Exploring the Architectural Wonders of Minsk
Editor’s note: ISSUE contributor Elena Ivanova spent the summer in Eastern Europe doing research for a book. This story is the second in a four-part series chronicling her adventures and the artistic discoveries she made along the way.
They can do without architecture who have no olives nor wines in the cellar.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Rule No. 1 for any traveler: pack a pair of good walking shoes.
This proved particularly true during my stay in Minsk. The city is picturesquely located on a hilly terrain and one typically has to walk to get from point A to point B.
Of course, there is an option of getting on a bus, a trolley or subway. However, neither above-ground nor underground transportation reaches every spot in the city and it may be a 10-15 minute walk from the nearest stop to your destination.
The traveler’s rule No. 2: bring clothes that you can wear in layers. The first days of June were chilly and rainy in Minsk while just a week earlier it was unbearably hot. I sported three layers — a T-shirt, a light jacket and a windbreaker. Practicing power walk also helped me stay warm as well as to get around the city faster.
But minor inconveniences did not dampen my spirits (although I cannot say the same about my feet as I negotiated puddles.) I braced myself for the inclement weather and intended to see as much as possible of Belarus’ capital.
High on a hill overlooking the Svicloch River is the so-called Upper Town, the site of old Minsk. Narrow winding streets are lined with two-story houses, many of them restaurants and bars featuring Pilsner and Lido beers, the latter a popular local brand. An elegant Baroque church, which currently houses the Art and Literature Archives, towers over them like a slender Snow White among bulky dwarves. Most of these houses have been recently renovated and cleverly “aged.” Nevertheless, it is easy to fall under the spell of Upper Town as you tread on the cobblestones and imagine yourself in another time, at least a century ago, before revolutions and wars changed the city’s appearance and the way of life.
However, not everything perished. Hidden behind taller buildings in Upper Town is a one-story stuccoed house decorated with a classical pediment and a portico. Built in the late 18th century, the Wankowicz House witnessed Napoleon’s army’s triumphal march to Moscow and its undignified retreat under the relentless attacks of Cossacks. A bronze sculpture of artist Walenty Wilhelm Wankowicz (1800-1842), who was a teenager in those dramatic times, welcomes visitors to his family home.
Today the Wankowicz House is a museum dedicated to preserving and presenting the story of this family and the life style of Belarusian nobility (“szlachta” in Polish.) It opened in 2000 after a lengthy restoration process. It was a formidable task since the interiors underwent many changes while the family lived there during the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries and later when the building was appropriated by the state. As I walked through the elegantly furnished suites the old house echoed with the sounds of music. A beautiful soprano voice sang a soulful aria — a rehearsal was in progress for the evening recital. A feast for the eyes and for the ears.
The ambiance of Upper Town makes you forget that a busy thoroughfare, Nezalezhnosti Street, with its pompous Soviet-era buildings, is just a block away. I must admit that I am an architecture snob. Having been born and raised in St. Petersburg, the city famous for its exquisite Baroque, Classical and Art Nouveau architecture, I always have detested the so-called Socialist Classicism or Stalinist Empire Style which was abundant in Moscow. It made me feel like a diminutive slave in the presence of a colossal pyramid, the effect which undoubtedly was intended. Minsk challenged me to leave my comfort zone and take a closer look at the buildings that date back to the 1930s -1950s.
There is something about Socialist Classicism in Minsk that made it more appealing than I expected. Everything seemed to be on a smaller scale than in Moscow: the streets were not so wide, the buildings not so enormous, some streets had a pedestrian area with trees and benches which gave them a look of Parisian boulevards. I found myself in an environment that was more congruent for human experience and thus more aesthetically pleasing.
After a while I even found a favorite: the Central Post Office Building. This four-story building occupies a whole block and faces both Nezalezhnosti Street and the huge square of the same name. Yet, despite its size, it is graceful. The design is unmistakably Classical. Corinthian columns run along the facade in a rhythmical pattern. The rectangular-shaped building is crowned with an entablature decorated with oval medallions. Light brown walls and off-white columns convey a sense of elegance and harmony.
I walked under the tall arch which marked the main entrance. High above the arch, a massive emblem of the USSR basked in the glow of the evening sun. Apparently, the political clock in Belarus still shows Soviet time. The hammer and sickle were proudly emblazoned across the globe and ears of wheat wrapped with a red ribbon were holding them in a firm embrace. It was not accidental that the old Soviet emblem looked so natural on the facade of this Classical-style building. Soviet culture always aspired to Greco-Roman standards in art.
The interior of the Central Post Office was no less impressive than its facade. I found myself in a rotunda which reminded me of the Roman Pantheon. Ionic columns of dark marble with white capitals formed a wide circle in the middle of the hall. Large stained glass windows symmetrically placed along the curved walls cast multicolored shadows and more light was pouring in through a row of windows above the columns. Notwithstanding all this splendor, it still was a post office, with people buying stamps and mailing parcels. I also stepped to the counter. The service was efficient and the clerk even smiled. You don’t get it too often in Minsk — I felt special.
On a small street a few blocks away from the Central Post office, I discovered a very different kind of building which could not pass unnoticed. The date on the facade clearly declared the age of this little masterpiece — 1913. Its austere beauty suggested that the architect was probably inspired by the North European version of Art Nouveau, but he gave it his own interpretation.
Every tier of this three-story building was painted in a different color: cerulean blue at the lower level, gray in the middle section and pale blue at the top. The change of color made the ornamental masonry around the windows stand out. There were few other decorative features. Three gables, a larger one in the middle and two smaller ones at the sides of the building, punctuated the roof line. Simple geometric patterns around the third-story windows and on the gables were the final ornamental touch. The building was a great example of “less is more.”
How about modern architecture in Minsk? One of the most controversial buildings that has recently been added to the city skyline is the National Library of Belarus. “People continue to argue about it,” my friend said to me. Then she added, “You must see it after the sunset.” So one early evening I took a subway almost to the edge of the city.
The first thing I saw as I exited the subway was an enormous rhomboid-shaped structure standing in the middle of a vast open space. I later learned that the shape is actually called a rhombicuboctahedron. Here are a few statistics: the building is 236-feet high, has 23 floors and is the only structure in Minsk with a public observation deck on the 23rd floor. Designed by architects Mikhail Vinogradov and Viktor Kramarenko in the late 1980s, it was open to the public only in 2006. It took more than 20 years to break ground and another four years to complete the construction.
At least ten minutes passed before I reached the entrance to the library. I kept walking, but the gigantic Rubik’s Cube did not seem to be getting closer. Anticipation was building up and I think at some point I broke into running.
The entrance to the library is grand, as one may expect. A colossal statue of Francysk Skaryna, Belarusian humanist, physician, translator and one of the first book printers in Eastern Europe, was the first to greet me when I finally reached the plaza in front of the library. Having paid tribute to the Renaissance genius of Belarus, I paused to read inscriptions on two large plates which flanked the library entrance. Reminiscent of sandstones used by ancient people as a writing surface, they are covered with words of wisdom praising the value of literacy in many languages.
The lobby was spacious and appeared transparent due to the extensive use of glass and metal. I could see several floors above me as if they were floating in the air. I circled several of them admiring colorful frescoes which illustrated the history of literacy in Belarus and pausing to take photos of the floors below me.
But the most memorable of all was the view from the observation deck on the 23rd floor. I arrived at the right moment to see the panorama of the city before the sun went down and stayed to enjoy the nighttime illumination. And what a sight it was! As soon as the darkness unfolded, the city burst with myriads of lights. The streets turned into rivers of liquid gold and the silhouettes of buildings became outlined in strands of shiny gems. I stayed till closing time unable to tear myself away from the spectacle beneath.
Another amazing experience awaited me as I descended to the plaza. The surface of the rhomboid structure actually is a gigantic screen, or to be more precise, a media facade, which is turned on after sunset. Running images and patterns create an illusion that the rhomboid is spinning, dazzling the viewers with constantly changing imagery. Not surprisingly, the majority of images were ads. I did not care for commercial messages, but I appreciated the artistry and marveled at the new technology.
These are just a few examples of what Minsk has to offer to a lover of architecture. Every day I made new discoveries and my fascination with the city grew. Like an interesting book, it enticed me to go on and it was hard to leave it when so many pages remained unturned.
My travelogue continues and in my next installment I will talk about art.
Story and photos by Elena Ivanova
ISSUE Staff Writer