Gypsy Architecture: Houses of the Roma in Eastern Europe

By Nemeth, David J. | Romani Studies, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Gypsy Architecture: Houses of the Roma in Eastern Europe


Nemeth, David J., Romani Studies


Gypsy architecture: Houses of the Roma in Eastern Europe. Texts: Renata Calzi, Patrizio Corno; photographs: Carlo Gianferro; [translation into English by Neil Stratton] . Stuttgart: Edition Axel Menges. 2007. 159 pp., numerous color photographs, 1 map; 31cm. $75.00 (USA), isbn 978-3-936681-12-3 (llb.)

Reviewed by David J. Nemeth

This is a Roma-related picture book for architects. It illustrates the creative influence of some rich Eastern European Roma in house surface design and execution using various treatments, for example, ornate and colorful exterior metallic towers and scintillating claddings. This catalog of elaborate "facades" not only introduces Roma to architects, but invokes a convenient metaphor for Roma/Gypsy culture that begs for more penetrating ethnographic enquiry. Previous English-language books by Romani studies scholars making mention of these "Gypsy palaces" (for example, Achim 2004: 203-11) have done so merely in passing and without photographic examples. Romani studies scholars around the world should therefore find Gypsy Architecture (hereafter GA) ascinating and provocative.

GA is a coffee-table book that should successfully transcend at a glance any lingering doubts in the public mind that Gypsies - in this instance Roma have houses. And what splendiferous houses they have on display here: villas; mansions; palaces! As seen through the impressionable and impassioned eyes of its Italian authors, GA leaps alive in its oversized wraps, larger than life, to announce its irresistible message in photography and text: Voila! Look here! There is an authentic Gypsy domestic architecture!

GA is the collaborative research of two enthusiastic architects (Renata Calzi and Patrizio Corno), a talented photographer (Carlo Gianferro), and a visionary publisher (Axel Menges). Their focus on rich Eastern European Roma families and their unusual living conditions comprises stunning photographs of house exteriors and interiors (excepting kitchens and bathrooms) accompanied by several short essays, all ripe for scholarly elaborations. CC&G offer a festive presentation of Roma mansions and their proud owners in GA providing a dramatic, drastic departure from the usual media fare of hate walls, hovels and barefoot children in rags. GA will shatter some stereotypes and reinforce others. It should stir the intellects and emotions of Romani scholars and bring new evidence to bear on numerous significant ethnographic issues still unresolved.

CC&G compiled their photo catalog while deliberately searching throughout Romania and Moldova for brazen examples of Gypsy architectural excess. Corno (pp. 7-9) describes the entire graphic adventure presented in GA as "an immediate, rapid and intriguing view of a new world that is almost unknown in the West - the new static world of the Gypsies." Of his epiphanic first encounter with a colony of rich settled Gypsies in Soroca, Republic of Moldova, he writes: "I could not believe what I was seeing from the car window... this was a ghetto with a difference." He describes the "striking, violent and vulgar" panorama of multi-storey villas with "Indian-style" roofs, having extravagant wrought-iron railings and great variety of wall ornaments and decorative materials - "a world of dreams and fairy tale." Gianferro's photographs capture in great detail and at various scales the astonishing panorama that stirs the fancies of Corno and Calzi as demonstrated in their essays.

Successful coffee-table books aim to inspire conversations without being conversations in themselves. Calzi (p. 12) describes GA as a cultural trail that does not explain but illustrates how architecture, by its nature one of the most static of arts, has been taken as a frame of reference through which to provide the world with images of the dreams of a people who have wandered throughout the world.

The romanticized vignettes contributed by Corno and Calzi amidst Gianferro's vast feast of photographic images and include: "Preface;" "Settled Gypsies? …

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