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The Greentree Project





The Green Tree Project (Romanian: Proiectul Arborele Verde) is a cultural analysis inspired by the homonymous establishment from Oradea, functioning in the 19th and 20th centuries, evoked even in the present for its cultural role in the life of the Romanian community during the K. u. k. monarchy.

The Arborele Verde Inn, which was subsequently transformed into a restaurant, was a place for parties attended by students in the second half of the 19th century. The generous space, equipped with a stage as well, facilitated the throwing of parties, balls, receptions and cabaret shows. This was the favourite meeting place for the youth of the Romanian community, and the stage was often used either for putting on cabaret shows in Romanian (especially plays written by Iosif Vulcan, editor-in-chief of the Familia magazine and supporter of Mihai Eminescu), for memorials and national celebrations or even for occasional nationalist instigating actions. The “Green Tree” Street – named after the restaurant – was renamed “Vasile Alecsandri” after 1920, and the establishment was completely closed after 1948. The building hosts commercial spaces and a puppet theatre at the moment. In spite of its decrepit state and the administration of the theatre – hosted as somewhat of a sign of continuity of the building’s cultural purpose – the Green Tree is sometimes mentioned by officials when there is talk of the Romanian-Hungarian relations in midst of the community or of the Romanian culture in general (in the context of the Eminescu cult, as Iosif Vulcan was the man who supported the literary debut of the famous poet), or when local culture is discussed. Presented in detail within the pages of the touristic guides to the city of Oradea, the Green Tree is a historical monument of the B category – regional importance, and taking a tour is not allowed outside the opening hours of the puppet theatre.

In official speeches, as well as in presentation leaflets, the Green Tree is described as being unique, a part of the specific local landscape and of the life of the community in Oradea. From the Romanian perspective, the discourse is always charged with a certain nostalgia, not for the imperial period which it overlapped in great part, but rather for the impression of cultural cohesion, of a common effort and of relevance associated with the nationalist proceedings of the time, emphasised and modelled by the romantic mystification, inevitable as time passes. In the Romanian perspective, the Green Tree – next to Iosif Vulcan and Mihai Eminescu – is representative for La Belle Époque, a period not so much of grace, as of solidarity, simplicity and national fervour, when the ideal or the ideology used to act as simplifying prisms and alleviated the internal conflicts of the community. From the perspective of the Hungarian discourse, the establishment is rarely mentioned, in favour of the Emke or Müllerei cafés, meeting places for the Hungarian journalists of the time. Conversely, many Hungarian speakers refer to the Alecsandri Street as “Zöldfa utca” –  the Hungarian name for Green Tree, although it was changed in 1920, long before the birth of most of those members of the Hungarian community that are still alive today. We notice in this particular fact the same nostalgia for La Belle Époque, the object of which, however, is the imperial grandeur and not the mysticism of an ideal but retroactive solidarity.

The story that does not seem more than a provincial tale, possibly backed by a certain ethnic tension, receives a new perspective once we look upon the map of Green Trees from the same era, spread out throughout the territory of the K. u. K. monarchy and its national neighbours – Romania and Serbia.

Variations of the Green Tree are to be found in countless cities: Miercurea-Ciuc and Caransebeș both had establishments bearing this name and – from the spectrum of its semantics – Timișoara still refers to the forest area north of the city as the Green Forest. On the current territory of Hungary, the cities of Győr și Kecskemét still have restaurants named Zöldfa, and Budapest has a street called Zöldfa in its first district, as does Pécs. Also, the Carlton Hotel in Bratislava – called Pozsony during the monarchal period – was constructed on the site of the old Zöldfa Hotel, demolished in the ’20s. In the same period, on the Romanian territory, there were two places called the Green Tree Restaurant in Ploiești and the Green Tree Theatre in Iași, renamed as the Jewish Theatre at the beginning of socialism and demolished in 1978. Similar examples can also be found in Serbia (in the north, as well as in the south) and in Croatia. In what concerns Austria, it is superfluous to list all the “Zum Grünen Baum” establishments that can be found in nearly each town.

In the vast majority of cases, we speak of establishments founded in the second half of the 19th century, based on the reorganization of the Austrian Empire and on the national awakening within its territory and at its borders. Most of them have vanished, or were disrupted in their functioning, some of them being reopened in the period after socialism and the period of getting closer to or joining the European Union, when the Belle Époque nostalgia cultivated on the territory of the countries in the region could profit from the economic growth from the beginning of the ’00s. In most cases, the Green Tree is either an existing but refunctionalised landmark, evoking a certain period, or has completely disappeared, its presence being marked by a monument or by nostalgic descriptions in presentation guides. In any case, we speak of an attraction – present or past –, of a unique place, inscribed in the local culture and landscape. However, looking on not from inside the community, but viewing it as a whole, we may distinguish an idiosyncratic series of interchangeable places, differing only through their ethnic composition, through the financial capacity of the constructor and – most importantly – through their positioning: in the midst of the empire or at its edges. The characteristic elements become a replica of themselves – at an international scale – in order to afterwards be claimed jealously by each community. Passing from the abundance of the Green Trees to their disappearance and insistent claiming within evermore closed-up contexts takes us to a disordering historical event which would have stopped their development. For societies that have experimented a post-imperial period to a certain degree, as Hungary or Austria have – where almost all Green Trees are preserved to this day – we can clearly recognize the nostalgia for the Empire, evoked through the aesthetic prisms of La Belle Époque. Thus, the movements of the period are inscribed in the iconography of nostalgia: the cult of sécession is maintained up to the point of integrating other expressions – as is historicism – into the style. As for historicism, it is revived up to the point of being architecturally replicated in contemporary buildings.

On the other hand, Serbia and Romania, sharing the nostalgia for the period, split it up into two phases: the first phase, from the second half of the 20th century until the end of World War I, represents a time of grace for nationalism as an element of social cohesion; the second phase is the interwar period, the territorial growth of Romania and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia being regarded as a triumph of the nationalism cultivated prior to it. The mystification of the interbellum period still determines the omission or the intent oblivion of the degeneration process which was felt administratively, politically and economically by these societies up to the point of the beginning of World War II. Many contemporary Serbians and Romanians see the interwar period as a pseudo-imperial period, reorganized not so much by Communism but rather by the territorial dissolution from the times of war. This can be best observed seeing that countless reminiscing admirers of the interwar period do not manifest anti-Communism or do it in a much less passionate percentage than they do their nostalgia (a clear and extreme form of this phenomenon is the articulation of National-Bolshevism, meant to reconcile the tsarist period with Stalinism, as Aleksandr Dughin sees it). Thus, local nostalgia unites two distinct historical periods and its iconography – missing Art Nouveau elements – combines historicism with elements of modernism and internationalism.

Representative for all Green Trees is the way in which communities are in retreat in the areas in which these “arose”, the limitation of their horizons and the belief born in local uniqueness, specificity and picturesque. The present appropriates – by painting in a local colour – a series of almost standard entities, compensating historical lacks of the discourse through mystification and affectation. Alongside the Green Trees, there is a series of local legends concerning underground passages “wide as they could allow a carriage to pass through them”. Each community cultivates the story of such tunnels which would tie a local touristic landmark to a distant destination, improbable or often irrelevant. Thus, in Cluj, the Bánffy Palace is supposed to be connected through underground passages to the Citadel of Girls (in Romanian: Cetatea Fetelor), in Oradea – the Citadel to the Vama Borș (a village at the international border with Hungary), and least likely there is a tunnel that is supposed to be dug between Timișoara and Arad (i.e. aprox. 56 km). Again, we notice a standard model coloured in the language and the landmarks of the place, much like the “Cow Parade” installations.

If this description reflects the contemporary vacillations of local patriotism, the Green Tree Project debates the revival of nostalgias in times of economic crisis and political tensions in the region. If nostalgia has benefited from economic growth, the latter was neither sufficiently strong, nor sufficiently extended in time to sustain the advancement of education and of ideas. The nationalist awakening at the beginning of the 2010s and the ascension of the Far Right make use – regionally – of the language and iconography that are typical to nostalgia, transmitting not only aesthetic notions but also ideas that are specific for the period. Thus, the Green Tree questions the mutation of local patriotism as an expression of stagnation and the lack of openness in a more brutal form of local nationalism.

The Green Tree is a dead tree, painted in a striking green shade and loaded with stuffed toy fruit which – by means of their decorative features – contemporarily simulate notions of Art Nouveau and of the historicist ornamentation evoked by the people that are still reminiscing. The death of the tree and its painting are the symbolic transposition of the artificial support of ideas and values which either may have never existed, or may have been deformed through the mystificating lense of the cumulated intermediary periods and the present which we view them from.