Monday, March 13, 2017

226. A Tourist's Ogle and a President's Folly

My time in Belgrade was over and after a day’s traveling – that included two flights and a three hour stop-over in Athen’s airport – I arrived at my next destination on my travels around the Balkans; Bucharest, Romania.

After settling in to my new Airbnb apartment, trying to get a sort-of-handle on a new language, working out a new currency, finding a good supermarket and discovering lots of new and interesting lines of food to fill my larder, buying a transport pass so that I can hop-on-and-off buses and trams without the hassle of buying separate tickets, and with the help of Mr Google and his Maps working out the best routes to the dozens of sights I have on my list - then transferring that info to my smarty-pants phone via MAPS-dot-ME - day three suddenly dawned and it was time to finally get out an about.

My first outing is to visit the extraordinary Palace of the Parliament - this massive building is the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon in the United States, and, known for its ornate interior comprising of 23 sections, is currently the seat of the Parliament of Romania, housing the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, three museums and an international conference center. 

And so the story unfolds ...

Bucharest suffered a massive earthquake on 4 March 1977, and the then President Nicolae Ceaușescu started a reconstruction plan of the city ( more on that in a future blog post ), and the People's House was to be the center of this project. Named Project Bucharest, it was an ambitious project of Ceausescu’s spouse - Elena - which began in 1978, as a replica of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

For its construction, a contest was organized by the government and won by 28 year-old Bucharest architect Anca Petrescu. The actual construction began on 25 June 1984 and initially should have been completed in only two years but the term was then extended until 1990, and even now building is not finalized. Only 400 rooms and two meeting rooms are finished and used, out of a staggering 1,100 rooms.

The building was erected on Uranus Hill that covered some 7 sq kms of the old city centre – the project involved demolishing the National Archives building, Văcărești Monastery, Brâncovenesc Hospital, as well as about 37 factories and various workshops, and 40,000 people were relocated from this area. The works were carried out with forced labor of soldiers minimizing the costs to a certain extent - even so, in 1989 building costs were estimated at US$1.75 billion, and in 2006 at US$3 billion. 

Between 20,000 and 100,000 people worked on the site, sometimes operating in three shifts around the clock. Thousands of people died working on the site – some authorities mention a figure of 3,000 people.

With a height of 84 m, an area of 365,000 m2 and having a volume of 2,550,000 m3, it is also the fourth biggest building in the world, after the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan, Mexico, and the Pentagon. In terms of weight, it is the heaviest building in the world, weighing in at around 4,098,500,000 kg. 

The building has eight underground levels, the last one being an antiatomic bunker, linked to the main state institutions by 20 km of catacombs. Nicolae Ceaușescu obviously feared a nuclear war. The bunker is a room with 1.5 m thick concrete walls and cannot be penetrated by radiation. The shelter is composed of the main hall – headquarters that had to have telephone connections with all military units in Romania – and several residential apartments for state leadership, in case of war.

For comparison, the building exceeds by 2% the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza – and because of its weight, it is estimated that the building sinks by 6 mm each year.

Unfortunately the public are currently not allowed into the building as they are up-grading the security system. I have however sent off an email requesting permission to visit the halls, and so maybe before I leave Bucharest they will reopen  visitor access.

The building materials list is staggering – and includes : 3,500 tonnes of crystal – 480 chandeliers, 1,409 ceiling lights and mirrors were manufactured; 700,000 tonnes of steel and bronze for monumental doors and windows, chandeliers and capitals; 900,000 m3 of wood (over 95% domestic) for parquet flooring, including walnut, oak, sweet cherry, elm, sycamore maple; 200,000 m2 of woolen carpets of various dimensions (machines had to be moved inside the building to weave some of the larger carpets); velvet and brocade curtains adorned with embroideries and passementeries in silver and gold. The Palace's famous crystal chandeliers were manufactured at Vitrometan Mediaș glass factory. The manufacture of the 480 chandeliers took two years.

The doors of Nicolae Bălcescu Hall were received by Ceaușescu as a gift from his friend Mobutu Sese Seko, the President of Zaire.

Between 2003 and 2004 a glass annex was built alongside external elevators.This was done to facilitate access to the National Museum of Contemporary Art opened in 2004 inside the west wing of the Palace.

Unfortunately ( for them that is ... ) Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu never got to see their folly completed ... as communism  fell around the Soviet Block countries and revolution took hold in Romania, the Ceausescus lost their grip on power and following mass demonstrations around the country and the overthrow of the Communist Government, they were arrested trying to flee Romania, and on Christmas Day, 25 December 1989, in a small room the Ceaușescus were tried before a kangaroo court convened on orders of the National Salvation Front, Romania's provisional government. 

They faced charges including illegal gathering of wealth and genocide. Ceaușescu repeatedly denied the court's authority to try him, and asserted he was still legally president of Romania. At the end of the quick show trial the Ceaușescus were found guilty and sentenced to death. A soldier standing guard in the proceedings was ordered to take the Ceaușescus out back one by one and shoot them, but the Ceaușescus demanded to die together.
The Ceaușescus were executed by a gathering of soldiers: the firing squad began shooting as soon as the two were in position against a wall. Before his sentence was carried out, Nicolae Ceaușescu sang "The Internationale" while being led up against the wall.

Due to its impressive endowments, conferences, symposiums and other events are organised by state institutions and international bodies, but even so, about 70% of the building remains empty.

In 1990, Australian business magnate Rupert Murdoch wanted to buy the building for US$1 billion, but his bid was rejected. His plan then was to turn the site into a resort with hotels, entertainment halls etc etc ... Today the Palace of the Parliament is valued at around US$4 billion making it the most expensive administrative building in the world. The cost of heating and electric lighting alone exceeds US$6 million per year - as much as a medium-sized city … !!! …

The only entry onto the property - to visit the Gallery only - is way around the back, through a guarded gate ( after being quizzed by a guard … ) and up a long driveway under the gaze of guards – one of whom yelled at me for taking photos of the outside of the building … !!! … then before I could enter the Gallery, I had to undergo an airport-type security check ( x-ray, belt off, shoes off, empty pockets etc etc – you know the drill ) – but once inside, cameras were allowed and the Gallery staff were charming …  

Phew ... it was exhausting just walking around two sides of the block to get in to the Contemporary Art Gallery - then walking back again to catch my bus home ... but wow, what a structure and what a despot's folly ...

 In my next blog post I'll take you inside the equally impressive Gallery ...