Romania's 'Roma palaces', a status symbol for poor minority

This file photo taken on July 11 shows palaces belonging to Romanian Roma people in Buzescu village, southern Romania. -AFP

BUZESCU, ROMANIA - With their soaring marble columns, turrets and pagoda-style roofs, elaborate mansions built by affluent Roma dot Romania's countryside in their thousands.

Amid modest surroundings of fields or small towns, the so-called Roma palaces seem improbable, even outlandish, but reveal a quest for status within a marginalized and mostly poor minority.

They began springing up in the early 1990s after the collapse of communism, when some in the Roma community came into money, they say, mostly by collecting and selling scrap iron or by doing petty trading.

Now spread across one of the EU's poorest members, the imposing buildings, estimated to number several thousand, often stand several storys high, as neighbors add floors to outdo one another.

Decorative flourishes such as a US dollar sign or a German car brand logo can be seen mounted on some of the facades as a symbol of wealth.

Romanian architect Rudolf Graef said that, although often ridiculed as "absolute kitsch", the style of the "Roma palaces" should not be dismissed.

It "reflects, paradoxically, a part of Romania's history, unlike contemporary architecture implemented by the state itself," he said.

The roofs in particular, with their gables and twisty steeples reminiscent of Asian temples, are an "exaggeration" of the country's typical architectural elements, he told AFP.

Styles differ from region to region, according to Graef, author of a study on the topic.

In central Romania, the houses are inspired by Catholic churches, while they copy neo-classical structures in the southwest and neo-Romanian traditions in the east and south, with interpretations of traditional farmers' houses or those of ancient boyars, or aristocrats.

But, says Graef, despite their variations, they all have one common goal: that of showing off the "prestige and success" of those who live in them.

At times, the structures can even replicate existing public buildings, such as one with a particular back story in the village of Buzescu, 100 kilometers south of the capital, Bucharest.

Dan Finutu, a locally prominent and reportedly wealthy member of the Roma community who died in a car accident in 2012, had had his home modeled on the courthouse where he was sentenced to jail for fraud in the 1990s. -AFP