The architectural battleground for Lithuanian independence

  • 2005-11-23
  • By Sven Becker
VILNIUS - In the late 1950s the capitals of the Baltic states were experiencing severe housing shortages, along with many cities throughout the Soviet Union. Vast numbers of Russian-speaking people moved to the region in a mass migration whose repercussions are still being felt today. But back then the most pressing problem was where to house this vast influx of workers.
The then leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, advised all Soviet Republics to build large-scale, industrially manufactured housing blocks. In Vilnius, huge apartment blocks were erected close to the Old Town, endangering the city's unique historical heritage.

Concrete resistance

A group of young Lithuanian architects refused to accept this threat to the city center's gothic, renaissance and baroque buildings. At a meeting of the Lithuanian Architects' Union in October 1955, Algimantas Nasvytis, a recent graduate of the Lithuanian Academy of Art, said: "If the construction in the center of Vilnius continues to follow its present path, then without exception it can be maintained: In a few decades, society will judge us 's the architects of today 's to have been barbarians, the despoilers of our capital."

Vytautas Cekanauskas was a fellow and comrade in arms of Nasvytis at the time. "We pushed the authorities to build new housing estates in areas outside the city center in order to perpetuate the historical Old Town," he explains during a chat in his Vilnius flat. His walls are adorned with several sketches, wooden figures and awards.

The authorities in Vilnius eventually met the demands of the young architects, whose actions undoubtedly saved large parts of the city center. Moreover, the republic State Construction Committee asked a group of four architects and two engineers, including Cekanauskas, to design a satellite city for several thousand residents a few kilometers outside Vilnius. The chosen area was located southeast of Vilnius, close to a small town called Lazdynai. The architects found a piece of untouched countryside with wooded hills and a series of stepped terraces running parallel to the Neris River. Encouraged by their success in preventing Vilnius' Old Town from being turned into a vast slab of concrete, the working group now wanted to break through the stern guidelines of Soviet housing policies from Moscow. Their aim was to create a satellite city called Lazdynai that created a smooth harmony between housing blocks and the surrounding area.

Architect Cekanauskas des-cribes their plans: "We had been on excursions to Finland before and were inspired by their manner of integrating housing estates in hilly and wooden landscapes. Now, my group wanted to do the same here in Vilnius."

Bearing in mind that Soviet authorities usually refuted any Western or "bourgeois" ideas, it must have been a bold venture. Cekanauskas smiles: "We were young, full of beans and did not alienate the central planners in Moscow."

With support from the local authorities, Cekanauskas and his colleagues gradually carried out their plans and laid the foundations for the vast project in the hilly countryside. Furthermore, the planners separated pedestrian from automobile streets 's practices that were common in Western architecture at that time.

The authorities in Moscow observed the construction of Lazdynai suspiciously, writes John Maciuika, an assistant professor of modern art and architectural history in New York who has done some research on the development of Lazdynai. According to him, Lazdynai was not merely a bureaucratic struggle between the architects and the Soviet authorities. Rather, its construction exemplified the expression of national independence through cultural means.

However, when Lazdynai was completed in the 1970s, the central authorities started to like the architectural design. Delegations from Moscow came to Vilnius and ordered helicopter-flights to take a bird's eye view of Lazdynai. In 1972, the responsible architects and engineers received the Lenin Prize for All Union Architectural Design 's one of the most prestigious awards in the Soviet Union. Cekanauskas remembers those days very well. "The award did not mean too much to us at that time. We used the money to buy new suits and to settle our debts. It was also a good reason to throw a party," he snickers. Cekanauskas wants to show us the gold medal he received at the award, but his wife has put it away for a rainy day.

Back to the future

Today, trolleybus number 16 drives from the train station to Lazdynai. After struggling through the daily traffic jam of downtown Vilnius, it drives round a multilane traffic circle at the end of Savanoriu Street and then crosses a bridge over the broad Neris River. A look outside the window gives away the beauty of the green and hilly landscape. Amid the terraces running parallel to the Neris River, the first apartment houses loom out of the wooded hills. The old engine of the trolleybus growls as the highway approaches. About five minutes later, the trolleybus pulls over at Lazdynai bus stop.

Huge tower blocks alternate with terraced houses that pervade the hills. Although the area certainly has its share of gray and uniform streets, the efforts to reconcile large-scale housing estates with nature were clearly successful in many important regards and distinguish Lazdynai from so many of the homogenous suburbs in the former Soviet Union.

Zivile Krupickaite has spent her whole life in Lazdynai. "I was very lucky to live here as a child. I had the huge Pasaku Parkas ("Fairytale Park") right in front of my house where we played tag in the summertime and people did some cross-country skiing in winter," says the student of art history while guiding us through her former playground. In the meantime, modern one-family houses riddle the park. "We call those people New Lithuanians," says Krupickaite, pointing her finger at the impressive buildings. A little further, workers have cleared more areas of the park for new settlements. Krupickaite would like to move out of her old and increasingly dilapidated apartment block as well, but cannot afford to yet.

"People's desire to leave the apartment blocks and satellite cities is immense," says Mindaugas Pakalnis, chief architect of Vilniaus Planas, an enterprise that undertakes city planning for the municipality. "Forty percent of all Vilnius' residents would prefer to live outside the city," he explains. Pakalnis is a member of the working group that develops the Vilnius City Master Plan. He explains some of the pressing problems they face: "We are still discussing how to deal with districts like Lazdynai. One cannot force people to stay in their old apartments. On the other hand, nobody wants to leave those parts of Vilnius stranded."

Ladzdynai architect Ceka-nauskas still lives in an old house from the Soviet times. He does not like contemporary architecture at all: "Lithuanian architects have always tried to preserve the uniqueness of our architecture. Look at those building in Europe Park," says Cekanauskas angrily and utters something unprintable. But his passionate anger provides an insight into how he and his colleagues managed to find a way through inflexible Soviet bureaucracy.