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Mathematician fights Bucharest's 'cultural parricide'
by Staff Writers
Bucharest (AFP) Sept 21, 2011

It takes courage to defend Bucharest's rich architectural heritage against real estate speculators and corruption. Yet 41-year-old mathematician, Nicusor Dan, took up the challenge and has made some unexpected wins in court.

Once called the "little Paris of the Balkans" because of its exquisite architecture and booming cultural life, the Romanian capital has suffered a long agony.

In the 1980s, communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ordered more than one quarter of the historical districts to be razed to erect a pharaonic palace for himself and his wife Elena.

The couple was ousted before the building was finished, but in the process traditional Bucharest homes with gardens as well as historical monuments were irrevocably lost.

The return of democracy in 1989 did not end the sufferings for the Romanian capital.

"Many owners got back the houses confiscated by the communists but they did not have the money to renovate them," historian Andrei Pippidi told AFP.

Dozens of stunning Art Nouveau villas were replaced by ordinary but very profitable apartment blocks, explained Pippidi, a former head of the National Commission for historical monuments.

High-rise glass towers were erected next to 19th-century monuments, despite protests.

Even Vatican complaints could not prevent the construction of a 75-metre (246 feet) high-rise next to the Catholic cathedral in Bucharest. The building permit has been declared illegal by a court but the tower still stands.

The municipality's plans to enlarge roads in the centre, even though historic buildings would be destroyed, also drew criticism amidst European Union efforts to encourage the reduction of traffic in inner cities.

Many have been discouraged by this "cultural parricide", as Pippidi, the author of acclaimed articles on Bucharest, called it in the weekly Dilema Veche.

But Nicusor Dan, a mathematician who graduated from the Sorbonne university in Paris, decided to fight back -- even if this meant spending less time on his cherished research about polylogarithms and the K-theory at the Romanian Institute for Mathematics.

It was an unexpected turn for the son of a chemical worker and an accountant who grew up 250 kilometres (155 miles) north of the capital, in the mountain town of Fagaras.

"I fell in love with Bucharest when I came here to study at the university. I like the mix of Western and Eastern influences, the magic you encounter in some historical districts," he said.

And to defend the monuments and parks, he was ready to go to court.

"Demonstrations and petitions are important but I realised they cannot stop the destruction," Dan said.

Though he looks like a dreamy teenager, uneasy in front of TV cameras, Dan turned out to be a sharp adversary for authorities and real estate promoters who were breaching the law.

"In this David versus Goliath fight, he was many times a solitary winner, helped by a few lawyers and very dedicated citizens gathered in the 'Platform for Bucharest organisation'," Sandra Pralong, an advisor for the United Nations in Romania told AFP.

After legal actions started by Dan's NGO "Save Bucharest", some villas were salvaged and one of Bucharest's emblematic covered markets, the Matache market, escaped destruction.

"Nicusor is an example of courage and dignity," Pippidi said.

"He found the most efficient way to attack questionable decisions taken by the authorities. This is very unusual in our country where the long communist dictatorship weakened any will to contest what comes from higher up," the historian added.

Bucharest Mayor Sorin Oprescu, who saw several of his projects suspended, complained against "NGOs that want to block the development of the city." And the chief architect to Bucharest city hall, Gheorghe Patrascu, cast doubt on Dan's competence in urban development but did praise his "courage".

Dan, meanwhile, won't give up. He has said that if the capital's mayor is not condemned for destroying historical buildings around the Matache market, he will give up his Romanian citizenship and settle in France, where he once lived and got his inspiration for civic action.

Though he spent some sleepless nights for "failing to prevent the destruction of Hotel Marna, an Art Deco landmark in Bucharest," he remains optimistic.

"We now have better laws protecting parks and historical buildings. More and more people care about the environment and the heritage," he said.

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