Soviet Micro-Districts in Lithuania | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

Soviet Functionalism Architecture in Lithuania (1955-1994)

The late Soviet era is arguably the most visible one in Lithuanian cities. This was the era of great urban redevelopment and expansion, with a strong preference for quantity over quality.

This architectural era began in when 1955 all “unnecessary architectural details” were forbidden, effectively banning the previously-official Stalinist architecture. Rapid urbanization of the 1960s-1980s also changed the Soviet urban planning policy. The natural city centers were no longer expanded. Instead, new so-called “micro-districts” or “sleeping districts” were constructed away from the downtowns all over the Soviet Union. These areas were meant to be self-sufficient with shops, schools, and kindergartens in their centers and parks on their flanks.

A typical functionalist school in the new Soviet districts. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Architecturally these Soviet “dream cities” look very similar to each other. Multi-storey apartment blocks surround large open spaces presently overfilled with cars. There are few interesting buildings as hundreds of white apartment blocks used to be built on the same design, devoid of any unique details. The Union-wide requirements for the apartment layouts were tight: not more than 9 m2 of living space per person, kitchen not larger than 6 m2, bathroom-toilet not larger than 3,5 m2 (later this was altered to permit installing bath and WC in separate small rooms). Nevertheless, for a person outside the former Iron Curtain, it may be interesting to explore at least a single such zone.

An apartment block in southern Klaipėda. The area has same-looking buildings, either 5 or 10 stories high. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some Soviet functionalist residential blocks stand in the city centers as well. Similarly lacking architectural details, these buildings were usually reserved for the upper flanks of Soviet social hierarchy and therefore the limitations on apartment sizes and prestigious interiors were „relaxed“.

However, the only buildings that were truly "designed" individually rather than "manufactured", were the few key public buildings in city downtowns, such as government offices and theaters. Their architects were attempting to emulate international trends, such as brutalism in 1970 (with exposed concrete) and postmodernism in the 1980s (adding playful small elements of past styles). These buildings are still often hated by public-as-a-whole as they have been built amidst much more elaborate historic buildings (or even have replaced some of them). Moreover, for every unique late Soviet building, there are many other public buildings built on blunt "universal" designs created elsewhere in the Union.

Such Soviet dormitories were built to house bachelors. The rooms there had a shared corridor and facilities, though the owners often managed to build their own facilities in the rooms after independence. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Examples of that minority of more interesting buildings: brutalist Palace of Sports and Concerts in Vilnius (Žirmūnai) (1971) or the pompous interior of National Opera and Ballet Theater in Vilnius (Naujamiestis).

Brutalist Palace of Concerts and Sports in Vilnius (Olimpiečių Str., Žirmūnai borough) is an example of what the key public buildings of the late Soviet era looked like. Now it is no longer used but protected as a heritage. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Visaginas town that was entirely built in the 1970s and 1980s for workers of the nearby nuclear power plant is a good example of the late Soviet period city.

Elektrėnai is another Soviet town built for power plant workers, but this power plant is conventional and its workers were not regarded in the same high esteem as the nuclear specialists, therefore Elektrėnai lacks much of the work put into the urban plan of Visaginas.

The interior of Lithuanian government. Originally built for communists, this is a rare example of a late Soviet building with a more thought-of interior architecture. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Every main city is surrounded by Soviet districts (e.g. Lazdynai, Karoliniškės and Fabijoniškės in Vilnius, Šilainiai and Kalniečiai in Kaunas, Bandužiai in Klaipėda). There are Soviet public buildings every city center, contrasting with their centuries-old environs. The towns and villages have smaller two-floored apartment blocks and private prefab detached homes dating to this era. In fact, the late Soviet period is the one easiest to spot in Lithuanian architecture.

Klaipėda port administration building. Office buildings of key Soviet institutions in 1960s-1980s used some unique forms but lacked any elaborate details. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Due to the low building quality of the era and the sheer number of people living in such homes, problems like bad insulation and subsequently high heating prices in the microdistricts are considered important on the level of national politics. A campaign of Soviet apartment block renovation has recently taken off but it is not yet completed. You may recognize renovated homes as they are newly repainted.

Postmodern building of the Ministry of Defense in Vilnius, incorporating various details of previous styles. Postmodernism came as the Soviet empire was crumbling in the late 1980s and the regulations became less enforced. Young architects seized this opportunity to build something different and more integrated into the history. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another heritage of the late Soviet period are the so-called „collective gardens“: certain plots of suburban land urban dwellers were allowed to farm. This popular pastime (and a source of additional income in a society where personal revenues were under a tight state control) has been slowly moving into obscurity after independence, with many „collective gardens“ on prime land now transformed into districts of prestigious private detached homes.

Alytus home, a typical prefab Soviet detached house in a Lithuanian village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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  1. “Such Soviet dormitories were built to house bachelors” yet the picture shows apartment buildings — apartments from the start.

    • That’s because those buildings in the picture were actually soviet dormitories back in the Soviet Union, when it collapsed, they became 1 room apartments.

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