The Palace of the Parliament, also referred to as the People’s House, is famous for holding many world records:
- the largest civilian building with an administrative function
- the second largest office building by volume, after the Pentagon
- the most expensive administrative building ($4BN estimated in 2006)
- the heaviest building in the world
If you’re ever in Bucharest, it’s actually quite hard to miss. While it’s not the tallest, it’s certainly the most massive building in the city, easily visible from most locations.
A Monster is Born
One of the reasons the Palace of the Parliament is so visible is because it sits on top of an artificial hill, made by remodelling the Uranus Hill (also known as the Arsenal Hill or Spirii Hill). In fact, to built the house, communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ordered most of the historic center of Bucharest to be demolished. Yes, that’s more than 30,000 houses, covering a surface of 10 square kilometers (3.8 square miles), which is the size of Venice city in Italy. Several important landmarks fell under the bulldozers’ blades to make room for this megalomaniac building, including:
- 19 Christian Orthodox churches
- 6 Jewish synagogues.
- 3 Protestant churches.
- The National Archives
- A historic hospital (Spitalul Brancovenesc)
- an Art Deco stadium
It’s no wonder that many Romanians still consider it a bad omen.
Ceausescu was inspired to build the People’s House by his visits to North Korea in the 1970s.
He wanted to build something that would prove to the world the economic, political and cultural power of a small country like Romania. He also wanted to concentrate all important state institutions in a single area of the city: the Great National Assembly (a.k.a. the Parliament), the Council of Ministers (a.k.a. the Government), the Supreme Court, as well as his personal office and residence.
Ceausescu has certainly outdone himself: the palace is 86 meters high, and 92 meters underground, which means it’s almost like an iceberg: what you see above is only a small portion of it. It has 270 meters by 240 meters, and two internal courtyards. It contains more than 3,100 rooms, many of which are still not in use. How was building such a large palace possible? The short answer: forced labor (I’ve written about this here in more detail).
In fact, the palace was never completed, despite being worked on since June 25, 1984, when its official cornerstone was laid. The anti-Communist revolution of 1989 put an abrupt end to the construction for a while, as a heated debate started about its future. After a while, it was decided that demolishing it would be so costly that it is more efficient to resume construction, which happened until 1997. In fact, Nicu Ceausescu, the president’s son, is credited with saying: “You’ll never be able to renovate what my father managed to build” after the revolution, which, ironically, turned out to be true, as the palace is already in bad need of renovation.
Still, even today, the People’s House remains far from finished: the last 3 basement levels were never completed, and the building was also supposed to have a clock tower, which would have made it much taller.
A lush interior for a starving nation
Despite never being finished, the palace’s interior is just as impressive as its exterior. Almost 1 million cubic meters of marble from Transylvania (a region in north-western Romania) decorate its corridors, while 480 chandeliers adorn its ceilings, the largest weighing no less than 3 tonnes! The floors are made of more than 1 million square meters of parquette of different types of Romanian wood, and many are covered by huge carpets. Some carpets are so huge that they had to be woven inside the building, by special machinery, as they could not be transported. To prove to the world that Romania is a true economic power, Ceausescu wanted the building to be built entirely with Romanian materials. He succeeded: 98% of materials are sourced from Romania, which had a beneficial effect for the national economy.
As a paradox, Romanians never benefitted from this wealth, as the decade of the palace’s construction (the 1980’s) coincided with a period of harsh restrictions on consumption. Basic goods such as bread, oil, coffee or meat were drastically rationalized, while electricity, hot water and heating were distributed on a very limited schedule. Millions of people were living in cold, dark apartments, without being able to buy basic food or commodities.
Current purpose and issues regarding the People’s House
Today, the Palace of the Parliament hosts… oh, well, the Parliament. It also hosts the Romanian Legislative Council, and several other institutions. Many of its halls are rented out for events and conferences. It is also the home of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC).
There is a national campaign backed up by one of the local newspapers (Gandul) asking the authorities to demolish the 3-kilometer long concrete wall surrounding the building, and to turn its lawn into a public park.
Maintenance costs are a recurring issue, especially since the building is not used at its full capacity, and has already started to degrade.
Recently, heated discussions have taken place in the Parliament about an underground tunnel that would be built under the Palace’s gardens, as part of a larger infrastructure project that connects the North side and the South side of Bucharest. Several politicians argue that this tunnel poses a major security risk for the building, as major accidents or terrorist attacks could damage it.
Finally, the construction of the largest orthodox cathedral in Romania and the Balkans right next to the palace has caused a great deal of controversy. Some voices argue that the two megalomaniac buildings will reinforce each other, creating an oppressive urban landscape in an area which has already suffered a lot during the Communist regime. Others say the project is just as wasteful and oppulent as the People’s House. Supporters claim Romanians need a powerful religious symbol in the city center, especially after so many churches have been demolished by Ceausescu. What do you think about it?