Right in the historical centre of Bucharest stands an impressive building that strikes the eye by its particular style. It is the Palace of the Romanian Parliament, a “giant” built during the “golden age” of the dictatorial regime. Constructed with great human and economic costs, the now-called Palace of the Parliament symbolized Ceausescu’s absolute rule, being designed to host the most important institutions of Romania and the leader’s home.
Meant to be the crowning achievement of the “Civic Centre”, an ambitious urban development plan, the initially called Palace of the Republic is one of the most extravagant and expensive building projects in the history. In his attempt to build the House of the Republic, the dictator wiped out one fifth of the historic centre of Bucharest.
The construction was started and raised while many Romanians experienced a period of privations. Probably this is the reason why, from the very beginning, the building was the object of their hate. After December 1989, the massive building faced public disdain and became the subject to the most original ideas regarding its future destination. Some, out of the revolutionary excitement, were of the opinion that it should be dynamited, as it stood for the symbol of communism. Others were of the opinion that it could accommodate a museum of communism. Other extravagant views were circulated at the time…
Realizing its enormous value, in fact a Romanian heritage in danger of being destroyed and robbed, people began to see the building with less hostility and named it the “People’s House”. Consequently, the builders resumed their work and, as the works were carried on, it was decided that the construction should house the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of Romania, and that it should change its name to the “Palace of Parliament” – as a symbol of democracy.
With an area of 333.000 square meters and a volume of more than 2 million and a half cubic meters, the building claims superlative as the world’s second-largest building by surface area and it is recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records in the section Administrative Buildings.
In 2004, the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), housed by one of the wings of the Palace, opened to the public. Designed as a modern insertion of glass and steel in the façade of the existing building, the museum is considered by many one of the various attempts to use contemporary art to transform a former ‘totalitarian’ symbol into one for democracy.
For some people, its placement inside the Palace of the Parliament it is perceived as a mistake, due to the difficulty of entering in the highly guarded courtyard. Others see the contradiction as beneficial for the museum, the attention toward the Palace indirectly generating attention for the museum. For many people, this is no longer a symbol of the past, a part of Romania’s history marked by a megalomaniac dictator, but a “must see” of the capital, having become an important landmark of the city.
Ceausescu’s lasting legacy, the unmistakable Palace of Parliament, due to its immense physical, psychic and historic stature, was and still is a controversial building.
A recent study shows that even the inhabitants of Bucharest are divided in opinions, as it was rated as “the most beautiful” but also “the ugliest” building of the city in a survey conducted by the National School for Political Studies.
The People’s House is still perceived as the symbol of the mutilation of a part of Bucharest’ history and urban planning. Nevertheless, this building is indeed considered the biggest tourist attraction in Bucharest.
What’s most important for many, the Palace of Parliament consumes more energy than a town with 250 000 habitants, mostly on heating and electricity. Solutions for “greening” the Palace started to be evaluated and analysed by specialists, two eco projects being currently under implementation. Recently, there were Romanian politicians who asked that the Romanian Parliament move from there and instead the People’s House be transformed into a gigantic commercial building with malls, cinemas and other money-making objectives.
Another controversy refers to the relation between the construction and the rest of the city. The feeling of fortress that the surrounding walls and well guarded gates convey to the public and the lack of openness that other European Parliaments express, how this situation should be improved is a continuous debate in Romania. An important part of the public asks today for a real insertion of the building and its surrounding park in the heart of the city, for the elimination of the walls and the creation of real routes for pedestrians, bicycles and cars that would connect the centre to it and to the MNAC (National Museum of Contemporary Art). People should benefit from the green spaces and the area gained for the city must be valorized.
During the last decades, numerous projects and contest were organized for shaping a new face of the House or aiming at a redevelopment of the area around the building. Perhaps one of the striking responses was proposed by the winners (Meinhard von Gerkan and Joachim Zais, Germany) of the international architectural contest “Bucharest 2000” (1995–96), organized by the Union of Romanian Architects, unfortunately never materialized. The winning project showed viable solutions for articulating this area with the traditional urban fabric of the city and possibilities for synchronizing Bucharest architecture with contemporary European experiences.
Today, architects and designers are still exploring possibilities for better expressing the giant heritage and also for better benefiting from it. No matter what his past and present is, the biggest building in Europe will probably remain for centuries to go one of the most remarkable constructions in history. In some way or the other.
URBACT NDP for Romania
Ministry of Regional development and Tourism