Palace of Parliament of Bucharest
Bucharest’s unmistakable Palace of Parliament, due to its immense physical, psychic and historic stature, is perhaps the most controversial building in Romania. Meant to be the crowning achievement of ‘Centrul Civic’ or ‘Civic Centre’ – Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s ambitious urban development plan – the Palace of Parliament represents one of the most extravagant and expensive building projects in the history of mankind; certainly of the last century. Claiming superlative as the world’s second-largest building by surface area (after the sneakily spacious US Pentagon), the Palace of Parliament is one of Romania’s biggest tourist attractions, despite popular disdain.
As once regal and cosmopolitan Bucharest lay in decay after two World Wars and a devastating earthquake in 1977, Romania’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was coming to the height of his power and megalomania. By creating a pervasive cult of personality (calling himself ‘Conducator’ (‘Leader’), ‘Geniul din Carpati’ (‘Genius of the Carpathians’) and even having a king-like scepter made for himself), Ceausescu projected his own narcissism onto the people, wishing to erase everything as it was before him from the popular imagination. Promoting the ‘Civic Centre’ project as the creation of a ‘multilaterally developed socialist society,’ Ceausescu began to demolish the deteriorating capital and rebuild it in his own vision, culminating in the construction of ‘Casa Poporului,’ or the ‘The People’s House‘ as it was to be ironically titled. [The name of the structure was changed to ‘The Palace of Parliament’ after the fall of communism, however most Romanians still refer to it as ‘Casa Poporului.’]
Ceausescu achieved the idea for ‘The People’s House’ after a visit to North Korea’s Kim II-sung in 1972. The ‘People’s House’ would be the largest, most lavish palace in the world and would hold all the functions of his socialist state, as well as serve as a handsome residence for he and his wife. Leading to the Palace would be Boulevard ‘Victory of Socialism’ (now Boulevard Unirii), the Champs Elysees of Bucharest (but deliberately designed to be 1 metre wider on each side and 6 metres longer than Paris’ thoroughfare), stretching from Piata Alba Iulia to the Palace premises. To build the Palace and Centrul Civic, Ceausescu set about demolishing most of Bucharest’s historic districts (leaving only Lipscani), including 19 Orthodox Christian churches, 6 synagogues and Jewish temples, 3 Protestant churches (plus eight relocated churches), and 30,000 homes in two neighbourhoods alone. In total, one-fifth of central Bucharest was razed for the project. As a result, a popular joke of the time was that the ‘Victory of Socialism’ Ceausescu had engendered was over the city itself.
Construction began on ‘The People’s House’ in 1983, with the cornerstone laid June 25, 1984. Some 700 Romanian architects purportedly collaborated on its design which combines elements and motifs from a multitude of classical sources, creating an eclectic, undefinable architectural style. Measuring 270 metres wide by 240m long, 86m high and 92m underground, the People’s Palace is 12 stories tall with an undisclosed number of underground levels (at least 8) in varying stages of completion. It’s 1,100 rooms were apparently constructed strictly from Romanian materials, though most locals seem skeptical of this. Estimates of the materials used include 1 million cubic metres of Transylvanian marble, 3,500 metric tonnes of crystal for the 480 chandeliers and 1,409 lights and mirrors that were manufactured, 700,000 tonnes of steel and bronze, 900,000 cubic metres of wood and 200,000 square metres of woven carpets, many of which were spun on site.
Though no figures have been officially released, it is said that some 20,000 workers toiled in 24-hour shifts, seven days a week, to build the Palace at the pace at which it was being constructed. To finance the project, Ceausescu had to take on enormous foreign debts. In order to repay these debts he systematically starved the Romanian people, exporting all of the country’s agricultural and industrial production as the standard of living in Romania sank to an all time low. Food-rationing, gas electric and heating blackouts became everyday norms; people lived in squalor and poverty as the Ceausescu’s themselves exhibited outrageous extravagance.
The Romanian Revolution of 1989 broke out just as the People’s Palace was nearing completion. Mass protests in December 1989 in Timisoara caused martial law to be declared, a Bucharest rally turned to riot and the Ceausescus were forced to flee the capital by helicopter. They were soon after captured by police in Targoviste after abandoning their chopper, were sentenced to death by an ad hoc military court on charges ranging from illegal gathering of wealth to genocide and were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989.
After Ceausescu’s deposition, the new government moved its functions into his maniacal mansion and it was renamed the Palace of Parliament. Today it also houses the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), however most of the premises goes unoccupied. Tours of the building are of course available and cost about 2.50; watch out, though – there’s a rather outrageous 30 lei tax for taking photographs (over 8). Guided tours are available in several languages though you may have to wait over half an hour for an English language tour. And don’t expect your guide or anyone else who works there to be cheery; they’re about as self-loathing as they come. Several questions you can ask and be told by your guide, “officially I can’t answer that” include: 1) How many people died during construction? 2) What percentage of this building is actually in use? 3) How much did it cost to build this monster? 4) How many floors underground does it go? Are there tunnels? and so on…
Though many find the Palace to be aesthetically unappealing, the exquisite craftsmanship of the marble staircases, carved wooden balconies, crystal chandeliers and whatnot cannot be denied. During your visit you’ll only see 5% of the structure, but you will be able to step onto the balcony from which Ceausescu planned to address his people had they not executed him first. Instead, the balcony was first used by pop star Michael Jackson, who declared to the adoring crowd below, “I LOVE BUDAPEST!”