Tourists who travel to the great capitals of Europe are virtually certain to visit the grand castles and palaces often located in center of these cities. Who can forget Buckingham Palace or Prague’s imposing 9th century castle? In Bucharest, however, there was no such landmark until the last quarter of the 20th century when the second and final communist leader of Romania decided he would crown Bucharest with a palace that would be the largest and finest in all of Europe.
The construction of the Palace of Parliament was begun in 1983 during the rule of the tyrannical dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu (1965-1989). Most historians consider Ceauşescu’s reign to be a dark and difficult period that has forever stained the fabric of Romanian history. The construction of this massive building (1983-1989) consumed 40 percent of Romania’s GDP, yet the end result is considered by many Romanians to be a “monstrosity.”
The Palace of Parliament is the largest building on the planet used for civilian purposes (the largest overall is the Pentagon). Sometimes referred to the “People’s House,” it was designed to prove to the world just how wealthy and powerful the Socialist Republic of Romania really was. The building’s footprint measures an astronomical 787 x 886 feet. Rising to a height of 282 feet, the House of Parliament dominates the city’s landscape and can be seen from many areas within the city.
A major part of the building’s overall size that visitors cannot see is its eight underground levels with parking spaces for approximately 20,000 cars. The bottom level contains Ceauşescu’s bunker which is surrounded by 5 foot-thick concrete walls which, at least according to the architects, could not be penetrated by radiation. So from this secure location, Ceauşescu could manage any war – nuclear or conventional. Besides the operations center, the bunker also contained several residential apartments for state leadership.
A series of mysterious, hidden tunnels have been dug beneath the Palace of the Parliament. The “nuclear” bunker, for instance, is linked to the other main state institutions by more than 12 miles of catacombs reportedly dug, at least in part, by prisoners – both civil and political. Some of these tunnels were designed by Ceauşescu to enable him to depart the building and get to the airport below ground in case of a Revolution that was aimed at his overthrow.
Ceauşescu’s efforts to make this building the most grandiose in the world were plainly evident when he designed the street leading up to the palace. He insured that it was exactly one meter wider than the Champs Elysees in Paris. But in the end, perhaps the building was not so well known and appreciated as the communist dictator had intended. In 1992, for example, Michael Jackson stood on one of its larger balconies that overlooked a small, man-made lake with several lighted fountains. This popular rock star addressed the large crowd assembled by shouting: “Hello Budapest!”
Ostensibly, the Palace of the Parliament was the major item in Ceauşescu’s overall plan to “renew and redesign” the city of Bucharest after a major earthquake had hit Romania in 1977. Critics add another motive. Besides responding to consequences of a tragic earthquake, this “redesign” in general and the Palace of the Parliament in particular, was nothing more than Ceauşescu’s attempt to glorify himself – his power and his influence. It was an extremely expensive monument to himself and proof positive of his self-consuming narcissism.
Whatever his genuine motives, in order to build this grand structure, a large area of the population had to be evacuated. Most of the city’s historic center was simply erased, including residential buildings, churches, shops, community centers, and even a hospital. Over a decade of work, dozens of architects, thousands of professionals and countless resources were invested in the construction of this monument.
Currently, this imposing building houses the Romanian Senate and the Romanian Chamber of Deputies, and it is also the headquarters of the Southeast European Cooperation Initiative. This massive structure is run like a small city, with comparable costs. Yet almost 70 percent of it remains empty at all times.
Construction of this almost 4 million square foot building had not been completed when the Romanian Revolution occurred and things changed radically. Ceauşescu was driven from power and executed. He never saw his grand project completed as it has remained unfinished to the present day. In 2020, 31 years later after the fall of communism in Romania, only 400 of its 1,100 rooms can actually be used. After the Revolution, there was little interest in completing the work on this gigantic building. In fact, some Romanian citizens called for its destruction because they viewed it as a symbol of Ceauşescu’s megalomania and as a twisted testimony to the extravagant lives lead by the former communist elites.
Without doubt, the Palace of the Parliament is one of the most controversial administrative buildings ever constructed. While Ceauşescu did not succeed in his initial goal of redesigning the face of Bucharest, he did succeed in bankrupting his country when he decided to build a “palace” for himself that would be 2 percent greater in capacity than the largest of the pyramids of Egypt. How large is this building? Some have claimed that it, along with the Great Wall of China, can be seen from space.
This massive structure required approximately 400 architects whose work was coordinated by a then 28-year-old woman named Anca Petrescu. The construction called for some 1.3 million cubic yards of marble and more than a million cubic yards of wood. The lavish interiors required 3,500 tons of crystal and 2.3 million square feet of carpet. All of the materials were said to be of Romanian origin except for the doors to the main hall. These were a gift from the African dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was then the President of the Republic of Zaire (today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
From its initial conception in Ceauşescu’s mind, this building was all about the size and little else. He set out to have the largest Palace of the Parliament in the world that could survive everything from an earthquake to a nuclear attack. But in the end his careful planning did not save him from an even more powerful force. His 4 billion dollar monument to himself fell to will of the people who rose up en masse and said, “enough!”