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Lithuanian architecture

Architecture has the ability to match the individual style of the architect and the period with the demands of the client. This field of art and culture, even though constrained by technical, social and economic factors, inevitably affect our everyday life and also, at the same time, reflect it.
In order to show the changes taking place in architecture in Lithuania, this website describes the most dynamic practitioners and the most active firms. In order to present various aspects of architecture, we have chosen to feature architects who work in different fields, and works by them that vary in typology and scale.

This publication presents 17 architectural objects that have received national or international awards, won competitions, been recognised as note-worthy, and discussed widely by other professionals and the general public. Architectural projects differing in their purpose and character are described. In order to showcase the potential of young designers, several successful projects that are still only on the way to being implemented are also included. The most notable objects created by Lithuanian are also presented here.

Each practitioner or team is represented by one work that reflects their characteristic creative style or their most important achievements. The works presented in this website are, as it were, a snapshot in time to illustrate in a concise manner what is going on today in Lithuanian architecture.

Lithuanian architecture is modern and dynamic. It reflects the nation’s cultural traditions, as well as its social and economic situation. This may seem at first glance to be an overly assertive statement, but one which we will attempt to justify not just in what follows here, but also through the list of buildings and their architects given in the catalogue. One could, of course, describe the built environment of any country in the same abstract terms. So, the question arises, what makes the architecture of Lithuania, whose designers are making a greater and greater impact on the international scene, exceptional?
First of all, the particular nature of Lithuanian architecture has been shaped not so much by a continuous evolution as by the distinct prevailing historical situation, which we want to examine here.

After all, in balancing between art and function architecture takes on features of both, and thus reflects the desires and world-view of the society and the politics of the time. Besides, because of the close connection between the master and the apprentice, the architectural profession inevitably, but not always directly, transmits information, a cultural code, from one generation to another. Today’s buildings are a combination of major discoveries, of hopes and losses, of the unimplemented ideas of the time, and of the changes in urban signifiers. The entire history of the country is encoded in contemporary architecture. It may not always be obvious, but it is a decisive factor.

There has been an active search for an identity in Lithuanian architecture especially from 1990 onwards. In this period, we can see the search for a national or a personal identity, expressions of the creation and continuation of tradition, and the influence of global trends. We can see daring creative experiments in the work of today’s most active architects, and the values their teachers have inculcated in them: simplicity of expression, the importance of conceptual ideas, purity of materials, and the importance given to finished details. Not all of the best examples have made it into the catalogue. We have tried to show the most diverse range of architecture, in terms of function, scale, individual creative expression and professionalism. We have attempted to reflect the widest spectrum of Lithuanian architecture which is constantly evolving and being created.

Tradition and Continuity
The traditions of the Lithuanian school of modern architecture go back to the interwar period (1918 to 1939), when Early Modernism flourished in Kaunas, the temporary capital. The architecture of the time in Kaunas was in step with global architectural processes, while the pace of urban construction in terms of the period was simply hard to believe. The buildings that appeared during this brief period, which are distinguished by their sober and modern architectural language, as well as by their interpretation of national motifs, are still admired today. Their particular character and emergence in difficult conditions have been a source of inspiration to entire generations of architects.

A striking example of functionalism in this period is the Pienocentras building, housing the association of Lithuanian dairy processing companies, designed by Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis, which received an award at the Paris World Fair in 1937. The search for a national style is illustrated by the Kaunas Central Post Office (by Feliksas Vizbaras), which is decorated with motifs taken from Lithuanian traditional woven textiles, and by other buildings in Kaunas. Perhaps as regards style, they may be attempts that evoke a mixed reaction. However, this is without any doubt a very distinctive, if brief, period in the history of Lithuania's architecture, which laid the foundations for the future. It can probably be asserted that Kaunas architecture of the interwar period is an inspiration to those who seek to build quality buildings fast, and to those searching for an architectural language that is unique, distinctive and specific to us.

When Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union, the search for architectural originality was suspended by the intrusion of Stalinist architecture, which was based on principles of historicism. Architects who came from Soviet Russia implanted alien architectural ideas.
Fortunately, in 1956 the Soviet Union’s policy on architecture changed, and Stalinist architecture was rejected for being not being economically viable. Because of this official U-turn in policy, most non-local architects slowly left, which provided new creative opportunities for young architects who had recently completed their studies, such as Vytautas and Algimantas Nasvytis, Vytautas Brėdikis, Vytautas Edmundas Čekanauskas and Algimantas Mačiulis.

During the Soviet period, these energetic architects were able to form a distinctive school of architecture, and to create more than a few remarkable buildings which were to become a calling card for Lithuanian architecture throughout the Soviet Union of the time. The residential area of Lazdynai in Vilnius (by Vytautas Edmundas Čekanauskas, Vytautas Brėdikis and others), the National Opera and Ballet Theatre (Elena Nijolė Bučiūtė), the Art Exhibition Palace (Vytautas Edmundas Čekanauskas), and many other buildings showed the very high standard of the work of Lithuanian architects in the context of the Soviet Union. Thanks to professional trips abroad, a strong Scandinavian influence became apparent in Lithuanian architecture and urban design,  but signifiers of national identity, interpreted in a way specific to Lithuania, were not forgotten. Since there could be no overtly national elements in architecture at the time, the importance of the context - the surroundings, and particularly the natural environment of buildings - played a crucial role, perceived as a national feature. Trips to Finland essentially changed the approach of architects to materials and features. Their work became cleaner and simpler, greater attention was paid to materials that were characteristic of the location, the aim being to use them with as few finished surfaces as possible, and with a new-found focus placed on the beauty of naturalness.

In 1990, when Lithuania regained its independence, the nation faced new challenges. The environment in which architecture could be created changed radically: large design institutions closed down, and more and more architects opened private practices. The state lost its role as the primary client in architectural processes. The growth of private ownership, the influx of new materials, and the late arrival of echoes of Postmodernism created a unique situation where architects had the opportunity to study, interpret and create in daring ways. Many small firms were established during this period of transformation and over time strong personalities and creative collectives emerged from them to become the most active and productive generation of architects working today.

Until the construction peak in 2003-2004, when Vilnius began to look like a port city because of the number of cranes on the skyline, there was a never ending source of experimentation. It was a school in a construction zone. A lot of building took place, carried out quickly and with a constant increase in quality. Later, architects who had completed their studies in independent Lithuania entered the workforce full of daring visions and conceptual ideas. Many of them had also studied and gained experience abroad.
Changes in Residential Architecture
In Soviet Lithuania the building of individual houses did not exist. This is why this particular area went through the most radical quantitative and qualitative changes, and the clearest tendencies in the change of style are reflected in it. The mass construction of huge buildings at the start of the period of independence was gradually replaced by a demand for the construction of really original individual houses, resulting in smaller scale projects. Quantity was replaced by quality and originality. Many architects tried their hand at designing residential buildings, which created an opportunity for new ideas to be tried out, for experimentation, the use of various materials, and for creating unusual architectural features. In 2003, the first conceptually based architectural exhibition, called Detail, was held. The name seemed to declare that although the country did not yet boast many large-scale original works, it could compete on the level of smaller projects where detail mattered.

Almost all the architects and many of the collectives featured in this website have designed interesting projects for residential buildings - to name all who have done so would require a separate publication. It is not a coincidence that in 2010, the architect Gintaras Balčytisorganised the exhibition Houses LT, which looked at the construction of detached houses in Lithuania. The exhibition travelled abroad, and attracted a lot of attention. It showed how important of the natural, urban and cultural context is to Lithuanian architects, as well as the individual character and creative style of different practitioners. Architects experiment not only by interpreting traditional functional connections, by creating unexpected space and volume in the construction of individual houses, and thus changing lifestyles, but they also utilise combinations of natural materials, such as concrete, wood, large sheets of plate glass, rusted steel, and wood shingles.

The viewer is confronted by the unusual and striking projects of the Gintautas Natkevičius practice, Virginijus Juozaitis, and the Arches collective. Conceptual ideas are expressed in the out-of-the-ordinary residential houses designed by Darius Čiuta, Eugenijus Miliūnas, Rolandas Palekas and Audrius Karalius. There are numerous architects who design large individual houses, such as Alvydas Šeibokas, Audrius Ambrasas, Gintaras Balčytis, and Gintautas and Asta Vieversys. A house in Anykščiai designed by Kęstutis Indriūnas and Dalė Vileitienė, and the project, laconic in design, entitled Pats tas namas (That Very House) by Aušra Černauskienė, Indrė Ruseckaitė and Jonas Ruseckas, maintain features of the local culture and at the same time interpret folk traditions in residential architecture in a modern way.

Recreational and tourist buildings are another area where, like residential architecture, a connection with local nature and culture is important. Successive generations of architects have understood this, so even before independence a good number of large recreational architecture projects of good quality were realised. The Žilvinas resort complex in Palanga, designed by Algimantas Lėckas more than four decades ago, and a little later the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences Recreational Complex, designed by Vytautas Dičius and Leonidas Ziberkas and in the same town, raised the standard of recreational architecture. Today, the best traditions of recreational architecture are continued by the Lithuanian architects' collectives the Arches, the Gintautas Natkevičius practice, and the Laima Tumynienė and Gintautas Vieversys duo. It is in their work that one can probably most strongly feel the importance of the closeness of nature, natural materials and an intimate scale, as well as the influence of context. These are the values that illustrate the continuity of tradition, as well as the lessons learned from Scandinavian architecture in the design and creation of contemporary Lithuanian architecture.

A New Kind of Commercial Architecture
Over the 20 years of independence, new commercial buildings were designed in a context somewhat different from that of residential architecture. With each economic boom, more and more commercial architectural projects appeared in the towns of Lithuania, thanks to the efforts of the strongest and most experienced architectural firms. Commercial buildings were designed and built quickly, applying the latest technologies from the West. Some clients saw architecture as a means by which they could form their image, thereby creating a favourable conditions for employees and clients, and they chose the architectural solutions they wanted by putting projects out to tender. Examples of such successful synergies include the Hanner and Swedbank administrative buildings designed by Audrius Ambrasas, and also the bank branch in Riga, the capital of Latvia, which was recognised as the best architectural project in the city in 2011. The Victoria office building in Vilnius, designed by Paleko ARCH studija, is unique in the subtlety of its design. The iconic business centre 1000, designed by Rimas Adomaitis, has been featured in international architecture publications.

Not only administrative commercial buildings but also retail complexes have played an important role in the commercial architecture sector. We have to admit that the first retail projects were received negatively by architects and the public, because these large shopping and entertainment centres often appeared near city centres, and because of their scale they eclipsed the historic and urban environments that had taken shape over many years. Eventually, architects learned to respect scale and context, and created buildings of high quality that were not banal and that coped with the standard utilitarian pressures. Over the last 20 years, entrepreneurs have invested significantly in the construction of retail buildings, which is how architects working in this field (Gediminas Jurevičius, Algimantas Kančas, Audrys Karalius, Audrius Ambrasas) have gained invaluable professional experience that has been recognised at an international level. These successful commercial complexes boast aesthetic spaces with interesting interiors. Streamlined functional outlines are still used in designing new buildings. The innovative shopping centres that have been designed and constructed in Lithuania are highly regarded not only in Europe but throughout the world. The architects responsible are trying their hand in designing similar buildings in Asia.

The Old and Forgotten is Now the New: Cultural Buildings
The social and economic situation has determined the fact that over the last couple of decades more administrative and commercial buildings have been constructed than cultural ones. However, because of a more consistent approach and later development, as well as the general maturity of the architects working in this sphere, some extremely masterful solutions have been implement. Because there is little demand for them, the design of non-commercial buildings has become a mark of honour for the majority of experienced architects. These projects are often announced through competitions, and some exceptional site is allocated to them in a town.

Probably it is libraries first and foremost and most often that are built or renovated (the new Vilnius University Library, the A. and M. Miškinis Public Library in Utena, and the Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė Public Library in the Panevėžys district). The functional and spatial character of libraries has changed from a closed and specialised orientation to one that is open and social. These new cultural centres that have gone up in towns reflect not only the latest cultural tendencies, as well as innovative materials and technologies, but also their unique symbolic function.

Museum and gallery type spaces have usually been renovated (the National Gallery of Art and the National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art). This has become not only a challenge in harmonising the old and the new, but it has also created additional architectural value, and made buildings stand out on an international level. The much-praised National Gallery of Art is an example of how the Soviet-period Museum of the Revolution was able to become a unique white-cube-gallery type space representing trends in contemporary architecture. Intentions to build new museums have still not yet borne fruit, but their boldness has attracted the attention of not just professionals but the public as well. For example, a record number of architects participated in the competition to design the Modern Art Centre in Vilnius. There was much discussion in the press about the building after the competition.

The public discussions revolved as much about the architectural expression of the suggestions, as about the cultural mission and significance of the museum. It is important to mention the plan to construct a branch of the Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum in Vilnius, the competition to design it having been won by Zaha Hadid, an architect based in London. Even though these plans remain just an idea, the competition designs by three world-famous architects, Zaha Hadid, Massimiliano Fuksas and Daniel Libeskind, made people reflect on the closeness and influence of global processes on local culture.

The increasingly frequent architectural competitions in Lithuania are like a litmus test that demonstrates the creative potential of architects. Not only do they provide an opportunity to view the same issue from different points of view, they also carry out an educational mission. Over the last few years, there have been several very striking competitions that showcased the creative abilities of many of the architects active in Lithuania. The competitions for the design of exhibition pavilions in Nida and Palanga, Lukiškių Square and the Modern Art Centre were impressive in the number of participants and the diversity of ideas for a country as small as Lithuania. Lithuanian architects who participate not just in local but also international architectural competitions have won more than one first prize. The R. Paleko ARCH studija collective came third out of 1,170 participants in the competition for the design of the Stockholm Library, with a brave and conceptual design. In 2011, Tadas Jonauskis and Justina Muliuolytė won the Europan competition in Reims in France. The Processoffice architects not only won an international competition to renovate the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga, but are close to completing the work.
The Younger Generation and Future Directions 
Designs by young and ambitious teams often win architectural competitions. Independent firm of young architects have already carried out more than one mature project, and those who have completed their university studies in independent Lithuania are positioning themselves in the marketplace. At present, a new generation of young professionals, who have gained experience studying at architecture schools abroad and working in well-known international architectural firms, are beginning to show their potential. Andrė Baldišiūtė, PU-PA, A2SM, YCL, Processoffice, Aketuri, and many other teams of young architects are still taking the first steps in their independent creative work, but one can already see their ambition and clear individual style. Society as a whole, and not just their back yard, is important in the work of these architects. The majority of them stress the importance of analysis, discussion and experimentation as cornerstones of their professional work. The desire of young architects to understand better the environment in which they live, and the causes and effects of rapid urban development, sometimes crosses the line of their professional activities. We can see their social responsibility of these architects and their active participation in the public life of the town they live in. The desire in Lithuanian to go beyond the creation of a building’s design is becoming more important, as well as the attempt to influence a greater range of factors that determine the success of a project and a positive change in the development of towns.

Today, change is inseparable from projects that seek to activate town spaces and intervene in public spaces. One of these attempts is the Kultflux cultural platform, the work of art critics and architects, in Vilnius, on the bank of the River Neris. The placing of this cultural platform 'on the water' provoked discussions both about the role of urban public spaces and about the issue of urbanisation as regards riverbanks in Lithuanian towns. Another similar catalyst appeared in the monotonous environment of mass construction of residential buildings - the micro-district of Pilaitė in Vilnius. The BEEpart project became not only an interesting example of container architecture but also prompted the community to come together and create its own environment. These projects would not have been possible without the active collaboration of artists, architects and representatives from other cultural spheres.

In describing the diverse and intense period of new architecture after Lithuania regained its independence, one can claim that in just over a couple of decades, architects have been able to move away from rushed commercial constructions to the active and responsible formation of residential areas in towns. This has happened not just by creating an essentially new tradition of architecture, but also by adopting the values of the older generation of teachers, values that are already been tried and tested by: a sense of scale, harmony of materials, and regard to the environment. Slowly, the understanding not just of architects but also of clients changed, but ever more attention was paid to high quality architecture, individual expression, and the search for innovative details in all projects. When private business became the main client, more and more commercial, retail and business complexes were built. This allowed architects to improve their skills, to develop clear and easily realised ideas, and to understand the management of the process. The ever busy construction zone became the place for a never ending flow of ideas, research and challenges, and the accumulation of experience. Creative personalities who were able to adapt to the constantly changing market conditions became established, and they now continue the strong tradition of architecture in Lithuania.

They have also shown their professional abilities in numerous international architectural competitions. We can see interesting new creative experiments, and the influence of the Scandinavian school of architecture inculcated by their teachers, in the work of the most active architects today. Young collectives are growing in number, with an understanding of architecture not only as the design of a physical object, but also as the creation of effective strategies that form the environment. These strategies cross the boundaries of professional discipline and create the new, rapidly changing and modern architecture of Lithuania.  

Matas Šiupšinskas, Julija Reklaitė