9 December 2012
Bucharest’s 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 ‘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 , 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 ‘Leader’), 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.
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.