Welcome to the Wild East
Romania’s National Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in the infamous Casa Poporului in Bucharest. A conference took place in the museum a week after the country’s accession to the European Union on January 1, 2007.1 The subject of the conference was the building itself.
The Casa Poporului, or “House of the People,” is a monolith. Second only to the Pentagon, it stands as one of the largest buildings in the world; it is a veritable monument to the terror and excess of the communist regime in Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu ordered its construction in 1984, razing one fifth of old Bucharest to make room for it. All the resources of the country were mobilized towards the palace’s lavish construction, bankrupting the country and leaving the people of Romania starving in its wake. In a terminal delusion of totalitarian megalomania, Ceausescu envisioned the palace as the glorified headquarters of the Communist Party, himself at the centre, garnering international esteem. But Ceausescu never saw his dream realized. Some cite the building itself as the final cause of his downfall in 1989, when he was overthrown and executed. Not without irony, the palace later became the official seat of the Romanian government in 1994, renamed the Palatul Parlamentului, or “Palace of Parliament.”
The tragic history of the palace weighs heavily on the popular imagination to this day. Opinion oscillates in equal measure between abhorrence for the structure’s megalithic excess and due reverence for sacrifices made in order to erect it. To add to the conflict, the building has been re-branded into an icon for the city itself, featured in every guide as the main tourist attraction. Ami Barak, critic and curator, aptly characterizes the site as a “pornographie architecturale [...] montr(ant) les organes du pouvoir dans une colossale érection.”2 The fight, it seems, is not over the building, its value, or the land it occupies, but rather what it has come to represent, and how it operates as a signifier.
Since October 2004, the National Museum of Contemporary Art has been housed in the east wing of the palace. The museum is large. It spans 16,000 square metres (which, incidentally, amounts to only 4% of the entire palace) making it competitive with other international museums, if only in scale. The renovations made to install the gallery break all architectural conventions governing the rest of the palace: two glass elevators erected on the exterior span four stories and frame a formidable entrance while the interior is standard issue museum design, conventionally square and minimal. One could say that a white cube has been inserted into the backside of the palace and sits in opposition, like an unwelcome suppository, in the cavity of the east wing. The parasitical inset ignores the rest of the building, seemingly in an effort to erase, or perhaps contaminate, its connection to the host. Yet this relationship is conceived by MNAC’s artistic director, Ruxandra Balaci, as an opportunity to transform the site from a symbol of totalitarianism to a space of “openness” and “reflection.” Whether or not this is possible, is the subject of heated debate.
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About the Author
Kathleen Ritter is an artist and writer based in Vancouver.