Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu used a major earthquake in his country in 1977 as a pretext to demolish the old buildings in the capital Bucharest and build a new civic centre. The main element of this project was the People’s House, which became known as the Palace of the Parliament after the 1989 revolution. It is the world’s second largest administrative building after the Pentagon. Its construction came at an enormous cost, both financial and human.
Producer: Eric Beauchemin
Broadcast: November 19, 1997
Welcome to the Palace of the Parliament, one of the biggest buildings in the world with its 365,000 square metres. It’s the second recorded by Guinness Book after the Pentagon. The building required about 1 million cubic metres of marble, half a million tonnes of cement, 700,000 tonnes of steel, 900,000 cubic metres of different kinds of wood, 3.5 million tonnes of crystal, 200,000 cubic…
Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The Palace”.
My name is Alexandru Budista. I was the chief architect of the city of Bucharest between 1977 and 1983. Well, in 1977, there was quite a strong earthquake. It destroyed large parts of the city. And dictator got the idea that it is not as difficult as that to destroy buildings and towns and if God did it, why he wouldn’t try to do the same. He convened a meeting of builders, architects, engineers of all kinds, and he came up with this idea of creating a new civic center right here, right in the middle of everything, to build a palace, a very huge avenue and also a number of important buildings. It was his idea to call it the Casa Poporului, the People’s House.
My name its Vending Adam. My father bought the house in 1939. It was a wonderful house and it was a wonderful area, very nice people living there. In 77, after the earthquake, somebody from the government, they started to come in the area and announcing people they’re gonna be some changes. On the highest level of the state they think to erase that old area because it was capitalist area and now they gonna build large and high block of flats.
My name is Calorianu Bianca. I was 14 years old. My grandmother built this house and lived there all her…her entire life. It was very very stressful for her to see how the neighborhood transforms very quickly. And my parents too. I have a bad feeling, like something has been taken away from me, from my life suddenly.
So we are from the southern part of the Palace, leading towards north on what’s called the Gallery of Honour, which has 150 metres length. The first lounge we will be visiting is called Paul Negulescu. Last it was used for the informal meetings of the delegation present at the North Atlantic parliamentarian assembly and now is to be reinstalled for the next destination. So it looks. It’s one of the smaller rooms. It has only about 370 square metres.
The time when I was chief architect was exactly this time when there were teams working and competing for this and I must confess that the architects were rather keen to do it because as you well know, the architects go well with dictators. Because you see, who could afford to do such a tremendous thing? And architects, well, they considered this an opportunity to express themselves and dictators need architects, builders to make these large projects to come into being without considering too much what people would like to have.
The story of how the Palace was designed is quite well-known. Anka Petrescu was one of the architects who took part in the competitions organized by Ceaușescu. She won almost all of them. She then assembled a team of more than 1000 architects to design this immense building. We were among them. Originally the surface of the palace was supposed to be 70 to 80-thousand square meters, but the project kept on getting bigger and bigger. It finally grew to 365-thousand square meters.
Even when the project was given the final approval, Ceaușescu kept on making changes. He would always come with an entire delegation, representing a number of ministries, as well as psychologists, designers, and architects. He would take the plans into another room and talk with his team. Sometimes they agreed with the drawings, and he’d give the green light. But at times, even when the delegation approved our plans, he would say no, and we would have to change the design.
Oh, it can probably be interesting for those which have not in mind what it means to attend to an activity in this place, this gallery has 150 metres and you are doing it six or seven times a day, only this. It’s about two kilometres and if you have to come down to invite your persons interested to collaborate with you, you can reach in a full day up to 10-12 kilometres of running, and it’s very good for health.
Some people from the Popular Committee, they came, and they was talking not quite nice. For the majority of us, it was clear that there are no chance to do something, to avoid this things. They said look, the president of the country and the government and the biggest architects in Romania, they made some plans to rebuild that area. My father was very upset, very very upset, and my mother also, but especially my father, because he bought the place. A lot of regrets, you understand. After one year, they came again, and they said look, you must go on the popular committee and try to chose one place for you and your family to move. There are lots of new areas and wonderful blocks of flats. My father knew they gonna to be not so nice but it was no other solution.
In six months, they came and evacuate us, I remember, not with violence because the people they knew. They came with some big machines and the people they knew they gonna demolish the buildings. The majority of them they was choosing already some new places to live. I remember very well a lot of old people, especially old people, they commit suicide because they never get used with the idea they have to move. I was hearing some old people, they was stucking in the houses. They was locking the doors. The police came and removed them. They came with the Red Cross and removed them because they mad and they have to get some medical examination. And in this ways they managed to remove all the area.
Three days before we started to remove the furniture and some things still good to be reused. The rest remained in there and they demolished the place. I was with my father watching. First of all they started to take out the roof. They demolished the place without recovering anything there. Absolutely nothing. Nothing, nothing. My flat was demolished in about 4 hours, 4 hours it was finished.
Let’s go to the next, which is called the Human Rights Lounge, and in which the distinctive element, it’s the round table for 60 equal seats, and the second and probably the most spectacular element of the decoration is the chandelier. It’s 2.5 tonnes weight, and it’s made from 35,000 pieces of crystal. Also it’s nice to see the wooden decorations of the walls. You have the possibility to see that we are using the modern and up-to-date sound system and simultaneous translation, and that’s the first room to be used in the palace in ’90. And it’s called Human Rights Lounge because the first activity developed here, it was a special committee inquiring on the trespassing of the human rights during the communist regime.
They started exactly in 1983, and that’s the year when I resigned because it was practically very difficult to continue to be chief architect and seeing how the dictator changed, how his madness became very aggressive. He was not listening to anyone any more. And he was pursuing his dream of having this incredible pharanoiac building. It was a very heavy surgical cut into the fabric of the city. It was done just because he wanted.
He was in a competition with Kim il Sung from Korea. He was going there. When he was returning, he was saying “make things larger, higher. This plaza is not large enough. I want it higher.” You see it was a competition between them and he wanted to make things even bigger and I must say that he succeeded because in Fenyang…Pyongyang…things are not as large as there.
I remember very well. They paid us 35.000 lei, that means half of the price of a Romanian car, about $2000 in that time [wistful chuckle], something like that. The value of the place today, it’s about 150.000 dollar, today, that flat. They give us this flats, and the value of the bachelor flat is now about 8000 dollar and the value of my family flat it’s about also 8000. 8000 + 8000 means 16.000 dollars instead of 150.000 dollars, it’s a big difference. But it was no way to say something, to oppose this kind of things.
They work very very quickly because Ceaușescu at the time wanted these flats to be done quickly, very fast. The measures of transportation were removed and we were forced to go on walking to school and the places we are working. We had to go four kilometres a day. It was very unpleasant to see how they are starting to destroy this place. It was a lot of dust, noise. It was very difficult because when it started to rain, the mud was 10 centimetres deep.
In the end, there were about 17-thousand workers involved in the construction of the palace. Experienced workers came here from all over Romania. The military was enlisted too. Of course, with so many people, we had many logistical problems. For example, it was impossible to feed everyone at the same time, so the workers had to eat in shifts. But we never had problems getting supplies. From 1984 to 1989, Ceausescu decreed that all of Romania’s industrial output – including all the steel, cement, timber, and marble – would be used exclusively for the building of the palace.
You know, it was unbelievable. Ceaușescu and his wife couldn’t understand drawings, so we had to make models of all our designs. We always had to have two or three different versions of every design. Sometimes he would chose one of them, sometimes he would combine elements of number 1 and number 3 or of number 2 and number 3. Competitions were held for everything, and different architects would win. All these modifications destroyed the building’s symmetry. When the top floor was finished, Ceaușescu went up to the roof and discovered that he couldn’t see all of Bucharest. So he ordered us to add another storey. We did, and again he couldn’t see the whole city. So we had to build yet another floor.
It was impossible to question Ceaușescu. He decided every single detail. We simply to had obey. Ceaușescu and his wife regularly came to visit the site. They were always accompanied on their inspection tours by a team from the ministry responsible for building the palace. Ceaușescu, and especially his wife, would order changes in the design, and we had to come up with technical solutions. Once a specialist told Mrs Ceaușescu that it was impossible to execute one of her orders because it would cause the construction to collapse. She answered, “are you trying to teach me about architecture?” It was very stressful because we had to make modifications after every single visit. I remember one time he said he wanted two wings to be linked by a dome. We of course agreed and built a dome. When he saw it, he didn’t like it, so we had to tear it down.
When the winter used to come, it was such a sadness in Bucharest. First of all, because of the shortage of the heating, after that because the people they are very inventive, they tried to supply themselves with heating with the electricity, with the electrical appliances and because of this [chuckle] the government cut the electricity. The people were really freezing in the flats and a lot of them [laugh] in the poorest areas, they burn wood inside. It was so funny to see a lot of areas under the smoke you know but nobody cares about this.
In the next room which has about 20 to 2400 square metres, and it’s used for the reception, for different kinds of meetings, going from conferences up to fairs and exhibitions. We have the same style, the same architectonic elements of decorations, some chandeliers in crystal, the ceiling opened to the sky. It’s in blue glass, and it’s opening to the west this room, and we have the access directly from the yard of the palace. It was the case of international contest of beauty. We had the possibility to have our guests directly from the yard, and it was not compulsory to run all around the palace to reach this special room.
The most funny thing is that being the chief architect of the city, I have no access to anything because this building was built without a building permit. It was off limits and it was a special team and the chief architect was not asked anything about it. I was witnessing what was happening, but it was considered too important to be left for the chief architect to deal with. It was his personal toy. I remember one day I came and I wanted to visit it and I was stopped by the guards. They say you are not supposed to enter this place. So I couldn’t enter. So I entered this building for the first time – being the former chief architect of the city until 1983 – for the first time after the revolution. It sounds crazy, yes, but that’s the truth.
In ’89, one or two months before the Revolution, the shortage of food was so bad, people they used to stay in such a long queue and they started to talk open. And I was very impressed to hear young people and old people also, talking more open about these problems. Because let’s imagine you are staying in the queue and you are number 154 and there was food there only for 25 people. And the next morning again to get ready to stay in this queue from 5:30 in the morning till when they used to open 7 o’clock or 7:30. In the winter it was cold and in the summer it was very hot. People they start to burst out in anger.
I think it’s very nice. It’s very nice. They never saw the building finished. I think it’s nice. It’s very nice. I’m happy about this. I’m very happy and it’s ironical also because they was thinking they will never die, they will live 200 years.
So after the revolution, there was a problem: what to do with this white big elephant which after he sat down on the town and crushed everything. Now he was looking around, somehow scared and bewildered, didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to do and we didn’t know what to do with this pink big elephant. So the idea was when we decided not to demolish, not to cover it with earth, but to live with it, let’s use it somehow. So there were various proposals and ideas. The mayor of Bucharest after the revolution went to Las Vegas and discussed with those people. He came back and said, “gentlemen, it’s settled, we’re going to have one of the biggest casinos in the world. The people from Las Vegas are very enthralled about having such an incredible building. And then let’s wait for them.” Everyone prepared, they came and there was a very sad moment when those people from Las Vegas looked around and said, “my goodness it’s not for us. How are we going to maintain and pay for all of this. No, sorry, too much marble, too much cement, too much concrete, no it’s not for us. It’ll be too expensive, so sorry it will not work.”
Then what happened: Rupert Murdoch came and said “wonderful. I would like to have this building as my headquarters of my world empire”. And then we felt that it would not have been the proper thing, because by that time we felt that we could use it better. It was a matter of national pride. And other and other proposals, but finally I think the idea to move the parliament here was correct and for the rest of the building to create an international conference center. And I will tell you: everyone who comes here is pleasantly surprised because well after you forget how it was built and who built it, then you have to enjoy the inner areas and to see that it’s lavish, it’s important. We have a music festival with Sir Yuhudi Menuwin who came here because we transformed one of the largest halls in a concert hall and it works.
My name is Eugene Ionescu and I’m the press officer of the International Conference Centre from the Palace of Parliament, which is in fact a department of the Chamber of Deputies. You have to know that this palace has thousands of square meters for each day of the year. It means 365000 square meters and to be connected and to find each other from this…at least from the personnel of this international conference center we have to use these talkie walkies, walkie-talkies, and that’s the way we can find each other and be on the spot with every solution to have to put in fact.
…and what you heard was the dialogue in the technical department concerning the new accommodation of a conference area. They were trying to better accommodate for the next meeting the space where they are working. The International Conference Center was opening his works in May 94 with an international forum called Grand Montana and since there, we developed our activities covering the parliamentarian activities, colloquia, seminars, and also diplomatic, general politic, economic, social and cultural events. For this year we had in our schedule let’s say 120 events.
Now one can feel very clearly that there is a disruption between this complex and the rest of the city. And this avenue has cut through the fabric of the city and there are many connections which are not any more possible. This large avenue was called initially The Avenue of the Victory of Socialism, and we Romanians had a joke saying this is the victory against the Romanian people. And now it’s very important to try and integrate this complex in the rest of the city.
The evil has been done already, so I don’t care no more about this building. I’m trying not to see it. I’m just passing by and I’m trying not to see it. I’m trained. A lot of years I have done this thing so it’s very easy for me. It’s huge. It’s a monstrosity. It makes me think about Ceaușescu, totalitarianism, dictator, dictatorship. I do not like this building.
Probably in the next period and this period can be let’s 20, 50, 100 years, the Palace will be assimilated as a symbol of Romania, probably another Romania than it was up to 89, but completely different from what was previous to the Second World War. The Palace probably will be one of the symbols of Bucharest, of Romania, and with this archetotonic and urbanistic contests we had in Bucharest, it means the possibility to reorganize the flows in town, to modernize it, to put it really at the hand of Romanians, not only of Bucharest inhabitants. The palace can be a reference point.
I think it’s ugly because it’s looking exactly like a communist structure, you know: big and massive. I think the purpose they built something like this, it was to people to see this huge building and to be afraid. And I think it’s ugly.
For those who lived during that time, it’s obvious that we cannot forget it. But the new generations, they will not relate as much the name of Ceaușescu to this building because if you go to Egypt, I don’t know how many people know which Pharaoh built that building and which dynasty…it’s there. You know it’s part of the landscape, you cannot imagine it without it. That’s probably how it will look into the fabric of this city. We’ll have other high buildings around, and it will be just the witness of a difficult time of Romania but of a remarkable feat of architecture.
“The Palace” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. Sound engineer: Ronald Hofman. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.