The logo of Bucharest

The symposium Regimes of Representation: Art & Politics Beyond the House of People was held in the House of People (Palace of the Parliament) in Bucharest (Romania) on January 11. Symposium organisers Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden (Meta Haven: Design Research) explain the significance of this building.

1 Public during Regimes of Representation: Art & Politics Beyond the House of People

2 Poster in the MNAC office

MNAC and the House of People as strategies for city branding.

A quote from one member of the advisory board, French curator and art historian Nicolas Bourriaud, gives the strong impression that MNAC exploits the power factor of the building. Bourriaud wrote: ‘Immense, oversized, paranoid, panoptical space. Ceausescu’s palace is outstanding. As if art had taken over the central point of power, as a symbol of openness and democracy.’

We were warned in advance that the conference proceedings would be a matter of sensitivity for the MNAC. The discussion that has been conducted since the institute’s founding, its political position, its name and of course its location can flare up again at any moment. Artistic director Ruxandra Balaci admitted to The Guardian that young people in Romania are no longer interested in the past. Balaci now thinks that the palace, with all its symbolic significance, generates attention for the museum, whether positive or negative. In Archis the sociologist Renata Salecl quoted a sentence from a tourist brochure: ‘Today, the monumental building stands for the most precious symbol of democracy in Romania, that is the parliament, serving the high and noble aim we have all aspired for: equal and complete representation of the Romanian people.’

Rhetorical methods of this sort are deployed to transform the House of People from a perverse symbol of power into a wholly acceptable ‘democratic’ building. But no-one who sees the building, however, thinks of a precious jewel that symbolises democracy. Apart from occasional opening hours, conventions, guided tours for tourists and the in-house museum, this building is still the impenetrable fortress it was when in 1992 Michael Jackson spoke the famous words from the balcony of the immense palace ‘Hello Budapest!’

That this extraordinary symbol exists is a fact. The question is what that symbol should signify. To find out, perhaps the invasion of the House of People by the public should gather speed.

Bucharest-style sign-posting for public transport; it looks like ‘neutral’ government typography, but is by mobile phone provider Orange. The blending of brand and public utility is complete. This is the result of the fact that Bucharest is one of the few European cities without any restrictions on advertisements in public space.

The aim of the conference Regimes of Representation: Art & Politics Beyond the House of People was to allow a number of thinkers to present their ideas about art, power and politics, with the House of People as pretence. Chantal Mouffe, Nicolas Bourriaud, Jonathan Dronsfield, Marcus Steinweg and the 4Space collective spent a full day of lectures and discussions addressing the relation between the power of architecture, the museum and politics. The conference was the second in a series. The first event took place on September 12, 2006, at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, where a group of international experts was gathered to address the topic of cultural re-usage of former communist architecture.

Now, we are extremely curious what it would be like to conduct a discussion inside the very building being discussed.

As designers we are particularly interested in the role the building plays as a ‘logo’ for Bucharest. It’s unavoidable that a building so huge and visible will become an international landmark, a status that can only be enhanced by the accession of Romania to the European Union last January. MNAC exploits its location inside the best-known building in Romania in the same way ‘supermuseums’ like the Guggenheim Bilbao and Tate Modern exploit the fame of their architecture.

Three stages of buildings in Bucharest next to one another: ruin, bank branch and future plan.

The Palatul Parlementui is a military object. It houses the Romanian’s Chamber of Deputies and the Senate and is a top location in terms of security. That means that when we wanted to reach the museum on a Monday when it was closed, we were refused entry at the gate and questioned by the soldier on duty. The fact that we had an appointment with the museum staff made absolutely no difference to him. At the entrance to the museum we were then of course checked for the possible possession of weapons or explosives. But first the x-ray equipment had to warm up and the metal detector connected.

For the museum’s critics this procedure is just another sign that the MNAC doesn’t offer the level of public access expected from a national museum. But as artist Dan Perjovschi, himself a fierce opponent of the museum, tells us later, the effects of 9/11 on museums in western Europe can no longer be used as an argument. With its extreme high security level, the MNAC is perhaps rather an advanced model for the museum of the 21st century.

The architecture of the MNAC has the character of a chunk of Superstudio set in a neo-classical ruin. It also bears some resemblance to the I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre. The sun-drenched terrace is a pleasant hang-out for Bucharest’s younger population who, according to artistic director Ruxandra Balaci, are inclined to forget the past and Ceausescu. The future’s bright, the future’s Orange?

In 2004 a remarkable institute opened at the back of the House: MNAC, the national museum for contemporary art. The plan to set up a museum for contemporary art in Bucharest had existed much longer. Various sites had been considered, including a former market hall. But the then political leader Adrian Nastase had a better idea: the mainly empty Casa Poporului.

Architect Adrian Spirescu and MNAC director Mihai Oroveanu came up with a steel frame that slotted into the gap created when a section of façade was removed. The intervention is unashamedly modernist in its aesthetics and relates to the excessive kitsch of the dictator like a Superstudio idea. The people at MNAC speak of a ‘virus’, but that comparison doesn’t hold. The façade of the House of People around the two glazed lift shafts that connect the museum’s floors has also been repaired and cleaned. As a result, the MNAC is neatly inserted into its reprehensible host.

The ‘Roman columns’ of the House of People are supported by iron struts and bricks. Much more than a building, the House is a gigantic décor kept upright with a lot of effort, just like former Soviet president Brezhnev was.

When you see the House of People in reality you immediately understand why demolition isn’t an option. Not only is it too big but it’s also a building that many Romanians are rather proud of. In the national consciousness it’s become more of an archaeological find than a reprehensible symbol of a totalitarian regime. Work on the building continued after the downfall of the Ceausescus in 1989 and still continues today, even though the structure has started to decay. Parts of the façade are falling down and teams of workers use manual labour in the painstakingly slow, and ultimately a futile attempt to stave off the inevitable: the House of People demolishing itself. The Palace not only huge but also finished quickly. Mariana Celac, a prominent architect in Romania, tells us that Ceausescu wanted nothing but results and was much more interested in record-breaking dimensions and façade decoration than in durable construction techniques.

According to Celac, Romanians are slowly but surely beginning to ‘invade’ the House of People. Now and again it opens its doors to the public free of charge and long queues of visitors form. The prevailing opinion isn’t one of hate but of pride; that something gigantic has been created with exclusively Romanian materials and effort. That those efforts were not only superhuman but also inhuman is often forgotten, just as the Egyptian pharaohs aren’t condemned for the labour conditions under which their monuments were built.

Almost everyone considers Nicolae Ceausescu himself to be the architect of the House of People, but officially the building is the work of Anca Petrescu, a Romanian architect who fled to France after the revolution but has now returned to Bucharest. She is regularly seen in the building and occupies a high political position. Her ideological background is no longer communist but extreme right-wing.

The ‘Zone Palatul Parlamentului’ was realised in all its dull monumentality during the Ceausescu regime. The dictator got the idea for the biggest ever grand projet after visiting North Korea, where he saw at first hand what a socialist metropolis should look like. Ceausescu mobilised some two hundred architects – most of them working in a mildly neo-classical building style – and razed one fifth of the centre of Bucharest. Built on the cleared site was an ensemble of concrete government buildings and apartment complexes, varying in format from colossal to gigantic.

We’re walking through this area towards what should have been the crowning glory of Ceausescu’s scheme: the current Palatul Parlamentui (Palace of the Parliament).

The building is much better known by its original name: the Casa Poporului (House of  People). That’s what taxi drivers and ordinary Romanians call this enormity, which is cut off from civilisation by a boulevard-cum-motorway, a wall and a guarded hill.