Many of the world’s most magnificent buildings are offices for our politicians. I know— what a waste. Whether as a symbol of the government’s power or a celebration of a country’s arts and industry, it has become the standard to build grand, elegant structures in capital cities across the world. They trade soaring heights and modern facades for heavy materials and centuries-old styles and the outcome is often glorious.
Today we’re discussing the most magnificent parliament buildings. Still, we don’t have time to cover all of them, so you may notice a few missing pieces, a couple of which just might warrant their own videos. Let’s get started.
ROMANIA: PALACE OF THE PARLIAMENT
The Palace of the Parliament in Romania is among the world’s largest buildings, and it stands as a clear reflection of the authoritarian ruler who built it. Nicolae Ceaușescu (P: Nikolaya Chaw-a-shes-Ku) was the head of the Romanian Communist Party for almost thirty years and served as the country’s president from 1974 to ’89. Ceaușescu toured East Asia in 1971 and was struck by the architecture and urban planning of North Korea. Yes, North Korea. Ceaușescu felt that Pyongyang reflected socialist ideals with its extensive organization and an immense scale that expressed the supreme leader’s ultimate power. Ceaușescu’s implementation of these ideals became known as systematization.
In 1977 a large earthquake shook Romania’s capital Bucharest, damaging large parts of the Old City. Ceaușescu took this as an opportunity to demolish much of the area’s buildings and infrastructure so that he could reconstruct it to reflect socialist realism. The project’s crown jewel would be the magnificent new parliament building called the House of the Republic. The government held a contest to find an architect for the project, and the winner was a 28-year-old woman named Anca Petrescu. Petrescu would lead a team of 700 architects, who would oversee the 13-year construction project. Work began in 1984 and finished in ’97, eight years after Ceaușescu’s death.
Of course, his death wasn’t an accident. He was executed following the Romanian revolution of ’89, after which the building was renamed The People’s House. Though it wouldn’t be finished for another eight years, most of the 1.75 billion dollar costs had already been covered, so the people determined to proceed with the project. The result was the world’s heaviest building, weighing in at 4.1 billion kilograms (9.04 billion pounds). The palace is 84 meters (276 feet) tall and has a floor area of 365,000 square meters (3,930,000 sq ft).
The interior comprises 23 vast and ornate sections, each serving a unique purpose. Both houses of the Romanian parliament are headquartered within the building, as are a few museums— the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of the Palace, and, most appropriately, the Museum of Communist Totalitarianism. Scattered throughout the building are 3,500 tonnes of crystal, which are found in 480 chandeliers, and 1,400 ceiling lights and mirrors. 700,000 tonnes of steel and bronze decorate the doors and windows. The floors and walls are made of one million cubic meters of marble and 900,000 cubic meters of wood.
While the building is unquestionably a grand monument to the country’s past, it’s also undeniably excessive. Ceaușescu sought to build something that would reflect his awesome power, but today the building is 70 percent empty, and keeping it warm enough for occupants costs taxpayers six-million dollars per year.
Bangladesh: The National Parliament House
The Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban of Bangladesh, known in English as the National Parliament House, is not as well-known as most of these examples. Still, it’s striking appearance places it comfortably among the rest of these buildings. The complex is found in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, though it was first planned when the country was known as East Pakistan. Ayub Khan, the second president of Pakistan, ruled both parts of the country from the western capital Islamabad. As secessionist sentiment grew in East Pakistan in the late 1950s, the prime minister sought to establish Dhaka as an administerial capital for the region.
The project was organized by an architect named Muzharul Islam, who attempted to hire two of the world’s most famous architects for the project, Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier. Both were unavailable, so Islam hired his former architecture professor at Yale, Louis Khan. Khan’s design was ambitious and abstract and included plans for much more than just a single building. While construction work based on his blueprints began in 1961, progress was delayed by the onset of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Having won their independence in that conflict, the new government determined that their masterwork-in-progress would eventually become their house of parliament.
The visionary architect Khan died in 1974 when the project was about 75 percent finished. Following its completion in January of 1982, the structure was hailed as Khan’s magnum opus, the most explicit representation of his monolithic and monumental style. While the complex includes peripheral living spaces for members of parliament, the central building,called the Bhaban, is the main attraction.
The Bhaban is made of nine distinct blocks, eight of which stand 34 meters high, with a central block reaching 47 meters (155 feet). The blocks blend together seamlessly, appearing to be a single non-differential unit. Deep recesses and huge openings of geometric shapes mark the building’s exterior walls. Besides their striking appearance though, they also serve Khan’s primary goal in the building’s design— they create massive windows through which the building is lighted. In fact, most of the building’s interior is illuminated by natural light, including the central parliamentary chamber.
A man-made lake surrounds much of the complex, creating eye-catching reflections of the building’s dramatic lines and shapes. From some angles, the Bhaban seems to jut directly out of the water, representing the rivers from which Bangladesh derives its natural beauty. The building houses parliament to this day, as the country approaches its 50th anniversary of independence.
Canada: Centre Block
The Centre Block is the main building in Canada’s Parliamentary Complex in Ottawa. The dramatic Gothic structure sits on top of Parliament Hill against the Ottawa River, its clock tower looking down on the capital’s residents. Inside, the building is filled with priceless art and expensive materials. Yet, in all its picturesque glory, the Centre Block is actually a toned-down version— the second iteration of a building that was meant to be the English empire’s jewel in North America.
The original Center Block was designed in 1859 when Canada was still an English province. The design was formal and symmetrical in the front but rustic and picturesque from the back. Completed in 1866, the building hosted a single session of provincial Canada’s legislature. The following year, Canada gained its independence, and Ottawa was established as the new country’s capital, with the Centre Block expanding to meet its increased role.
Then, on February 3rd, 1916, with the House of Commons mid-session, a fire alarm went off throughout the building. The blaze could not be contained, and within 12 hours, the building burnt to the ground. Rumors abound about just how the fire started. Given that it was in the middle of World War One, many believed that the fire was ignited by a German spy, though that claim is entirely unsubstantiated.
Whatever the cause, reconstruction began almost immediately, with the builders creating a more modest version of the original. The interior was vastly simplified, as the original was notorious for its maze-like corridors, making it nearly impossible to find an exit.
This second iteration was fit for use by 1920, though work continued on the interior for the next 50 years, including the stained glass windows and sculptures. It turns out that even a more humble version of the original is ornate and excessive. The building is filled with arcaded arches, vaulted ceilings, and clustered columns. The Senate Chamber, in the building’s East Wing, includes a throne for the Canadian monarch and her consorts. Many of the surfaces are coated with gold flakes, and lush red patterns fall from the draperies and carpet the floors. There are even stained glass windows bearing Queen Elizabeth’s face.
After almost a century of use, though, the building is not quite in working condition. The Centre Block is the final project in a massive renovation of all of Parliament Hill’s facilities, which has already cost almost 2 billion dollars. The Centre Block closed in 2018, and experts say the refurbishment could take more than a decade.
Germany: The Reichstag
Germany’s Reichstag, located in Berlin, is among the most historic of any parliament building. Following German unification in 1871, the parliament met in a handful of buildings throughout the capital, but these buildings were far too small to be long term homes. Kaizer Wilhelm the First proposed building a grand parliamentary house somewhere in the city, eventually settling on a site beside the Platz der Republic.
Though a design was selected in 1872, progress was delayed as Wilhlem, Otto Von Bismarck, and prominent members of parliament disagreed over how best to proceed. The original plan was scrapped, but a decade later, Wilhelm held a contest for a new design, selecting a Neo-Baroque blueprint by a Frankfurt architect named Paul Wallot. On June 29th, 1884, Wilhelm personally laid the first foundation stone, marking the start of a ten-year construction project.
Wilhelm the Second, grandson of the first, was Kaizer when the building was first completed, but he was not fond of the monument. He hated the parliamentary democracy and the building that housed it. So, when it was renovated in 1916 to include the words, Dem Deutschen Volke (To the German People), Wilhelm did everything in his power to stop it. Just two years later, Wilhelm would abdicate the throne following the German revolution. The Reichstag played a symbolic role in this revolution, as Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the institution of the republic from one of its balconies. Over the next 14 years, the building housed the Parliament of the Weimar Republic.
Of course, the 1930s in Germany were marked by the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. In 1933 the Reichstag caught fire under mysterious circumstances, so, with parliament’s meeting house partially destroyed, Hitler declared a suspension of the Weimar constitution. Though parliament rarely met during the Nazi regime, they never convened in the Reichstag, which remained in disrepair. It was a favorite target of Allied pilots during the Battle of Berlin in 1945, and it became a central objective for the Red Army to capture to state their claim on the city.
Following the split of Berlin and the German capital’s relocation to Bonne, the Reichstag remained largely destroyed for much of the Cold War Era, despite a few minor renovations. However, after more than half a century in relative obscurity, the building’s fate would finally change with German reunification in October of 1990. The day after reunification, the country’s parliament met in the dilapidated old building as a symbol of what they had achieved by bringing the country together again. The parliament, now called the Bundestag, voted to relocate the capital back to Berlin and to rebuild the Reichstag building for eventual use.
The rebuild was completed in 1999, and the first Bundestag session was held there in April of the same year. Most of the building’s interior was demolished during reconstruction, but a few symbolic pieces remain. Several walls are still marked by graffiti placed by the Soviet soldiers who took the city in 1945, most of it decrying Hitler and praising the end of his regime. The most eye-catching aspect of the rebuild is the massive glass dome that now marks the building’s roof. It allows for a 360-degree view of the Berlin cityscape and provides ample natural light for those meeting within. Though it’s still called the Reichstag, the building now permanently houses the Bundestag.
Hungary: Parliament of Budapest
In 1873, the three cities of Buda, Obuda, and Pest united under one flag to become Budapest. The decision to merge was heavily based on a compromise within Austria-Hungary to develop the Hungarian capital. With the urban area quickly expanding, the Hungarian Diet, or Parliament, resolved to build a new home to celebrate the country’s 1,000th anniversary in 1896.
A design was selected in 1885, and work began almost immediately. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near finished for the millennial celebration of ’96, but it was inaugurated that year. It was finally completed in 1904, taking almost twenty years, 100,000 laborers, and 40 million bricks to build. On top of that, it contains half a million precious stones and 40 kilograms of gold.
While the building is gorgeous from any angle, its main facade faces the Danube River, with its long, symmetrical gothic face. Protruding above the behemoth building is a grand Renaissance-style dome reaching 96-meters high, a number that nods to the country’s anniversary. The exterior walls are covered with hundreds of statues of Hungarian notables, including famous rulers and military leaders.
The interior looks like the Hungarian Sistine Chapel, filled with painted vaulted ceilings, gold-plated everything, ornamented chandeliers, and stained glass windows. The entrance is marked by a grand staircase where the only thing that isn’t gold is the lavish red carpet that runs all 96 steps. The building’s main attraction is the 1000-year-old Holy Crown of Hungary, a gift from a Byzantine emperor to one of Hungary’s first rulers.
Of course, Hungary doesn’t have a monarchy anymore, and their government has changed immensely since the parliamentary house was constructed. Over the years, the motifs have changed to reflect the attitude of the sitting government— at one point the dome bore a red Communist star at its point. Today, though, the parliament is smaller than it once was. Now consolidated to a single unicameral legislature, the 18,000 square meter, 700 room facility is mostly empty.