Bucharest—A City With Two Faces
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN ROMANIA
AT FIRST SIGHT, the skyline of Bucharest seems dominated by a single structure—the Palace of Parliament (1), known during the Communist era as the House of the People. This austere building, among the largest in the world, is one of the city’s main tourist attractions.
In some ways the palace represents the modern face of Bucharest. But local feelings about the massive building are ambivalent. Residents hope that visitors will also appreciate their city’s other face—the attractive architecture of its past.
The Capital of Yesteryear
In 1862, Bucharest was proclaimed capital of the state of Romania. During the second half of the 19th century, the city developed rapidly. One after another, impressive yet graceful public edifices designed by French architects appeared along the leafy avenues. Because of Bucharest’s many parks, gardens, and squares, it came to be called a garden city. Bucharest was also among the first cities in the world to be illuminated with oil-burning street lamps. In 1935 the Arch of Triumph (2), inspired by the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, was erected on beautiful Kiseleff Avenue. The city’s picturesque appearance might have made a Frenchman feel at home. In fact, Bucharest was even nicknamed Little Paris of the East.
After World War II, Bucharest, under Communist rule, experienced dramatic change. About a third of the downtown area, which encompassed many historic architectural monuments, was razed to make room for apartment blocks. During 1960 and 1961 alone, some 23,000 apartments were built. In 1980, planning began for the House of the People. It was eventually equipped with hundreds of chandeliers and a bomb shelter 300 feet [90 m] below ground. With its more than 3,875,000 square feet [360,000 sq m] of floor space, 12 stories, and 1,100 rooms, it is three times the size of France’s Palace of Versailles. Vast areas in the old part of town were cleared to construct the palace and the grand boulevard—wider than the Champs-Élysées—that sweeps up to the facade of the building. To those who knew Bucharest as it was before, the city became virtually unrecognizable.
For many local residents, the palace’s imposing presence is a grim reminder of its builder—the late dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. Driven by the desire to erect a monument to himself, he marshaled almost 700 architects and tens of thousands of workers, who toiled on the project in three shifts around the clock. When his regime collapsed in 1989, the building was still unfinished, although by then it had already cost more than a billion dollars.
In the portion of the old town that remains, a very different face of the city can be seen. There you can still admire the elegant architecture of old Bucharest. And at the Village Museum (3)—one of its many museums—you can get a sense of the culturally varied atmosphere of rural Romania. In a tranquil park overlooking a lake, more than 50 peasant homes and other structures from all over Romania were reassembled piece by piece, creating a fascinating collection. Each house is a museum in itself, displaying the tools, trades, and home environment of a Romania very different from today’s Bucharest.
There is little demarcation between historic and modern quarters of this city. It is not unusual to see neighboring structures from widely different epochs (4). Thus, the two faces of Bucharest stand side by side in a city that embraces both past and present.
[Pictures on page 10]
1 Palace of Parliament
2 Arch of Triumph
3 Village Museum
4 Neighboring structures from widely different epochs
© Sari Gustafsson/hehkuva/age fotostock