All that chatter about the digital universe and the demise of books. Nothing could be further from the truth...at least in Bucharest. The Romanian bookstore chain Carturesti and the architects at Square One have transformed a 19th-century building with, ahem, a storied past into a 10,000-volume hub for the central Old Town.
The tale begins in 1903, when Nicolas Chrissoveloni purchased the art nouveau building for his family-owned bank. Chrissoveloni Bank was shuttered by the Communists in 1948 and replaced by a men’s clothing store, then a department store called Familia. Coming full circle, a descendant, Jean Chrissoveloni, reclaimed the building in 1990. It’s now leased to Carturesti.
Here’s where the plot gets complicated. Drawing on a multi-project relationship with Square One principals Adrian Cancer and Sabin Dumitriu, Carturesti contacted them again after another firm, Capitel Avangarde, had completed a restoration, renovation, and expansion that involved adding a third level on top with an immense central skylight. “We were first called in as consultants to determine an appropriate way to approach the location’s potential,” Cancer explains. “There was no real program beyond a plan to sell books.” Several concept rounds ensued, and, to make a long story short, Square One was hired to transform the interior—space planning, finishes, furnishings, and all.
The next chapter involved determining what to do with the 20-foot ceilings. For a bookstore, they were too high. No way could customers reach volumes on the upper shelves. Ultimately, an idea from modern art, rather than literature, suggested a solution. “René Magritte’s Golconda became a visual obsession,” Cancer says, explaining that the painting’s theme of suspension, represented by bowler-hatted figures hanging in midair, eventually translated into the lightness of mezzanine balconies inserted between the existing ground, second, and third levels. So the interior now plays out over six levels, including the basement, for a total of 11,000 square feet.
Essentially halving the ceiling heights, each mezzanine wraps three sides of the building's perimeter. “They were built like furniture—cantilevered, nonstructural platforms that can be removed. Our concept wasn’t invasive. We collaborated with the building,” Cancer continues. For example, a subtle distinction between new and old emerges as the mezzanines’ gleaming white balustrades weave back and forth between the building’s elaborate Corinthian columns. Dumitriu chimes in: “Another design driver was the idea of a carousel, how the sinuous shape of the mezzanine balustrades and the sunshine entering from the skylight create movement.”
Poetic notions aside, that sense of motion relies, pragmatically, on the vertical circulation provided by four staircases. A grand central stair, beneath the skylight, links all the levels. The ground level is also connected to the basement by a smaller straight stair and to the first mezzanine by two spiral stairs. There’s a glass elevator, too.
White-painted steel, oak, and pale gray carpet dominate the materials palette. “Using a contemporary language, we minimized the chromatic elements in order to make room for the play of light and shadows generated by the skylight,” Dumitriu says. Even the basement benefits, thanks to the wide opening for the main stair.
The top-floor café is virtually the only place where furniture appears. Cancer calls the wooden bistro chairs “robust, like the Romanian identity.” The slim conical copper pendant fixtures above the café tables were commissioned from Roma artisans.
Naturally, the main story is the books. Mind-boggling in quantity, they line full-height shelving everywhere. Back and forth, up and down. They even occupy part of the basement, alongside CDs and DVDs, still popular in Romania, and an impressive manga collection.
Commerce is certainly Carturesti’s raison d’être. But culture has a role as well. The smaller upper mezzanine is a gallery dedicated to rotating ex-hibitions by local artists. Further-more, the whole interior has been envisioned as a theater for concerts by choirs and alt-rock bands or events with DJs. Since the opening, Carturesti has hosted a movie screening, a cooking demonstration, and, of course, book signings.
The latter included one for Jeff Kinney of Diary of a Wimpy Kid fame. “It was wild,” Cancer recalls. “The entire street was blocked with thousands of people waiting to get in.” That’s marketing you can bank on.
Project Team: Georgeta Gabrea; Ioan Vladescu; Vlad Cretu; Andra Bica; Andrei Palita: Square One. Popp & Asociatii: Structural Engineer. Vest Grup Instal: MEP. M.C.R. Invest: Metalwork. Clipso: Ceiling Fixture Diffusers (Basement).