The role of intangibles in architecture

Architecture plays a communicative role by expressing its symbolic values through choices in colours, sizes, materials, and forms. In order to explore the role of symbolic qualities in architecture, it is essential to first define what these roles can be and how they act. For example in public institutions, such as banks, values of trust, reliability, and security are expressed through the use of grandiose spaces and marble, which provide a feeling that this institution is going to last. This is also evident in the case of schools, hospitals, and so on and so forth.

However, the communicative effects of buildings can also be manipulative and, accordingly, they do not always express their true meaning. Therefore, designers tend to manipulate the symbolic values for their own purposes. This is especially relevant when talking about architecture in the Stalinist era. Architecture, that was made to symbolise the superlative, incomparable and absolute totality which consequently had evolved into the supressed individual freedom. As Shah and Kesan (2007) mention, there are three potential ways in which architecture can regulate: architecture may be partial and treat certain social values less or more favourably; architecture plays a communicative role by declaring symbolic or cultural meanings; and architecture can affect people’s interaction. It becomes clear as a result, that in the context of authoritarianism, architecture can gain a malicious intent.

Re-imagining architecture of occupation from harmful memory

For historical continuation to not become a reason for preserving all Soviet buildings, analysis of aesthetic development of thought has to be done. Looking at the Soviet periodization in Lithuania through the architectural prism, there appear three major aesthetic tendencies (Petrulis, 2006): social realism, industrial Soviet modernism, and diverse manifestations of stylistic searches.

Rail Station Vilnius, Lithuania, Social Realism / Author unknown

Let’s begin with social realist architecture which is associated with the period of Stalinism (1945-1956). The profound feature of the social realist architecture is the belief that through the use of classical compositional elements an architecture can be filled with a political undercurrent. In figure 1, we can see how this type of architecture is all about architectural representation, while the representational value is totally dependent on the simplest, consumer-friendly beauty standards. In other words, the period of social realist architecture was like creating a dictionary for the language of classicism, which would be comprehensible for a fisherman, miner, and a farmer. This type of architecture is valuable, because of its distinctive interpretation of classical forms resulting as a rich socialist and folk décor (Petrulis, 2006).

KTU Faculty of Chemical Technology, Industrial Soviet Modernism / Author unknown

Social realist architecture evolved to become industrial Soviet modernism, when in 1955, the government made a resolution to condem any decoration in architecture. This resolution was meant to urgently and by the cheapest means possible rationalise the architectural environment.  Buildings were being transformed into massive objects with a utilitarian style as can be seen in figure 2. Industrial Soviet modernism is valuable as a distinctive variation of international modernism and also as a slight architectural revolution at the time (Petrulis, 2006).

Summer library, Palanga, Lithuania. Regionalist Architecture / Author unknown

The following stylistic evolution is related to the occupation period of 1965-1991. This architectural shift is full of ethnic, mythological and symbolic themes. Figure 3 depicts the summer library in the resort Palanga, where the applied motif of waves creates a symbolic contextuality and the use of wood décor fragments refers to the tangible trend of regionalism. This particular type of architecture has to be appreciated not only for its emphasis on original form and diversity, but mostly as a historical path of the search for contextuality and Lithuanian architectural spirit (Petrulis, 2006).

We have to admit that not all Soviet architectural heritage must be protected. Even if, while looking at the stylistic approaches of the Soviet era, the architectural diversity is noticeable, the inventive stylistic solutions make up only a small part of the infrastructure. These particular objects have to be protected as they reflect the most important aspect of the culture of architecture – the evolution of thought. However, industrial soviet modernist architecture is intriguing only in its earliest years, as later built industrial blocks constructed by the same rational engineering principles, lose their architectural value of novelty.

Formation of new symbolic qualities under Soviet regime

Ideology is not only found in linguistic form, but it also occurs in material structures. The Soviet party believed architecture to be transformative and able to mould the new socialist way of life (Humphrey, 2005). The link between Soviet ideology and infrastructure here turns out to be clearly evident. Soviet planners were occupied in attempting to transform the meanings of daily life objects into new guided contents. At first, it is important to discuss the early period of the Soviet regime in Lithuania under the rule of Joseph Stalin. In this period, the architecture representing the ideology of socialism began to emerge in the larger cities of Lithuania. In Stalinist culture, buildings assumed enormous importance to support the utopian prospects of living in communism, a so-called “perfect society”.

The architecture in the Stalin period is fully perceivable only in its ideological context. This caused architects to produce nearly identical buildings. Every construction was representing the Stalinist ideology and was independent from its external function and geographical position (Dobrenko & Naiman, 2003). These findings accord with our earlier stylistic observations on Social realist architecture as it can be perfectly applied to realise utopian political intentions. In the Stalinist era, every building symbolized the superlative, incomparable and absolute totality, which has evolved into the suppressed individual freedom.

Lazdynai District in Vilnius, Lithuania / Author unknown

Furthermore, one of the main aims of Soviet authorities at the time, was to transform cities into centres embodying Soviet ideology (Mikailienė, 2010).  A good illustration of such progressive architecture is shown in figure 4. The Lazdynai district was developed in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. When analysing its infrastructure more deeply, the same style of monolithic repetition combined with the abundance of public green is apparent. This forms the opposition to the idea of individual “quarters”, which tend to present class and cast prejudices. In other words, in the period of Sovietization buildings and infrastructure continued to symbolize the total power of the Soviet state, but also embraced equality, internationalism, and peaceful coexistence (Shlapentokh, 1984).

Before concluding, let’s remind ourselves that Pre-Soviet local Lithuanian architecture features Scandinavian tradition of private wooden houses with sloping roofs as a protection against local climate. The vernacular Lithuanian builders tend to construct clusters of houses that orient towards the sun, defend from the wind, hug the land and embrace handcrafted ornaments of natural motifs. These findings raise intriguing questions regarding the noticeable change of symbolic qualities in the architecture of Lithuania: a change from local to geographically independent, and at the same time from personally independent to the constrained.

A dialogue with a painful past

The Soviet architecture forms a great part of the architectural history of Lithuania, as the biggest portion of architecture created in the twentieth century was from Soviet times. However, most architectural examinations in Lithuania so far were focused on the classical history without touching on the twentieth century. Jencks (1985) claims that the evolution of architectural meanings is dependent not only on forms, but also on our perception of them. This means that if this perception changes in society, then the meaning of the architecture changes as well. During the change of political systems, the disharmony created in the social environment led to a disharmony in the spatial environment. I think the problematic attitude towards Soviet architecture can be inspected using two interrelated contextual problems.

Firstly, the approach towards the protection of modern architecture is complicated by the lack of time distance (Savatova, 2009). The case of too little time separating the social rhetoric and aesthetic attitudes of the past century from the present, tend to cause, a now predominant, “fetish of the past”. According to heritage protection specialists, everything that has been created in ages seventeen to nineteen comes valuable with no exception. The unwillingness to show any interest in Soviet architecture is related to the illusion that, since we have survived the Soviet era, we know everything about it and thus, we are able to assess it. This widespread rejection of the Soviet era in history leads to despise or even deliberate destruction of its tangible architectural legacy.

Secondly, it is necessary to consider the lack of psychological distance. Here, it is important to understand that the communicational function of architecture is not an autonomous system, rather it is an interactive discourse (Lynch, 1960). It functions only during active intercourse with a man, who is always a part of a certain cultural background.  Being politically foreign is the biggest problem, which prevents Soviet architectural objects from becoming a part of Lithuanian heritage. In postcommunist countries, the architecture of modernism is usually associated with the period of occupation, with the socialist regime and the harmful historic past, which has become a part of “traumatic memory” of the nation (Čepaitienė, 2005). However, one must realise that the aim to preserve a form is not meant to save Soviet ideology at the same time.

Soviet architecture has had a strong symbolic meaning during Lithuania’s occupation and it still does today. Due to a sharp historical departure from local vernacular architecture, resulting in the intangibles left in Soviet architecture, there is a hostile approach towards the architectural heritage of the Soviet period. Nevertheless, the architectural diversity that mirrors the path of architectural thought in Lithuania is worth being protected.

Moreover, intolerance and destruction of recent objects of historical heritage would remove the period of almost fifty years from public memory. This would directly cause the generation that grew up at that time to lose all its place-related memories. Thus, the challenge remains to overcome a post-Soviet situation, where a rapid change in socio-cultural conditions leads to a profound gap in social actuality, isolating society from the architecture of the second half of the twentieth century. In this challenge, I believe the process of considering Soviet architectural heritage should be less about decisive preservation and more about analysing all its multilayer architectural meaning.