This summer I joined the World Affairs Council of Houston on a tour of the Baltic nations (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland) as part of my quest to visit 100 countries (after these four, I now have rung up a total of 92). Whenever I travel, I make it a point to keep my eye out for interesting structures, and of course this trip was no different.
The first thing I learned about the Baltic nations is that they love the stories and the songs of their folklore. The tradition of storytelling has survived from the traditions of this region – the Baltic countries were the last pagan nations of Europe — and their national ethos bear strong marks of this. Story and song are used to maintain history, pass down lore, impart advice, and even win national independence. So my goal was not only to find buildings that were interesting from a structural point of view, but maybe one or more that tell a national story as well.
Fortunately there is a smorgasbord of structures in the Baltic nations – castles dating from the days of the powerful Lithuanian empire and its battles against the Teutonic crusaders, the distinctive architecture of the commercial and government buildings of the Hanseatic League, churches of the Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox religions, art nouveau in Riga and art deco in Helsinki, Stalinesque apartment blocks, and finally several modern, creative, daring designs as well. In many ways these nations could have provided the syllabus for an introductory class in architectural history.
Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania) is a charming city, defined by its old town (designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site), which is full of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical architecture. Looming above the city are the remains of a castle on Gediminas Hill, while outside of the city is the well-restored (and beautiful) Trakai Island Castle.
But to me these buildings reflected more fact – history – than fiction — story telling. In Lithuania I found few modern buildings that might be able to tell a more interesting structural story. Yes, it’s true that Vilnius’ New City Center is home to the Europa Tower (at a height of 148m the tallest building in the Baltics), and Lithuania’s second city of Kaunus has one of Europe’s more distinctive structures in the “1,000 Litu Banknote building”, but all in all the story of Lithuania’s most interesting structures was predominantly written in stone and wood, reflecting the world of a bygone Grand Duchy rather than the steel and glass of the modern nation.
Tallinn, Estonia is best known for its well preserved medieval city that serves as a magnet for 6 million visitors per year. City walls, a Hanseatic Town Hall, and the world’s oldest operating pharmacy are interesting sites, but Estonia has also been willing to mix in some modern with its old, as seen in the Fahle apartment/office building (where a modern office building has been built on top of a restored factory building) or in the ultramodern Beit Bella Synagogue, built in 2007 to serve Tallinn’s old Jewish community. The synagogue certainly tells a story, of the optimistic resurrection of a nearly extinguished community. As for the rest, what story was it telling, but of a country finding a way to accommodate its future without disturbing its tourist-friendly past?
Finland offered traditional Nordic architecture, with a sprinkling of Art Deco buildings. The country boasts a number of famous architects, for one of whom, Alvar Aalto, I have a special affinity, since he designed my college dormitory (Baker House at Massachusetts Institute of Techology). I did get to get a chance to compare that with some of his work in Helsinki by enjoying a meal at the Savoy Restaurant, where Aalto did the interior design. (The comparison? The food was definitely better at the Savoy than in my college’s dining service.)
The structural story I found in Finland however was often one told in music. For example, one can’t-miss site in Helsinki is the Temppeliaukio Church, a beautiful, modern church carved out of solid rock. While attending a concert of the music of Carl Nielsen there, I discovered that the rock was not only beautiful, but provided amazing acoustics as well. There are concerts, and then there are concerts performed in rock churches! Finland also offered the most interesting use of steel that I found on my trip – the 600 steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern which make up the monument to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
Latvia, however was the real eye-opener on the trip, offering the best – in terms of quantity and quality – selection of structures to admire. If all the country had to offer was the castles of the country side, the Versailles-like summer home of the Duke of Courland at Rundale, the manor houses of various German nobility, the Hanseatic town center, the towering spires of the Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox cathedrals, and the black cat balancing on the conical roof of its eponymous restaurant, Riga would have all the architectural/structural variety that one could wish for. But for me there were three even more interesting attractions that sated my quest for both storytelling and engineering.
The first of these attractions – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is Riga’s Jugendstil (or Art Nouveau) quarter. With roughly one third of the buildings in the town center adhering to this style, Riga ranks number one in the world as far as concentration of Art Nouveau architecture is concerned. Especially noteworthy are the spectacular works that the civil engineer Mikhail Eisenstein built between 1905 and 1914.
The façades of these buildings are covered by figures, especially seductive femmes fatales. According to the great article (with lots of pictures) on the Victor Travel Blog, these buildings told the story of Eisenstein’s family scandals and loveless marriage. Whether that is true or not, the buildings are amazing to look at!
Unfortunately, Eisenstein’s personal story did not end well, but did lead to an even greater story teller. Mikhail’s son Sergei was forced to study civil engineering against his wishes (what? who wouldn’t want to study civil engineering?) by his domineering father. So when the Russian Revolution broke out, Sergei exhibited a particularly severe case of filial rebellion, joining the Red Army as a military engineer, in opposition to his father who supported the Whites. However, the civil war did not last long for either Eisenstein, as father Mikhail emigrated to Berlin (where he died of a heart attack in 1921), and son Sergei switched careers early in life, joining the film industry in 1920. Yes, Sergei, known for “building a cinematic art with a painter’s eye and the method of an engineer”, went on to be recognized as one of cinema’s most influential directors (Strike, The Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible). So who thinks engineers aren’t good at telling stories? But unfortunately these stories were not told in structures, nor did they reflect a national ethos, but rather a short-lived political philosophy.
The second noteworthy attraction in Riga is the radio and television tower. The tallest structure in the European Union, it not only dominates the skyline, but does so gracefully, on its three parabolically curved legs. But most interesting to an engineer is the tower’s use of three 10-ton mass dampers which dynamically tune it to resist winds up to 98 mph (with no noticeable vibration) and earthquakes up to a 7.5 magnitude. To learn more about how mass can affect dynamic response, check out my article “90 Steps per Minute: Structural Dynamics of Marathon Running”.
The most interesting building to me, however was the National Library of Latvia, right across the Daugava River from Riga’s town center. Opened in 2014, this structure — of concrete, steel, glass, and wood — showed how an engineer/architect could – like Sergei Eisenstein – use his skills to tell a story. The design of the building, intended to be a showcase for Latvian independence, was originally awarded to the Latvian-American architect Gunārs Birkerts in 1988. Birkerts wanted to build something that embodied his love for his homeland and its history, as well as inspiration for the future, and so he created a design that, in his words:
- tells of green fields and meadows, of many-colored flowers;
- tells of dark pine forests and white birch groves;
- tells of slowly flowing, dark, dreamy rivers, their streams are so slow, that at times it seems that they are flowing backwards
But most importantly – being a library — it had to tell a story, a story of Latvia’s struggle for freedom. For that Birkerts turned to one of the countless legends of Latvian folklore, the story of the princess lying atop the mountain of ice. In that story, the brave horsemen had to try to scale the mountain of ice and rescue the beautiful princess, with the bravest and most skilled winning her hand. To Birkerts – as well as to every Latvian who gazes upon the library – the princess in the story is the nation’s freedom, while the horsemen represent all who struggled to win that freedom.
What a beautiful building! What a beautiful story, one that only an engineer could tell.
Telling a story of your own? Why not use CloudCalc, the scalable, collaborative, cloud-based structural engineering software. www.cloudcalc.com – Structural Analysis in the Cloud.
By Tom Van Laan
Copyright © CloudCalc, Inc. 2016