In art, our understanding of a subject is informed by the media through which the subject of a piece is rendered: We feel, rather than simply understand, eternal torment through Hieronymus Bosch’s oil-on-oak depictions of Hell; we recognize the banality of the fantastic through Kurt Vonnegut’s spare and direct prose; and we grasp the eclectic, complex nature of first-person narrative through Kate Bush’s dramatic vocals.
Yes, and in this way, we can also understand cities–the multifaceted, living pieces of functional art that they are. We can get a sense of a city by looking at what it’s made of, analyzing the strokes of asphalt, draped sheets of steel, and underlying armatures, all of which inform its spirit.
However, cities are possessed of dualities not found in all art–they are both media and subject. Like a painting about paint or a sculpture about clay, we can understand a city by appreciating that of which it is comprised, and understand its composite materials by appreciating the city as a whole. Of course, the best way to experience a city, to know both media and subject at once, is to reach out, to run your fingers along its contours and kiss its mortar lips.
Klaipėda: Bronze, Brick, and Sea
Klaipėda, Lithuania’s third-largest city, has been rendered with familiar materials–brick, cobblestone, wood, and iron. Like other Lithuanian cities, Klaipėda’s buildings lose a little more to age every day while the skeletons of new buildings stand on the skyline, patiently waiting for the concrete and wire tissue that will give them life. Klaipėda is unique, however, in that its spirit and meaning are largely influenced by water: the deep grey of the Danės and the crane-lined shore of the Curonian coast. These elements can be felt in every piece of Klaipėda, and they provide it with a texture not found in Kaunas or Vilnius.
Riga: Myth, Masks, and Mortar
Riga, Latvia’s capital, is a sprawling city–a massive canvas, an epic poem–that cannot be explicated within a single blog post. But, like an epic poem, pieces of it can be analyzed to inform the context and meaning of the entire piece. Thus, this section will focus on Riga’s old city and city center, both of which contain stunning examples of architecture designed in the style of Art Nouveau, or Jūgendstil. Nearly one third of the buildings in Riga’s center were constructed in the style of Art Nouveau, and many of them can be found on Alberta iela and Elizabetes iela.
Perhaps the most breathtaking examples of Jūgendstil architecture are those buildings designed by Mikhail Eisenstein. Like other architects working in Jūgendstil, Eisenstein incorporated atlantes, sphynges, nymphs, and masks into his designs. Somehow, though, the human forms in his buildings seem to carry the burden not only of the pillars and walls they support, but of the whole city. Eisenstein’s figures communicate the glory and tragedy of cities, trapped as they are in their buildings, and illustrate how we, too, may become trapped in the cities we design.