Monday, March 31, 2008

NATO leaders will glimpse Romanian dictator's dreams

By Justyna PawlakSun Mar 30, 8:07 AM ET

When NATO leaders meet in Bucharest on Wednesday, they will be granted an inside glimpse of the megalomaniac dreams of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's communist-era dictator.

The Alliance's April 2-4 summit will be held in the giant Parliament Palace, built in the 1980s on the orders of Ceausescu to reflect his power and his vision of a mighty state.

Romanian guidebooks tout the building as the world's second largest after the Pentagon. Architects lament the demolition of Bucharest's historic centre, with its churches, synagogues and unique Modernist villas, to make room for construction.

The building is in some ways a monument to the scars inflicted on Romania by the late Ceausescu's brutal policies.

At the time of construction, its ostentatious excess contrasted with the harsh living conditions endured by ordinary Romanians, whose food was rationed to near starvation levels and whose heating came on for a few hours a day, if at all.

Almost 20 years after Ceausescu's execution in 1989 during a bloody revolution against his regime, authorities are still struggling to modernize the dilapidated city, get its chaotic traffic moving and ease the poverty of many inhabitants.

"The palace is a very good illustration of the totalitarian way of seeing the relationship between people and their leaders," said Mariana Celac, an architect and Ceausescu-era dissident.

"It has walls, boundaries, locked gates and huge distances to be walked through, presumably with humility."

Ceausescu, who initially named the building "House of the People," was once quoted as saying the Palace would become Romania's "Acropolis."

"I need something grand, something very grand, that reflects what we have already achieved," he is reported to have said.


Thousands of tonnes of crystal, marble and wood were hauled to Bucharest from across Romania for the construction of the Palace, with its sprawling corridors and glitzy halls, as well as secret tunnels and a nuclear bunker.

The security features, a testimony to Ceausescu's fears of attack, might still be useful during the April NATO meeting if the Alliance's leaders were to come under threat, said its designer and chief architect, Anca Petrescu.

"The building is prepared for a high degree of security," she said.

Ceausescu and his feared wife Elena regularly inspected the construction site. Some 40,000 residents were evicted to make way for the palace, and many were housed in the drab apartment blocs that now make up large swathes of Bucharest, rusting and crumbling only a couple of decades after being built.

Petrescu said six people died in accidents during the construction of the 3,000-room building, which now contains both of Romania's chambers of parliament, an art museum and a vast conference venue.

The Palace's eclectic facade is replete with soaring marble columns. Together with matching tower blocs nearby -- inspired by North Korean architecture -- it looms over Bucharest.

"During construction, the entire (national) production of stone was reserved. Marble was banned for private use," said Celac.

Bucharest was once a quietly elegant capital, with tree-lined boulevards and discreet villas designed by progressive Modernist architects in the 1920s and 30s.

At the start of World War Two it was considered one of Europe's most advanced in terms of urban planning.

But after Ceausescu's demolitions, two earthquakes and free-for-all construction that marred Romania's sluggish transition from communism to democracy, the city is struggling to regain its style.

This leaves Ceausescu's palace as its biggest tourist attraction. Despite being widely considered a monstrosity, its sheer size means it isn't going away soon -- and it does have its uses.

Romanian President Traian Basescu, asked by Reuters what he thought of the building, was diplomatic.

"In my mind this building is relevant for a single reason. It is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. Period," he joked.

(Additional reporting by Iulia Rosca and Luiza Ilie; reporting by Justyna Pawlak; editing by Andrew Roche)

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