- Oana Barbu
From the People’s House to the Palace of the Parliament
It is said that controversial people bring about controversial histories. And controversial histories give birth to equally controversial theories, monuments and edifices. The same debate surrounds a building every Romanian knows a little bit about, but of which very few know everything.
Maybe you pass by it every day but, as it’s part of your routine, , you don’t really pay attention to it anymore. Maybe you saw it on TV or maybe you read about it somewhere. Whichever the case, all the Romanians have heard about the Palace of the Parliament, known by most of us under the former name of the People’s House.
The Palace of the Parliament is Romania’s most paradoxical building. I call it paradoxical because it symbolizes at the same time communism and democracy, because it’s beautiful and ugly, because it divides the opinions of Romanians, placing them at completely opposite poles.
But let's see how it all began. After the 1977 earthquake (7.3 on the Richter scale), Nicolae Ceaușescu started a process of "rebuilding and modernizing Bucharest," launching a competition won by the young architect Anca Petrescu, who was only 28 years old at the time. The project included, besides the People’s House, the construction of other buildings such the Marriott Hotel, but also the Izvor Park, the Union Boulevard and the Union Square, etc.
The Arsenal Hill, also known as Spirii Hill, was chosen as the best spot for the project. One of the reasons why that area was chosen was that it was the highest in Bucharest, giving visibility to the building. Furthermore, the hill represented the historical center of the city and it was the most resilient from a seismic point of view. As proof of that, the buildings standing on the hill, making up the Uranus neighborhood, were the least damaged after the 1977 earthquake. Once the advantages had been identified, demolitions began in the area in 1982. As a consequence, buildings such as the Văcăreşti Monastery, the Brâncovenesc Hospital, and the Republic Stadium were pulled down and thousands of families were forced to relocate.
The construction of the Palace of the Parliament began in 1984 and by 1989 it was 70% ready. It is said that the workers were on the site 24/7 and that for the construction they used only Romanian-made materials. Hence, the name: the People’s House, even though initially the building was supposed to be called the House of the Republic, to emphasize the power of the regime and of the Romanian people.
In 1989, after the fall of the communist regime, the building was the first target of the people’s anger, who wanted to see it destroyed, since for them it was at that time a symbol of communism, a permanent memento of all the suffering, shortages and poverty that the regime had forced on them. The works were resumed, however, and in 1994 the building became the seat of the Chamber of Deputies, and then in 2004 the Senate also moved its headquarters there. Besides the Parliament, the Constitutional Court, the Legislative Council and the International Conference Center are also headquartered in the Palace. Although the building is not completely finished, it counts with around 1000 fully functional rooms, 30 of which are halls and restaurants, 440 offices, and the rest of them are auxiliary spaces.
I was saying at the beginning that the Palace of the Parliament is a controversial building. The controversy is primarily due to people's reactions to it. Secondly, all sorts of "urban legends", all kinds of myths aimed to stir people's curiosity have been born. But let's take them one at a time.
When it comes to expressing themselves in relation to the People’s House, Romanians have quite diverging opinions. There are those who see in the Palace of the Parliament a symbol of democracy, a grandiose construction with a special architecture, a real reason for national pride, standing proof that we are also capable of great things. At the opposite end are those who experienced the inconveniences of the communist regime, who still have vivid memories of that past and cannot forget the restrictions that communism imposed on them. There are people who cannot forgive, who think that the Palace of the Parliament is a useless construction, too big and redundant, a building which still takes money out of their pockets for taxes.
The truth must be somewhere in the middle. Beyond divergence, one conclusion may be that Romanians don’t know or don’t want to know anymore about this building. Consequently, the percentage of Romanian tourists visiting the Palace of the Parliament is well below the number of foreign visitors. Regarding the latter, very numerous, we could say that they are attracted, above all, by the communist past of the country, by Nicolae Ceaușescu's personality, and only last of all by the building itself. Most tourists come from countries that have not experienced communism, and they are often left speechless in front of the building's sheer size. (Arguably, it is the largest and heaviest administrative building in the world.) Perhaps foreign visitors do have more reasonable opinions, as they do not have memories of communism, so they can appreciate the "People’s House" more objectively.
The myths generated around the Palace of the Parliament attract foreign tourists while alienating Romanians. It is said that the palace has as many underground floors as it has above ground level, and that in the basement there are bunkers and tunnels, the underground part being a replica of the visible part of the building, which Ceausescu wanted to live permanently in; it is also said that the giant building can be seen from the moon, and, more recently, that it is haunted. Many of these rumors are just urban legends meant to arouse if not people’s interest, then at least their curiosity. Some of the myths can be easily dismantled; others leave room for interpretation.
Whether we like it or not, the Palace of the Parliament has become one of Romania’s major symbols. It is a symbol of the socialist realism that characterized Romanian art and architecture for about half a century. The Palace has also become the main tourist attraction of Bucharest and one of the main tourist landmarks in the country. Therefore, I believe that, despite all the controversy, the Palace of the Parliament is one of the buildings any Romanian needs to know about and visit. Even if only for a history lesson.
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