How to Renovate a Totalitarian Building

Bucharest’s National Museum of Contemporary Art opens in a section of the wildly oversize Palace of Parliament building.

Outside a five-story apartment building on Calea Grivitei, a seventeenth-century street that weaves through the center of Bucharest—once known as “Little Paris”—two policemen are arguing with a group of artists over the rolled-up paper being shot out of cardboard tubes from one of the balconies onto the street. Inside, a few dozen young people are drinking wine from paper cups and leafing through issues of Incepem, a limited-edition art zine edited by Vlad Nanca. It’s one of two art openings in private apartments one February afternoon in Bucharest, a practice that has become common in a city that until recently lacked any official venue for contemporary art. The contrast between this urban setting and the geographically isolated new Muzeul National de Arta Contemporana (MNAC), inaugurated five months earlier in a renovated section of the Palace of Parliament, underscores how much more work is still needed to restore the gargantuan building—as well as the city—to human scale.

More than 150 acres of historic Bucharest were razed in the 1980s to make room for the Palace of Parliament—popularly known as the House of the People—as well as a Baroque avenue lined with fountains and party officials’ apartments that extends across the Dimbovita river and an unbuilt series of gardens modeled after Versailles. Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceausescu intended it to be the largest building in the world, not only a center from which to rule but a showplace for Romanian Communism. When he was overthrown and executed in 1989 only 70 percent had been finished—but it was too late to turn back. (At approximately 4 million square feet, it is still significantly smaller than the Pentagon.) After years of public discussion about its future, which ranged from dynamiting it to converting it into a casino, in 1996 the newly democratic parliament decided to convert the greater part of the building into its home. That still left thousands of square feet of unused space.

“The idea for the contemporary art museum came soon after the fall of Ceausescu,” says general director Mihai Oroveanu, who spearheaded the project while he was at the National Office for Art Documentation and Exhibitions. “Originally we were trying to reclaim several former industrial plants, and even a public market, but nobody was able to put money into it. Then a few years ago the government proposed to donate an unfinished part of the Palace of Parliament building for the museum.”

The offer was difficult to refuse. It had been nearly 60 years since there had been a major new art museum in Bucharest—not counting the dubious Museum of Art Collections established under Ceausescu—and then prime minister Adrian Nastase warned that if it didn’t happen then and there, it might be 20 years before funds could be made available. “We were not happy with this solution because we don’t like the building,” Oroveanu says. “We decided to try to do something for pragmatic reasons. And at the same time we were provoked by the idea that this place could be transformed from a space of state power into a space of freedom.”

Tucked around the back of the building, two external glass elevators puncture the totalitarian symmetry of the Carpathian limestone surface to frame the entrance of the museum. (An architect claiming credit for the palace—the work of more than 200 architects, in fact—expressed outrage at the destruction of the design’s artistic character and sued Oroveanu.) A brisk 15-minute walk from the nearest semblance of urban life, it’s a remote outpost of civil society surrounded by a vast wasteland strewn with piles of garbage.

Initial plans for the MNAC project called for the surrounding area to be made into a 20-acre park with a beer garden, the installation of the Romanian pavilion from the 2000 Hannover Exposition, and spaces for contemporary dance, theater, film, and sports. But bureaucratic indecision and a government change after last year’s parliamentary and presidential elections have left the museum a small isolated intervention in a zone of massive urban displacement. “The project is not ready without the park,” Oroveanu says, “but we entered into conflict with the new parliament, which is not very happy with the presence of the museum. We have a lot of people who are against it—from the ancient Communists to some colleagues who share our point of view on contemporary art but are not delighted with the location.”

Problems of scale continue in the museum’s interior, where one of the inaugural exhibitions—Romanian Artists (and Not Only) Love the Palace?!—is overwhelmed by more than 75,000 square feet of space coupled with a flawed and underfunded renovation by architect Adrian Spirescu. Partition walls that house the heating-and-cooling systems have air vents inserted awkwardly at the bottom, and the main exhibition areas are flooded with harsh natural light, making the art hanging on the walls seem like an afterthought. Three socialist-realist tableaux of Ceausescu and his wife posing in front of the palace at different phases of design and construction set the stage for the main exhibit, which displays investigations of the building’s legacy, most by Romanian artists, in a room big enough for a Boeing 747.

But the museum and its opening exhibition, which closes May 15, are the beginning of a necessary dialogue between the city, the building, and the politicians who occupy it. A 1994 photograph by Iosif Király that has become a de facto MNAC trademark shows a young punk with a mohawk spoiling for a fight in the entry plaza meant for obedient followers of the former Romanian leader—it’s now used for rock concerts. A massing diagram by Josef Dabernig for the city’s Bucharest 2000 planning competition interposes a series of concrete barricades between the structure and the city to shield the public from its suffocating presence. And Spanish artist Jordi Colomer parodies the building’s dislocation as a part of his “Anarchitekton” video series, which features him carrying cardboard mock-ups of various modern structures on a stick in front of the actual buildings as if in protest.

The most revealing installation, however, is a video project by MNAC curator Florin Tudor in collaboration with artist Mona Vatamanu. Together they filmed two guides giving tours of the palace’s public areas—the biggest tourist attraction in the country—projected side by side to show contrasting interpretations and often entirely different facts. The building’s domineering presence seems to demand acquiescence, and on one recent tour the guide rattles off the sizes of the curtains, chandeliers, and carpets with an objectivity that could be read as either pride or sarcasm. He punctuates each section of the tour with the same refrain: “Ques-tions? Comments? Suggestions? Complaints?” But it seems pointless to protest now—and the museum at least offers the possibility for one of the twentieth century’s greatest architectural crimes to finally be reabsorbed by the city.

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