A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Friday 30 March 2018
The Communist Parties of late 20th century Eastern Europe never built things by half. The governments of Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine and others, built monuments the size of skyscrapers… and buildings more monumental than anything I’ve seen west of the former Iron Curtain. Perhaps the largest of all these structures though, is still being built today: the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania.
Bucharest suffered a severe earthquake in 1977, and Nicolae Ceaușescu, following a visit to North Korea, developed a plan to reconstruct parts of the capital in the style of Pyongyang. The construction campaign was known as ‘Project Bucharest’ and its centrepiece, overlooking a brand new district of imperiously Modernist boulevards, would be the colossal ‘Casa Republicii’ (‘House of the Republic’).
Construction of the palace started in 1984, with an inauguration ceremony attended by Ceaușescu. A whole district of Bucharest was flattened to make room for it – several monasteries, archives, a hospital and a number of factories and workshops were levelled, with some 40,000 people being displaced.
The work was undertaken by military building corps in addition to an army of forced labourers, who were put to work creating what would become one of the largest government buildings in the world: measuring 84m (275 feet) in height and with a total floor space of 365,000 square metres (3,930,000 square feet), it is ranked second only to the US Pentagon. Recorded estimates vary, but the workforce is quoted as having been between 20,000-100,000 people; and according to the stories as many as 3,000 people died during the construction process.
After the 1989 Romanian Revolution and the execution of Ceaușescu, the building changed its name from the Palace of the Republic to the Palace of the Parliament; though it is commonly now referred to as the ‘People’s House’ (‘Casa Poporului’). Out of a proposed 1,100 rooms, only around 400 have yet been completed – nevertheless, the palace has served ever since as the seat of the Parliament of Romania (despite Rupert Murdoch’s failed attempt at purchasing it for an offer of $1 billion).
Nowadays, guided tours lead visitors through a labyrinth of conference halls, meeting rooms and offices, arranged along lavish marble corridors bedecked with ornate chandeliers (a total of 480 chandeliers decorate the palace).
The photographs in this post were taken over the course of two such tours, one year apart.
On one of my visits to the palace, I was treated to a surprise. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was in Bucharest, preparing to perform his live show of The Wall – and the stage had been set up outside, in the road beneath the Palace of Parliament. Fences had been raised around the stage and the area designated for the crowd, with the back of the auditorium formed by the front wall of the palace.
I had passed by the stage on my way towards the palace entrance, and later, reaching a decadently furnished meeting hall on an upper floor of the building, I found myself emerging onto a balcony high above. Distant figures were arranging white bricks into a wall, for Roger Waters to come and knock them down again later that evening – and the speakers blasted out a soundcheck, filling the palace with the music of Pink Floyd.
I watched them work from the former dictator’s grand balcony-pulpit, as the sounds of In the Flesh: Part II drifted up to me from the stage. It was wonderfully, delightfully appropriate.
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