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Power and Error - The People's Palace in Bucharest
by Stirred Up!
2007-06-29 08:52:02
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After the fall of totalitarian regimes in 1989, former communist countries have chosen different ways of dealing with the legacy of the past. One important question is what to do with the monumental buildings inherited from the previous regime.

The two extreme examples are Berlin and Bucharest. In the German capital every sign of the past communist presence has become undesirable. In a city previously destroyed by bombing and divided by the Wall, Berliners have acknowledged their past and looked into their history and collective memory. Recently, after numerous debates, Berlin went ahead and demolished the central Palast der Republik and began the nostalgic gesture of rebuilding the 18th century Royal Castle.

One third of central Bucharest was demolished. Exactly the opposite is happening in Romania. Ceausescu’s People’s House, or People’s Palace, was still under construction during his overthrow in 1989 but has since become the headquarters of the new democratic government. Renamed the Parliament Palace, it has become a symbol of the country and a main tourist destination. Since 2004 it also hosts the National Museum for Contemporary Art. The convergence of art and politics in the Palace has been a very controversial decision.

Ceausescu conceived the palace as a great legacy for his Golden Epoch. It was meant to last forever; it is indestructible and was built to resist a nuclear attack. It is the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon. The building follows in the tradition of everlasting monumental buildings, such as the Pyramids, conceived for the eternal lives of the Pharaohs. Like the great constructions of Antiquity, the Palace was built on slave labour and many sacrifices. Twenty thousand workers, many of them soldiers, toiled around the clock while the entire country was brought to economic disaster for the Realisation of the Great Dream.

The building itself is Piranesian and labyrinthic. It contains as many floors below ground as above and a whole system of bunkers and tunnels. To ensure secrecy, the architects were not allowed to have an overview of the site, so the construction proceeded chaotically. Nowadays, despite the glamour of the Parliament Chambers and the neutral spaces of the Museum, parts of the building remain unfinished and some are already decaying.

The People's Palace under construction While Ceausescu’s Palace is an obvious reality, less known and documented are the demolished districts it replaced. Four hundred hectares of built environment, one third of the old centre of Bucharest, were rased to the ground for the Palace and Civic Centre project. Uranus Hill was completely flattened. Thousands of houses and historical monuments were demolished. Centuries old churches were destroyed or relocated, secreted away on a complicated rail system. Some of the most historical and picturesque quarters of Bucharest were turned into desolate wastelands. Around 40,000 people were displaced to poorly built districts at the periphery of the city, with little eviction notice nor compensation for their losses.

Documentation related to the history of the area is now scarce and people’s memories are often confused, as the Communist government sought to keep public information to a minimum. For instance, despite its scale and implications, the project was never mentioned in the only Romanian architectural journal of the time, Arhitectura. Even today, archives are not easily accessible, and bureaucracy and indifference prevail. Younger generations simply assume that Ceausescu’s building has always been there.

This collective amnesia seems to fit various interests. The presence of the government in a building loaded with the symbolism of the Communist dictatorship is not only unchallenged, but contemporary official discourse also reinforces this legacy. The danger is that unless Romanians go through a process of understanding the mistakes of the past they will repeat them.

New urban planning proposals for the city include the construction of a Cathedral of the People, initially to be placed along the axis of the massive boulevard created as part of Ceausescu’s project. After much controversy and several proposed changes of location, the Cathedral will be raised next to the Palace. The initiative belongs to the same ecclesiastical system that, during the 1980s, endorsed the destruction or removal of existing historic churches. The mayor’s current proposed solution for Bucharest’s traffic problem includes the widening of streets and the creation of a North-South boulevard. This implies yet more demolition of old buildings or, if they are of particular significance, their relocation.

In 1996 an international competition to develop an urban plan for Bucharest was held and hundreds of entries were received. Many interesting solutions were developed for weaving the old streets with the new, and for integrating and ‘taming’ the entire Civic Centre. The winners were a German team, Von Gerkan and Partners, but neither theirs nor any other proposal is now being considered. Part of the relevant land is in the hands of private developers, who naturally have their own, often competing, interests. This land was stolen by the Communist regime from its owners, legitimated by the new democratic government, then sold to private investors. Meanwhile, within the Palace, the Parliament protests when Communist crimes are publicly condemned and suspends the President when he fights corruption: a never-ending circle of errors.

Text by Ioana Marinescu
From Stirred Up

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Paparella2007-06-29 12:36:45
That is a good point: unless Rumanians go through the process of learning from the mistakes of the past they are condemned to repeat them.

Tony Judt, in his voluminous book title Europe after World War II, says that when people want to "misremember," that is to say, pay lip service to certain historical events without learning anything from them, they build a monument or a museum and then go about their business without reflecting on the lessons of the past.

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