18 July 2004

Ceausescu's Mother of All Palaces

Andrei Codrescu, in The Hole in the Flag (Avon Books, 1991) cites the belief in Bucharest that architects were among the greatest criminals of Ceausescu's rule.
Early the next day, on January 3 [1990], we went to interview the chief architect of Bucharest. He was one of the men responsible for implementing Ceausescu's policy of sistematizare, including the destruction of Damieni [and other rural villages and relocation of villagers into urban blocks of apartments]. That this man was still in place was amazing in itself, but that he was still in charge was even more amazing. A guard in front of the building asked us where we were going. We told him. "The devil," he said, "is going to fry that man in a piss pot. He's under arrest up there."

As it turned out, he wasn't really under arrest but was really in charge. Or partly under arrest and partly in charge. No one knew for sure. The ministry building--the chief architect has ministerial rank--was a pretty turn-of-the century Victorian house. The two soldiers guarding the inner entrance barely glanced at our passports. There was little sense here of the emergency gripping the media or the front buildings. And yet it was here, more than anywhere else, that the evil of Ceausescu's dream was made manifest. Dozens of historical monuments, churches, and architectural treasures had been demolished to make room for Ceausescu's self-glorifying monuments. Gone was the beautiful Vacaresti Monastery, where I had once looked at icons, with its twin Byzantine towers, shady porticoes, and long galleries. Gone also were many old mysteries of my student years where I'd hidden to write poetry and dream. An old city is a sort of wilderness. Destroying it is the same as destroying a forest, an ecological crime. Ceausescu's forest of apartment blocks, which stands over the ghosts of my youth, is regarded by many as the most ambitious construction project in Europe. But the presidential palace, built over the three layers of secret tunnels, is the regime's most grimly symbolic building. Its floor space is more than 400,000 square feet and thirteen stories. There are great chandeliers over the immense marble staircase. The central area for receptions is as big as a football field, 240 feet long and 90 feet wide, with tower ceilings covered in gold leaf or pink gypsum. The five-ton chandelier over the main staircase consumes more electricity than two Romanian villages. At the time when average people's apartments were required to use sixty-watt bulbs, the palace devoured eighty-five thousand watts. The marble columns are hand-carved. It is three times the size of Versailles and bigger than the Pentagon. Fifty thousand people lost their homes, so that the site for it could be cleared when construction began in 1984. Its cost has run to more than a billion dollars, and whole industries were set up to feed the palace's demands for marble and lumber. Construction accidents claimed twenty lives. And yet ... the palace is only two thirds finished! The reason is that the Ceausescus inspected the building every week and ordered rooms, staircases, and decorations already built to be destroyed and started again. Like insane minotaurs at the center of an ever-growing maze, the couple tried to put traps and walls between them and their fate. The roof had to be built and rebuilt several times and was never finished.

Their story is reminiscent of the legend of Master Manole, the builder of Neagoe Basarab's Castle on the Arges in the 16th century. That edifice, the ruins of which can still be seen in forbidding starkness over the Arges River, could not be made to stand no matter how hard its builders worked. Every time their work seemed finished, the building collapsed. One night Master Builder Manole had a dream that the only way to finish the building was to build someone alive into the wall. The three builders decided that the first of their wives to come with lunch next day would be sacrificed to the castle. The two older men told their wives to stay home, but young Manole didn't. His beautiful young wife came and was immured in the castle wall. To this day, say local legends, you can hear her crying and lamenting on certain nights, not understanding how her husband could have been so cruel to her. One can say that symbolically the Romanian nation was likewise nearly sacrificed on Master Builder Ceausescu's orders.
After we arrived in Bucharest in 1983, and before the weather got too cold, we used to take long walks along the major boulevards exploring the fascinating architecture of the older parts of the city and the depressing architecture of the newer parts. I remember one day wandering into Rahova Street and seeing block after block of complete rubble. When we asked about it, people blamed it on the 1977 earthquake. We had no idea it was destined to become this.

The U.S. ambassador to Romania at the time was a North Carolinian Baptist named David Funderburk, who had studied Romanian at UCLA and the University of Washington and had spent a Fulbright year in Romania in 1971-72. He was a Jesse Helms protegé, anathema to me ideologically. But after six months in Romania, I decided that a mollycoddled thug like Ceausescu really deserved a U.S. ambassador like Funderburk, who didn't take him seriously. I heard a story from someone at the U.S. embassy that Funderburk had once had his driver fly the Confederate battle flag on his diplomatic limo during a drive out of Bucharest, just to confuse the Securitate outposts who monitored all diplomatic excursions into the countryside. The U.S. embassy also seems to have had some ties to Bible smugglers, one family of whom was expelled in 1984.

When we crossed the Hungarian border into Romania in 1983, the customs officials specifically asked us if we had any weapons, typewriters, or Bibles. The only contraband we had was a small electronic typewriter, which didn't have to be registered with the police (maybe because they didn't recognize it as a typewriter), and a copy of Orwell's 1984 ("banned in Romania"!) which was passed around the foreigner community during our year there. It proved a better guide to the local political culture than anything else we had read at the time.

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