Interview. Restoring history through the National Heritage Institute

Newsroom 04/04/2016 | 10:00

Since 2015, one of the objectives of national security deals with promoting national identity through the preservation and valorization of cultural and natural heritage. BR talked with Stefan Balici, the director of the National Heritage Institute, to find out what the strategy is for saving and preserving our local historical heritage.

Oana Vasiliu

What is the current situation of the heritage monuments from Romania?

According to our information, at the present we have almost 600 monuments which are in a collapse or pre-collapse state. This number represents only the sites that we have been informed about, so the nationwide situation could be much worse. Unfortunately, we don’t have complex statistics of what is really happening on the field, we don’t know exactly in which phase every monument from the list is. This happens because we don’t have a concrete procedure in which the Counties Departments of Culture follow instructions and give details about these sites. I dare to say that we don’t know what’s really happening for almost 60 percent of the monuments from the Heritage List. This is why we need an immediate action plan for making a complete inventory of the condition of these monuments in order to come up with concrete solutions and long-term strategies. Moreover, over the past five years, only 49 monuments have been decommissioned, while 644 new ones have been put on the Heritage List.

Read also: Special report: Bucharest’s silent tragedy – patrimony buildings | Who is saving them nationwide

How does the Restoration of Historical Monuments National Program work? What is the budget?

Basically, the interventions for any heritage site are made through this Restoration of Historical Monuments National Program. We finance substantial, long-term works, where the interventions are complex. For this year, the program’s budget is RON 50 million, and the amount doubled from last year. Currently, on the restoration list are 160 monuments, and for some of them construction hasn’t started yet. Moreover, nationwide there are 50 active construction sites.

Taking a look on what the National Heritage Institute has financed in the past years, most of the monuments are churches. How can you explain it?

Yes, it’s true. On one hand, the institute doesn’t have a standing order of how and who will receive the funding, based on some indicators and this is one of the initiatives I propose soon after I took the job here. These indicators will allow funding in a transparent and objective way, based on criteria which will include also the value of the monument and the seriousness of its condition.  On the other hand, from the Restoration of Historical Monuments National Program benefits only those monuments which are part of state or religious cult property, so this is the answer to your question. In 2015, 80 percent of the program’s funding went to religious cults’ monuments.

What about the private owners? Does the state help them to maintain their owned monuments?

Unfortunately, no. According to the legislation regarding competition, any type of funding given to a private person or company represents state aid, which is anticompetitive if the procedure isn’t integrated into a program. After the consultations with the Ministry of Culture, we are also working on a Minimis scheme to try to help and finance these owners to protect our heritage, which will be further supported by the minister.

Read also: Special report: Bucharest patrimony buildings that got a nip/tuck | What are the players in the EUR 100 million market

What can you tell us about the initiative regarding the emergency heritage fund announced recently by the Ministry of Culture in partnership with the National Heritage Institute?

The initiative has come after representatives of the Ministry of Culture met in an emergency session to discuss concrete solutions for the collapse of the two heritage monuments from Brasov County: the fortified churches from Roades and Rotbav. The fund should be annually budgeted by the Romanian government in order to have continuity and real support if similar cases appear unexpectedly. Otherwise, the current funds for this type of intervention are insufficient and, according to present legislation, we, the National Heritage Institute, don’t have any instrument to step in when an emergency intervention is needed.

Recently, the Ministry of Culture has declared that he proposed a Heritage Pact to the president of Romania. What does this initiative represent?

According to the current National Defense Strategy, one of the objectives of national security concerns itself with promoting national identity through preservation and valorization of cultural and natural heritage. Taking into consideration the fact that the president is at the helm of the Supreme Council of National Defense and that the president is the only one who can negotiate with all the political parties, we came up with this Heritage Pact. The specific purpose is to find a funding solution for emergency situations and to make a concrete procedure which should be used no matter who will be in charge of these institutions.

Some sanctions can be given to those who vandalize a monument, but the legislation is uncertain when it comes to those who don’t take care of their property and destroy it in order to sell the land on which it stands. Do you have a solution for these types of situations?

The responsibility is clearly divided, but the owner usually has the primary responsibility. And if the owner voluntarily or not is performing activities that harm or damage a historical monument, he/she must be accountable to the criminal law. This is where all kinds of procedural impediments appear, starting from establishing possible damages. Due to the lack of evidence about the real situation of the historical monuments, no one can decide who is right. I know concrete cases in which the judge asked to prove that the building was still there when the owner began the demolition. One of the chapters of the new Heritage Code will be dedicated to sanctions in order to try to regulate such situations.

Recently the facades law was changed and some recommendations from the Ministry of Culture were made in order to draw a warning regarding the inadequate restorations. How can you stop the unprofessional work? 

It’s true that not all the restorations are made by the book. When it comes to facades, basically the major problem we are confronting concerns the thermal isolation. Due to the fact that a financial line for increasing the energetic performances of the buildings will be launched pretty soon, we initiated a dialogue with the Development Ministry to find the best solutions in order to protect the historical buildings and, at the same time, to make them eligible for funding. The key in these situations is communication and negotiations between the stakeholders and institutions.

How about the intervention on those buildings considered a major seismic risk?

As you may know, the Development Ministry is working on a concrete action plan regarding the rehabilitation of these buildings and we, together with the Ministry of Culture, have to be involved in order to find the best solutions for preserving the architecture and the historical value of those buildings and, at the same time, to make them safer.

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