Anca Petrescu, the chief architect behind the Palace of the People in central Bucharest, had never been able to escape the legacy of the controversial building that came to define her: it is a building that still dominates the skyline of the Romanian capital—and a constant reminder of the dark days of Communism in one of the European Union’s newest member states.
The monolithic Palace of the People remains one of the lasting symbols of Nicolae Ceausescu's totalitarian regime. He never occupied the building; the first rooms were completed just months before he and his wife were executed live on television during the revolution of 1989.
Petrescu, who died following a car accident that had initially left her in a coma, was just 32 when she was made chief architect of a project that would gobble up an estimated 30% of Romania’s national budget while under construction (accurate accounting was not kept), and required around 20,000 people working in three shifts, around the clock, irrespective of the season, for seven years.
By some estimates 30,000 residents were forced to leave their homes to make way for the grandiose structure, which even today remains one of the world's largest administrative buildings (second only to the Pentagon). A million cubic metres of marble were used in its construction, as well as 3,500 tonnes of crystal, 3,500 square metres of leather and over 200,000 square metres of carpets. To make way for the building an entire district of historic Bucharest was razed to the ground, including some 9,000 houses as well as churches and synagogues.
Petrescu was vilified by some, and never publicly apologised for her role in the destruction of the historic heart of Bucharest. Monica Lotreanu, a Romanian architect and art historian, wrote in 2004 that: “In none of her statements did Anca Petrescu show the least remorse for having built her "creation" on the site of whole blocks of traditional buildings…places of worship and other historical or architectural monuments wiped off the face of the earth by the will of the "demolition angel" Ceausescu.”
Following the 1989 revolution the fate of the Palace was initially uncertain. Some were in favour of demolishing a symbol of the waste and brutal totalitarianism under Ceausescu. Ohers suggested looking beyond the negative associations. In the end, with few other options, the building was taken over by the Romanian parliament, senate and the constitutional court. In 2004, a modern art museum was added to the grounds.
In 1990 a group of architects tried to have Petrescu charged with the misuse of national assets. The charge went nowhere, but Petrescu was ostracised from her profession and received death threats. She moved to France to practise.
She eventually returned to Bucharest, to continue work on the building that had long defined her. Moving into an office inside the Palace of the People, she worked on redesigns and modifications to a structure not built for practicality, nor modern comfort (central air conditioning was not installed, for fear of a poison gas attack on the system). Later she ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Bucharest and became a member of parliament for the nationalist Greater Romania Party.
The building Petrescu designed still dwarfs much of its surroundings and continues to be a stark reminder of a brutal period in the country’s history. In August Pink Floyd performed The Wall in the plaza in front of the building. Roger Waters poignantly entoned “We don’t need no thought control” for a crowd of young Romanians born as the Communist era was coming to a close.