At dusk, the center of this capital is veiled in a haze of fine brown dust as bulldozers, drills and thousands of manual workers assault the stripped ground of its dominant hill. At night, floodlights blaze out from the site like lone beacons in the eerie urban blackout induced by power cuts.
For most Romanians, these are telling signs of the monumental legacy that Communist President Nicolae Ceausescu is pressing on Bucharest -- a mile-long, torch-shaped complex of government palaces and high-rise apartment blocks that will erase at least half a dozen historic churches, several synagogues, and tens of thousands of homes in the heart of the city.
Not even the capital's official planners and architects profess to know all the details of the project, and there has been no public discussion of its cost, design or displacement of historic neighborhoods. The feverish work and evident scale of the construction, however, have marked the officially designated "civic center" as a centerpiece of the aging Ceausescu's drive to single-handedly remake this once graceful European capital.
"We have looked to the future, until the year 2000, and a big program is on the way," said Paul Focsa, the official architect of Bucharest. He added: "It is impossible to build a modern city with an appropriate center without some sacrifices."
In this case, the sacrifices apparently entailed by Ceausescu's plans have drawn widespread protests from international conservation groups, western governments, and even Romania's normally compliant Eastern Orthodox Church. At least six churches and a synagogue dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries have been torn down since the project's initiation 18 months ago, and several others have been partially demolished or moved from their original sites.
More than 9,000 buildings were dynamited or bulldozed in only the first six months of construction, according to western experts, and diplomats here say up to 60,000 structures may be razed by the time the government complex and accompanying Avenue of the Victory of Socialism are completed.
"The cultural damage involved is appalling," said a Western European diplomat. "The very history of the country is being plowed under."
The project's monumental scope, Romanians note, is particularly striking amid the harsh austerity that otherwise reigns inside their country. Communist authorities have strangled supplies of food and goods to consumers and ordered drastic cuts in heat and energy consumption, including the nightly blackouts of much of Bucharest.
"We have a lot of big buildings in Romania, but we have nothing else," a Bucharest intellectual complained. "People come and see the construction, but just try to find a piece of meat."
The discrepancy is a sign of how Ceausescu, who is widely rumored to be in failing health, has appeared increasingly determined to complete several prized projects at an accelerated pace despite mounting costs. A number of western experts have warned that the veteran leader's drive to retire all of Romania's foreign debt and complete massive industrial and public works projects has brought the country's economy to the brink of collapse in recent years even while subjecting Romanians to the most severe hardships in the Soviet Bloc.
The civic center in particular appears to be a monument to the conspicuous personality cult Ceausescu has encouraged, critics say.
The Romanian leader's new headquarters will be a five-level, marbled palace with a classical columns adorning its facade. Government officials say it will be set at the summit of the hill, cupped by an esplanade and ministry buildings and facing the 300-foot-wide, mile-long Victory of Socialism Avenue, itself lined with massive high-rises.
A much repeated joke calls the project "the victory of socialism over Bucharest."
Romanian officials answer that the huge project is in keeping with a broad goal that architect Focsa described as the "social, cultural, economic and spiritual development of the city."
"This can be done only through the modernization and renewal of the central zone," Focsa said. "We want a city without peripheries and with a center appropriate with the actual standing of Bucharest as a capital."
The civic center is in fact only the grandest part of the government's design. Other residential neighborhoods of the capital, such as the northeastern district of Giulesti, are scheduled for demolition for the construction of clusters of the kind of high-rise, rectangular apartment blocks that already ring the southern fringes of the city. Not far from the civic center, more old housing is due to give way for a planned 100-acre lake surrounded by a large park.
Some of the neighborhoods condemned by the new urban plan are aging slums of dirt streets, trash piles and rickety wood construction. Yet many Romanian intellectuals appear to believe that the projects are mechanically replacing the stately Latin character of a city once known as the "Paris of Eastern Europe" with alienating, monumental buildings.
"We ought not to flatten out with the bulldozer any trace of the past," former foreign minister George Macovescu wrote in a rare public dissent published in a Romanian literary almanac, "the more so since the adversities of our history already have destroyed too much."
Such complaints, and pressure from leaders of Romania's large Orthodox Church, apparently have led to some concessions in the demolition of historic areas. Five historic churches, including the chapel of the 16th century Mihai Voda Monastery, are being moved up to 300 yards out of the way of the construction, but some auxiliary buildings have been demolished.
Nevertheless, diplomats here say they believe the site of the project is gradually being expanded beyond original plans, and government officials dismiss concerns about the churches and homes demolished as trivial and ill-intentioned.
"When they built the big boulevards in Paris a lot of buildings were demolished, and no one complains about that," Focsa said. "In America, buildings with 40 stories are torn down to build new ones of 80."
"It is impossible for anyone to question us on this," he said. "Nowhere can time stand still."