The Romanian Cultural Centre in London

Interview with the leading architect SERBAN CANTACUZINO
CBE FSA D. Univ (York) FRIBA
President of Pro Patrimonio – The National Trust of Romania

by Ramona Mitrica

Q1. Tell me a little bit about your early years in England. How did you end up here?

My mother and father had English friends, although my father was educated in Switzerland and France. They had English friends who came every year to visit Romania, and they were very keen that I should go to school in England. So the main reason why I came to England in 1939 was to go to school. Not because of the war … anyway the war came and we stayed in England: my mother, my sister and myself. Then, after the war, communism came to Romania so we didn’t go back. My father didn’t manage to get out of Romania and was imprisoned by the communists.

I was 11 in 1939 and I went therefore to a preparatory school, a private school. And after 2 years or so I was then ready to go to public school (in fact also a private school). I went to Winchester College at Winchester, and then to Cambridge, because I wanted to become an architect and Cambridge had a school of Architecture, while Oxford didn’t. And in those days, on the whole, one either went to Oxford or to Cambridge. There weren’t so many other choices. The world has changed. It’s no longer like that. So I went to Cambridge and became an architect.

Q2. You had a distinguished career in Britain (as a director of the Royal Fine Arts Commission). Out of curiosity, it helped or hindered your career being Romanian?

Well, I don’t know about distinguished. But still I had a career. I don’t think being Romanian hindered it. I think, if anything, it was helpful. Because the name is unusual, exotic. And, at the same time, I had had an English education, except for the ‘clasele primare’ which I did in Romania. And coming at the age of 11 really meant that I could speak English like an English person, not with an accent. So I don’t think there was any problem about getting on in England for me.

Q3. During this period in England were you in contact with Romanians and Romanian institutions?

Not much. Because you see my father was in prison. From 1948 to 1953 and then, in the ‘50s as we all know, things were very, very difficult in Romania. Hardly anybody got out. A few people walked out to Austria. But it was extremely difficult to get out, and it was difficult to communicate with my father. While he was in prison, one couldn’t. When he was out of prison it was dangerous for him. But there are letters from my father to my mother, almost continually, except for the prison years, from 1939 to 1959. He died in 1960. We never saw him again. He died rather young at the age of 61. Normally, he might have lived another 15 years. And, of course, as we all know, after Gheorghiu-Dej died it became a little easier to visit relatives in the West. And I think if he had lived 6 or 7 years more he certainly would have been able to visit us. I myself went back for the first time in 1971. So that was 11 years after he died. He was imprisoned because he had tried to escape with other people, by boat, to Tur key, and they were caught. The boat leaked. It was full moon, and everything went wrong. That was, I think, the principal reason, but they, of course, brought up other charges. I mean, he was called Cantacuzino. And, you know, he was ‘o persoana de origine nesanatoasa’, ‘a person of unhealthy origin’.

Q4. Tell me about your family.

The Cantacuzinos are a quite ancient family. The first Cantacuzino appears, curiously enough, around the time of William the Conqueror… They came to Romania with Michael the Brave. Andronic Cantacuzino was Michael the Brave’s ‘mare vistiernic’, and Andronic is the ancestor of all the Cantacuzinos now living. He came from Constantinople. I think he came partly because the Turks were getting more and more difficult and aggressive (they had murdered his father Mihai Saitanoglu) and there were more opportunities up North, in the Christian states of Wallachia and Moldavia. He had three sons: the ‘postelnic’ Constantin Cantacuzino who settled in Wallachia, and Toma and Iordache who settled in Moldavia. They each founded branches. In fact, in Wallachia there were several branches. I am a peculiar branch, in a way, because I am Cantacuzino Magureanu – Deleanu, Magureanu being Wallachian and Deleanu Moldavian, the result of a marriage between a Cantacuzino – Magureanu and a Cantacuzino – Deleanu in the mid 18th century.

Q5. Tell me about your title ‘prince’.

We had three reigning princes: Dumitrascu in Moldavia, Serban and Stefan in Wallachia. We are also descendants of Byzantine emperors. But I think the main reason why we are princes is because we were created princes by the Empire. As a ‘voievod’ of Wallachia, Serban Cantacuzino was created prince as was Constantin Brancoveanu, after him. Every member of the family had the right to call themselves ‘prince’ or ‘princess’. We don’t use it much. My father didn’t use it much. And, in any case, when the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen monarchy was established, titles were abolished. And here, I am actually British. So I am not really entitled to use the title ‘prince’. In England you only get royal princes.

Q6. Do you have family in Britain?

Yes, I have two daughters and five grandchildren. Two are boys. And my mother died only 10 years ago. Here. I have a sister. She has four children. And two grandchildren. All in London, which is very nice. I have a first cousin in Brussels, Matei Cantacuzino. And, on my mother side, I have two first cousins, both academics, one in Manchester and one in Paris.

Q7. Many people say to me that the Romanian community looks up to you as a kind of leader. How do you feel about it?

I know. I think that was Radu Onofrei, the former Ambassador. He seemed to somehow make me into a leader of the community. I think that things are very different really. For a long time I didn’t really frequent diaspora Romanians. I had a few friends like the Tileas and the Florescus, both from the pre-war Romanian Embassy in London. So there was some connection with Romanians, but I didn’t really know the Romanian community. I knew the Ratius because through the Tileas to whom they are related. This changed to some extent after ‘71 when I first went back to Romania, and much more after ’89, particularly after setting up the Pro Patrimonio Foundation. But we never thought we would go back to Romania. We never thought communism would collapse. And we did, in those early days, rather turned our back on Romania, I am ashamed to say.

Q8. And what happened after ’71?

When I went back in ‘71 I got very interested in Romania. Being able to speak Romanian was fundamental. And I had a wonderful visit with good weather and a woman architect, guide from the Directia Monumente Istorice (The English Heritage of Romania). We went round in a car all over the country for ten days. She didn’t just talk about architecture. I learned a lot from her – history, language, customs, cooking … Then I came back to England and got immediately invited by Swan Hellenic to be a lecturer on their newly created tours of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. They called it that, you see, to make it more historical, which I liked. It was a good idea. So that meant that I had a lot of work to do, because Swan Hellenic is very serious. Every night they expect you to give a lecture to the group, and there were something like 16 to 20 people in the groups. So I did that during the ‘70s several times, and got to know Romania quite well.

I think Ion Ratiu was really an exception, because he actually went back after ‘89 and stood for president and then became a senator, and took part in the political life post communism. On the whole people at that sort of age didn’t do that. I certainly didn’t do that. I think I might have if in ‘89 I’d been 35 or 40. Maybe I might have thought of going back, but, as I was over 60, I didn’t think it was right to go back, because it was not fair to my family. Also I was not political and certainly didn’t want to get involved in politics. What we decided was to do something here. So that is Pro Patrimonio, the National Trust of Romania. Which we established here to raise money but to operate principally in Romania.

Serban Cantacuzino was born of Romanian parents but settled in England at the age of 11 in 1939. He was educated at Winchester College and Magdalene College, Cambridge where he read Architecture. He was a partner in the architectural practice of Steane, Shipman and Cantacuzino, and one of his many projects was to design a house for the comedian Max Bygraves. In 1973 he became Executive Editor of the ‘Architectural Review’ and has written several books on architecture, including ‘New Uses for Old Buildings’ and ‘What makes a good building?’ He was Secretary of the Royal Fine Art Commission from 1979 to 1994. Since 1989 he has been visiting Romania regularly, assisting with architectural conservation projects and architectural competitions. After the fall of the Communist regime he was made an honorary member of the Union of Romanian Architects and of the Commission for Historic Monuments and Sites. He is the founder and president of Pro Patrimonio, The National Trust of Romania.

Pro Patrimonio, The National Trust of Romania, is an international not-for-profit non governmental organization whose mission is to identify, preserve, and advocate for the historic heritage of Romania. It aims to restore, rescue and revitalize endangered buildings and sites for the benefit of future generations. Pro Patrimonio’s mandate includes: historic buildings and landmarks, significant architecture, archeological sites, traditional villages, traditional crafts and skills. Pro Patrimonio is a federation of autonomous national foundations in Romania, UK, USA and France which share a common mission, a common conservation program, a common website (www.propatrimonio.org/) and a single president.

Founder and President: Serban Cantacuzino CBE FSA D. Univ (York) FRIBA
Board of Trustees: Serban Cantacuzino, The Rt. Hon. The Lord Chorley, Indrei Ratiu, Nicolae Ratiu, Michael Thomas
Supported by: The Ratiu Foundation, The Mihai Eminescu Trust, Lafarge Romcim, UNESCO