Architecture of Cluj, Piața Unirii:
Main square (Piața Unirii)
Piaţa Unirii is one of the most famous sights in Cluj, the iconic view of King Matthias Corvinus’ statue standing majestically in front of St. Michael’s cathedral is widely recognized as a symbol of Cluj. The square was formed at the cross-roads of 4 important trade routes in the late medieval times, when the smaller old fortified town began to expand. It’s original purpose was that of a market square, in kept t this function into early modern times. Over the years, some of the most important and most famous people of Cluj lived in the houses that surround the square, which in their current state present an eclectic mixture of Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical and late 19th century Austro-Hungarian architecture, showing the rich history of the city, and giving a glimpse into how all of it developed through time, through different eras of European culture, while also showing the face of the different forces that ruled these lands over the centuries. The Piaţa Unirii area boasts many of the hidden secrets that can be found in the architecture of Cluj.
At Piaţa Unirii nr.1, we can find the Old Town Hall of Cluj. Originally from the 16th century, it was rebuilt in the 19th century in Neo-Renaissance style. With it’s rusticated facade reminiscent of the architecture found in Florence, Italy. At the top of the building, you can still see Cluj’s original coat of arms, dating back to medieval times.
At number 2 is the so-called Simai house, built by the rich merchant Simai Lukács. It has an elegant Baroque interior courtyard, and a beautifully decorated classical-looking facade.
At numbers 3 and 4 we can find early 19th century houses built in Neoclassical style, but incorporating elements of earlier Renaissance buildings that stood here before.
At number 5 we can find the Filstich–Ákontz house, which was built in 1572 by Filstich Lőrinc, count (latin: comes) of Cluj. Parts of the building still show a Renaissance character. The facade has been modified, presenting characteristics of late Baroque, but just as you enter into the yard you can still find two walled-up Renaissance doors having inscriptions in Latin carved onto them, like ”Uxor bona est viri corona” (A good woman is a man’s crown.)
The larger houses found at numbers 7 and 8 are late 19th century buildings built in an eclectic style with nuances of Viennese Secession (also known as Art Nouveau). These types of buildings were popular at the time in all of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in such buildings wealthy city-dwellers would own luxury apartments, or larger businesses would find ther homes. Similar buildings are common in both Budapest and Vienna.
At number 9 we can find the Rhédey palace. The original building was built in 1557, and was home to the counts of Cluj for many generations, eventually becoming the property of the Hungarian noble family, Rhédey, a powerful family among European aristocracy, the current Queen of England is also descended from a Rhédey. Firstly it was rebuilt in 1692, by the daughter of Wallachian boyar (noble) Preda Bulcescu, Bulcsesdi Sára, the widowed wife of Cluj county’s ispán (count). A stone plaque commemorating this rebuilding can still be found in the courtyard. It was rebuilt again in the 19th century by count Rhédey János, today mostly being an elegant Neoclassical/Neo-Renaissance palace. On the facade, his monogram can still be seen, his initials placed on a heraldic shield, with a crown above featuring 9 pearls. These pearls symbolize his rank as a count.
The palace at number 10 is called the Jósika palace. A Neoclassical building, built in the early 19th century, it is renowned for it’s elegant four columns which hold up it’s balcony. Built in the place of an earlier Renaissance building by Transylvanian baron Jósika János , there is a student superstition relating to it, if you pass under it’s balcony before an exam, you are destined to fail it.
At number 11 we can find the Wass house. Named after the 19th century countess Wass Ottilia, it was also home to the editorship of the early 19th century science magazine called the Transylvanian Museum. In the late part of the century it was home to the photography workshop of the Dunky brothers, famous for photographing nobility. The decoration of the facade harmonically combines elements from Neo-renaissance, Rococo, and Neoclassicism.
The house at nr. 13 is known as the Fröhlich-house. It’s a modestly decorated late 19th century Eclectic house, which came into being, by combining two earlier buildings, which is evidenced by the fact that the distances between the center windows are not equal with the distances between the other windows. The Fröhlich family donated the land which made room for the small arched passage-way, which leads into the wonderful cobble-stoned Bob street. On the walls of the passage-way remnants of an old Hungarian advert can still be seen.
At number 14 we can see the Wesselényi house, a Neo-Renaissance/Baroque building, belonging to one of Transylvania’s most powerful families. The decoration from the upper floors is from the 19th century, but the gate is of Baroque origin, from the 18th century.
At numbers 15/16 we can find the seat of the Catholic Parish. The oldest part of it (the northern wing) was built in 1450 parish priest Gergely Schleunig in transitional Gothic/Renaissance style. Over time, more buildings were joined, today giving the impression that it is only one long edifice. In it’s current form it has elements of the original Renaissance, Baroque, but also of later 19th century modifications. Today it is still the seat of the catholic parish, but it also houses the museum of the sculptor Jenő Szervátiusz. There is also a plaque placed on the facade commemorating the visit to Cluj in 1773 of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. There are two Gothic doors which can still be seen, one inside the courtyard, and the other one inside the Diesel club.
Heading on to the northern row of houses, we can find simply decorated building at number 18, built in the Neoclassical style. Taking a closer look reveals the fact that there are elements of an earlier Renaissance/Gothic building incorporated into it, as evidenced by the walled up Gothic window which can be seen just around the corner, from the small cobblestoned which leads to Matthias Corvinus’ house, or by the two Renaissance doors which can be seen inside the shop which operates in the building.
At number 19 there is a seemingly simple looking house, with modest baroque window decorations, but again, a closer look will reveal that it is much older than it seems at first, fragments of Gothic/Renaissance architecture can be found in the courtyard.
At number 20 we can find yet another Renaissance building, hiding behind a Romantic 19th century facade. In the interior of the building, it is still possible to find beautiful carved Renaissance doors. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, this house and the one next to it, had large open attics, where merchants could store their goods, lifting them up with a small crane. The open attics could also serve as stages for the occasional street performers, who would appear at the market square.
At number 21 stands the only true Secession (also known as Art Nouveau or Jugendstil) style house in the Piaţa Unirii, and one of only few to be found in the architecture of Cluj. This was a new style emerging in the late 19th century, as a reaction the the earlier, academic and historicist styles. They tried to include floral motifs, and wavy shapes, in an attempt the harmonize with nature. Buildings like this show the transition from the 19th century historicism, to the 20th century modernism. As fashionable, and modern as it was at the time, it still incorporates a beautiful renaissance door which can be found in the upper-level apartment, which remained from the earlier building standing here. It can be seen inside the bar called Yolka.
Passing by some late 19th century eclectic buildings, we arrive at number 27, the Filstich–Kemény house. It immediately stands out with it’s intricate late Baroque facade, decorated with all sorts of wonderful little details. A closer inspection of this building, will also reveal that it has origins from an earlier time, two Renaissance doors have been saved from the earlier building that stood here, and can be seen just to the right if you enter the courtyard. One of them has the coat-of-arms of the powerful Kornis family on it. Sadly the small room to which these doors lead to is used as a garbage storage. There is a plaque on the facade commemorating the fact that famous Hungarian poet Vörösmarty Mihály, and statesmen Deák Ferenc addressed the youth from the house’s balcony in 1845.
At number 28 stands the Mauksch–Hintz house. Originally a renaissance house, in the late 19th century it was rebuilt in a modest style, without too much decoration, but still maintaining it’s original structure and basement from the late 15th, early 16th centuries. Until the communist state seized the building, it’s original owners, the Hintz family ran a pharmacy here. In 1954, the state-funded Museum of the History of Pharmacy was established here by Valeriu Bologa, using the collection amassed by the Hungarian medic and pharmacist Gyula Orient. The collection is large and very diverse, and also stretches into the basement, giving a glimpse into the building’s past. There is also a small ceramic copy of the famous Saint George statue made by the so-called “Cluj-brothers” in 1373, the original of which can be seen today next to the cathedral in Prague Castle.
The eastern row starts with number 29. Here we can find what is now known as Hotel Melody. The exact date of construction is unknown, but from old photos we can gather that an early 19th century building in Neoclassical style stood here, before being reconstructed into today’s elegant Eclecticism, and given the role of a Hotel. At first it was known as Hotel Pannonia, and at the of the 19th century it was known simply as the Central Hotel. One of the most famous guests who stayed here was German composer Johannes Brahms, when he held a concert in Cluj.
The building at number 30 is known as the Bánffy palace. It is one of the most famous landmarks in the architecture of Cluj, and indeed an outstanding example of Transylvanian baroque. Commissioned by Hungarian duke György Bánffy, the governor of Transylvania, work started in 1774. German architect Johann Eberhard Blaumann was employed to design the building, while Anton Schuhbauer, the most famous Transylvanian sculptor at the time was in charge of making the statues. 1817, Francis II the last Holy Roman emperor, stayed at the palace with his wife Carolina Augusta, during their visit to Cluj. Another famous person who stayed here was Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, when he had a concert in Cluj. Since 1951, it houses the Museum of Art, which includes many important works from important Romanian and Hungarian artists. The museum contains many impressive works, but the building itself also has a lot to offer, there’s a majestic row of sculptures at the top, climaxing in the middle, with the Bánffy family’s coat of arms held up by two gryphons.
The two houses at numbers 31 and 32 were built in 1898-1899, when it was decided that the street behind the older houses that were here was to be connected with the main square. The two completely symmetrical buildings were commissioned by the Catholic Church, and are designed by the famous Hungarian architect Alpár Ignác, who also designed some of Budapest’s landmarks, most notably, Vajdahunyad Castle.
At number 33 we can find the Wolphard-Kakas House. Although not obvious from the street, this house is in fact the most well-preserved and most important Renaissance landmark in the architecture of Cluj. It was commissioned by Adrianus Wolphard, the last catholic parish priest of Cluj before the majority of the population converted to Protestantism. Wolphard studied in Bologna during the early 16th century, and therefore had humanist views. The building share a courtyard with the neighboring Pataki-Teleki house at number 34, from which one can enter to see intricately sculpted Renaissance windows, doors, and also a sundial, all from the 16th century. Because the Renaissance character of the building is not obvious from the street, it is one of the best kept secrets in Cluj’s colorful architecture. The building currently houses the University of Arts and Design.
So these are some of the hidden gems that the architecture of Cluj has to offer. For a broader point of view on why to visit Cluj, see here.