In 1971, Ceauşescu visited North Korea and returned full of admiration for the grandiose avenues of Kim II Sung’s capital, Pyongyang. Thirteen years later, inspired by what he had seen, Ceauşescu set out to remodel Bucharest as “the first socialist capital for the new socialist man”, and to create a new administrative centre which was to be “a symbolic representation of the two decades of enlightenment we have just lived through”. In truth, of course, this Centru Civic was meant to embody the state’s authority and that of Ceauşescu himself. Implementing this megalomaniac vision entailed the demolition of a quarter of Bucharest’s historic centre (about five square kilometres), said to be slums damaged by the 1977 earthquake, but in fact containing nine thousand largely untouched nineteenth-century houses, whose forty thousand inhabitants were relocated in new developments on the outskirts of the city. There was worldwide condemnation of this vandalism, particularly since many old churches were to be swept away. Though some of the churches were in the end reprieved, they are now surrounded by huge modern apartment blocks and are separated from the urban context that gave them meaning. The core of the complex was largely completed by 1989, just in time for the dictator’s overthrow.
Uniting the two halves of the Centru Civic is Bulevardul Unirii which, at 4km long and 120m wide, is slightly larger – intentionally so – than the Champs-Élysées, after which it was modelled. Midway along is Piaţa Unirii (Square of Union), an oversized expanse of concrete dominated by traffic, and notable only as a key metro interchange, as the site of the city’s main department store – the slicked-up Unirea – and as the best place to view the extraordinary Palace of Parliament.