Anca Petrescu, who has died following a road accident aged 64, was an architect known as the “Albert Speer of Communism,” responsible for the Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu’s “Palace of the People” in Bucharest—the world’s greatest monument to totalitarian kitsch.
Ceausescu conceived the idea of building the palace in 1977, when an earthquake struck Bucharest leaving more than 1,500 dead and large areas devastated. He saw the disaster as an opportunity to build a new “civic center,” and in the summer of 1977 two competitions were launched—one for the overall master plan; the other for the “House of the People,” as the Palace was then called, to house Ceausescu and his entourage, along with key government departments.
Anca Petrescu, a junior employee at the state design institute, had only just qualified as an architect, so at first she did not enter the competition. But because Ceausescu took so long to decide what he wanted it was still going in 1981, by which time she had finished second in one of the aborted heats and had met the dictator. “He was a good listener, a very patient man,” she recalled. “He wasn’t a vampire!”
Although Anca Petrescu failed to make the final shortlist in 1981, she refused to give in and, resigning her job, she spent three months building a scale model of her design—bombastic, ornate, and smothered in gilt. She then wrote Ceausescu a letter saying she would like to present it to him. At first she was fobbed off, but her persistence paid off, and in the end her model was presented alongside those of the other finalists.
Legend has it that Ceausescu walked into the room and was bowled over by the glitzy interloper—but there were also rumors that he may have taken a shine to its creator. In February 1982, at the age of 32, Anca Petrescu was appointed chief architect of a project whose raison d’être, in Ceausescu’s tautological phrase, was to be “a grandiose edifice that reflects the epoch of the time”.
The construction, which began in June 1984, was a project akin to the pyramids. During the five years leading up to Ceausescu’s execution, one million Romanians, including military conscripts, political prisoners and a team of 700 architects, worked round the clock to put it up, painstakingly carving huge oak, elm and cherry doors and sculpting giant crystal chandeliers for marble rooms almost as big as athletics fields. Even nuns were forced to work, weaving acres of carpets and embroidering gold-threaded curtains. There were never fewer than 20,000 workers on site at any one time; deaths were common.
The project had a huge impact on the Romanian capital. Three historic districts in the center of Bucharest—four square miles of the city—were demolished, along with 27 churches and synagogues. Around 40,000 people were given only two days to leave their homes, and some had no alternative but to leave behind their possessions for the bulldozers.
Elsewhere, two mountains were hacked down for the one million cubic meters of white and pink Transylvanian marble required, while entire forests were destroyed for paneling, floors, furniture and doors (Ceausescu insisted that all materials used should be native to the motherland). The cascading chandeliers alone accounted for 3,500 tones of crystal; the largest, measuring nine meters in diameter and weighing five tones, had 1,000 light bulbs.
By the time the palace was completed, it could burn more electricity in three hours than all of Bucharest’s two million inhabitants consumed in 24. Between 1984 and 1989, while the Romanian people were struggling to survive with limited heating and meager rations, the building consumed 30 per cent of Romania’s national budget.
Ceausescu took a close interest in its construction, terrifying the workforce with impromptu visits to the site and frequent changes of mind which resulted in the building featuring a mishmash of styles. Anca Petrescu recalled how, on one visit, he claimed to notice that some carved flowers decorating columns inside the building were not equal: “I never noticed that,” she recalled. “I was exhausted and the others were petrified… We all swore that it was OK.” But he ordered someone to climb a ladder and measure them, and determined that one flower was one centimeter shorter than the others. The columns had to be made all over again.
The tyrant visited the palace for the last time in November 1989, to witness the first completed room—a month before he and his hated wife Elena were executed on live television by firing squad.
The end of communism brought work to a halt as Romania’s new leaders pondered what to do with the building. Suddenly Anca Petrescu found herself being treated as a pariah, and in 1990 a group of architects led a campaign to see her stand trial for misuse of national assets; she was even accused of genocide. She denied all charges, and the cases against her fell apart. But she was ostracized from her profession, received death threats and her house was set on fire. Later that year she left for Paris (at the invitation of President Mitterrand, she claimed), where she won commissions to build hotels for Club Med.
In the early 1990s the debate over the future of the unfinished palace, now open to the public, became heated. Some wanted it demolished; others suggested it could be turned into a museum of communism, a Dracula theme park, or even the biggest casino in Europe. Meanwhile, looters set to work, removing bags of cement, marble, doors, and furniture.
Four years after Ceausescu’s execution the government decided to act. They rebaptized it the “Parliament Palace” and, in 1994, resumed work. In subsequent years an international conference center was opened inside; the lower and upper houses of parliament moved in, along with a new museum of contemporary art, the Romanian Constitutional Court and the Southeast European Law Enforcement Centre.
Although one travel book described the palace as “one of the world’s worst eyesores,” over time public aversion waned. Indeed, many Romanians began to claim that they liked the building; and even those who did not took pride in the exquisite workmanship involved.
In 2002, when the decision was taken to add a Reichstag-style glass cupola in the center of the building, Anca Petrescu was brought back in from the cold and asked to supervise the job.
At 84 meters in height, 270m long, 245m wide, and stretching 92m underground, with 13 floors, 7,000 rooms, three kilometers of passages and a total floor area of 450,000 square meters, the “People’s Palace” occupies seven times the cubic volume of the Palace of Versailles, and is the second-largest public administration building on earth after the Pentagon. But it still has problems: among other things, Ceausescu vetoed the installation of air conditioning, fearing chemical attacks through the ventilation system, while the monstrous staircases, cut to fit the dictator’s tiny feet, are notoriously difficult to walk up and down.
The daughter of a surgeon, Mira Anca Victoria Marculet Petrescu was born on March 20 1949, a year after the communists came to power in Romania. She was brought up in Sighisoara, a Transylvanian fortress town north-west of Bucharest. After graduating in 1973 from the Ion Mincu Institute of Architecture in Bucharest, she joined the state design institute.
After her return to Romania Anca Petrescu became involved in politics, and in 2004 entered parliament on the lists of Romania’s opposition nationalist Greater Romania Party. The following year she stood for election as mayor of Bucharest but won less than four per cent of the vote.
When interviewed about her role in building the People’s Palace, Anca Petrescu tended to lapse into evasive, Soviet-style doublespeak, cutting off interviewers brusquely if they enquired about her relationship with Ceausescu. When asked by one western journalist how she justified the suffering Romanians went through as a result of her work, she retorted: “That is a question originating from someone who can only understand a system based on profit as motivation.” Her favorite novels, she revealed, were the “sick works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, because they fit my soul”.
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This article was first published by The Telegraph.