“From a badly damaged private building, the House of Religious Freedom has been revived, following a complex restoration process, into a dynamic public gathering space that is widely used by its community. The authors of the project paid special attention to highlighting the rich history of this building and paid special attention to detail and materials once used, such as handmade tiles that were produced in Transylvania,” Europa Nostra Awards’ Jury.
The House of Religious Freedom is one of the oldest and most significant 15th-century townhouses in Cluj-Napoca, the largest city in the historical region of Transylvania. It served as the residency of the Unitarian Bishop till 2008. Then, in 2018, after a decade-long restoration process undertaken by the Hungarian Unitarian Church, the townhouse was reopened as a cultural centre dedicated to the ideal of religious freedom and tolerance, recalling the memory of the 1568 Edict of Turda, the first law on religious freedom in Europe. This law enabled also the official acknowledgement of the Unitarian Church, which today is one of the protestant churches that numbers 177 parishes and fellowships, in Transylvania and in Hungary, with 55,000 members. In line with this universal, progressive value- acceptable to other denominations as well- the Church intended to initiate the design of a public building, which would serve interdenominational dialogue, the promotion of universal cultural values, and also the dissemination of the values of the Unitarian community.
The new institution houses three permanent exhibitions, a centre for conferences and interconfessional research, guest rooms, a bookshop and a restaurant. The project funding was made available by the Romanian Government and the Government of Hungary.
Before the restoration, huge cracks had formed in the building’s walls, and certain areas had been in danger of collapse. Continuity was restored along the cracks on the stone walls of the mediaeval part of the house by bonding or by rebuilding the masonry of certain parts. In some parts, we ensured bonding by applying metal staples with tension bars. We introduced wedges in the cracks of the vaults and ensured bonding, performing these procedures on both the intrados and the extrados. We applied injections for the larger cracks while the vault extradoses were treated with liquid lime mortar. We repaired the damaged joints of the roof structure. Restoration works implied the cleaning of the stone surfaces and, in some cases their completion, the restoration of medieval mortars in the cellar, the restoration of a 19th-century painted floor, and the original doors and windows.
While structural damages were addressed, remarkable architectural features from the 15th -19th centuries were discovered and restored, such as a 15th-century staircase with recessed stone handrails and Gothic archways. These important architectural features exemplify the quality of urban house constructions and living conditions during the economic boom of mediaeval Cluj-Napoca.
We were confronted with severe dilemmas regarding the interior design of the house, as throughout its long history, the interior was transformed frequently. Unfortunately, no sufficient decorative elements or fragments of such features remained from any historical period, which would have provided a starting point for the reconstruction of historical interior space. We had only one professionally acceptable option besides displaying the historical values of the various periods: to design a new and consistent interior space, that would meet contemporary technical requirements, integrate, and make possible the displaying of the historic architectural values that have been preserved distinctively. And, from a structural perspective, it would be minimally connected to the historical layers of the building, and, moreover, entirely reversible. These considerations led to the application of false ceilings and wall panelling. A set of tools of decoration, shapes, and colours, were used, as well as light (more precisely, lighting) in order to create something new and unique from the collection of shapes and colours, rooted in the past of Transylvanian religious visual culture. All of the upstairs rooms of the house have their character and, at the same is part of the whole. The intense colours of the walls help differentiate the spaces, whose use, on the one hand, can be linked to the furnishings of protestant churches, and, on the other, recall the typical colours of the house’s various construction periods.
The townhouse restoration was planned and executed by a team of more than 35 independent specialists and specialised firms from Romania and Hungary. The project has generated valuable knowledge on the mediaeval and early modern history of Cluj-Napoca. The most important archaeological findings are permanently on display in partnership with the Transylvanian National History Museum, alongside the collection of paintings and ecclesiastical art of the Unitarian bishops, now for the first time accessible to the public.
The project is based on a sustainable economic model. The functions of the house have been balanced so that the financial activities (restaurant and accommodation) should support the cultural ones of the house. The profits of the restaurant and the accommodation wing contribute to the functioning of the cultural activities. The experience of the first 1.5 years proved that the equation works, as more than the planned profit was generated, helping the management of the cultural events. The House gives salaries to 15-20 employees, and the number is expected to be extended.
The house became a prosperous and loved cultural space in Cluj, reconnecting the citizens to their local history and identity. Between August 2018 and February 2020, more than 600 cultural events were organised, receiving about 20,000 visitors. 2,200 people used the accommodation, and about 60,000 people visited the restaurant. The events created a bridge between majority and minority, Romanians and Hungarians, between cultures and religions, disseminating European values through shared heritage. Music, theatre, science, art, and literature are serving the spiritual needs of the community. Incoming tourism discovered the place, and tours were often organised. A series of educational activities, such as museum pedagogy for school groups, and university lectures about architecture, art history, restoration, and church history studies, attract youth and academics. The restoration of the house became an example of urban regeneration, setting standards, and influencing the restoration policies and the methodology of a series of neighbouring buildings in Cluj downtown.
The house achieved its present layout through repeated transformations: mediaeval passageway, Baroque staircase, Empire details, contemporary interior design, and new attic are now unified. Following many centuries of use as a private residence, according to the generous decision made by the leading bodies of the Hungarian Unitarian Church, the house will serve as a community area in the future. Five years after the conservation’s conclusion, the vibrant cultural life unfolding in the building confirmed the correctness of the decision to open the house to the public.
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