The Madman’s House

Originally officially called Casa Republicii (House of the Republic), then Casa Poporului (People’s House – irony, presumably), and currently Palatul Parliamentului (Palace of Parliament), the unofficial but popular name seems to fit just perfectly.

Back in 1984, when a huge swathe of the city was cleared at a day’s notice to the residents, few people would have thought that Nicolae Ceaușescu’s plans would result in something that benefitted the average Romanian citizen. But the reduction in rations that was needed to pay for this would probably have come as a surprise to most. The end result? I’m fairly sure nobody would have expected this.

Even today, it’s apparently the second biggest building in the world, by volume, after the Pentagon. It’s clearly huge as you wander towards it, but then you just keep approaching. It’s not only 270m wide, but it’s also 240m deep. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s 86m high. Above ground. There’s another 82m below ground… It looks a bit lost in the plot, too – set inside large grassy slopes, the total road frontage must be at least 500m.

Even the sheer size of it doesn’t quite demonstrate the full obscenity of the project, either. It’s huge, sure. But it’s also cram-packed with the sort of list of materials that you really don’t expect to find in real life. The wood panelling everywhere? Carved by hand, with exquisite inlaid details. Those marble columns? They’re marble-cladding around a concrete or brick core, right, like virtually every other marble column post-Romans? Nope, they’re solid marble. The huge single-sheet mirrors, together with the similarly huge windows in various internal doors? They’re not glass. They’re crystal. The curtains? Hand-woven and embroidered. By nuns. All of them. Just one set, alone, weighs a quarter of a ton. The carpets? Made, of course, specifically for every single room. In a single piece. So why the seams visible today? Ah. That’s because they were too large to actually transport and install, so had to be cut up and re-joined. In one room, the carpet requires seventy people to roll and move it. Unfortunately, that’s the ballroom – the only room where the carpet is required to be moved regularly. Which does seem a shame in a way, since underneath every carpet, every single floor is individually and exquisitely detailed…

Then there’s the chandeliers. All 4,500 of them. The largest is so heavy that it can’t even be lowered to change a bulb or clean it. So what to do? Aha. That’s easy. Just have a “secret” room above, from which the workers can climb down into the chandelier and walk around inside it…

Only 4,500 chandeliers? That’s because of that pesky revolution. If only that’d been held off for a bit longer, the place could have been properly finished, and all 11,000 planned would have been installed. By late 1989, when Nicolae had to run for the helicopter, and promptly wished he hadn’t, the palace was more-or-less structurally finished, but the fittings-and-furnishings were a good chunk away. The incoming government faced a very difficult choice. Should they keep and finish this monstrosity, or should they cut their losses and construct something more modest? They were going to need something as a parliament building – but there was certainly no need for this scale. It was decided that, even factoring the ongoing costs in (a team of about 800 full-time cleaners is required, before you start to count the rest of the maintenance staff needed), it was cheaper to finish off what was underway than to start from scratch.

And so, today, the building is in use for a variety of purposes. It’s not only the home of both upper and lower houses of government, but it also houses offices for representatives, senators and their staff. It’s also a conference venue and the Modern Art museum. Then there’s the tours around, bringing plenty of revenue in. And, even with all of that lot, it’s still far from fully utilised.

When we first found the palace, we couldn’t join onto a tour – we’d not brought our passports with us. Given how far we’d walked to find the place, then to find the entrance (Signs? What are they?), we were a bit less than chuffed. Still, it did mean that instead of just grabbing the next – last for the day – English language tour, we could find out the schedule for the next day. Which is why we joined the full tour, including roof & underground, instead of the “normal” tour. Also – remember I said it’s a conference venue? That first attempt was on the Friday – and, because of a telecoms conference, we’d have been restricted to just a tiny handful of rooms. Instead, the Saturday was after the conference’s finish – so we got the full version of the tour. And, no, there wouldn’t have been any reduction in ticket price to reflect the 70% reduction in the tour’s scope…

A guided tour is essential. Not just because of security (and there’s more of that than in a few airports), but because of that sheer scale. We were very lucky – our guide not only spoke excellent English, but also displayed a very healthy sense of irreverance and a willingness to drift off-message for a good anecdote. And that’s how we found out the truth about the graceful double staircase into the reception lobby. When meeting a dignitary, Nicolae C would take one, whilst his wife, Elena, would use the other. They’d then meet in the middle, before walking together towards the impressed visitor.

But, of course, it’s difficult to create a suitable impression from _any_ old stairs. And that’s why they were redesigned not just a couple of times, but a total of seven times. Each time, a full-scale model was submitted for approval, failing miserably. Allegedly, Nic was a little bit sensitive about his lack of physical stature, and particularly so when it came to descending stairs. He liked the height of each riser, and the width of each tread, to be just so – that way, he wouldn’t need to watch his feet, and could just descend using his natural gait whilst looking straight ahead.

Apart from the actual parliamentary chambers – we were shown the firmly closed doors, and told they were never open to the public – we wandered from hall to hall, wowed at every turn by the sheer opulence. And, yet, there was a certain incongruity about it all – you walked into a fabulously luxuriant chamber, every detail gorgeous – except the tables are all covered in discarded glossy brochures and cables for microphones leading back to the flimsy row of cubicles housing the simultaneous translators. Some of the hand-made carpets are starting to look threadbare, especially around the should-never-have-been-there seams. Walls are already cracking and peeling badly in places – not least around the joins between the three buildings. Three? Yes, three. The palace isn’t just one structure, but three completely separate structures with a gap of an inch or two between them – Bucharest is very earthquake-prone, and this is one way that the architects tried to provide seismic protection.

When the tour reached the roof terrace, further evidence of the construction quality was very clear, in the large rifts and folds in the concrete of the roof structure. Looking out over the surroundings from the terrace also showed the reality of the abrupt cessation of the project. Over twenty years later, the rear of the building opens onto nothing but scrubby wasteland where further grandiose plans should have been realised. There’s a building site for a new cathedral, currently just about to floor level. But that’s it. Nothing else but weeds. To be honest, the roof tour wasn’t that compelling. By the time the group had all got the lift up, and had a quick once-around, it was almost time to start waiting for the lift back down again.

The underground section of the tour was also a little uninspiring – a quick wander through some air-conditioning ducting to have a look at some display boards with photos of various stages of construction, then off to find “the last remaining communist party symbol in the palace” – a piece of peeling cardboard. The tunnels to various ministries, the airport and – of course – to Chez Ceaușescu? They never happened. The nuclear shelter? Never got off the plans.

Or did they? Perhaps it wasn’t just the “secret” passage for bodyguards (and, p’raps, a handy escape route) to just behind Nic’s seat in the main party council chamber which was finished – the outline of the door clearly visible in the panelling. Who knows?

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1 Response to The Madman’s House

  1. Pingback: Bucharest | Wherever the road goes…

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