Lithuanian architecture is very old. A countless mass of days is looking from every tower. If the brick walls caressed by many hands could talk, they would definitely narrate about famous architects and their pupils who travelled across Europe. They would remind us of the most notable schools and trends of architecture that have left an imprint in our cities and towns. The identity of Lithuania’s architecture is defined not only by historical situations, but also by people who lived at different periods of time, their perception of art, expectations, the dreams that were realised and those that have not been fulfilled. Their understanding of the living space, what they were proud of and what they wanted to show to the world. Starting with wood, stone and clay, Lithuania already built brick buildings back in the 13th century. The remains of masonry from that century might be found in the very heart of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, i.e. in the bell tower of the cathedral. Open to a diversity of culture, art trends and architectural styles, Lithuania created an extraordinary and unique face of architecture.
When Europe was erecting sky-seeking sharp towers, Lithuanians fought in wars. The castles set from boulders found outdoors better served the purpose of defending from enemies than the elegant, tall and straight towers. The latter appeared after big fights when Christianity was introduced in Lithuania. Cities started building churches, town halls, guild houses and establishing the yards of merchants. The most beautiful and magnificent structures of that time can be seen on the island in the Lake Galvė, where Trakai Castle stands. Crowds of people admire the Church of St Anne in Vilnius and the Churches of Vytautas the Great and St Gertrude in Kaunas. Lithuanian Gothic is slightly late, yet original and distinct, and it has laid a firm foundation for further development of architectural styles.
We should be grateful to Italians for the manifestation of the Renaissance in Lithuania. And even more grateful to Duchess of Milan Bona Sforza. Namely this woman, who married Lithuanian Grand Duke and Polish Sovereign Sigismund the Old, brought Italian architects, painters and musicians to Lithuania and Poland. She also educated her son Sigismund Augustus in the spirit of the Renaissance. Italian fashion trends were gradually taken over from Bona Sforza by Lithuanian noblemen, in particular the famous Radziwiłł (Radvila) family. They started building churches and houses in the Renaissance style. They had an example to follow – Bona Sforza and Sigismund Augustus had reconstructed Vilnius Lower Castle in this style.
The end to flamboyancy and luxury, long live the regular shapes, simplicity and comfort. These were the key declarations of Classicist architects already in late 18th century. The emotional lace of the Baroque gave way to sculptures reminding of the period of Roman Empire and tall, straight and regular columns. Classicism was brought to Lithuania by famous Lithuanian artist Pranciškus Smuglevičius who completed his studies in Rome and maintained close relationship with the then famous Spampani family of Italian architects. Carlo Spampani came to Vilnius and designed the first Classicist buildings. However, Laurynas Gucevičius who created a masterpiece of Classicism in Vilnius – the Cathedral of Vilnius – is considered to be the most famous representative of Lithuanian Classicism.
Baroque fashion trends from Italy reached Lithuania very quickly. The noblemen of the thriving Grand Duchy of Lithuania considered it to be a point of honour to invite architects from Italy to their dominions. A trendy, flamboyant and rich architectural style of the 16th–17th centuries quickly established in Lithuania and consequently Vilnius acquired the name of the Eastern European capital of Baroque, whereas the news of the impressive Vilnius baroque school, distinguished for its flamboyant temperance, spread far away. The followers of Vilnius school disseminated their experience across the entire territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, thus buildings of Lithuanian Baroque can presently be found in Belarus, Ukraine and Poland.
Having withstood centuries, fights and wars, the times of glory and misery, the most beautiful Lithuania’s buildings tell us the stories and legends, and reveal events without which there would be no us, no Lithuania. The grand dukes of Lithuania built their palaces, castles and manors already in the 13th century. The earliest remaining residence of the sovereign is Trakai Castle, constructed in the period from the second half of the 14th century to the beginning of the 15th century. There are several residential Renaissance and Baroque style manors and a bigger number of Classicist manor homesteads. We succeeded in retaining the majority of buildings from the 19th century – the structures of that time were known for free architectural style improvisations.
Lithuanian castles and manors guaranteed our country’s soldiership, economics and culture for ages. The enlightened persons who lived and created in these buildings helped the country in achieving its goals, maintaining statehood and fighting for their families and the country’s majesty. The brick walls of every castle or manor tell us a legend. All you have to do is listen attentively.
Young, ambitious and bold. Such were Lithuanian interwar architects. They studied in the large cities of Europe and brought the ideas of Modernism, which spread throughout Europe after World War I, to Lithuania. They combined them with Lithuanian tradition and the typical lifestyle of Lithuanians and created a very distinctive school of architecture. The time was particularly suitable for these experiments – Kaunas became the temporary capital of Lithuania; it was full of political, cultural, economic life, and constructions rapidly changed one another. The spirit of interwar architecture was miraculously preserved in the then exteriors and interiors, and today surprises by modern and contemporary forms. The value of Kaunas Modernism is created not only by buildings, but also by stories and people. This is why all this today attracts not only the connoisseurs of architecture, but also everyone who wish to learn the history of the city and the country.
If there is a forest, there is a house. Lithuanians have followed this rule since the old times. Wood was the major construction material in the land overgrown with forests – people used it to build housing, defensive barriers and houses of worship since the beginning of the state. The secrets of the craft of woodworker and cabinetmaker were transferred from generation to generation, whereas the masters of many families built houses themselves. Time, wars, fires and modern life destroyed many masterpieces of wooden architecture of Lithuania. Despised and called a cheap, progress hindering material during the Soviet period, today wood regains its position in architecture, creates a cosy, healthy and sustainable environment, and the most beautiful and valuable examples of the old wooden architecture and even entire villages are carefully protected. They can be seen in open-air museums: the Lithuanian Folk Museum in Kaišiadorys District, in Radviliškis District, Kleboniškės Rural Household Exposition, and the Museum of Rural Life of Samogitia in Telšiai.
When the Western world was developing mid-century Modernism in art and architecture, Socialist Realism unfolded in Lithuania. The ideas and trends of the free world nevertheless penetrated the Iron Curtain. Lithuanian architects who created during the Soviet period got inspiration from the French architect Le Corbusier and had an opportunity to see the projects of Scandinavian Modernism. The ideas of Western architecture did not find their way to the grey districts of uniform multi-apartment residential houses, yet architects managed to create exceptional objects in public spaces. Today they can tell us a lot about the trends of the past and what was in conflict with Soviet ideology. Many of these buildings have preserved their function to date, and a few of them are still waiting for the rebirth.