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The Hierarchy of Buildings in Soviet Lithuania
Marija Drėmaitė
Public buildings
The years from 1946 to 1953 are considered the most developed period of Soviet totalitarian art. It was during this time that a mandatory hierarchy of Soviet art was established. The most important artistic genres were considered to be public buildings, monumental sculptural works, official portrait and paintings on historic themes. Other genres that were less easily “verbalized” were pushed to the margins, including functional architecture (mostly residential homes, schools, nursery schools, and commercial and services buildings), genre painting, landscapes, and still lifes. What were considered the most prestigious examples of public architecture? The 1950 reconstruction plan for the city centers of Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius, authored in Moscow by architects L. Bogdanov and N. Kol, stated that “the new center of the [Lithuanian] republic should include the following public buildings: 1) the Palace of the Council of Ministers, 2) the Supreme Soviet (or Parliament) and the Lithuanian Communist Party (Bolshevik) Building, 3) the Ministry of State Security, 4) the Defense Ministry, 5) the Ministry of Posts and Communications, 6) the Opera and Ballet Theatre, 7) the Drama Theatre, 8) a cinema with multiple halls, 9) the Internal Ministry, 10) the Hall of State Institutions, 11) the State Republican Library, 12) the Hall of Labor Unions, 13) the Hall of the Intelligentsia, 14) the Palace of the Soviet Army, and 15) a monument to the Great Patriotic War.”
Only the most important public buildings were individually designed, whereas functional buildings (residential buildings, dormitories, industrial facilities) were to be designed using standard projects provided by the Moscow Planning Institutes (a process that was called the “local tethering” of a project). The most important and prestigious architectural projects were to be located in the capital. Though the Government Palace was never constructed, Vilnius did see the completion of several administrative sites of significance to the entire republic that were fully compliant with the standard designs imposed for such buildings throughout the Soviet Union. In addition to administrative (government) and symbolic (representational) buildings, an important place in the field of public architecture was also accorded to so-called “cultural-domestic” and “sanitary-hygienic” building complexes that had to reflect the “Party’s concern for the Soviet man.” Many new constructions were devoted to mass recreation or sports. Among the traditional sports halls and stadiums adorned with socialist realist sculptures, stand out in terms of both architectural scope and ornamentation were the prestigious Žalgiris Sports Complex (designed by architect E. Tamoševičius in 1954), complete with a stadium and swimming pool, in Vilnius, and a stadium planned for Kaunas which was never built. Some recreational architectural projects, such as the sanitariums built in the resort town of Druskininkai, were also unique in their level of luxury and decor among the larger group of newly constructed hospitals, clinics, and spas. Public saunas were also important new facilities in smaller cities and towns.
New railroad station buildings with adjacent public squares in Vilnius and Kaunas, and a new airport in the capital were called the “entrances” or “gateways” to Lithuania’s socialist cities. Special symbolic ornamentation was also planned for rebuilt bridges in the city centers of Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipėda.
The new hierarchy of buildings was also clearly reflected in the architecture of educational institutions. The most expressive examples of designs mirroring the structures of palaces and classical decor through the use of porticoes were the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute (designed by A. Kolosov, G. Rippa, and E. German in 1955), the Electronic Mechanics Technical School in Vilnius, and the M. K. Čiurlionis School for the Arts, also in Vilnius. The mass construction of 8-year or secondary schools, meanwhile, followed standardized designs for 2-4 story buildings used throughout the Soviet Union.
The style of cultural facilities and buildings in Vilnius was dictated both by the capital city’s status as well as the symbolic “triad” of cultural buildings adopted from Moscow that called for an opera house, a representative library, and an ornate cinema house. The design competition for and construction of an opera house in Vilnius dragged on for some time. The implementation of the winning proposal by architects A. Lukošaitis and J. Peras, drafted in 1950, encountered complications, though the site along the Neris River had already been selected. The Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre eventually arose in the same location, but based on a new design, only in 1974. The absence of the Opera House was subtly made up for by the Russian Drama Theatre, a building placed, despite construction restrictions imposed at the time, on the edge of a city block in central Vilnius. Less important spaces in the capital city were filled with buildings constructed to standardized specifications for cultural facilities, including the Railroad Workers’ Cultural Hall, the Vilnius Cultural Hall, and several cinema houses. A common, and virtually mandatory, feature appearing on the façades of new cultural buildings was a series of porticoes. The cultural hall in Naujoji Akmenė, complete with an ornate interior, became a symbol of this new wave of cultural halls.
Functional architecture
One of the fields in which the concern for the Soviet man was most clearly evident was the construction of residential housing. New neighborhoods were built to clearly adhere to principles of strict symmetry, axial composition and perimeter construction. Monumental, prestigious 4-5 story apartment buildings, influenced directly by similar housing projects in Moscow—and which had no corresponding examples in pre-war Lithuanian architecture—were a clearly distinct new feature in the housing sector. Though many of these buildings were based on unique designs, their construction parameters were dictated by strict all-Union standards, and most of them were designed following those standards. Elaborately decorated multiapartment buildings were constructed by important factories or well-funded state institutions, including residential housing along the Neris River built for employees of the LSSR Council of Ministers, railroad workers, or other similar institutions, and the housing complex for workers of the Pergalė (Victory) metal factory in Kaunas. Similar prominent buildings were also built along broad central avenues and boulevards, such as Mažvydas Avenue in Klaipėda, Laisvės (Freedom) Avenue in Kaunas or along Stalin (later Lenin) Prospect in Vilnius.
Special, improved housing built for the Communist Party nomenklatura (highly ranked employees) demonstrated the favor accorded by Stalin’s regime to particularly deserving Communist Party activists or academicians and artists, since the provision of housing was one of the central privileges by which the government rewarded its most loyal citizens. For example, a decree of the USSR Council of Ministers ordered the construction of affluent residences for members of the scientific community in each Soviet republic. In Vilnius, this took the shape of a five-story housing block, with two buildings containing 50 large apartments each, featuring level of “bourgeois” luxury far above the normal conditions prevailing at that time. The units each had 4-5 bedrooms, one main and one service entrance (from different stairwells), spacious bathrooms with a toilet and bidet adjacent to the master bedroom, a separate guest bathroom in the vestibule, a den, and even a small servant’s room (next to the kitchen). The block had its own garages, whereas a small pool and tennis courts were envisioned in the original design. In an effort to introduce a certain level of “national appearance” to the complex, the Leningrad-based architects adorned its façades with Baroque pediments and doorways to artificially emphasize a connection to an architectural style typical to Vilnius.
Another type of residential housing consisted of small, 2-3 story buildings with 4-12 apartments each, usually based on standard designs and built as part of a neighbourghood in new industrial areas close to factories and industrial plants. The growth of heavy industry prompted the construction of such housing units or entire residential quarters, complete with nursery and secondary schools. A prime example of this trend is the settlement built for the Kaunas hydroelectric power station in Petrašiūnai: the residential development followed strictly delineated streets based on axial composition and perimeter construction principles, and apartment buildings were built based on standard designs (initially from Moscow blueprints, and later using locally adapted proposals drafted by Lietprojektas). Examples of such development can be found in every Lithuanian city. Apartments in such neighbourghoods were modest with 1-3 bedrooms and all of the necessary amenities. In an effort to supply city dwellers with residential housing as quickly as possible, the construction in the larger cities of 1-2 story one family houses, each with its own plot of land, was permitted for a time, but such construction of individual housing was banned after 1958 since it was deemed to be an inefficient use of urban land.
The End of Socialist Realist Architecture
Although Lithuania’s system of architecture had been forcibly reformed, the experiment nevertheless failed to entrench a new design style. Neither the most ambitious ideological monuments, nor the majority of obligatory “identifying landmarks” of socialist urban planning were ever implemented. There are also very few examples of “pure” socialist realist architecture in Lithuania. Due largely to their moderate designs, the great majority of completed projects, despite being constructed based on prevailing style, adhered largely to the overall historical Lithuanian architectural context. The period of mature socialist realism, or the “Victory Style”, was a brief and “imported”, phenomenon in Lithuania. Many architects simply failed to fully grasp the “code” intrinsic to the new culture and, in an effort to survive in their profession, they made their best effort to reorient themselves. Soviet ideologists were particularly sharp in a critique of a perceived “disarray” in Lithuanian architecture in a draft decision prepared for the Lithuanian Communist Party in 1950, in which strict measures were envisioned to impose a “face and direction” on socialist architecture in Lithuania. Plans were secretly drawn up to implement radical reforms in order to overcome “Lithuania’s flawed architectural experience” and to strengthen “the socialist realist method in architecture”. The majority of Kaunas-based architects were to be forcibly relocated to Vilnius, while several specialists newly arrived from other parts of the Soviet Union were to be transferred outside the capital city to manage affairs in Kaunas and Šiauliai. In addition, several highly qualified specialists from the Soviet Union were to be placed in leading positions in Lithuanian urban planning institutes, and architectural training programs were to be overhauled.
Socialist realism, first imposed with such harsh measures, was later done away with under equally strict and sudden circumstances. Speaking to a conference of Soviet architects and construction industry specialists in December, 1954, Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged the USSR’s backwardness in the fields of construction and architecture, denouncing as excessive the inordinate amount of time, financial resources and labor spent on socialist realist ornamentation, and charting a new “course” toward modernization in both construction and architecture. The first critical voices also began to be heard in Lithuania at this time. The Second Conference of the Soviet Lithuanian Union of Architects in Vilnius held October 11–15, 1955, discussed the issue of national architecture, and a new generation of architects expressed their anger over the influence in Lithuania of alien design styles, declaring that “local traditions in architecture and national character could be best expressed by local architects and representatives of the local architectural school” (V. Nasvytis). Later decisions formalized the end of socialist realist architecture. Thus condemned, socialist realism also quickly disappeared from the pages of the mass media.
Understandably, change in architecture could not always come rapidly, and the ensuing transitional period reflected the Soviet Union’s characteristic inability to reorient architectural approaches and adopt industrialized, prefabricated architecture that could become the embodiment of political decisions. Designs drafted in earlier years continued to be implemented in Lithuania after 1956, such as the Hall for Political Education project in Vilnius, but in most cases architects were already discarding the previously designed large amounts of molded ornamentation. This resulted in examples of buildings true to a more pure classical architectural style, minus any originally planned ornamentation, such as the Labor Union Hall and Republican Library in Vilnius, and the administrative headquarters for the Kaunas hydroelectric power station. The spirit of change and reform only began to be felt in Lithuania after 1956.


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Sources and links

Marija Drėmaitė, Vaidas Petrulis, Jūratė Tutlytė
Architektūra sovietinėje Lietuvoje
Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2012
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