Beyond Buildings


The Black Masks of Vilnius

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Art is a matter of display. How that display is managed is something rather secret to most who do not work in he field. In Vilnius, Lithuania, the Black Ops of art museum administration are on full display in two tilted planes that front the National Gallery of Art on the right bank of the Neris River. Perhaps it is the original gallery’s past as a building celebrating the Soviet victory over the Nazis that made the designers want to show who was doing what. Perhaps the black steel slabs are meant to contrast with the white gallery spaces they have unearthed both from the original building and from the ground underneath it. Whatever the case, designers Andrius Bučas, Gintaras Kuginis, and Darius Čaplinskas have created a mask for art that has the power of the enigmatic that marks some of the best art and architecture.

Raimondas Urbakavicius/courtesy Vilnius Architecture Foundation

I was in Vilnius, a small town deep inside the rolling hills of the Baltic hinterlands, at the invitation of their very active Architecture Foundation, to give a lecture on “Show-Off Architecture.” Lithuanians seem concerned that a recent spate of high-rises and shopping malls, as well as a proposed, Zaha Hadid-designed outpost of the Guggenheim, is supplanting both the rather modest structures that make up the Old Town on the other side of the river and the repetitive, garden-suburb blocks dating from the Soviet era. Lithuanian architecture has no strong traditions of its own, consisting, from what I could see, of a history of importations of German, Polish, Russian, Italian, and later Soviet Bloc styles that cohere in a more or less pleasant manner. Perhaps that is why the locals are worried that the latest wave of importation will once again squash any attempt to develop something truly local.

If that is the case, the 2009 National Gallery renovation might be a good place to start in the development of such an architecture. The original building consists of a series of white-washed rectangles piled up along the bank. Built in 1980 to a 1968 design by Gediminas Baravykas and Vytautas Vielius, it is now open and light. The galleries for the display of the permanent collection step up and around through the building, in the manner of the original Walker Art Center in this country, allowing you to both focus on viewing the collection and glimpse galleries to come or past on your visit. The renovation has also added a 15,000 square foot space of changing exhibitions.

All of this is pleasant and neutral in a modern way. It seemed to me a a contemporary equivalent of the kind of recessive architecture that makes up what I saw of both Vilnius and the nearby university town of Kaunas. Lithuania was never particularly rich in either money or culture, though it was a center for Jewish learning, and the building, and so there is little old show-off architecture, with a notable lack of both decoration and expressive form (other than in one wonderful Soviet-era sports stadium) and both the original building and the renovation of the National Gallery are in that tradition.

The office mask, however, shows what might be a way forward. It addresses a major avenue that is now a progression of hotels, office buildings, casinos, and shopping malls that could be anywhere. The two slabs are signs like many of those buildings and the billboards that dot and stand between them, but they are silent ones. They are voids that drink in light and meaning, rather than trying to sell you something. Their black steel shroud, punctuated by a diagonal grid of circular openings, denies direction and their lack of entrances (which are underground) make them all the more mysterious.

Raimondas Urbakavicius/courtesy Vilnius Architecture Foundation

The design’s failures are what make them so good. The architect justified the narrow, 10-foot width and the resulting stack of single offices squeezed between staircases, both because they did not have much room to expand, and because the buildings could be projection screens. The inefficiency gives the offices inside a rambling charm, while making you feel as if you are part of the street’s life (the gallery’s director told me she and her staff love the spaces), but the projections are too small and indistinct to work—which is what leaves the structures to be something inefficient, enigmatic, and odd. They are, in other words, what most people would think of as art, or I would call good architecture. I hope Vilnius builds more architecture like this, showing off their architecture’s innate modesty to full effect.

Raimondas Urbakavicius/courtesy Vilnius Architecture Foundation


Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Kay Long | Time: 6:58 PM Tuesday, February 15, 2011

    What is there to comment on but three smooth flat rectangular surfaces and one flat perforated surface. The only thing that is notable, which is the Architects main goal, is the leaning which was probably inspired by another leaning tower, which by the way has a reason to lean. What a waste of time, space and money. The occupants probable get sick from narrow spaces and leaning walls.Come to think of it, it is a waste of time for anyone to comment on it.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.