The Palace of Parliament, Bucharest

It is not the symbol anyone in Bucharest would choose for their city, but the massive Palace of Parliament lands in every visitor’s awareness like a walrus in the penguin exhibit. Conceived by infamous dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu after an inspiring trip to North Korea, and nourished in the amniotic blend of ego and financial unaccountability that only a dictator can manage, this massive building punches its piece of Romanian history onto the cityscape.

(To be honest, this is the less impressive side, but it was 102 degrees that day, so I spaced on getting the front. This blog shows it better.)

The factoids are striking. The world’s heaviest building (4,098,500,000 kilograms) and larger by volume than the Great Pyramid at Giza, it’s sinking 6 mm per year as it compacts the very earth below. A million cubic meters of marble, and nearly as much (900k) wood for intricately decorative parquet and wainscoting. Add 3,500 tons of crystal for 480 chandeliers (our guide said 2,800 but that can’t be right, can it?) and special machines were brought in to weave together massive carpets to cover 200,000 of the total 365,000 square meters of floor space. (The vast majority of those materials were sourced and processed in Romania.) It houses both chambers of Romanian Parliament, three museums, and an international conference center (that hosted NATO’s 20th annual summit, in 2008).

It is the third largest administrative building in the world, but is the single most expensive to run, costing over $6 million per year in utilities alone (comparable to powering a medium-sized city). This is despite the fact that it’s 70% empty. Initially estimated to take two years to build, they stopped after 13, having finished two large meeting halls and 400 additional rooms (out of the planned 1,100) but why finish when it’s clearly excessive? This choice could be made because the megalomaniac who began it had been overthrown by the 1989 revolution, five years into construction.

About 7 square kilometers of Old Town Bucharest were bulldozed to build it, which displaced 50,000 people (according to our guide). At that point, 20,000 to 100,000 workers were brought in, mostly “volunteers” supervised by 5,000 soldiers (and over 700 architects). The tour tried to be honest in facing the darker aspects of the past, but they left that one out.

At the end of the tour, it’s natural to have two responses. On the one hand, the sweeping marble staircases, grand promenading halls, and impressive craftsmanship (the wood carving in particular stood out to me) are undeniably striking, both in scale and extravagance. It’s like someone took DNA from Versailles, blended it with one of those mega shopping malls, and left it in the agar far too long. Then spent $3,000,000,000 on it.

(The rumor on this room is that the ceiling slides back to allow a helicopter to land. It would definitely be big enough.)

But especially after walking the decaying streets of Bucharest, it’s also inevitable to wonder what all that money could have done if it had not been poured into an ego project. That’s a dangerous moment. Because ask that question, certainly, but then apply it to all the other places and projects that aren’t quite as ostentatious and egregious as this one. (Personally, I’d start with the Palace’s even bigger brother, the Pentagon, with its incomprehensibly expensive military arms unseen but screaming.) The Palace of Parliament itself might be a quintessentially 1980’s Romanian thing, but the phenomenon is not.