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The Final Contortions of the Late Soviet Era
Marija Drėmaitė
Gigantomania in cultural hall construction
If one had to choose an archetypal symbol of late Soviet era architectural typology, it would likely be the ubiquitous cultural hall. Though these structures had already been appearing in the first years of Soviet rule, the 1980s saw a real boom in their construction, both in large cities (the Ekranas factory cultural hall in Panevėžys, for example, designed by Henrikas Antanas Balčiūnas in 1987) and in smaller towns like Birštonas (by Adelė Mickienė in 1976) and Trakai (by Alfredas Paulauskas in 1985).
Cultural hall construction reached its architectural high point in the 1980s in rural Lithuania, specifically on more prosperous collective farms. The architecture of the final years of the collective farming period in rural Lithuania is notable not only for the rebirth of single-family homes with accompanying agricultural buildings and the many examples of a more open approach to design, but first and foremost for the original approaches employed in new administrative and cultural centers built for agricultural settlements.
The more productive and prosperous collective and Soviet farm settlements in the Lithuanian SSR began to see not only a proliferation of unique designs for residential and industrial buildings, but also an increase in funding for the construction of administrative and cultural centers. This phenomenon depended largely on specific initiatives taken by collective farm chairmen and their increasing fondness for constructing ever more impressive cultural and administrative complexes for their settlements.
In the district of Šilutė, in western Lithuania, for example, the Soviet farm settlement in Juknaičiai constructed a so-called “spiritual and physical wellness” center (designed by Stanislovas Kalinka in 1977) that in its architectural composition resembled a church and monastery. Inside, the complex was adorned with ceremonial symbols. The collective arm chairman conceived of the center as a place for spiritual and physical cleansing and purification through the elements of water, fire and art. The process of cleansing was symbolically represented by a spacial stained glass creation by Algimantas Stoškaus entitled Gyvenimo pulsas (The Pulse of Life) that would light up when entering the main lobby, like an upended, suspended crystal pine tree. At the same time, clusters of stars would circle downward into the dark waters below, accompanied by music specially composed by Osvaldas Balakauskas, rippling over the surface of the water with the final chords of music. The complex also had a women’s hall decorated with paintings, a men’s hall (sauna) with wall paintings on a fire theme and a decorative fireplace, as well as an auditorium with stained glass artwork, a winter garden with sculptures, and a swimming pool with cascading water and massaging water jets.
Architect Algimantas Mačiulis recalls how he was contacted in 1972 by another influential collective farm chairman, the “millionaire” head of the Draugas (Comrade) Collective Farm in Radviliškis, Algimantas Malinauskas, who introduced himself as the “Lithuanian Pig King.” Malinauskas commissioned a design (1972–1983) for a new central complex for the collective farm settlement of Alksniupiai, to include a pool with water tower, baths, small swimming pools, a waterfall, sports hall and sauna complex (1986). Algimantas Mačiulis, Permainingi metai: Architekto užrašai, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2008, p. 280. There were plenty of similar initiatives to build settlement centers with pools and sports halls being undertaken on other collective farms as well. The collective farm settlement at Ėriškės opened the large Gojus shopping and household services center in 1988, and began construction of a swimming pool and sports center as well as renovation of the settlement’s central square.
Influential collective farm chairmen trusted their architects, asking them to design elaborate, impressive buildings while they limited their oversight to the construction process, quality control, and the obtaining of necessary materials. As nearly limitless possibilities became available, the architectural choices of this time period display a considerable amount of creative confusion, a lack of tradition (since there was little in the way of prior guidance), but also a desire to express the most innovative ideas. As a result, some community centers in rural towns and settlements showcase the extremes of architecture, from functionalist boxes clashing with the surrounding landscape to depictions of an overly romanticized vision of rural life, reflecting the emotional response by one architect to a weekend spent on a village farm.
It became common practice in the 1980s for collective farm administrations to have a full-time architect on staff – evidenced by an increase in construction and a changing perception of overall settlement composition, from caring for the environment to a more original approach to residential architecture. Indeed, the designs from this era for collective farm cultural halls and community centers often displayed experimental and innovative solutions that were hardly imaginable in larger cities at the time. From this perspective, collective farm construction became a kind of haven for young, talented architects and artists, as well as a place for more experienced architects to practice their craft (and earn additional income).
Today, these gigantic, extravagant and often neglected community buildings are a testmanet to the late Soviet period and efforts to bring an urban environment to rural settlements.
Sniečkus – an example of late Soviet urban planning
Newly established industrial cities in Lithuania can be considered pure examples of Soviet urban planning from an architectural as well as social perspective. These cities featured unique characteristics such as the multinational makeup of their populations, a culture oriented around work, and a dependence on nearby factories. Industrial cities were perhaps the clearest embodiment of the principal goals of Soviet social engineering: the “internationalization” of the Soviet people and the creation of a uniform environment and living conditions across the entire country. In Lithuania, however, the increasing influence of local planners ensured that such cities were not constructed by mechanically transplanting standardized blueprints applied throughout the Soviet Union.
If Elektrėnai in central Lithuania became a very public project successfully exploited for propaganda purposes, then another mono-industrial Lithuanian city, Sniečkus (today Visaginas), classified as a city of “All-Union significance,” was founded under completely different circumstances, and its planning testifies to a search for more organic urban planning approaches more characteristic of late modernism. The case of Sniečkus is a direct look into the birth of a major industrial complex and its standardized satellite city. Nevertheless, during the planning stages of Sniečkus the ambitions of Lithuanian architects and urban planners brought standards applied throughout the Soviet Union into direct conflict with regional traditions.
The principal agency overseeing the construction of the gigantic Ignalina nuclear power station and its satellite settlement was known as the Ministry of Medium Machine Building (or “Sredmash”, the short form of the ministry’s Russian name), and its secretive subdivision, the USSR Atomic Energy Committee. Construction of the facility was delegated to the All-Union Western Construction Company, which specialized in building secret, restricted-access industrial cities. Algirdas Kavaliauskas, Visaginas: Istorijos fragmentai (1972–2002), Vilnius: Jandrija, 2003, p. 394. Because the settlement was being constructed to house workers for the future Ignalina nuclear plant, the new city was given “All-Union status” and planning was accordingly assigned to VNIPIET (the All-Union Academic Energy Technology Research and Planning Institute) in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg).
These specialists had already designed such Soviet “atomic cities” as Shevchenko (today known as Aktau, Kazakhstan), Navoiy (in Uzbekistan), and Sosnovi Bor (near St. Petersburg, Russia). Lithuanian energy expert Algirdas Stumbras remembers how, in 1973, senior Soviet architects for Sniečkus proudly displayed their national state awards for the design of Shevchenko, proclaiming that “the Ministry of Energy takes care of small settlements, while Sredmash designs cities. Algirdas Stumbras, Prisiminimai, Vilnius: Margi raštai, 2007, p. 104.
The urban planning process for Sniečkus fueled tension between the Leningrad planners and local Lithuanian designers. Algimantas Lapėnas, an architect for the Ignalina district, says he was unhappy that the new city was being planned by specialists from Leningrad:
Their mentality is a bit different. I’m not saying they’re bad architects – but they’re used to the grandiose scale of Leningrad. This didn’t fit Lithuania. We are always having to fight against gigantomania. Constantly, with every single structure. Algirdas Kavaliauskas, Visaginas (1975–1999), Vilnius: Jandrija, 1999, p. 201.
Other Lithuanian architects voiced their displeasure more delicately:
Cities should be designed in the republic where they are to be built. LTSR Architektų sąjungos valdybos išvažiuojamojo posėdžio „A. Sniečkaus gyvenvietės planavimas ir užstatymas“ protokolas, 1978 10 10, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 87, ap. 1, b. 610, l. 4–5.
Eventually, a compromise was reached: VNIPIET specialists prepared a general plan in 1974 and oversaw designs for residential housing, while architects from Kaunas were delegated the task of designing public cultural and service facilities.
In the Soviet tradition, the new city was named Sniečkus, in honor of the leader of the Lithuanian Communist Party. The city was planned around a “butterfly” motif, consisting of one main “body” and four “wings” arrayed around it for the residential “microdistricts.” After the decision was taken to stop the construction of the third and final nuclear reactor, the fourth residential “wing” was never completed. Each microdistrict had a central area, with children's nurseries, a school, courtyards and pedestrian pathways winding through a pine grove, surrounded by mostly 5 and 9-story apartment buildings encircled by a main road. The city had two intersecting pedestrian avenues meant to serve as the main urban arteries. The first avenue was lined with stores, cafés, a cinema, and a hotel, while the second – reserved for recreational purposes and walking paths – led to a small beach. The city was designed according to the “8 minute principle”: the center of town could be accessed from any point in the city within 8 to 10 minutes.
At the time, the local press praised efforts by designers to incorporate the natural surroundings and specific landscape characteristics of the new city into the final design composition, but years later Lithuanian architects denied any such effort, revealing that the city had been constructed within a forest by clearing trees, rather than searching for a more open construction area. For Lithuanian architects accomplished in the urban planning field, the Leningrad specialists’ design appeared neither innovative nor unconventional. On the contrary, the Lithuanian assessment of the city’s composition mostly focused on its inconsistencies. A successful implementation of organic architecture depends on establishing harmony with surrounding nature, but Sniečkus revealed a large number of choices that directly contradicted this approach.


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Sources and links

LTSR Architektų sąjungos valdybos išvažiuojamojo posėdžio „A. Sniečkaus gyvenvietės planavimas ir užstatymas“ protokolas, 1978 10 10
Archives of Lithuanian Literature and Art, f. 87, ap. 1, b. 610, l. 4–5
Visaginas: Istorijos fragmentai (1972–2002)
Vilnius: Jandrija, 2003
Permainingi metai: Architekto užrašai
Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2008
Vilnius: Margi raštai, 2007
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