A lift shoots visitors to the top of the tower – reinvented as a museum by Vlad Sebastian Rusu Architecture Office – who then take a delicate new stair down through the history of the country's second city
While the city of Cluj Napoca in north west Romania, far smaller than the capital Bucharest, might not be able to shout about its size, as Transylvania’s ancient capital, this place has a bite that’s far worse than its bark. Founded in Roman times, it was a thriving mercantile centre in the 13th century, but by the 17th, plague, invasion and a series of devastating fires precipitated its decline.
As the city began to rebuild its status, the 15th century, stone Firefighters’ Tower may have been too parochial in scale to give the necessary overview for Cluj Napoca’s increasing size; in 1870 two further classical storeys were added to its medieval base. Recent history has been kinder to the city, and with conflagrations less of a concern, in 1985 the defunct tower was turned into an astronomical museum. But unlike the Three Kings from the East, stargazing proved an unpopular pastime for residents and unloved, it fell into disrepair.
Its latest iteration, as an landmark tourist attraction for those wishing to get a bird’s eye view of this picturesque city, has been carried out by Romanian architect Vlad Sebastian Rusu. Rusu removed years’ of unsympathetic interventions to strip the building back to its walls and insert a new central lift core, allowing a new, metal staircase to wrap around that, delicately set back from the original structure.
This stair is a key part of the visitor experience, for this is as much about narrative as form. Rusu whisks visitors straight to the top of the building in the lift, with the final ascent to the exterior panoramic deck from the glass-walled upper viewing level lined in brushed steel. At the top, a model of the fortified town sits below a tall reflective soffit, connecting the city’s past with the diorama of its present all round you.
The journey down through the building, says Rusu, then becomes a form of reconciliation through time – he calls his own intervention an expression of the building’s ’third age’. The route to the ground is actually the museum experience, where the story of the city from early history to the present is revealed as you descend and one finally pops out back into the ’real’ city again. The diaphanous, semi-transparent metalwork set against the tower’s uncompromising solidity creates a satisfying counterpoint between the present and past; a modern observatory where Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar would still feel right at home.