Country of Architectural Contrasts — How Were Baroque Churches Built Alongside Wooden Homes in Lithuania?
Country of Architectural Contrasts — How Were Baroque Churches Built Alongside Wooden Homes in Lithuania?

Despite being compact in size, Lithuania is a melting pot of various contrasting architectural styles that reflect how the country’s character and values have changed over time. From German-influenced Fahwerk houses to intricate Baroque diamonds and Art Deco innovation, architecture enthusiasts can admire its unique urban landscape.

Lithuania could be called a country of contrasts. Whether in reference to its distinct seasons or the prevalence of green spaces in urban centers, nowhere is the statement more accurate than when discussing the country’s architecture.

From wooden lace and tower-adorned houses erected before the 20th century to Art Deco complexes that tower over city centers, the country’s construction gems give architecture enthusiasts plenty of opportunities to discover the hidden secrets of Lithuanian cities.

The jewel of diverse European architecture

As early as the 14th century, Grand Duke Gediminas invited foreign artisans and merchants to settle in the newly-built city of Vilnius — the current capital of Lithuania — bringing with them new cultural movements and architectural influences. Today, Vilnius’s diverse heritage is reflected in its cityscape, where several different architectural styles — from wooden to Gothic to Baroque and even Classicism —  compete for visitors’ attention as they walk its streets.

Travelers can explore the city’s Baroque scene by heading out to the Old Town, starting at the famous Basilian Gate — an impressive sight of dynamically rising verticals and pulsating planes typical of the architectural movement. A short walk from the Basilian Gate stand other Baroque-era gems: The Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit and the Church of St. Theresa.

A stark contrast to the abundance of Baroque architecture arose in the 18th century as Classicism spread across Lithuania, making way for simplicity and clean lines. The Vilnius Archcathedral act as masterpieces of such architecture and a sort of focal point for the city, featuring simple triangular and square shapes and columns evocative of ancient Greece. Meanwhile the Vilnius University Complex— developed over several centuries — features traces of Gothic, late Baroque, Renaissance and Classicist architecture.

The quaint wooden houses of the Žvėrynas district in Vilnius present a sharp contrast to the grandeur found in the Old Town. When water resorts and baths were established there in the 19th and 20th centuries, the district became a popular location for city walks. Today, visitors can admire this green neighborhood for outstanding architecture and ambiance, as well as take a sneak peek at the 108 wooden homes, designed by fusing Russian, Swiss, Art Nouveau, and the widely used Poland’s Zakopane Manor style.

Interwar resilience and Art Deco

When Poland seized Vilnius in 1920, Kaunas was designated as the interim capital until Vilnius was freed. As a result, it quickly surged in size (the population rose by 66% in just 16 years), receiving several new governmental buildings as well as sizable private residences.

While wooden buildings have been recognized as a part of a national heritage that needs to be protected for decades, styles like Modernism and Art Deco have only recently become targets of preservation efforts. In December 2015, Kaunas — Lithuania’s second-largest city —  became the first Eastern and Central European city to win UNESCO City of Design status for its unique history of interwar architecture. The city is now actively working towards having Interwar Modernism recognized in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List as a site of significance for all humanity.

Travelers can get acquainted with the style by exploring the prestigious Žaliakalnis district and its Church of the Resurrection —  one of the examples of this bold and contemporary movement. This all-white structure, which blends traditional and postmodern styles, stands out due to its 63-meter tower. Additionally, it was the first church in history to have a worship space on its top terrace — which can be accessed via an elevator — that reveals breathtaking views of Kaunas’ cityscape.

The Milk Processing Company headquarters “Pieno centras” is another example of the movement. In 1937, at the International Exposition of Arts and Techniques in Paris, it was awarded a bronze medal as well as an honorary diploma. It stands out thanks to the curving windows in its arching corner facade.

The seamless fusion of history and modernity is a distinctive feature of Lithuania’s interwar architecture, and it is exemplified by the Vytautas the Great War Museum. The manner that the rooms and layout are laid up to emphasize compositional axes and symmetry is a reflection of academic traditions. A memorial area with monuments honoring notable individuals and occasions from the national independence era can be seen in front of the War Museum.

Historical heritage and German influences

The architecture of Klaipėda — the third largest city in Lithuania and the only major seaport to the Baltic Sea —  differs from that of the other cities in Lithuania because of its German background. Up to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, it belonged to various German rulers pre-20th century. The visitors can now feel this when looking at a number of timber frame, or Fachwerk, structures that still stand in this area. The structural frame of these buildings is made up of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal timber pieces that are left exposed on the outside. The gaps between the timber posts and beams are filled with contrasting substances like clay or brick, giving architecture enthusiasts something to feast their eyes on when roaming the city.

One of the most recognizable examples of the Fachwerk style and a symbol of Klaipėda in its own right is the Old Mill Hotel building. Located near the port and the castle, the former warehouse and rice mill uniquely incorporates plates of glass in between the wooden frame, offering visitors exquisite views of the Danė river below. Also famous for its striking contrasts in textures and color is the Baroti Gallery building, which, standing at 16 meters, is the tallest surviving timber frame building in Klaipėda.

More information about the variety of architectural styles in Lithuania can be found on the Lithuania Travel website.