My first apartment, a rental in one of Bucharest proletarian grey apartment buildings, was a whopping 422 square feet. You get new skills when you live in such a small place: I am absolutely sure that whoever started IKEA lived in that very apartment. And after that invented the Walkman, and then went on to give the world the first laptop. It was that small! It was a magical place…if you want to get a Nobel prize in nanotechnology two decades from now, ask me about where this apartment is, will be happy to share the address with you.
Now, my apartment was not that different than a lot of living spaces in the grey buildings surrounding Bucharest center. The main irony of that apartment was not that it was small.
While I was there, our Commander in Chief, Mr. Nicolae Ceausescu, was building a 3.6 million square feet residence. It was called “The People’s House” then.
How big is the Palace of Parliament?
The Guinness Book of Records has the Palace of Parliament at the top of the list in three categories:
- the largest civilian building in the world, and second largest building in the world, by square footage (the largest building in the world is the Pentagon);
- the heaviest building in the world;
- the largest building in the world by volume – 2% more than the Pyramid of Giza. You know this – the one built over 20 years by two gangs of 100,000 people each.
Not in the book of records, but it was designed by a 28 year old architect, Anca Petrescu. It is now called the Parliament Palace, as only the Parliament can foot the bill for such a residence.
The building was started in 1984, and was finished in 1989. 20,000 workers and 700 architects were sent to build the House, and worked three shifts, 24×7, to finish it. The work and raw materials (a paltry 35 million cubic foot of marble and 8 million pounds of crystal for the 2,800 candelabra were used for construction) were mostly free, based on conscripted work.
There were never any documents found on accounting for the workforce or materials payments. Remember, this was Central planning economy at it’s best.
Its estimated cost, in today’s money, is between 3 and 6 billion dollars, in a country where the yearly GDP was about 17 billion dollars. To put things in perspective, the slightly larger Pentagon building is the headquarter of an organization with a budget of 640 billion dollars.
To fund the project, food, electricity and heat rationing were prevalent. I still recall that, being a student in Bucharest during these years, we were not allowed to buy eggs, cooking oil or sugar – rationed foods at that time. The food stores were mostly empty, with shining shelves and non-smiling staff checking on why you wonder in their mostly empty store, like wanting the protect the little they had for sale.
The making of the People’s House
When you look at the sheer size of the building, and the boulevard in front of it (Victory of Socialism Boulevard, when was built), the mind wonders to Haussmann’s and Napoleon III reconstruction of Paris in the middle of the 19th century.
Similar to that, this was not an empty field, but was the very center of Bucharest – forty thousand buildings were razed to make space for the “House of the People”. To put things in perspective, this is an area the size of Venice.
The strategic placement of the building on top of a historical hill had a very important objective: to make the building visible from every corner of Bucharest – an omnipotent surveillance vantage point that intended to dominate Bucharest citizens.
Despite the extremely high costs, and the association with the former regime, I found that Romanians are proud of the building, and the fact was done completely with materials from within its borders. Looks like time has put things in perspective.
How to visit the Palace of Parliament
You can get a tour for about 8 USD, with visiting hours between 10 and 3:30 – reservations info here. Make sure you have your passport with you. There are several options for the tour – the Terrace tour gives you a great view of Bucharest, and I recommend that one. Will not spoil the tour with other pictures.
And in case you are wondering, the tiny apartment is still there, and still available for rent. For the yearly rent the old lady is asking for, you can rent a large room for a morning meeting in the Palace of Parliament. Living large in the largest civilian building in the world, you know.
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