MPs find dream home in mad dictator's folly: The sight of officials luxuriating in Ceausescu's opulent pile angers many Romanians, writes Adrian Bridge in Bucharest

NOBODY knows how many rooms there are in the 'House of the People' in Bucharest. According to some who had a hand in its design there are 2,500. Others put the figure closer to 3,000. There are rumours that it is the focal point for a network of underground passages linking the city's key strategic points, and which are wide enough to carry tanks.

There will always be myths attached to the building and uncertainty over how many Romanians died in its construction. But no matter how many rooms and reception halls, its scale is truly breathtaking and its style - an eclectic mish-mash of neo-classical, Renaissance, Stalinist and pure kitsch - is unique.

Almost five years after the death of its creator, Nicolae Ceausescu, the House of the People remains a grotesque eyesore on the Bucharest skyline, and a fearful reminder of the former dictator's megalomania. The palace, the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, is a terrific drain on the country's limited resources and a constant headache to its rulers.

'This building is a huge wound in the Bucharest landscape that bears brutal testimony to an extreme expression of a dictator's nightmare,' said Mariana Celac, the deputy president of the Romanian Architects' Union. 'It is the ultimate expression of a totalitarian view of power, and it is still extraordinary to think that Ceausescu had the power to turn it into reality.'

In its conception, the House of the People was to be the crowning glory of one end of a brand new two-and-a-half-mile avenue to be known as the Victory of Socialism Boulevard. Ceausescu was to have had his headquarters in the palace in which the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the government and the parliament were also to be based, directly under his command. Along the boulevard, the construction of which involved the demolition of more than one fifth of the centre of Bucharest, were to be housed ministries, a cultural centre, the army headquarters and about 17,000 prestigious new flats.

At the height of construction work, which began in 1984, 24,000 labourers, many of them conscripted against their will, were set to work on the House of the People. In rotating shifts which ran round the clock they toiled on the masses of concrete and reinforced steel that went into the exterior, while others chipped away at engravings on the thousands of white marble columns intended for the interior.

According to Mrs Celac the aim was simple: to erase as much as possible of Bucharest's traditional architectural and religious heritage and to replace it with buildings appropriate to what Ceausescu called 'new Socialist man'. For those who remember the old city, known as 'Little Paris' between the wars, it was an act of wanton destruction.

'What we had before was so beautiful and what we have now is so awful,' said Alexandra Nikita, one of the estimated 150,000 people bulldozed out of their homes in the mid-1980s. 'I feel bitter every time I see that palace. It was a criminal act.'

By the time Ceausescu was executed in December 1989, most of the elements of his new civic centre were in place. In their initial fury some Romanians called for the demolition of the House of the People and the reconstruction of the 16th Century monastery that had been swept away.

Others called for it to be transformed into a complex to house banks and a stock exchange, alongside much-needed university lecture halls and schoolrooms. There was a suggestion to turn it into the largest casino in the world.

'It was a hideous building, but many of us believed then there was a chance it could be put to some good use,' said Anda Ionescu, a student at Bucharest University.

'It would have been nice if, after all the sacrifices involved in its construction, it could have been genuinely put to the use of the people.'

Like Ms Ionescu, the government wanted the palace to serve a purpose. Unlike her, the country's MPs decided last year that its best use would be as their own headquarters. 'Love it or hate it, we had to do something with this building,' said Gheorghe Stan, the deputy secretary-general of the Chamber of Deputies. 'And what could be more appropriate than having it serve as the home to the country's democratically-elected parliament?'

The palace, 80 per cent of which has not been properly furnished, is also set to become a centre for international conferences and a venue for art exhibitions and concerts. From the window of Mr Stan's office, in what has been renamed the Parliament Palace, the Boulevard to the Victory of Socialism (renamed Union Boulevard) stretches into the distance. It is an awesome sight and one Ceausescu would have enjoyed.

Mr Stan denies that the ghost of the former dictator stalks the palace's never-ending corridors. 'We have no time to think of him; we have much more important things to be getting on with,' he says.

Other Romanians, sceptical of the extent to which their leaders have shed their Communist pasts, feel uncomfortable about what has happened. 'In a perverse sort of way, they have realised Ceausescu's dream,' Mr Nikita said. 'When I heard that parliament was going to be moving into the palace, I shuddered.'

(Photograph omitted)