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1959 – The Start of Modernism
Marija Drėmaitė
The start of Lithuanian Modernism
1959 marks the beginning of Lithuanian Modernism in architecture not only because it was the year when the doors opened to the emblematic Neringa Café, whose modernist interior signaled "a turning point in architecture" in Lithuania. Neringa symbolized a breakthrough: architecture had finally progressed from the inertia of the transitional period to Modernism.
In 1956, the Vilnius City Executive Committee commissioned the two young architects Algimantas and Vytautas Nasvytis to design a modern café on the city's main thoroughfare, in a district that lacked any truly appropriate spot to bring guests and have dinner in a civilized setting. Also foremost in city planners' minds were relations with the Lithuanian diaspora community. The Neringa Café was to be housed in a hotel designated for foreign tourists and thus required a modern approach. The young architects were given a surprising amount of creative freedom: "We could do what we wanted, how we wanted," Vytautas Nasvytis remembers. Vaidas Petrulis, Algimantas ir Vytautas Nasvyčiai: dvi asmenybės – viena Architektūra, Archiforma, 2007, Nr. 1, p. 54.
The opening of the café on the first floor of the Neringa Hotel was a huge event for the entire cultural community. The Neringa Café not only became a popular gathering place for artists, intellectuals, and the Bohemian set, it was seen as the cradle of modernism and jazz and a herald of Modernism on the Vilnius architectural landscape.
The interior created by the young architects consisted of four interlinked spaces: the lobby, a bar, and the large and small halls, all finished in new, modernist forms and different natural materials (wood, metal, ornamental plastering, and glass).  Walls were adorned with modern wall paintings (by artists Vladas Jankauskas and Vytautas Povilaitis) as well as plaster bas-relief featuring scenes from the Lithuanian seashore and the coastal city of Neringa (by sculptor Juozas Kėdainis). One feature, though, went unseen by most visitors: an equally modern room for KGB wiretapping operations.
The reconstruction of the hotel was completed in 1961. A warm and inviting Modernism hid behind the building's rather dull façade. The foyer on each floor was designed to evoke a different atmosphere. The main lobby was adorned with a wooden relief composition by Laimutis Ločeris, while the second floor was finished with natural wood and adorned with bent iron panels. The third floor foyer was dominated by red brickwork and the ceramic artwork of Laimutė Cieškaitė.
The Neringa was a harbinger of the Lithuanian architectural school and a symbol of a Lithuanian Modernism that had much in common with its Nordic variant. The creative process that brought the Neringa to life closely interwove the Nasvytis brothers' knowledge of folk art—gained while working on the Lithuanian pavilion at the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow—and a comprehension of the spirit of Alvar Aalto and his Modernism that focused on human psychological comfort. It was one of the most distinct architectural interiors designed at the time, attracting interest across the Soviet Union. One Izvestia journalist in Moscow who did not receive an invitation to the café's opening penned an angry article about wasteful spending on the project. The Nasvytis brothers, in turn, had to justify the "shift in the [Lithuanian] republic's architecture." Gediminas Valiuškis, „Didelės erudicijos specialistai“, Pergalė, 1971, Nr. 9, p. 74.
Though the Neringa Café was the best known Modernist architectural building constructed in 1959, it wast not the only one. On the outskirts of Vilnius, in a neighborhood of private homes in Antakalnis, near the Sapieginė pine forest, construction began on a very modern house with an adjoining studio for architect Elena Laimutė Bergaitė-Burneikienė and her sculptor husband Juozas Burneika.
Burneikienė designed her home with an open affinity for the work of Le Corbusier. The house was distinguished by a purity of style, open and overlapping spaces, ribbon windows, an intimate relationship with surrounding nature, and minimalist interiors. The two-story building rested on a plinth made of hewn granite, while the second story was finished in a contrasting bright white plaster. The many windows on the southern side of the house looked out at the sloping forest and a yard with a pool. Burneika also had his studio set up in the house.
The extra space permitted for the creative work of artists of that era allowed construction of a larger than normally permissable sized home (residential space was to be limited to 60 square meters). In this respect, academics and artists enjoyed a privileged position—beginning in 1953, newly designed homes in Vilnius and Kaunas were allowed to incorporate workshops and studios for artists and sculptors into residential designs. LTSR MT 1953 04 07 potvarkis Nr. 428-p „Dėl kūrybinių dirbtuvių dailininkams ir skulptoriams projektavimo“.
The seeds of Modernism sewed during the "Thaw" found fertile ground in the architecture of resort areas, since so-called recreation zones were meant to "breathe more freely" and were more open to original architectural choices. Modern structures arose in the late 1950s in Druskininkai, under the guidance of the city's Chief Architect from 1956 to 1961, the young specialist Algimantas Mačiulis. In 1959, Mačiulis designed a gracefully modern two-story, four-unit residential building that retains its architectural uniqueness to this day.
In 1959, it was decided to renovate the interior of the Lithuanian SSR pavilion at the People's Economic Achievements Exhibition in Moscow (Chief Architect Ignas Laurušas, 1959–1961). This decision illustrated how the old style had become outdated almost overnight, requiring modernization as quickly as possible. The fair itself was modernized, undergoing a quick rennovation and renamed the Exhibition of the People's Economic Achievements (previously known as the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition). In 1959, the fairgrounds became an experimental space that helped shape Soviet modernist architecture, design, and exhibition culture trends.
The public promotion of architecture also improved in 1959. The journal Statyba ir architektūra (Construction and Architecture) finally began appearing on a regular basis, published by the LSSR Council of Ministers State Construction Affairs Committee's Central Technical Information and Propaganda Bureau. Though construction clearly dominated the title of the magazine, symbolizing the trend toward the industrialization of that field, there was finally a publication that served as the main showcase for the work of Lithuania's architects for many years.
Westward, to Finland!
The first official Lithuanian architectural visit to Finland occurred in 1959. As opportunities for tourist travel and foreign exchange programs grew in the late 1950s, the Soviet Architects' Union began to organize professional missions that also included several representatives from each of the Baltic republics—not only visiting the Socialist Bloc, but also "capitalist countries."
Up to this time, members of the Lithuanian Architects' Union had traveled on several official visits to Poland and Czechoslovakia, but missions were more often organized to different cities in the Soviet Union (Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Kaliningrad, Sverdlovsk). About three or four such trips would be organized each year, with delegations usually consisting of 20 or so architects.
A favorable Soviet view of Scandinavia as a whole, friendly relations with Finland and Sweden in particular, the progressive approach to residential construction in the latter countries, and the proximity of the Baltic republics to Scandinava all led to the Nordic countries becoming a benchmark for Lithuanian modernists, with Finland becoming the most frequently visited country for business missions and study trips by Lithuanian architects.
The first such official visit to Finland, in June, 1959, consisted of specialists from Latvia, Estonia, Leningrad, and Lithuania: architects Vytautas Edmundas Čekanauskas, Vytautas Balčiūnas, Algimantas Sprindys, Vilnius City Chief Architect (Director) Vladislovas Mikučianis, and architectural researcher and publicist Jonas Minkevičius. In 1960, nearly 30 Lithuanian architects traveled to Finland as part of an official delegation (including Algimantas Mačiulis, Algimantas and Vytautas Nasvytis, Antanas Spelskis, Algimantas Lėckas, Arvedas Kybrancas, Mečislovas Urbelis, and Jaunutis Makariūnas).  Algimantas Mačiulis, Vytautas Edmundas Čekanauskas, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 39.Algimantas Mačiulis, Vytautas Edmundas Čekanauskas, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 39.
Another trip in 1961, this time including architect Justinas Šeibokas, followed a similar route. Over the span of ten days, delegation members visited several brick and wood processing factories, new residential complexes, individual multi-story buildings and apartment houses, as well as the more famous structures designed by Finnish modernists and Helsinki's newest suburb, Tapiola.
In 1959, architects were given the opportunity to meet with the suburb's designer, Aarne Ervi, and later visited the offices of Alvar Aalto (though the prominent architect was away at the time). Over time, some Finnish travel agencies began specializing in organizing tours of modern Finnish architecture for Soviet technocrats.
The impressions of the visiting architects were particularly emotional. Many of them called Finland a symbol of modern architecture that influenced their later work. The Nasvytis brothers asserted that they had "a Finnish-Nordic way of thinking, perceived through the works of Ervi, Aalto, and others."  Algimantas Mačiulis, Architektai Algimantas ir Vytautas Nasvyčiai, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2007, p. 102. Šeibokas said that the "direct contact with new Finnish architecture was a critical creative breakthrough—we began to design completely differently." Interview with architect Justinas Šeibokas, recorded by Gabrielė Nemeikaitė, May 18, 2010. Čekanauskas remembered the trip having a lasting impression on him. Visiting Aalto's office, getting a close look at Finnish architecture, seeing the suburb of Tapiola and meeting its principle architect Ervi, were, for Čekanauskas, indescribable events. Interview with architect Vytautas Edmundas Čekanauskas, recorded by Marija Drėmaitė, December 11, 2006, personal archives of M. Drėmaitė. Vytautas Brėdikis recalls:
I had my own metaphysical version, but reality proved to be otherwise. Buildings with unique architecture, well-arranged surroundings. Simple people interacting naturally. Good, humane architecture. A masterful harmony of buildings and nature. Interview with Vytautas Brėdikis, recorded by Marija Drėmaitė, August 2, 2011, personal archives of M. Drėmaitė
Architects were impressed by the harmony achieved between Finnish Modernist buildings and their surroundings, the mixed typology of residential homes, the incorporation and balance of modern and natural materials in structures and their finishing, interesting public spaces and centers, the high quality of construction, and  the consideration given to the environment.
In 1959, Lithuanian SSR architects also visited Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, and Norway. Yet it was Nordic architecture, which Lithuanians perceived first and foremost from the principle of genius loci, that had the greatest influence in shaping Lithuanian Modernism in the 1960s.
Architects admitted that the materials and design processes they used, as well as the composition of their designs within their natural context, all changed after their foreign trips. Interestingly, twenty years later, in 1983, as professional architects sought to describe the unique characteristics of Lithuanian architecture, they identified such traits as subtlety, simplicity and moderation of form; approachable and humane scale; the avoidance of grandeur and grandiosity; and a connection with nature and an awareness of and regard for neighboring structures. Interview with Vytautas Brėdikis, recorded by Marija Drėmaitė, August 2, 2011, personal archives of M. Drėmaitė Marija Drėmaitė, „Šiaurės modernizmo įtaka ‘lietuviškajai architektūros mokyklaiʼ 1956–1969 m.“, Menotyra, 2011, t. 18, Nr. 4, p. 308–328.


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Sources and links

LTSR MT 1953 04 07 potvarkis Nr. 428-p „Dėl kūrybinių dirbtuvių dailininkams ir skulptoriams projektavimo“
Architektai Algimantas ir Vytautas Nasvyčiai
Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2007
Vytautas Edmundas Čekanauskas
Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011
Algimantas ir Vytautas Nasvyčiai: dvi asmenybės – viena Architektūra
Algimantas ir Vytautas Nasvyčiai: dvi asmenybės – viena Architektūra Archiforma, 2007, Nr. 1, p. 50–59
„Didelės erudicijos specialistai“
Didelės erudicijos specialistai“ Pergalė, 1971, Nr. 9
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