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Lithuanian architecture

by Matas Šiupšinskas, Julija Reklaitė

Lithuanian architecture is modern and dynamic. It reflects the nation’s cultural traditions and its social and economic situation. At first glance, this may seem a rather assertive statement, but one that we will attempt to validate in this article and in the examples covered in the catalogue. We could describe the built environment of any country in the same terms. So, the question arises, what makes the architecture of Lithuania, whose designers continue to make strides in the international market, so exceptional?

First of all, Lithuanian architecture has been shaped not as much by continuous evolution, as by the particular prevailing historical situation, which we want to examine here. Because architecture balances between art and function and takes on features of both, it reflects the social and political will and worldview of the time. Besides, because the architect’s profession engenders a close connection between the master and the apprentice, it 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 unrealized fluctuating ideas, and of the changing views of urbanism. The entire shared history of the country, encoded in contemporary architecture, may not always be obvious, but is of vital importance.

There has been an active period of self-searching in Lithuanian architecture from 1990 onward, where we can discern a search for a national or a personal identity as well as moments of the creation and continuation of tradition, and the influence of global trends. We see in the work of today’s most active architects bold creative experiments and the values instilled by their teachers: a laconic expression, the importance of conceptual ideas, purity of materials, and the importance of attention to detail. Not all 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 style, and professionalism. We have attempted to reflect the widest possible spectrum of the constantly evolving and continually creative architectural tradition in Lithuania.

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 that time in Kaunas was in step with global architectural processes, while the pace of urban construction relative to the scale of things at the time was astonishing. The buildings that appeared during this brief period, which are distinctive in their sober and modern architectural language, and in their interpretations of national motifs, are still admired today. Their individuality and emergence under difficult conditions have been a source of inspiration to entire generations of architects. A striking example of the functionalism of this period in Kaunas is the building of the Pienocentras company, designed by Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis and awarded a prize at the Paris World Fair in 1937. The search for a national style is illustrated by the Central Post Office (by Feliksas Vizbaras), which is decorated with Lithuanian textile patterns, and by other buildings in the temporary capital. Perhaps as regards style, they have evoked mixed reactions. However, this is without doubt a very distinctive, if brief, period in the history of Lithuania’s architecture, which laid the foundations for the future. It would seem that the architecture of Kaunas in the interwar period is something to draw on when seeking to build fast but with quality in mind, and to find inspiration in in the search for an architectural language that is unique, distinctive and characteristic of just Lithuania.

When the country 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 were sent in from Soviet Russia implemented typical architectural projects that were foreign to Lithuania. Fortunately, in 1956 the Soviet Union’s policy on architecture changed direction, and Stalinist architecture was rejected as being uneconomical. Because of this turning point in official policy, most non-native 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 Čekanauskas, and Algimantas Mačiulis.

During the Soviet period, these energetic architects were able to form a distinctive school of architecture, and to create a number of unique objects which over time drew attention from all over the Soviet Union. The residential district of Lazdynai in Vilnius (by Čekanauskas, Brėdikis and others), the National Opera and Ballet Theatre (Elena Nijolė Bučiūtė), the Art Exhibition Palace (Čekanauskas), and many other objects showed the very high level of the architects’ work in the context of the Soviet Union. With architects travelling abroad, a strong Scandinavian influence became apparent in architecture and urban development,[i] but independently interpreted symbols of national identity were not forgotten. Because there could be no overtly national elements in architecture at the time, the importance of the context, the surroundings, and particularly the natural environment around buildings, played a significant role. Trips to Finland essentially changed the architects’ approach to materials and detail. Their work became cleaner, more laconic, and greater attention was paid to materials that were inherent to the location, with as limited a use of decorated surfaces as possible and a focus on the beauty of nature. These tendencies have remained a constant in architecture to this day.

In 1990, when Lithuania regained its independence, the nation faced new challenges. Architecture was especially affected by these challenges. It underwent major changes: large design institutions closed, and more and more architects took on independent projects.[ii]  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 boldly interpret, create and study. Many small firms were established during this period of transformation. Over time these firms developed strong characters and creative collectives, and eventually became the most active and productive generation of architects. Right up to the construction peak of 2003-2004, when Vilnius looked like a port city because of the number of cranes dotting the skyline, the whole place was a series of never-ending experiments. It was a school in a construction zone. A lot of building was carried out, quickly and of increasing quality. Later, architects who had completed their studies in independent Lithuania entered the workforce full of daring visions and concepts. Many of them had also studied and gained experience abroad.

Changes in Residential Architecture

The architecture of detached residential houses was almost non-existent in Soviet Lithuania. This is why this particular area experienced the most drastic quantitative and qualitative changes, with the trends in stylistic changes most clearly reflected in it. The mass construction of huge buildings at the start of the period of independence was replaced by the demand for truly individual, distinctive houses. Quality and originality supplanted quantity. Many architects tried their hand at designing residential buildings, which created an opportunity to implement some unexpected concepts, bold experimentation, to try various materials, and create original architectural features. In 2003, the first conceptually based architectural exhibition Detalė / Detail was held. The name seemed to declare that although the country did not boast many large-scale original works, it was already possible to compete at the level of detail.

Almost all the architects and collectives featured in this publication have designed interesting residential houses; a separate publication would be required to name them all. In 2010, the architect Gintaras Balčytis organised the exhibition Houses LT, which explored the construction of individual residential housing in Lithuania. It travelled abroad to a number of countries and attracted a lot of attention. The exhibition showcased the importance of natural, urban and cultural contexts in work by Lithuanian architects, as well as noting the individual characteristics and creative style of different creators. Architects experiment not only by interpreting traditional functional connections, by creating unexpected spaces and volumes, and thus changing the new lifestyles of Lithuanians today, but they also utilise combinations of natural materials, such as concrete, wood, large-scale plate glass, corrugated steel, and roof shingles.

The projects by Gintautas Natkevičius’s firm, Virginijus Juozaitis and the Arches studio collective can be called provocative because of their unexpected and attention-grabbing compositional solutions. The original residential dwellings designed by Darius Čiuta, Eugenijus Miliūnas, Rolandas Palekas and Audrius Karalius express conceptual ideas. There are numerous architects who design large-scale buildings, 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 simple project entitled Pats tas namas / That Very House by Aušra Černauskienė, Indrė Ruseckaitė and Jonas Ruseckas, retain features of the local culture and interpret in a modern way the traditions of ethnographic residential architecture. Recreational and tourist buildings are another area where, like residential architecture, a connection with the local natural and cultural contexts is important. Several generations of architects have understood this, so even right up to the restoration of independence, many large high-quality recreational architecture projects were realised. The Žilvinas resort complex in Palanga, designed by Algimantas Lėckas more than four decades ago, and a little later in the same town the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences Recreational Complex, designed by Vytautas Dičius and Leonidas Ziberkas, raised the standard for recreational architecture. Today, the best traditions of recreational architecture are being successfully continued by Arches, Aketuri, A2SM, the firm of Gintautas Natkevičius, and the duo of Laima Tumynienė and Gintautas Vieversys. It is probably in their work that the influence of a closeness to nature, natural materials, the importance of an intimate scale and context is felt. These are values that illustrate the continuity of tradition and lessons from Scandinavian architecture in the creation of contemporary Lithuanian architecture.

A New Kind of Commercial Architecture

During the 20 years of independence, in a somewhat different context that residential architecture, new commercial buildings were designed. With each economic boom, more and more commercial architectural projects appeared in Lithuanian towns and cities, made possible by the efforts of the strongest and most experienced architecture firms.[iii]  Commercial buildings were designed and built very quickly, applying the latest technologies taken from the West. Some customers viewed architecture as a means of shaping their image, created favourable conditions for employees and clients, and chose architectural solutions in organising competitions. Examples of such successful synergies include the Hanner and Swedbank buildings designed by Audrius Ambrasas, as well as the bank’s headquarters in Riga, which was recognised as the best architectural project in the city in 2011. The Victoria office building in Vilnius, designed by the Palekas ARCH Studio, stands out because of its subtlety. The iconic shopping centre 1000, designed by Rimas Adomaitis, was featured in international architecture publications.

Not only administrative buildings, but retail complexes have also played an important role in the commercial architecture sector. It has to be acknowledged that the first retail projects were viewed negatively by many architects and the public, because these large shopping and entertainment centres often appeared near city centres, and with 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 novel and quality objects that withstood 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 on an international scale. These successful commercial complexes boast aesthetic spaces with interesting interiors. Streamlined functional outlines are still used in designing new buildings. The unconventional shopping centres constructed in Lithuania are highly respected not only in Europe but throughout the world. Their architects are already trying their hand at designing buildings of this type in Asia.

The Old and Forgotten is New Again, Cultural Objects

The social and economic situation in the country led to the fact that over the last few decades more administrative and commercial buildings have been constructed than cultural ones. However, because of more coherent recent developments, as well as the general standard of the rising maturity of architects, several highly-skilled solutions have been implemented; and because there is little demand for cultural buildings, the design of non-commercial buildings has become a source of pride for many experienced architects. These projects are often initiated through competitions and special locations are ear-marked for them.

Libraries were probably the most often 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 Panevėžys County). The functional and spatial character of libraries has changed from a closed and specialised orientation to one that is open and social. New city buildings reflect not only modern cultural tendencies and innovative materials and technologies, but also their unique symbolic function.

Museum and gallery type spaces were most often renovated (the National Gallery of Art and the National M.K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art). This has not only become a challenge in combining the old and the new, but it also created additional architectural value, giving the buildings a unique quality on an international scale. The highly 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 contemporary trends in architecture. The intention to build new museums has borne first fruits. For example, the Modern Art Centre in Vilnius is being constructed according to the design of the studio of well-known architect Daniel Libeskind. The discussions, competition, and location scouting took more than a few years and was an extraordinary architectural event in Lithuania. Talk in the public sphere has touched on the issues of architectural competitions the role of stars in the architecture world, and the cultural mission and meaning of the museum. It is important to mention the vision to construct a branch of the Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum in the capital, the competition for which was won by the London-based architect Zaha Hadid. Even though these plans remain just an idea, the designs submitted by three world-famous architects - Hadid, Massimiliano Fuksas and Daniel Libeskind - highlighted the proximity and influence of global processes on local culture.

Architectural competitions in Lithuania are like litmus tests that demonstrate the creative potential of architects. Not only do they provide an opportunity to view the same issue from various 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 Lithuania’s architects. Amongst them were the competitions for the design of exhibition pavilions in Nida and Palanga, Lukiškės Square and the Modern Art Centre. What is amazing is the record number of participants and the diversity of ideas presented. A new trend tis the organisation of architectural competitions in Kaunas that draw numerous entries from around the globe. Lithuanian architects who actively participate not just in local but also international architectural competitions have won a number of prizes. The Palekas ARCH Studio collective came third out of 1170 participants in the competition for the design of an extension to the Stockholm Library with a bold and conceptual design called Cut. It is cause for celebration that in 2011, Tadas Jonauskis and Justina Muliuolytė won the European competition in Reims, France. Processoffice not only won the international competition to renovate the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga, but also completed this challenge-filled project.

The Younger Generation and Future Directions

Designs by young and ambitious collectives often win architectural competitions. Independent new firms of young architects have already implemented a number of mature projects, and those who were the first to finish their university studies in Lithuania under independences. At present, a new generation of young architects, who gained experience studying at architectural schools abroad and working in well-known international architectural offices, are beginning to demonstrate their potential. PU-PA, YCL, sprik, MAS, 2XJ, AIL, Plotas and many other teams of very young architects are just now taking their first steps in their own creative work, but their ambitions and distinct style are already evident. In their creative work what is important to these architects is being socially-conscious and not just the problems in their own backyards. Some of them stress the importance of research, discussion and experimentation as cornerstones in their professional work. The desire of young architects to better understand the residential environment, and the causes and effects of rapid urban development, sometimes goes beyond the limits of their work. We see their social responsibility and their active participation in public urban life. What is becoming increasingly more important in Lithuania is not to restrict oneself to the creation of a building’s design, but also the attempt to influence a greater range of factors that determine the success of a project and positive changes in urban development.

Today, change is inseparable from projects that seek to activate urban areas, interventions in public spaces, and contextual creative experiments. One of these attempts is the Kultflux cultural platform in Vilnius, on the bank of the Neris River, which was implemented by art critics and architects. The placing of this cultural platform ‘on the water’ provoked discussions about the utility of urban public spaces and about the issue of urbanization of shoreline areas in Lithuanian cities. Another similar catalyst appeared in the monotonous environment of massive residential construction – in the microdistrict of Pilaitė in Vilnius. The Beepart project became not only an interesting example of container architecture but also encouraged the local community to band together and together to create their own environment. The youthful Vienas prie vieno / One to one initiative is cause for joy with its small-scale architectural experiments in the water or next to water. In 2016, a group of active architecture students organized the first European Architecture Students Assembly (EASA) in Lithuania that left behind several architectural interventions in the sensitive natural surroundings of Neringa. These projects would not have been possible without the participation of artists, architects and specialists in other cultural fields.

In summing up the diverse and intense period of Lithuanian architecture after the country regained its independence, it is possible to assert that in just a few decades, Lithuania’s architects have been able to move away from rushed commercial constructions to the active and responsible formation of urban residential spaces. This has happened not just by creating an essentially new tradition of architecture, but also in the adoption of values already tried and tested by the older generation of teachers: a sense of scale, harmony of materials, and an awareness of the environment. Slowly, the understanding not just of architects, but also of clients, has changed, with more attention being given to high-quality architecture, individual personal expression, and the search for unique details in both large and small-scale projects. When private business became the main client, more and more commercial, retail and business centres were built. This allowed architects to improve their skills, to develop clear and easily realised ideas, and to understand process management. The bustling construction sector became a real breeding ground for a wealth of inexhaustible ideas, research and experiments, as well as for gaining 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 shown their professional abilities in numerous international architectural competitions. We see interesting new creative experiments, and the influence of their teachers and the Scandinavian school of architecture in the work of the most active architects today. Young firms 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 exceed the boundaries of the discipline, and are creating the new, rapidly changing and modern architecture of Lithuania.


[i] Mačiulis, A., Permainingi metai. Architekto užrašai / Variable Years. An Architect’s Notes, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2008.

[ii] Grunskis, T., Reklaitė, J., Laisvės architektūra / The Architecture of Freedom, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 2012.

[iii] Ibid.

 

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