Before July I had never visited Bucharest, or anywhere else in Romania. However, when we arrived at the Palace of the Parliament, I had the definite sense that this was a place I had been before. Yes, I had read a bit about it before the trip; I knew it was in the Guinness Book of World Records, that it cost more than $4 billion, that 30,000 Bucharest residents had had their homes razed to make room to build the structure, but I hadn’t bothered to look at pictures of the building. I certainly shouldn’t have felt like I had been there before.
But in a way I had. It was another building on another continent, a completely different shape, but eerily the same. The Palace of the Parliament is a monument to one man’s ego, a colossal legacy that received its share of criticism while under construction, and even more after the death of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. (After all, it wasn’t safe for Romanians to criticize the project when the dictator was still alive.)
The other “palace” I remembered was on I saw 25 years ago, a massive edifice, rising not out of Bucharest streets but out of the African jungle. Another structure with acres of marble and a price tag that seemed almost unbelievable, a monument to excess in a desperately poor nation, a structure created to satisfy one man’s whims.
As the Palace of the Parliament is the world’s second largest administrative building, so too Notre-Dame de la Paix de Yamoussoukro, in Côte d’Ivoire, was supposed to be the world’s second largest church. The story I was told was that the original blueprints called for the building to be bigger than St. Peter’s in Rome. That didn’t go over well with Pope John Paul II, so new blueprints were submitted with modifications that would allow St. Peter’s to retain its pre-eminence. Then, according to rumour anyway, they built it to the original specifications and it is now the largest church in the world, depending on how you measure it.
Like the Palace of the Parliament, Notre-Dame de la Paix de Yamoussoukro is a breathtaking building. I don’t know if Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny ever met Nicolae Ceaușescu, but I suspect they would have found they had much in common as heads of impoverished countries who constructed mega-projects that seem to have no purpose other than personal vanity.
Houphouët-Boigny supposedly did so out of devotion to his Roman Catholic faith (which I suspect he may have mixed up with a little African tribal religion) and the $300 million cost came out of his own pockets. I don’t know how much the president of Côte d’Ivoire gets paid, and admittedly he was in power for more than 30 years, but somehow I doubt his salary would cover the construction costs. And I do seem to remember something in the Bible about the attitude of people who have a propensity for huge building projects. If Houphouët-Boigny thought building this ecclesiastical marvel was his ticket to heaven, I am certain he had a rude awakening when he met his Maker. (Admittedly it is a very beautiful building, though completely out of place in its surroundings.)
Likewise for Nicolae Ceaușescu. I don’t think the Communist manifesto, as flawed a document as it is, suggests dumping a crushing debt on the workers of the world, or even of Romania. As a good Communist I suppose Ceaușescu did not officially believe in a deity, though I presume he was, like most Romanians, at least nominally an Orthodox Christian. His tale reminded me of a different Bible story about the drawbacks of attempting to build something colossal.
I would not have expected to have such a similar reaction to two such architecturally dissimilar structures. But I realized they have two major things in common: Both are things of beauty, true engineering marvels. And both reveal a flawed heart belonging to the men who commissioned them.