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.
In the late 18th century, the Neo-Classical architecture came to Lithuania. 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 the 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.
After the World War 1, Kaunas became the temporary capital of Lithuania, therefore, it expanded rapidly and received many fine art deco buildings, most famous being the Church of Christ Ressurection on the Žaliakalnis hill. 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.
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.
Most (~90%) of the buildings constructed in Lithuania before the year 1940 are built of wood. In the 20th century, they were regarded as inferior. Wooden buildings were so shunned by the Soviets that after they occupied Lithuania they censored photographs that pictured wooden buildings in cities. However, for a person from the west, where wood is rarely used for construction, these buildings might be very interesting as some of them include elaborate architectural details.
These details are usually attributed to vernacular architecture yet there have also been attempts to emulate other prevalent styles (such as Baroque, Neo-classical or the Gothic revival) using wood as the construction material.
You can see numerous nice wooden residentials in the Žvėrynas borough of Vilnius. In 1990s Žvėrynas became a rich neighborhood and so many new buildings were constructed there post-1990 somewhat altering its face. However, Šnipiškės borough of Vilnius remains an intact and authentic example of a 19th-century wooden suburb where even some streets aren’t paved yet. In Kaunas, there are many wooden buildings in Žaliakalnis borough. A must see for every fan of wooden architecture is the open-air museum in Rumšiškės where many old village buildings were transported from all over Lithuania.
Every city and town (with the exception of Klaipėda Region area that belonged to Germany prior to 1920) have a fair share of wooden buildings. The wooden churches still common in villages are usually the most impressive among them (however not every wooden church is elaborate). Crosses or mini-chapels no longer dot every roadside as they used to a century ago but many of these UNESCO-inscribed wooden Christian objects still remain.
The few wooden synagogues and mosques that survived the Soviet occupation are also an extremely interesting and unique sight. The wooden manors that dot the countryside and the wooden villas in the resort towns like Palanga, Druskininkai or Juodkrantė (Neringa) are well known for their beauty (their rich owners did not attempt to save money on exterior details).
Unfortunately, the susceptibility of the wood to fire as well as a negative opinion about these buildings mean that few wooden old towns are intact today. As for the smaller villages, however, some of them remain little changed from the pre-war days, e.g. Marcinkonys or Zervynos in Dzūkija National Park.
The first stone or brick buildings in Lithuania were Romanesque, but this style was mostly limited to the castle architecture and very few of it survived to this day. You can see Romanesque Medininkai castle ruins near Vilnius.
In the 14th century, the first gothic buildings were constructed making Grand Duchy of Lithuania the world's easternmost outreach of this architectural style. The Saint Nicholas Catholic Church in Vilnius Old Town is dated to 1320 when it was completed for German merchants (as the Lithuanians were still worshipping pagan gods and goddesses at the time). Like other early gothic churches, it is quite small and simple.
The most elaborate gothic buildings have been constructed later. The Saint Ann church in Vilnius Old Town (1500) facade is a true masterpiece. It is joined by a larger yet plainer Saint Francis of Assisi church (1516) in a single religious complex.
Of the few gothic buildings that survived most did in Vilnius and Kaunas. Kaunas Old Town has a fair share of 15th-century gothic churches, including the Kaunas Cathedral, the Vytautas church, and the Saint Gertrude church. There are also some gothic townhouse facades left in these two largest cities. A small brick Zapyškis church (near Kaunas) built when most Lithuanian villages were completely wooden is also famous.
Renaissance buildings are also few and far between, but the Vilnius University’s extensive main campus is a real gem. Šiauliai Cathedral is probably the best known Renaissance church in Lithuania.
Most of the buildings in Lithuania's smaller towns that look Gothic, Romanesque or Renaissance are in fact dating to the 19th century (see "Historicism Architecture in Lithuania").
In the baroque epoch (17th – 18th centuries) many families of the wealthy nobility funded churches hoping to secure a better place after death. Nowhere is this as visible as in Vilnius. It is said that in Vilnius downtown there is no place from which a church spire would not be visible (and many of these spires and domes are impressively baroque). This is not entirely true of course, but not far from the truth.
Baroque is characterized by elaborate details. They are so numerous that they overshadow the main elements of the building.
The interior of Saint Peter and Saint Paul church in Vilnius that depicts life as a theater and includes over 2000 white figurines is among the most famous Vilnius churches and a great example of this baroque trait.
Among other Lithuanian pearls of the baroque is the late 17th century Pažaislis monastery near Kaunas.
Due to its prevalence and impression, the Baroque style was typically considered "the most Lithuanian one" in the 20th century. Not that surprising as there is even a distinctive Vilnius Baroque church style with tall and narrow twin towers.
In 1770s people from Lithuania just like the people elsewhere started to emulate classical antiquity with the Neoclassical style. Like in Poland, Italy, Russia, and France, in Lithuania, this meant emulation of Roman rather than Hellenic styles.
Popular elements of Neoclassicism include columns akin to those built by the Romans 2000 years ago, relatively plain exteriors and interiors.
Neoclassicism is well visible in the old towns of major cities (Vilnius, Kaunas) with many townhouses ("urban palaces") once owned by the rich 18th-century people built in this style. There are also a number of Neoclassical churches including the most important church in Lithuania, the Vilnius Cathedral. Arguably this is also the most important example of Neoclassicism in Lithuania.
Neoclassical churches exist in some smaller towns as well, such as Ukmergė, Mielagėnai (both in Aukštaitija) or Sudervė (Dzūkija region). But in the small town ecclesial architecture, they are less prevalent than later styles.
Late Neoclassicism is known as Empire style. It incorporates elaborate statues and pompous facades, like the front facade of the relatively small Tiškevičiai Palace in Vilnius Old Town (Trakų Street 2).
During 1830s-1850s Lithuanian towns and villages had Neoclassicism joined by the National romanticism style. These buildings are emotional yet inaccurate representations of the previous styles, none of them are famous. By 1860 National romantic style developed into a better-researched historicism that replaced Neoclassicism as Lithuania's prime style.
Late 19th century brought the emulation of various older architectural styles to the Lithuanian soil such as neo-Gothic, neo-Romanesque, neo-Renaissance or a mix thereof. This emulation is now known as historicism and it dominates the so-called “New towns” (“Naujamiestis”) of the main cities.
These were the times of the Imperial Russian rule when even the Lithuanian language was banned. Unlike the neighboring Latvia Lithuania was envisioned by czar as a rural backwater. Therefore the “New towns” in Lithuanian cities are compact and most of their buildings are smaller in size than their counterparts in Riga or the main European capitals. That said, the late 19th century doubled the population of many cities and the new buildings were still larger than most of what was built in Lithuania ever before.
Together with historicist architecture came the new urbanistic ideas of wide straight streets (such as Gedimino Avenue in Vilnius) and symmetrical city plans. An example of pre-planned town from this era is Zarasai which follows a semicircular plan; Naujamiestis district of Kaunas is laid in a rectangular street plan.
You can see monumental (in Lithuanian scale) historicist and art nouveau (also known in German as jugendstil) architecture in the Naujamiestis district of Vilnius. Entire downtown of Ukmergė was rebuilt by these styles after being consumed by fire in 1877. These styles are also prevalent in the Klaipėda Old Town, rebuilt after a major fire in 1854.
Due to the relaxation of anti-Catholic policies in early 20th century, many small towns and villages have massive historicist churches with Gothic revival being the most common style. Churches of Anykščiai, Švėkšna, Rokiškis or Palanga are good examples of this - but there are countless more.
Russian Orthodox churches, of which 98 have been constructed in 1863-1864 alone, were all Byzantine revival (then-official style). Secular architecture, on the other hand, favored Neoclassical, Renaissance and Baroque inspirations.
Art nouveau/jugendstil was a style unique to late 19th and early 20th century with curved lines and décor of plants. It was meant to become an antithesis for historicism. Art nouveau provided new ideas while historicism basically only emulated what had been previously created. However in Lithuania art nouveau gained quite a little foothold and never surpassed historicism (unlike in Riga for example). While rare in stately buildings, art nouveau is more common among what were once private urban detached homes of the bourgeoisie, called “urban villas”.
Another heritage of this era, partly overlapping with Gothic revival, is the so-called “Brick style”. In these buildings bricks (brown or red) are left openly visible on the façade. Instead of creating elaborate plaster details the bricks themselves are joined together in such a way that they would look as an artistic decoration.
In Lithuania Minor where German influence was always strong, the German national romantic style (heimatstil) prevailed in the early 20th century. Its unplastered red brick walls are adorned with tall arched windows, creating an illusion of sturdy medieval constructions.
Rebirth of independent Lithuania in 1918 gave a new impetus on construction. Initially, the earlier historicist trends were continued. This changed soon and the most productive decade of interwar architecture (1930s) was heavily influenced by art deco style and Bauhaus movement. It saw a reduction of architectural detail. But while there were no more bas-reliefs or statues adorning the facades there were still many large over-arching architectural motives that make the architecture of this period attractive. Typically these Lithuanian buildings include both sharp and curved corners, although some follow art deco style throughout and omit curved lines.
Kaunas was the seat of parliament and government in this era and therefore this city is where you should look for interwar architecture. Between the years of 1923 and 1939 the size of this city increased from 92 446 inhabitants to 154 109.
Borough of Žaliakalnis (planned by interwar urbanists for the detached homes of the elite) and the New Town (the heart of interwar Kaunas) are the districts most saturated with art deco architecture. The most visible landmark of this so-called Smetonic era (after the interwar president Antanas Smetona) is the Church of Christ Ressurection in Žaliakalnis (Kaunas). Other major examples of large scale interwar architecture exist in the New Town of Kaunas: the War Museum, Central post building, Pienocentras HQ.
Other cities of Lithuania usually also have several major interwar buildings each as the government of newly independent Lithuania was keen to provide many of them with new schools, bank buildings or train stations. The top 7 cities by population of interwar independent Lithuania were Kaunas, Klaipėda, Šiauliai, Panevėžys, Marijampolė, Ukmergė and Tauragė.
Vilnius was a backwater of the Polish state at this time and therefore has relatively few interwar buildings for its major size.
In 1955 all “unnecessary architectural details” were canceled. Rapid urbanization of the 1960s-1980s 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.
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.
Some Soviet functionalist residential blocks 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 among much more elaborate historic buildings and often have even 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Early independence years brought hardships related to the change of economic system, but once the switch to capitalism was complete the modern construction took hold in Lithuanian cities. The Soviet city planning had left large chunks of undeveloped areas between the major districts, as well as numerous outdated factories and military bases within city limits. At the same time, Lithuania desperately needed buildings that Soviets have omitted, such as shopping malls, offices, churches and modern apartments. So, the undeveloped and neglected spaces have burgeoned in construction cranes after a brief economic hardship in the early 1990s.
The most ambitious project of this era is the New City Center of Vilnius around the new Europos Square and Konstitucijos Avenue. Šiaurės Miestelis (North City) in Vilnius, once a site of a large Soviet factory and military base, now is converted into a modern district of economic apartments and commercial establishments.
Klaipėda attracted a large scale Gandrališkės project with the tallest residential building in the Baltic States, while further inland the factories of Klaipėda Free Economic Zone marks the Lithuanian industrial revival fueled by foreign investments.
“Akropolis” in Vilnius (opened in the year 2000), the first major western-style shopping mall in Lithuania and still the largest one in the Baltic States (over 100 000 sq. m in size after several expansions), became quite an icon on itself. Many attempted to copy its success and now every city has modern shopping malls.
Early independence era (1990 – 1996) is still visible in the large kitsch private homes that surround the main cities (for example, Kairėnai suburb of Vilnius), in the massive plain brick churches that sprung up after decades of religious persecution (e.g. incomplete Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis church in Vilnius (1991)) and in the Gariūnai marketplace (near Vilnius) where many Lithuanians started their businesses.
Later era (1997 and beyond) brought glass and steel high rises and post-modern forms. An example of post-modernism might be the „1000 litų“ building in Kaunas which has an entire facade covered by an image of an interwar 1000 Litas banknote. At the same time, the residential idea of a „modern castle“ gave way to that of a newly constructed apartment or that of a smaller yet modern home in a gated community.