Vilnius: brutalism with a human face

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November 13, 2016 by AK

In his latest LRB reviewOwen Hatherley writes about Modern Forms: A Subjective Atlas of 20th-Century Architecture by Nicolas Grospierre:

Grospierre puts next to each other the Vilnius House of Ritual Services (a Soviet type sometimes known as a ‘Sorrow Palace’, where funerals were held) and a jauntily angled thin concrete shell roof in Amboy, California: Roy’s Motel and Café. Presumably, the Lithuanian architects hoped their building would have an appropriate sombreness and give comfort to the bereaved. Isn’t it a failure if it uses the same formal language as a Californian diner?

No, not really, Heatherley explains: what’s common is “a tension between jagged, cantilevered concrete volumes” but the Lithuanian building, unlike its Californian vis-à-vis, has “a series of steps to a niche-like entrance where the building’s wings appear to shelter and welcome the visitor.”

Actually, the café building of Roy’s Motel and Café (built on Route 66 in 1938) reminds me somewhat of the Moscow Palace of Young Pioneers (1959-1963). The Vilnius building is reminiscent of other funeral homes in the former USSR, but it’s obviously subjective. For objectivity, I recommend pictures taken by “dariuss” and posted on his excellent blog, an illustrated journal of an architecturally aware traveler. The funeral home is covered in detail in this post on his visit to Žirmūnai, a district of Vilnius (see photos 5 through 20).

In addition, Dariuss posted photographs of the so-called Palace of Culture, Leisure and Sports (1980 or 1982; see pictures 35-42 and the first, unnumbered one). That’s a high-quality example of late Soviet brutalism. Photos 24-26 show interesting interwar, pre-Soviet buildings. The shopping mall in pictures 44-45 is pretty typical of Soviet urban architecture.

There’s more from Dariuss on Soviet architecture in Vilnius. I recommend these two posts on Lazdynai, the residential district in Vilnius that was much praised by Soviet architects and authorities in general as an example of modern urban development done right – brutalism with a human face, as it were. They razed the old village and started building up the area in the late 1960s so by the mid-1980 it was completed. Lazdynai had about 40,000 residents in 1986.

I lived there for a few days in January 1988: it was charming in its own way, although what pleased me the most, I suspect, was the green grass on its rolling hills. It seems that Lazdynai has not been overbuilt since independence – there are few new houses in the pictures – so it has escaped that scourge of post-Soviet Russian cities.


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