We come from a place where everything is supposed to be bigger. And I’m not just talking about America – I’m talking about Texas. Many visitors have likely heard the phrase: “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” After all, our capitol building is slightly taller than the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. But there’s something different about monumentality in Bucharest. It’s everywhere. And it’s most conspicuous in the massive, over-the-top, extremely excessive Palace of the Parliament.
Walk down any of the main, six-lane avenues in Bucharest, and you’ll immediately notice the monumental architecture. Every structure from bank buildings to museums to universities appears grander, and built from more stone, than necessary. Hulking, communist-era concrete monoliths stand sullenly next to elegant, if slightly worn and dirty, Neo-classical tower- and dome-topped concert halls. Every major street feels like an epic processional way just waiting for massive motorcades to glide along under the shadows of the behemoths rising up on either side.
But one building stands out from the rest, dominating the wide-open space around it, as the largest building in Romania. The Casa Poporului, renamed the Palace of the Parliament, is the 2nd largest government building in the world after the Pentagon. The Palace does hold the distinction of being the heaviest building on earth. It weighs in at over 4 billion kg of steel, Transylvanian marble, and wood. In case you were worried it would be boring, 3,500 metric tons of crystal adorn 480 chandeliers throughout the palace. Astonishingly, all of the materials used in construction were sourced from Romania (except a special set of doors gifted by the president of what was then Zaire). If all the lights were turned on, the amount of electricity would power a mid-sized Romanian city. Fun fact: Rupert Murdoch tried to purchase the building in 1990 for $1 billion – but his offer was declined.
You might be wondering – who on earth commissioned such a project? It was Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s controversial communist leader during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. After a massive earthquake hit Bucharest in 1977, Ceausescu decided to rebuild and restructure the city. He demolished roughly 20% of the old town, destroying multiple churches, synagogues, and 30,000 homes – all to make way for his grand redevelopment project.
Wanting to prove that Romania was rich and powerful, he hired 400 architects, led by a 28 year old woman named Anca Petrescu, to design and build one of the largest structures in the world. Construction began in 1984 and was only scheduled for two years. But when Ceausescu was arrested and executed in 1989 following years of increasingly brutal rule, the building was only 60% finished. After pouring in over 1.5 billion euros to the project, and moving almost all remaining materials on site, demolition would have been more expensive than completion. Roughly 3 billion euros were spent when all was said and done, making the palace the most expensive government building in the world.
Ceausescu’s legacy lives on today in this slightly spooky, somewhat eerie, largely unused monument to a megalomaniacal ruler. Most lights are not turned on during the day, and our tour guide briefly flipped dozens of switches as we moved from large stateroom to truly massive ballroom. Huge carpets cover much of the 360,000 square feet of space inside the building, and they display the same patterns as the marble floors underneath them. We saw only 2% of the palace on our hour and a half tour – I believe you could wander (and get lost) for days and not see every room.
Today, various branches of the government use the palace for their daily business. It remains a functional building, but I couldn’t help feeling a little sad, overwhelmed, and lost as we wandered through the echoing halls. So many resources (20,000 builders worked in 24 hour shifts for years to build it) and so much space wasted to satisfy the desires of a tyrant. It’s no wonder that there’s not really any other building like it in the whole world.