Saxon fortified churches turned into Disney-style kitsch

The fortified church of Meschendorf
The fortified church of Meschendorf

After these buildings defied the centuries, renovation works funded by the EU caused permanent damage to the A-category historical monuments.

The basic restoration principle, namely, historical accuracy, was neglected during the restoration works of the fortified churches. This is why some churches today look like the settings of cheap adventure movies.

It’s not rediscovery: it’s wilful destruction

The project named „Rediscovering Fortified Values” (Tezaure Fortificate Redescoperite – Rediscovered Fortified Treasure – Sustainable Development of the Central Region puts into focus the touristic value the fortified Saxon churches of Transylvania) and was launched in 2011, initiated by the Romanian Evangelical Church. The church is also the beneficiary.

The Regional Operational Programme provided 5 million euros for the restoration of 18 Saxon churches in Sibiu, Mureș and Brașov counties. There will be a second project with a budget of 15 million euros, in which another 12 fortified churches will undergo restoration.

We talked to several well-known restorers during the two months long research period. The experts were referring in the strongest terms to the project, criticizing every aspect from planning to administration and implementation.

The project has nothing to do with rediscovering the value of the fortified churches. On the contrary, it aims to destroy them in order to provide a Disney-style historical approach – one of our sources said.

Az erkedi (Arkeden, Archita) erődtemplom 2011-ben, felújítás előtt
The fortified church in Arkeden (Archita) in 2011, before it was restored
Az erkedi erődtemplom, felújítás után
The church from Arkeden, after the restoration

20 years warranty, but reparations will be needed in a couple of years

During the works, the old tiles, which in many cases bore hand-written messages with historic value, were replaced with new ones, of dubious quality. We know by now that the tiles not only look like plastic, they are of poor quality; there are already cases where despite the producer’s warranty of more than 20 years, the new roofs needed reparations within a couple of years.

The mass produced tiles don’t have the same shape, appearance or mechanical characteristics as the tiles made in traditional tile mills. The evenly red colour of the modern tiles, a colour obtained through the addition of additives, stands in stark contrast with the traditional tiles used in the Transylvanian villages, damaging the street view.

But not the tiles were the only problem during restoration: eyewitnesses say that on the building sites, workers with improper qualifications worked without supervision. Their unprofessional work together with the use of modern construction materials caused irreparable damage to the A category monument buildings.

Hammer drill, chainsaw and concrete

In some cases, traditional plaster was taken down with power drills. They replaced traditional plaster with a harder, concrete-based mix, which in some places is already falling off the walls in large chunks.

Cement mixed with lime mortar was applied sloppily to the fortified walls, staining and often covering completely the original stone. Chainsaws were used to saw through the original timber beams, which were joined with modern factory timber. In some cases, modern engineering bricks of different dimensions were used to replace traditional bricks, posing potential structural problems for the future.

The old wooden beams were cut with chainsaw and replaced with new ones. In some cases, the new bricks that were used had different sizes than the original ones – this can lead to structure related problems. Archaeological surveys were either missed out completely or carried out quickly and inadequately.

A constant, professional supervision is very important during the works, because the work with a several hundred years old building often doesn’t go as planned – said one of our sources who supervised the restoration of a church as a volunteer, adding that small, but important decisions need to be made during the work.

Exactly what needs to be changed?

For instance, if the inside of the church is also restored, the centuries old furniture needs to be taken outside. But where should the workers take the benches? Will they be able to find a storage place or they leave them outside, barely covered?

In another case, the plan says that the flooring needs to be changed where it is damaged. But what does „damaged” mean, more precisely? After the floor is removed, an expert needs to be present at the site to assess which parts are attacked by fungi and need to be changed, and which don’t.

He added that the workers hired by the construction company were left on their own to work on the site. The construction manager contracted by the church, who, by the way, was not a restoration expert, visited the site only from time to time.

Even though professional renovation requires constant consultation between the architect, the constructor and the owner, the communication between the parties was quite disrupted and slow, if there was any at all. In this case, ensuring the quality of the works was up to local NGOs or to a dedicated architect.

The striking appearance of the tiles mentioned even by Prince Charles

The negligence is even more striking because in the region there are many restoration experts and also quality hand-made materials for the restoration of the fortified churches. But the lack of expertise of the contractors, bureaucracy and conflict of interests taken together lead to the situation where underqualified workers, with no training in restoration were employed and construction materials were bought from multinationals that maintain good relations with the church.

The project received much criticism. In a written statement, even Prince Charles pointed out that during the restoration of Saxon village churches stridently coloured, industrial tiles were used.

They are erasing an amazing piece of history

„After I worked for years to preserve every detail as it used to be, I cried when I saw that EU funds were used to erase an amazing piece of history” – said William Blacker, author of a cult book about the life of the Romanian provincial life.

Blacker lives in Romania since the fall of communism, and for many years, he was leading the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET), which dedicated its activity to the preservation of architectural heritage.

Besides many other problems, the roofs of the fortified churches are the most striking „results” of the project. Apart from a few exceptions, the old tiles were replaced with new, industrial ones. Their even, flamboyant red colour is different from the roofs of the surrounding houses. For example, the roof of the Schönberg (Dealu Frumos) church is striking from a distance.

Messziről virít a lessesi (Schönberg, Dealu Frumos) erődtemplom teteje
One can spot the roof of the Schönberg (Dealu Frumos) church from a distance
A lessesi (Schönberg, Dealu Frumos) erődtemplom közelről
The Schönberg (Dealu Frumos) church

According to the researchers we spoke with, not all tiles had to be changed. In the village of Meschendorf (Brașov county) we saw that old tiles in very good condition were deposited near the church. Why the new tiles then?

Tondach takes it all

Interestingly, the new tiles were delivered almost exclusively by SC Tondach Romania SRL– despite the fact that the plans for each church was prepared by different architects.

Moreover, the church broke down the 18 church restoration project into smaller projects of only a few churches. The companies had to apply separately for each project, and then they worked separately, buying their own construction materials, including tiles.

A mesei (Meschendorf) erődtemplom mellett több ezer, szemmel láthatóan jó állapotú cserép van eltárolva
There are thousands of tiles in good condition deposited near the church in Meschendorf

The presence of Tondach tiles is even more intriguing when we factor in that in these counties there are several traditional tile manufactures, producing tiles that meet all quality and warranty requirements.

Coincidence or not, but Tondach’s CEO, Augustin Rusu is a friend of Friederich Gunesch, the office secretary of the Evangelical Church of Romania Consistory. Rusu maintains good relations with Dietrich Galter, the dean of the Sibiu parish. Moreover, Tondach is also a sponsor of the Evangelical Church: not long ago the company donated 1000 euros for printing flyers.

We called and emailed Aurel Rusu to receive answers to our questions, but he refused to answers saying that he does not know us personally.

„This is all made-up”

We talked to Gunesch in Sibiu in April – over a distance of couple of hundred meters, at a conference, specialists were taking turns to attack the way the church project was carried out. When we left the conference, Eugen Vaida, a tile specialist, showed us photos of workers deliberately throwing good quality tiles off the roof in order to be replaced with new ones.

Egy munkás jó állapotú cserepet dob le az egyik templom tetejéről. Műemlék épületek cserepeinek megrongálását törvény tiltja. Fotó: Luke-Dale Harris
A worker deliberately throws a tile in good condition from the roof of a church. Photo: Luke-Dale Harris

„This is all made-up” – reacted Gunesch to Vaida’s accusations. The secretary said that the conference participants are too immersed into their fields of expertise and are unable to see the big picture. But the picture that Gunesch was describing is full of contradictions. „I can guarantee you that every third tile on the roof is damaged” – he said.

What can we do if this was the plan?

When we asked him why they changed all tiles when only one third of them was damaged, he blamed the architects who made the feasibility studies. „What can we do if the plan says that all tiles need to be replaced? – shrugged his shoulders, adding that following the approval of the plan, the beneficiary has no say whatsoever in the implementation process.

Gunesch added that only big manufacturers like Tondach have quality certification for the tiles. But after having contacted Siceram, a local tile factory we learned from the sales director that their products have a warranty of 40 years.

Ilyen volt..
The church of Netschessen before…
... és ilyen lett a netusi (Netschessen, Netus) erődtemplom
… and after the restoration.

Are they exerting pressure on the architects?

One of our sources, who is familiar with the tile market and has experience in restoration works, said that it is not mere coincidence that in most of the cases Tondach tiles were used during the renovation works. „They – (multinational tile producers – editor’s note) exert pressure on the contractors as well as on the architects by using means I don’t even want to think about.” – he said.

We had no possibility to verify his statements, as the Evangelical Church refused to provide us the documentation of the project. We requested the whole project documentation including the financial reports given that the project was funded by public money – but they did not provide us with any documents.

Later, Gunesch offered to show us a part of the documents – the construction permits and the permits of the monument conservation committees. But we had no reason to look into them, because these documents didn’t include information we were interested in.

A gonddal, minimális beavatkozás szellemében felújított kissinki (Kleinschenk, Cincşor) erődtemplom
The church of Kleinschenk was restored with great care and minimal intervention

Minimal intervention, preserving historical values

In order to understand how the project was derailed, we need to see the phases of the planning process. As a first step, external experts – the Mihai Eminescu Trust and Jan Hülsemann, the leader of the much praised renovation works of the Biertan fortified church – outlined the architecture principles the renovation projects should follow: they reasoned for minimal intervention and preservation of historical values.

As a next step, the Church and the manager of the project, economist Valentin Păun wrote the the economic feasibility study. Then, a group of architects prepared separate feasibility studies for all 18 fort churches. They gave a detailed description of the work process, including the tiles that need replacement and named the type of new tiles that can be used to replace the old ones.

Has the Church intervened in the very last moment?

As a last step, the Church collected the feasibility studies done by the architects and send the application for approval together with the final plan. All architects who participated in the project said that their feasibility studies suggested the use of traditional restoration techniques together with the use of traditional products and also suggested contracting local craftsmen.

Based on what they said, there is only one explanation left: the Church intervened in the last moment, right before sending the application.

„The Church changed certain parts of the project without consulting with nor informing the architects. This is where the recommendation regarding the tiles might have been altered. Sometimes certain aesthetic considerations had a higher priority than emergency interventions” – said Silvia Demeter, the architect who lead the renovation works of the churches in Kleinschenk (Cincşor) and Kerz (Cârta).

Demeter also said that the architects received their salaries after two or three years, when the project ended. „This did not motivate the architects to be present on the site while the works were carried out” – she concluded.

A szászbudai (Bunesti, Bodendorf) erődtemplom
The church of Bodendorf (Bunesti)

The report written and leaked by Letiţia Cosnean, the architect responsible for the much criticized Meschendorf (Meşendorf) fortified church project can be seen as a counterargument to Gunesch’s accusations, according to whom architects working on the feasibility studies have to be blamed for all errors of the renovation.

„It is desirable to preserve the tarnish of the roof”

In July, 2011, not long after the Meschendorf church renovation started, Cosnean wrote a very critical report about what was going on there. The report refers to the tiles as well:

„It is desirable to preserve the tarnish of the roof. On this occasion I explained again that we specifically stressed the importance of a least invasive restoration (…) We prefer hand-made, irregular tiles with various shades. All these characteristics contribute to maintaining the style of the building.

Even if the warranty is less than 30 years, we prefer to hand-made tiles instead of modern, waterproof but industrial ones. We prefer combining new and old tiles (…)” – wrote Cosnean.

The report includes a list of local tile manufactures where the necessary new tiles can be bought from.

A miklóstelki (Cloasterz, Cloasterf) erődtemplom. Jól látszik a különbség a régi és az új cserepek között
The fortified church of Cloasterz (Cloasterf). The difference between the new and the old tiles is visible

The architect reacted incredulously

Cosnean reacted incredulously when we told her that, according to Gunesch, the replacement of the tiles was carried out based on the recommendations of the architects. „We did not request the replacement of all the tiles, this is for sure, I suggested buying hand-made tiles” – said Cosnean.

We asked the contractor, the SC Instalatorul SRL who carried out the works on the fort churches in Kreuzdorf (Criţ) and Meschendorf (Mesendorf) about the kind of tiles they used. The reply was that they used old tiles exclusively and only when necessary ordered new tiles from the tile Bățanii Mari (Nagybacon) manufactures.

Jól látszik a Tondach-felirat a szászkeresztúri (Kreuzdorf, Criţ) erődtemplomnál készült fotón. Fotó: Karina Schmidt/Facebook
One can see the Tondach logo at this photo taken at the Kreuzdorf (Criţ) church. Fotó: Karina Schmidt/Facebook

However, the Tondach brand name can be easily read on the pictures taken of the roofs of these churches. Photographs also support eye witness accounts according to which workers were throwing off thousands of old tiles from the roof of these churches.

Gunesch’s statement according to which following the approval of the project the beneficiary has no say in the execution, seems to be untrue. „It is not true, that the Church cannot intervene after having the contract signed with the contractor. This just simply cannot be true” – reacted Jan Hülsemann, the main architect of the Mihai Eminescu Trust.

The same thing everywhere

The Saxon fortified churches are just an example of how tens of millions of EU funds are being used under the false pretense of renovation. Instead Transylvanian churches, fortresses and monasteries are being destroyed. We can see the same everywhere: the old construction elements that are still in fair condition are replaced with new ones.

The Catholic monastery of Radna (Máriaradna) in Arad county was renovated for 10 million euros. The beautiful stairs made of stone were removed and replaced with a completely new one, made of concrete. The rocks of the old stairs were packed and – according to the workers – were sold in Austria.

Luke-Dale Harris, Zoltán Sipos

Translation: Etelka Tamás-Blaha

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  • OKdoki

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    • fákR

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  • OKdoki

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  • rdos

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    Talán ha inkább a Föld szárazföldi és óceáni féltekéjét láttuk jelen posztban és mivel szárazföldi lények vagyunk, …