Around the lonely monumental halls of the Casa Poporului, young army conscripts yelp, teeter and scoot on rubber-wheeled trolleys, shifting materials around Nicolae Ceausescu's uncompleted folly. Laborers swarm over three sections being prepared to house the new parliament. Stocky peasant women plant shrubbery, as varied and colorful as their head scarves, in the soil outside. After seven months avoiding the sensitive topic of what to do with "his" Orwellian dreamland, Romania's government has bitten the bullet and is completing it.

The post-revolutionary buzzword among architects responsible for the palace and the boulevard that stretches away for two miles before it is "absorption." How to absorb these unmistakable Ceausescuisms into the new Romania. How to encourage people to accept as their own this megalomaniacal housing development, personally tailored to the whims of the late, hated dictator and his wife, Elena. How to forget the misery they caused and the beauty they destroyed.

The project was begun by Ceausescu in 1982 as a monument to himself and the glory of socialism. It rose heavenward through the '80s, as Romanians shuffled forward in bread lines, as Romanian families went without food, Romanian hospitals, withoutsupplies. Every pound of marble chipped from rich Romanian mines went into the palace; none was exported. The project became a grotesque symbol of fanaticism and oppression.

How to forget?

First, the names were changed. Ceausescu's House of the Republic became the House of the People. The giant Boulevard for the Victory of Socialism became Union Boulevard.

There is no disguising the squat totalitarian ugliness of the palace; still, there are efforts to prettify.

"We can make the boulevard human with trees, cafes, cinemas and all the things needed to vitalize it," insisted Bogdan Bogoescu, the chief architect at Bucharest's City Hall. Around the palace he intends to build office buildings: "to give it an urban image to replace that of a medieval castle on a fortified hill. We need to forget the stigma of having been built by Ceausescu and assimilate it into the world of great European buildings. "

The boulevard eventually will house the main government ministries and 4,500 apartments. Because the apartments were made for the nomenklatura, persons holding privileged government positions, they are relatively spacious and luxurious, so they remain desirable. The plan also includes a new national library (half built) and numerous shop fronts that Romania's new government hopes will be rented by Western firms. If the boulevard can operate at Western rates, Bogoescu hopes that Ceausescu will not continue sucking Romania's resources dry from the grave.

There's no getting around it -- Ceausescu has won. By completing "his" project and by giving it the same functions as he had intended, free Romania has built a monument to the tyrant's memory. Unfortunately, there was never much choice.

The palace was already so expensive to build that to knock it down would require fantastic extravagance, while its ponderously bureaucratic design makes it good for nothing else but govern-ment.

Just after the new year in 1988, Alexei Gheorghe, his wife and his two sons were anxiously peering out the window of their house when they heard the thud of construction boots on their roof. An official rapped on the door and told them to be out of the house with all their possessions within 30 minutes. While he spoke the first holes were being torn in the roof as workmen ripped up the rafters. "Of course," said Gheorghe, "if you have no roof you cannot stay to protest because the rain and snow come in."

Absorption is a difficult concept for some to swallow. Twenty-five thousand acres of Bucharest, some forgettable but including much of the quaint streets of the old city, were razed to make way for the palace and boulevard. The residents were shuttled out into smaller, homelier quarters.

"We spent the whole winter without water, heat, plumbing or electricity," said Gheorghe's neighbor, Ion Mitrache, 60. They still get water and power only fitfully. They pay many times as much to live there than in their former homes, which they owned. They were promised one-fifth of their properties' values but received only one-tenth. The new apartments are in lower-grade buildings just behind the blocks for the nomenklatura. The roads between them are still unfinished, turning to rivers of mud in the winter and dustbowls in the summer. Children play among the abandoned construction materials. The drab futuristic squalor recalls scenes from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."

"Systematization" is the other buzzword of Romanian planning, though it is now less in fashion. It applied to Ceausescu's project for tearing down villages and forcing the occupants into agro-industrial complexes. It also applied to the boulevard project, replacing the haywire street pattern of old Bucharest with a single straight line. Luckily, Ceausescu's lunatic project for the countryside barely got off the ground and the villages are safe. But in Bucharest the damage was already done, and a great swath of the old city is gone.

Systematization "is a barbaric term," said Mariana Celac, an architect and a member of the Group for Social Dialogue, an intellectual forum. She has begun a two-year project to compile a computer-graphic reconstruction of every street, courtyard, house and -- where possible -- every piece of vegetation that was destroyed. Each house will have computer-generated floor plans, at least two angles of view and a three-dimensional graphic.

Celac's task is complicated by the old regime's attempt to destroy the memory of the past along with its physical presence. People like Celac, who tried to take photographs before and during the demolition, had their cameras and film confiscated -- and occasionally were beaten. When City Hall decided that a new map would be needed for the area, it did not cut a new printing plate but etched over the old one.

For several years, Celac walked around the doomed quarter sketching the houses and pacing the streets, trying to develop a saturated knowledge of the architecture, much of which was adapted from French models at the end of the 19th century. "The crime I really cannot forgive was destroying the network of streets," said Celac. "The project erased something that had a magical motivation and replaced it with a straight line."

She knows that the old streets and courtyards cannot be rebuilt. Ceausescu cannot be erased from history. But she wants to see the relentless sterile walls of the Ceausescu apartments along the boulevard broken up. She would like to see narrow passages cut though the apartment blocks, replaced with old-style housing. Her plan would give the plots away for free, on the condition that the new owners build houses there based on one of the designs in her database. She also wants to see a detailed plan for restoring the remaining old quarter, now in total disrepair. The question for her and the city is, how do you gentrify slums in a country that has no private development industry? Where do you find yuppies in Romania?

Pride and Politics

Nicolae Rosoiu caressed the smooth spiral carving of a marble pillar, strangely out of place in a gray unfinished hall. "One soldier made this completely of his own initiative," he said. A construction foreman at the Casa Poporului since work began under the old regime, Rosoiu is touchingly proud of the thousands of unskilled conscripts who labored over the palace, carving much of the marble by hand. Some were pressed into the army precisely because their artistic skills would be useful. Others were untutored draftees. In the carvings, there are signs of skill and of ineptitude, but always, of passion.

Other parts of the inheritance are less touching. "All those windows along the top are designed for antitank guns," said Rosoiu. The walls, as thick as the whole construction is squat and massive, were designed to resist artillery fire. There are secret passages and hidden stairways, and bulletproof doors. At 25 yards below ground level, a tunnel runs from the podium, from which Ceausescu planned to address adoring crowds, to a bunker. Even if the palace were converted to a shopping mall, it would remain a fortress.

Rosoiu's pride is shared by the architects who did and continue to work on the two projects. There is no new team.

"In two or three years we hope this will be our Champs-Elysees," Bogdan Bogoescu said of his responsibility, the boulevard. Now as before the palace takes priority. In contrast to the hive of activity up on the hill, where parliamentary committees have already begun work, the cranes that forest the sky over the boulevard remain still. Bogoescu is confident there will be enough money to finish. Just last week the fountains in the boulevard were switched on for the first time.

The number two architect at the Carpati Institute, which designed the palace, lovingly rolled out its plans. She explained that the inspiration had come to the head architect, Anka Petrescu, during a visit to North Korea and from the palace of Catherine the Great in Russia.

"Ceausescu did not invent it. The systematization plan for this part of Bucharest was first proposed in 1937," said Sorin Marinescu, chief architect for the crossbar section of the boulevard, which houses the ministries. "It had the same design with the long and short axes. The area above the crossbar {now housing the palace} was left free for a national monument. But it was not decided what that should be. That was left to the future and the future was Ceausescu."

Marinescu believes the qualities of the boulevard's design have been overlooked for political reasons. But he acknowledges that the overall design suffered from Ceausescu's caprice, expressed in biweekly visits. The fountains along the center of the boulevard, for example, had to be altered three times because they did not look right from the presidential helicopter. Marinescu shrugged: "Michelangelo had to work to the commands of the pope... ."

The architects still believe that their hands are forced. Bogoescu dismissed Celac's idea for breaking up the boulevard as "Utopian and romantic." "We need equilibrium between our desire to rebuild the old Bucharest and reality," he said, "because we are poor and have a great need for balance in all that we do at the moment." He proposed to leave intact whatever buildings were not yet destroyed and alter the plans to build new hotels and conference complexes around them. The poverty of Romania is unarguable, but Celac is deeply skeptical.

So is Codrut Malineanu, a 23-year-old architecture student.

"The pope was a dictator, yet he had Michelangelos. Look what ours created. A maniacal post-modernism." Of the modern-day architects of Ceausescu's vision, he says: "They share his guilt for what happened."