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Living on the Edge

Barcelona Residence, American village, SoHo Apartments and Mediterranean Court - these are some of the ambitious names given to host of new residential developments on the outskirts of Bucharest, the capital of Romania, one of the poorest countries in Europe. Almost 30 years after the fall of the communist regime, the country is still striving toward a Western standard of life and the trappings of a capitalist economy. Over a two year period Panos photographer Petrut Calinescu, a resident of Bucharest, explored the periphery of Bucharest, watching the city grow, seemingly without any building regulations or discernible planning guidelines. Entire residential developments were rising out of the ground without access to running water and electricity, at the end of dirt roads without pavements. The city's periphery is a collection of microcosms, many crafted to perfection, but completely isolated from the rest of the city without public transport and lacking in basic facilities like shops and doctors' surgeries. "I've been watching a generation struggle - like in a fairy tale where the protagonist has to cross frozen lands, encounter witches, kill wild beasts and befriend strange creatures - all just to reach the mystical goal of 'living a Western lifestyle'" Petrut says.

Bucharest is a relatively new city. It is first mentioned only in the mid 15th century when it become the residence of the legendary Vlad III ('The Impaler'). It's not until the 19th century that the city became the capital of the united Principality of Romania. Situated on the main East-West trade route across Europe, it experienced its cultural heyday in the early 20th century with the construction of swathes of Art Deco and modernist buildings, only a limited number of which still stand today.

In addition to heavy war damage, Bucharest's historic centre was largely flattened under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu to be replaced with architecture of 'socialist realism' - grey, concrete, standardised blocks arranged along wide boulevards fanning out from the city's new centrepiece - the Palace of Parliament, the largest administrative building in the world. To provide cheap housing, vast new estates of cheaply built concrete tower blocks were built on all available space.

With the removal of the communist dictatorship in 1989, hopes ran high for a new beginning for the city and its inhabitants. The older generation was expected to accept its lot as the "sacrificed generation" whose dreams could only be fulfilled through providing a better future and building a 'European' society for the young. Almost 30 years have passed since the end of communism and the children of the "sacrificed generation" have grown and are working for European corporations, NGOs and IT companies. They are still hoping for what was promised - a better, 'Western' life.

For Romanias today, living a 'Western' life means owning your own property. According to Eurostat, the European commission's statistics agency, Romania had the highest levels of owner-occupied dwellings in Europe in 2015 at 96.5%. With a 5.7% growth rate, the economy is now the fastest growing in the EU. Yet this masks the fact that most of the growth is driven by consumption, fuelled by government spending - a situation that will become unsustainable in the long term.

A persistent fear of a major earthquake that could bring down most of the poorly maintained historical buildings and the cheaply-built communist-era infrastructure, coupled with some of the worst traffic congestion in the developed world and choking pollution has encouraged many to move to the outskirts. The new 'luxury' developments for the burgeoning middle class are now butting up against the historically poor outer neighbourhoods where people have been scraping together a living since the end of the communist era.

'Living on the Edge' is Petrut's exploration of an ever changing Bucharest as it continues to reorient and reinvent itself.
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