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Balčytis studija’s Vilkaviškis bus station in Lithuania punches above its weight

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Vilkaviškis bus station is so much more than a terminus. Balčytis studija’s sweeping design is a landscape, civic hub, event space – even a tourist destination

The bus station on the west side morphs into a full-scale landscape intervention in a pocket park on the east side facing the town centre.
The bus station on the west side morphs into a full-scale landscape intervention in a pocket park on the east side facing the town centre. Credit: Norbert Tukaj
The 16th century market town of Vilkaviškis in southwest Lithuania, while small, was not spared the horrors of WWII, with a Nazi massacre of its Jewish population leaving the town virtually levelled. Later Soviet occupation of Lithuania saw more erasure of town’s past; rather than restoration, a war-ruined church was built over with a petrol station, its cemetery sacrificed to make way for anonymous post-war urban expansion. Recent history has been hard on the town of 11,000 in more subtle ways, its younger population draining off to the capital Vilnius and second city, Kaunas. It was in this context, east of the petrol station, that architect Gintaras Balčytis’ Balčytis studija was asked to engender not only a sense of ­arrival and departure for the town’s new municipal bus ­station, but a sense of place for the local community that would cultivate feelings of civic pride. The result is the 2022 EU Mies Prize-longlisted bus station, merging the logistical demands of a modern bus terminus serving a regional catchment of 40,000, with a new public space in a pocket park west of the town centre.

The 2000m2, white concrete terminus ­replaces a banal 400m² structure dating from 1975. South of the town’s cultural centre, it was the municipality’s wish that the new station should contribute to the town’s cultural life, says Balčytis, sited as it is about 300m west of the old centre. For client Kautra, the country’s largest intercity bus company, it was an opportunity for a statement building benefiting from the increased footfall that such a proposition could bring. The architect was appointed after designing its much larger, 12,000m² terminus in Kaunas in 2017. 

  • Full height glazing and robust zig zag section aluminium rainscreen cladding characterise more utilitarian facades on the bus station side.
    Full height glazing and robust zig zag section aluminium rainscreen cladding characterise more utilitarian facades on the bus station side. Credit: Norbert Tukaj
  • Stainless steel mesh separates the park from an outdoor growing area for the bus station’s garden store. It has become a draw for bird life.
    Stainless steel mesh separates the park from an outdoor growing area for the bus station’s garden store. It has become a draw for bird life.
  • Roof thickness is 180-220mm depending on steel column centres. Free-standing 800mm red illuminated signage nods to Russian Constructivists..
    Roof thickness is 180-220mm depending on steel column centres. Free-standing 800mm red illuminated signage nods to Russian Constructivists.. Credit: Norbert Tukaj
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 Seen executed virtually as it was first presented to the town’s mayor. Inspired by Japanese architecture, both in its traditional and contemporary forms, the architects’ hybrid design was for a low-lying, ­concrete and steel building addressing the existing terminus apron on the west side as well as mitigating its relationship with the pocket park to the east. Now, a large 180-220mm concrete roof, set at 7m above the ground and supported on slender 200mm steel columns, covers the station and stretches out over the park, punctuated with huge holes that allow the existing trees to continue growing past and through it. A constituent of this reach into the park is a cafeteria and dedicated planting space, offering the ­potential to stage events on the park side.

Part of the project’s success was in the development of the programme for the site. The client and architect spent a long time negotiating with local interests to work out the ­optimum commercial brief; it was a given that the station had to function as more than just a shopfront to six ‘departure’ and two ‘arrival’ coaches. Balčytis explains that after initial conversations with major supermarkets as anchor stores, a more tailored approach was adopted that took account of local needs and interests. A local store selling clothing and household goods now serves as the main anchor. And while a local flower and plant shop serves a secondary role, at 300m², its presence developed the plan of the station, with one of the external circular zones given over to displaying its wares separated by a permeable ‘wall’ of white-painted stainless steel perforated mesh. Smaller units are, among others, occupied by a charcuterie, selling cured meats from local farms; the café, meanwhile, roasts its own coffee. These interventions are a key aspect of the design’s success, bringing local specificity to the commercial offer.

Construction of the station on the triangular park site, along with the new apron and ­associated parking, began in spring 2019 and completed a year later. Despite the complexity of effectively building within a parkland setting, Balčytis says that he was encouraged by the fact that, surrounded by roads, the pocket park had established itself and thrived. Nonetheless, the job required specific logistics, he explains. With the more mature lime trees on the site, a 6m radius gap was maintained around the trunk to ensure construction did not encroach on the root network. To avoid the ground drying out while foundations were dug, temporary maintenance channels were inserted around trunks, part of the enabling works to keep trees adequately fed and watered, before being removed once works were completed. Interestingly, while the building is owned by the client, ongoing facilities management is in the hands of the municipality, which required its agreement when it came to the specification of external surfaces and finishes. 

This is behind the minimalistic specification of materials – concrete, double glazed ­structural glass panels, steel columns and the characterful zigzag aluminium rainscreen cladding that covers the  walls of the bus ­station. Balčytis had learned lessons from specification of less durable high pressure laminate internal finishes on the bus station at Kaunas, and here ‘wanted materials to be simple but long lasting’ – which accounts for the internal exposed concrete surface finishes as well as its stainless steel mesh ceiling. The exposed concrete surfaces continue externally too – converting to coloured concrete setts on the path areas from a cement screed finish internally.

  • The circular cafe on the park side, serving local produce, is intended to be a community hub and the focus of future events post-pandemic.
    The circular cafe on the park side, serving local produce, is intended to be a community hub and the focus of future events post-pandemic. Credit: Norbert Tukaj
  • The pocket park mediates between the infrastructural component of the brief and the town’s old centre.
    The pocket park mediates between the infrastructural component of the brief and the town’s old centre. Credit: Norbert Tukaj
  • The low-lying concrete coach station offsets its embodied carbon by using heat from the ground below the tarmac apron.
    The low-lying concrete coach station offsets its embodied carbon by using heat from the ground below the tarmac apron. Credit: Norbert Tukaj
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And while the use of concrete in a natural setting might seem counter-intuitive, Balčytis thinks this is only half of the argument. He did investigate the use of structural timber but claims that the building’s municipal use precluded that for fire reasons; and the concrete, he feels, is appropriately robust for the building’s practical purpose.  

By way of reducing the carbon footprint, the architect convinced the client to dispense with fossil fuels to heat and cool the building and double the outlay to use ground source heat pumps. The pumps’ rods are installed in a grid set-up, sunk to 14m beneath the tarmac of the bus apron, part of the site’s 11,000m2 total area, allowing the terminus to meet energy performance requirements for a Class A+ building. Once photovoltaic panels are installed on the roof this year, the development will be self-sufficient, using energy from renewable sources. Initially reticent about the installation of this and the rainwater harvesting system, the client has found operational costs so low over the last year that it plans to adopt the same systems in future bus stations.

 The 1200m2 exterior space beneath the roof has been used during the day, especially ­during lockdown, and subtle lighting of its concrete soffit by uplighters attached to the steel columns has been appreciated by those using the park at night. The bus station itself is already making waves; Balčytis explains that the cafe ­owners are developing a programme of evening and daytime events. And articles in the ­national press have led to a mini Bilbao ­effect, with people from all over starting to visit to see it. But, drawn by the Constructivist-influenced Avenir font of the station’s bold, red signage, the architect hopes the new bus station will, ­ironically, encourage local residents to stay precisely where they are.  

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