventional, strait-jacketed Switzerland were enough; the couple set their sights on London where the liberal fizz of the 1960s had not yet gone flat.  But money was tight so while her husband completed his training at the Architectural Association, Iolanda spent that three years working, then went to the AA herself.  

It took her a long time to qualify but Iolanda believes that her extended education in three different countries gave her a unique grounding.  Doing the first three years of the traditional 'beaux arts' course at the Ion Mincu Architectural Institute in Bucharest taught her how to draw fast and freehand.  "The projects were all about Socialist Realist architecture: everything had to have a practical purpose."  

There were seven challenging tests each year.  "You had to think on your feet", she said, "and to work without making mistakes."  Each test had to be completed within 12 hours, starting with an early morning brief, after which students had to conceive and work out their ideas, then draw them in ink on a sheet of paper that was glued to a board - so no leeway for mistakes - and present their completed plans to the examiners.  You had to pass three of the seven examinations in order to continue your course.  In Switzerland, she learnt about theory, and in London, the emphasis was all on conceptual art, and the links between architecture and language. 

She does not regret leaving Romania "where you have to be a politician as well as an architect", and having developed her own highly successful architectural practice, nta16architects, in the UK, she does not want to settle there again.  After 1989, she returned for several visits and one of her former tutors is now an associate in her firm.  Iolanda feels more at home here professionally, although she qualifies this by saying that for her, living in Britain is "an intellectual choice, rather than an emotional one". 

At the start of her life here, she did not feel like fraternising with other Romanians, but after three years she began to miss her fellow countrypeople.  In 1977, Iolanda joined the Romano-British Society and became an ardent campaigner for human rights in Romania.  She became president of the Society in 1985, and worked with Jessica Douglas Home, a British artist and journalist who smuggled precious samizdat publications out of Poland and Czechoslovakia, and led the fight to save Romania's traditional villages which Ceausescu wanted to destroy in order to systematize them into agro-urbanistic settlements, forcing everyone to live in concrete blocks.  During the 1970s, Iolanda met the innovative sculptor, Paul Neagu, who fled from Romania in the 1960s; they became life-long friends, and she is a trustee of his estate. 

With public and private projects in Greece, Pakistan, Nigeria and Guinea as well as Great Britain, Iolanda is deeply immersed in her work: she loves the whole process of conceiving, designing and bringing a building to fruition.  "I'm not interested in buildings as objects, but in how they fit into their surroundings, how users influence the space.  You can't make every building a star - you need accents in an urban landscape." 

There is a lot more to say about Iolanda's commitment to the struggle for freedom in Romania.  For now, though, I will leave you with her comment about the current anti-Romanian and anti-Bulgarian brouhaha in the British press.  "It is simply political posturing", she told me, "there are elections coming up, and there's nothing more to it than that.  I've seen it all before and it doesn't disturb me, but I know that Romanians who have only just come here are very upset by it."  If any of them are reading, I hope they will take comfort from her words.      

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