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Emancipation from Stalinism – the Transitional Period (1955–1958)
Marija Drėmaitė
Turning to Modernism
Soviet architecture's shift toward Modernism is associated with the Khrushschev regime's 1955 degree "On the Removal of Excess from Construction and Architecture." TSKP Centro Komiteto ir TSRS Ministrų Tarybos nutarimas „Dėl projektavimo ir statybos nesaikingumų pašalinimo“, Literatūra ir menas, 1955 11 12, p. 1. In the changing world of architectural and construction policy following the death of Joseph Stalin, this meant a radical turn to industrialized construction, the production of standardized prefabricated parts, a reduction in building costs, and the widest possible use of standardized designs. Not for nothing was it said that, if Stalin was known as "the architect" (actively involving himself in planning and architectural esthetics and dictating how projects should be designed), then Khrushchev was "the builder"—a contractor who left matters of design and esthetics to the professionals while he himself implemented a country-wide construction program.
Understandably, reorienting the entire architectural design and construction industry overnight would be impossible, which is why the transitional period took several years and was noted for the adoption of all kinds of decisions, often very strange ones. One of the first measures deployed during the transition was the editing of previous (pre-decree) designs to remove "excesses"—meaning that neoclassical façade decoration and molding, an attribute of Socialist Realism, was to be removed during construction. The Architects' Union of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic (LSSR) began to criticize designs featuring "excessive ornamentation" and took specific actions such as revising blueprints or removing openwork pseudo-historic decoration from a residential building constructed for railway workers in 1954 on Stalino (now Gedimino) Avenue (architect: Vladimir Afanasyev).
The architectural development of the Republican Library (known today as the Martynas Mažvydas National Library) is a good illustration of the new approach in the architecture of Vilnius. In the Stalinist period, republican libraries were considered to be central focal points of culture for a Soviet capital city, therefore plans designed in 1952–1954 by architect Viktor Anikin featured many ornate attributes of Socialist Realist architecture: a symmetrical frontal neoclassical composition, columns, elaborate molded ornamentation on Soviet themes (stars, hammers and sickles), and portraits of communist leaders (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin) on the main façade. After architectural policy changed in 1955 and construction worked dragged on (finishing only in 1963), the Library's ornamentation was completely done away with and only the principle structure was retained. The transitional period from Socialist Realism to Modernism was clearly evident in the Library's interior, which featured a modernist stained glass work by Antanas Garbauskas called Į šviesią ateitį (Toward a Bright Future).
Also noteworthy was the reconstruction of the Jaunojo žiūrovo (Young Audience) Theatre in Kaunas (now the Kaunas National Drama Theatre), which considerably simplified the 1952 design by Kazimieras Bučas and its elaborately decorated Socialist Realist façade. The restrained style of the façade of the building on Laisvės (Freedom) Avenue, completed in 1959 with modernized sculptures, was much more reminiscent of interwar Modernism than Socialist Realism.
Despite the criticism aimed at "excessive ornamentation", however, some unreformed older designs were still constructed out of inertia. The M. K. Čiurlionis School for the Arts, for example, designed in 1954 but completed in 1960, still retained a stately, manor-like composition, despite the removal of ornamental molding.
The Cultural Hall in Naujoji Akmenė, built in 1958 according to standardized Stalinist designs, also differed little from its original blueprints. To be sure, the neoclassical façade with its Corinthian columns and interiors was adorned with somewhat more modernized monumental artwork on Lithuanian and labor themes. This was also the first post-war architectural object to employ the comprehensive use of monumental artwork: stained glass, frescoes, and sgraffito. The stylistic choices made for these artistic elements already spoke to a transitional period underway: works were restrained, lacking the burdensome detail of Socialist Realism. Furniture and equipment that approximated a national, Lithuanian style were produced by the Dailė factory in Vilnius. Thus, though artwork was become more modern, the idea of "artistic synthesis" in architecture, inculcated during the Socialist Realist period, remained in place, only transforming into a contemporary esthetic.
Another building whose architecture fits squarely in this transitional period is the Druskininkai Balneotherapy Resort, with its modernized monumental artwork and lack of exterior molding. Of all the ornamentation planned for the bath complex, built in the spirit of ancient Roman architecture and based on the 1960 design by architect Vsevolod Ulitko, only the octagonal columns and the pilasters that echoed them were retained. The expanse of the main entrance, meanwhile, was eventually adorned with modern stone mosaic pieces, Nemunas and Ratnyčėlė (1960), by Boleslavas Klova, depicting youths in Lithuanian national costume. Though forms became more modern, the principle of "Socialist in content, national (ethnic) in form" was still resilient.
It could be said that this transitional period reflected the Soviet Union's characteristic inability to suddenly alter its approach to architecture and transition to an industrial architecture that could embody new policy decisions. This evolution in cities and towns from the old architectural style to new traditions lasted about a decade.
Toward a Lithuanian style of modernism
In 1955, soon after a convention of the USSR Union of Architects publicly approved the new architectural policy, the equivalent Lithuanian body gathered in Vilnius. The 2nd Congress of the Lithuanian SSR Architects' Union took place on October 11–15, 1955, and took up the issue of the new architectural direction. A new generation of architects spoke out for the first time at the convention, including specialists who had recently completed their studies and begun their careers in various Soviet Lithuanian design institutes. The congress was the perfect opportunity for them to publicly criticize Stalinist Socialist Realist architecture, considered to be a clearly foreign phenomenon in Lithuania, particularly for its glaring interventions into urban centers, large and small. Younger architects expressed their resentment over these foreign forms. Vytautas Nasvytis remarked:
Local traditions and national character in architecture could be best expressed by local architects and representatives of local architectural schools. Material from the second congress of LSSR architects, that took place on 14-16 of October,1955, Archive of Lithuanian Literature and Art , f. 87, ap. 1, b. 442, l. 30
So while architectural reform in the Soviet Union was generally viewed in terms of industrialization and "re-modernization" processes, in the Lithuanian context it was also associated with clear national (Lithuanian) architectural aspirations, expressed first and foremost through the rehabilitation and continuity of the interwar modern architectural school (condemned and labeled "formalistic" in the Stalinist period).
When we speak of the remodernization of the Soviet Union, we must nevertheless keep in mind that the "architectural thaw" proclaimed in 1954 was essentially more a reform of construction industrialization than an architectural shift, meant to address the massive housing shortage problem above all else.
From the perspective of style, Modernism wasn't even discussed initially. The requirement to create contemporary (современный in Russian) designs was issued, but considerable leeway was given for interpretation. In truth, much like in the Socialist Realist period, it was never entirely clear what "contemporary style" meant. For architects in the Baltic republics, it was a signal that they could reexamine interwar Modernism, which became a source of inspiration and point of departure for the younger generation of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian architects, and which would later bring them considerable recognition throughout the Soviet Union.
In Lithuania, two trends developed during the transitional period, both of them rooted in the legacy of interwar Modernism. Although the entire architectural system and its management in Soviet Lithuania had been replaced with specialists from the Soviet Union—in other words, becoming "Sovietized"—links to and nostalgia for interwar Lithuanian Modernism remained in architectural education institutions, particularly the Kaunas Polytechnic Institute (KPI), which still employed several architects from the interwar period.
The approach taken by pre-World War II modernist architect Adolfas Lukošaitis, head of the Architectural Department in Kaunas, testifies to the practice of a systemic "double speak": in public, Lukošaitis would reprimand his students for modernist designs, but in private he praised them and gave them high marks. What's more, the examples of interwar modernist buildings that surrounded them became a source of inspiration and a school for architectural form for a new generation of Kaunas architects.
As the Socialist Realist program was ditched and designers sought to create something other than Soviet architecture, an important source of inspiration became the "Golden Era" of architecture, namely the modern designs of the pre-war, independent Republic of Lithuania. The first example of the transition from Stalinism to Modernism that illustrates well the aspirations of the new generation of architects may very well be the Klaipėda Hall of Culture. Built in 1959 and designed by Algimantas Mikėnas, the Hall still has the symmetrical composition and "tower" commonly seen in corner buildings in the Stalinist era, but their esthetic expression is already of a modernist style.
Another structure that revealed a connection with interwar Modernism while still retaining an axial composition characteristic of Socialist Realism was the campus of the Lithuanian Agricultural Academy, designs for which were begun in 1957, with construction completed in 1963. The student residential quarter was designed by architect Jonas Navakas, while the various faculty buildings arrayed along a semicircle were the brainchild of Liucijus Dringelis and Kostas Zykus, and were more reminiscent of interwar Kaunas Modernism.
Another wellspring of inspiration was contemporary Western architecture that was becoming gradually more accesible through foreign journals and magazines. One astonishing story that testifies to the extent of control over information under the Stalinist regime comes from the claim by architect Algimantas Mačiulis that the renowned team of architects, brothers Algimantas and Vytautas Nasvytis, first learned about Le Corbusier only in 1952, while preparing interior designs for the Lithuanian pavilion at the All-Union Agricultural Achievements Exhibition in Moscow. Algimantas Mačiulis, Permainingi metai. Architekto užrašai, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2008, p. 66.
Algimantas Nasvytis would often invite his colleagues Vytautas Edmundas Čekanauskas and Vytautas Brėdikis to Moscow and, having secured permission to access the so-called "Special Archives" of the Lenin Library, they spent their evenings copying entire volumes of material on contemporary Western architecture to bring back to Lithuania. "This influenced our thinking, too," recalls Justinas Šeibokas. Interview with architect Justinas Šeibokas, recorded by Gabrielė Nemeikaitė, 2010 05 18.
The young architects appointed to work in Sovietized Lithuanian design institutions between 1955 and 1957 began to pose questions particularly relevant to a national modern architecture style—about its identity, construction materials, and the relationship between buildings and the surrounding landscape.
The architecture of the "Thaw" period
The spirit of renewal in cultural and political life, also known as the "Thaw", only began to emerge in 1956, after the Soviet Communist Party's 20th Congress publicly condemned Stalin's cult of personality and ushered in a process of de-Stalinization. In the architectural world of the Lithuanian SSR, a turn toward Modernism became clearly evident during this period. For the first time, Lithuanian architects were officially invited to join USSR Architects' Union delegations traveling abroad.
Change also came to architectural administration in Lithuania, leading to the culmination of the "Lithuanianization" of architectural leadership. A new ethnic Lithuanian nomenklatura began to replace Russian-speaking colleagues and Lithuanian Communist Party veterans in their posts in the party and state institutions in the late 1950s. For the most part, these were young people and recent graduates from schools of higher education who had voluntarily joined the Communist Party and who were much more pragmatic than their elder Communist-revolutionary colleagues. Under Khrushchev's rule, a new generation of Communist technocrats (engineers, economists, agricultural specialists, technical experts) became increasingly influential in the party and throughout the Soviet Lithuanian administration.
By 1959, more and more younger architects with degrees from the Kaunas Polytechnic or the Vilnius Arts Institute were being appointed to positions as chief architects for cities and regions, while design institutes came under the leadership of new directors, replacing the "overseers" dispatched from Moscow and Leningrad in the immediate postwar years.
In 1958, Anatolijus Rasteika, graduate of the Kaunas University Architecture Department, was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Lithuanian SSR Council of Ministers Construction Affairs Committee. Kaunas Polytechnic Institute (KPI) graduate Alfredas Paulauskas became chief municipal architect for the city of Palanga in 1956. Immediately after graduating from KPI, Jurgis Vanagas and Stasys Prikockis took up positions as chief architects for the districts of Kuršėnai and Radviliškis in 1958. In 1959, Algimantas Zaviša, a recent graduate of the Vilnius Arts Institute (VAI) Architecture Department, was appointed  chief architect for the Vilnius District. That same year, KPI graduate Alfredas Gytis Tiškus became chief architect for the district of Kretinga and his classmate Zigmas Daunora (Daunoravičius) was appointed chief architect for the district of Jurbarkas. Anicetas Vaivada, KPI graduating class of 1952, became chief architect for the Agriculture Design Institute in 1958, and from 1959 he assumed the important post of Chief Architect for the Kaunas branch of the Urban Construction and Design Institute. In 1957, VAI graduate Algirdas Umbrasas was appointed director of design for the newly established Experimental Construction Office.
In 1958, the Soviet surrogate in charge of the Lithuanian Architects' Union, Jonas Kumpis, was replaced by Albertas Cibas (who served until 1966), a member of the 1939 graduating class of Vytautas Magnus University in independent Lithuania, who also lent his support to the modern architecture trend. All of these appointments and the general change in personnel infused Lithuanian architecture with considerable optimism along the path toward Modernism.
Another testament to the "Thaw" was the emergence of a unique structure in 1956. After repeated requests from the Catholic community in Klaipėda, permission was finally granted for the construction of a new church on a plot of land outside the city, on Rumpiškės Street. A new Catholic Church had been planned for Klaipėda even before the war, but the project was cut short by world events. The church was constructed according to designs by Juozas Baltrėnas, which called for a building with three naves and a 70-meter high tower.
Though designs for the church were completed after the proclamation of the campaign against "excesses in architecture," the project nevertheless called for a combination of historicism and folk art forms because of the building's religious function. Construction began in 1957. By 1960, donations collected from the faithful had helped complete a 63-meter long by 25-meter wide church able to accommodate three thousand people. The building's exterior was finished in granite plaster and its façade was adorned with a 2.8-meter high statue of Mary, the Queen of Peace. Altars were made from marble slabs, with the great altar featuring a fresco of Mary, the Queen of Peace, created by the then renowned artist Antanas Kmieliauskas. Side altars included statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Joseph the Worker.
As construction neared conclusion, however, anti-religious policy in the Soviet Union once again tightened, bringing new interference that eventually resulted in the confiscation of the building from the Lithuanian Catholic Church. After reconstruction (demolition of the church tower, changes to the façade, replacement of religious stained glass artwork with clear glass, and the construction of new additions), the church building was transformed into a performance space for a philharmonic orchestra. The building was returned to the Catholic community only in 1988.
Preservation of cultural heritage also witnessed a revival during the Thaw period. Antanas Pilypaitis, a KPI graduate, assumed the leadership of the Construction and Architectural Affairs Committee's Architectural Monument State Preservation Inspectorate in 1956, the same year as new projects began focusing on sites considered vitally important to the Lithuanian national identity, including the partial restoration of the Kaunas Castle (architect: Žibartas Simonavičius, 1954–1960), preservation of the remains of the Upper Castle in Vilnius (architect: Sigitas Lasavickas, 1956–1960), and the massive reconstruction of Trakai Castle (chief architect Bronius Krūminis, 1953–1960). Pre-war modernist architect Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis returned from exile in Australia to Lithuania in 1959 and began actively participating in the restoration field, taking up a position at the so-called Academic Restoration Industrial Workshop (Mokslinė gamybinė restauracinė dirbtuvė).
Plans for the reconstruction of the Vilnius Old Town were drafted from 1956 to 1959. Conservationist Jonas Glemža, who headed the Soviet Lithuanian Museum and Cultural Monument Preservation Committee from 1958 to 1963, recalls that writers and artists appealed to the Soviet Lithuanian regime demanding a halt to the demolition of the Vilnius Old Town, followed soon after by the Construction and Architectural Affairs Committee commissioning plans for the Old Town's reconstruction. Marija Drėmaitė, „Naujas senasis Vilnius: senamiesčio griovimas ir atstatymas 1944–1959 metais“, in: Atrasti Vilnių. Skiriama Vladui Drėmai, sudarė Giedrė Jankevičiūtė, Vilnius: Lietuvos dailės istorikų draugija, 2010, p. 174–191.
The Committee commissioned two plans: one from the Academic Restoration Industrial Workshop and one from the Urban Planning Institute. In 1959, the government approved the designs of the restoration experts, led by Kazimieras Šešelgis. From that point on, a ban was placed on reconstruction of the eastern side of Vilniaus Street in an effort to stop the Old Town's destruction.


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Sources and links

LKP Centro Komiteto ir Ministrų Tarybos 1962 09 10 nutarimas Nr. 592 „Dėl individualinės ir kooperatinės gyvenamųjų namų statybos“
Material from the second congress of LSSR architects, that took place on 14-16 of October,1955
Archive of Lithuanian Literature and Art , f. 87, ap. 1, b. 442, l. 30
TSKP Centro Komiteto ir TSRS Ministrų Tarybos nutarimas „Dėl projektavimo ir statybos nesaikingumų pašalinimo“
Literatūra ir menas, 1955 11 12
„Naujas senasis Vilnius: senamiesčio griovimas ir atstatymas 1944–1959 metais“
Atrasti Vilnių. Skiriama Vladui Drėmai, sudarė Giedrė Jankevičiūtė, Vilnius: Lietuvos dailės istorikų draugija, 2010, p. 174–191
Permainingi metai. Architekto užrašai
Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2008
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