True Lithuania

Architecture in Lithuania: Introduction

For centuries Lithuania was known as a land of endless lush forests, interrupted only by rivers. As such, the traditional architecture in Lithuania is wooden. In most smaller towns, almost every building that had been constructed before the 20th century is built of wood. Wooden churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) are common in villages, there are even wooden mosques and synagogues. Some of the wooden buildings are very elaborate and with intricate details.

In the downtowns of the main cities, however, the brick started to displace the wood as early as in the 14th century. Romanesque architecture was the first international style to reach Lithuania but few examples of it survive. Some of the most famous architectural gems date to the Gothic period (such as the Saint Anne’s Church in Vilnius) and subsequent Renaissance. This period was followed by the Baroque that is the best represented in the church architecture of Vilnius. Only a few cities have brick pre-19th-century districts, however: Vilnius, Kaunas, and Kėdainiai are the best-known examples.

Saint Casimir Baroque church in Vilnius. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the late 18th century, the Neo-Classical architecture came to Lithuania, emulating the Roman Empire style. In the mid 19th century, it was displaced by historicism that copied various earlier styles and sometimes a combination of thereof. This period gave many large buildings to the cities (apartments and public buildings) while many smaller towns received their neo-gothic church spires that now dominate the Lithuanian landscape (Roman Catholic faith became free to practice and expand in the Russian-controlled Lithuania only after 1904). Neo-Romanesque, Neo-Renaissance, and eclectic historicism styles were less common for these churches.

Another major part of architectural heritage of pre-20th century Lithuania are the manors in the countryside as well as in the cities and towns (where they are typically surrounded by well-crafted parks) that used to be owned by the noble families like counts Tiškevičiai or dukes Oginskiai. Their architecture follows the popular styles of the period, with the manors of poorer families built of wood. In the case of many towns, the manors were not only their part but actually their heart, because the towns were considered to be a property of the local nobles.

Meticulously repaired palace of the Plungė manor (Plungė, Samogitia). It was built in 1879 by the duke Oginskiai family in historicist style. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After the World War 1, Kaunas became the temporary capital of Lithuania, therefore, it expanded rapidly and received many fine art deco buildings. However, the main period of urbanization came under the Soviet occupation (in 1939 70% of Lithuanian people lived in villages; in 1989 70% of Lithuanian people lived in cities). Initially this meant construction of buildings in a style known as Soviet historicism, but as early as 1954 all “unnecessary architectural details” were cancelled and every new building had to be built in a blunt functionalism style, making all the new districts that surrounded every city very faceless and hard to distinguish from any other city in the Soviet Union (in a popular Russian comedy “After bath” a drunk man goes to Saint Petersburg instead of Moscow and does not realize this because of similar district names, street names and buildings). In the villages, many old wooden houses were replaced by similar looking prefab “Alytus homes”. Shops, schools, and hospitals also used to be built by similar designs all across the Union.

Pienocentras HQ in Kaunas (1934) is an example of interwar architecture that combined sharp corners and curved lines. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The post-independence (1990) era brought glass-covered buildings and skyscrapers to the major cities, especially Vilnius and Klaipėda, but the expansion in smaller towns and villages remained more modest. Around the major cities, new suburbs of private homes appeared out of nowhere. The first such houses after the restoration of the private property used to be big, with castle-like features as the families built them for generations to come (unfortunately, changing fortunes or too large wishes meant that some of these buildings are still incomplete). In the 2000s such “manors of the 20th century” gave way to smaller western-style detached homes.

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