On 25 October 2013 the participants of the seminar Showcasing Modernisms: Between Nostalgia and Criticism attended a dinner at Neringa restaurant in Vilnius. A group of people at a nearby table were celebrating an anniversary just as a lot of people did in the 1970s – with the same amounts of flower bouquets, hairstyles and dances to Joe Dassin’s songs that were being performed live by a local musician. This place, with the only authentic interior preserved from the period of modernism in Lithuania, turned out to be an apt place for field-research on nostalgia. But what does Neringa mean to those who have no direct experience of the period, and to those who are attached to this place by their most personal of memories? How are different values placed on this and other modernist heritages at the meeting point of these two perspectives?
The interest in modernist architecture, design and urbanism of the second half of the 20th century has obtained different forms in the most recent decades – with traditional books, articles, photograph albums, conferences, symposia and academic networks to contemporaneous artists’ performances in their ‘recycling’ of modernisms (especially the Soviet ones) and exhibitions claiming to be historical surveys showcasing and legitimizing the ideas of local and marginal (e.g. Socialist) modernisms.
The Architektūros [pokalbių] fondas (Architecture [Discussion] Fund) conducted its initial analysis of modernism by organizing series of lectures called Modernism.lt: Influences, Ideologies and Heritage (2010) and Modern Heritages (2012). Within these lectures a number of questions were addressed: What is the heritage of modernist architecture in Lithuania? How is it revealed in the context of European and global modernism? What was the influence of ideology on the works by the architects of the time? What influence has been made on contemporary architecture, aesthetics and cultural phenomena by the heritage of the period of modernism? What attributes of Lithuanian modern architectural developments were manifested in different sociopolitical contexts? And what are the challenges of the contemporary use of modernism? Finding the answers to these questions seemed very important at the time, following the 20 years after the restoration of Lithuanian independence.
The presentations and questions of both series of talks revealed the upmost interest in the topicalities of postwar modernism. Among the presenters were Claes Caldenby, a Professor of Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg and David Crowley, Professor at the Royal College of Art in London. The Lithuanian case was reviewed by Marija Drėmaitė, Associate Professor at Vilnius University and Vaidas Petrulis, Associate Professor at Kaunas University of Technology. In addition, the links of the postwar modernism back to the interwar period have been revealed in a new light, especially the ideological aspects of such continuity, which were disclosed in the series by Mart Kalm, a Professor of Estonian Academy of Arts and Anna Bronovickaya, a Professor of Moscow Architectural Institute (MARCHI). The articles by these authors are presented to the readers’ attention in the lecture section of this publication.
In addition to the valuable information provided during both these series of talks, the Architektūros [leidinių] fondas (Architecture [Publications] Fund) wanted to review what this increased interest in modernism really means. In Lithuania, this trend obtained its impetus in 2009 when an exhibition entitled Cold War Modern. Art and Design: 1945–1970, which had been brought to the newly renovated National Art Gallery from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, became one of the most visited exhibitions in Vilnius. In 2011, Latvia, Estonia and the National Art Gallery in Vilnius saw a number of other exhibitions such as Modernization. Art, Design and Architecture of the Baltic States of the 1960s and 1970s, Our Metamorphic Futures: Design, Technical Aesthetics and Experimental Architecture in the Soviet Union 1960–1980. In the same year, Socialist modernisms were also examined in Poland and Croatia: the National Museum in Warsaw hosted the exhibition We Want to be Modern. Polish Design 1955–1968, and the exhibition Socialism and Modernity: Art, Culture, Politics, 1950–1974 opened in the Contemporary Art Museum of Zagreb. In November 2012, the Architekturzentrum in Vienna invited people to a comprehensive exhibition Soviet Modernism 1955–1991. Unknown Stories that had been in preparation for three years. Another interpretation of this exhibition called Trespassing Modernities was showcased in SALT Galata gallery in Istanbul, 2013. The efforts of the former Socialist world to reflect on its visual culture and environmental aesthetics are obvious. Eglė Juocevičiūtė notices that these exhibitions testify to the need to understand and consider our own Socialist pasts not as a ‘lost’ or a ‘leading to setback’ half a century, which is better ignored, but rather as a distinctive phenomenon that is still affecting us, exploring which can at least in part explain our present.
The first thing that is revealed when consistently scrutinizing modernism is a growing suspicion about its universal character. How could the modernist architecture be so universal, while also being so personal at the same time? In discussing the various judgments on the heritage of modernist architecture one could also feel the same suspicion: how much are such judgments influenced by different forms of nostalgia and how much by a truly critical outlook? If it really is nostalgia – is it possible to reconcile it with critical thinking? And if it really is nostalgia – whose nostalgia is it and nostalgia for what? After an entire generation has emerged since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which basically represented the end of the epoch of modernism (or at least a part of it), it is interesting to have a look at what kind of challenges await the researchers, curators, audience and society. These have been the issues directly or indirectly explored by the Architecture [Publications] Fund in the form of essay and interview. The idea of nostalgia adapted to the reviewing of modernist thinking and its material heritage has been introduced as an integral part of the essays and interviews – suggesting an unexpected critical attitude to modernism, as by itself it contradicts the popular concept that modernism was always looking (going) forward. Nostalgia can provide not only a nationalized, institutionalized pseudo-collective sentiment, but also certain personal experiences, which have been defined by Svetlana Boym as “history of unrealized possibilities, unpredictable turns and crossroads”.
The Architecture [Publications] Fund also asked various artists, historians and exhibition curators what they think of their own relationship with the architecture and heritage of modernism. In the interview section of this publication the photographer Frederic Chaubin, who was made famous by his photograph album CCCP, which pictured the most sophisticated architecture of the latter years of the Soviet era, talks about architecture as a mimetic desire. Andres Kurg, a researcher from the Estonian Academy of Arts and curator of architectural exhibitions, provides some general points on the issues of architectural showcasing. Also in this section, Hartmut Frank, Anna Bronovickaya and David Crowley analyze our quite complicated relationship with the heritage of modernist architecture and Aet Ader, one of the curators of the Tallinn Architecture Biennale, shares her impressions on architects’ relation with the heritage of Socialist modernism when attempting to ‘recycle Socialism’.
The Architecture [Publications] Fund asked a number of authors who have conducted research on modernist architecture or who have used it as their source of inspiration to share their insights, and therefore the publication has been supplemented with one more section – essay. We have found it very interesting to read three stories on three exceptional female modernist architects: Marta Stana in Latvia (see Maija Rudovska’s essay), Valve Pormeister in Estonia (Liina Jaene’s essay) and Lithuania’s Elena Nijolė Bučiūtė (Indrė Ruseckaitė and Lada Markejevaitė’s essay). How much these outlooks on the individual’s creative work were formed by feminist or modernistic discourses and how unique or personal can such modernisms be? Also in this section Julija Reklaitė introduces her own collection of ‘findings’ inviting the readers to architects’ family archives formed of their daily routines and professional ambitions. In his essay Ernestas Parulskis presents his own attitude towards the value of modernist architecture heritage based on the criteria of personal daily experiences and general standardization.
The questions of nostalgia to modernism and nostalgia in modernism were also raised in the seminar, to which the curators and theoreticians of some of the aforementioned exhibitions – Lolita Jablonskienė, Andres Kurg, David Crowley and Aet Ader – were invited. In a group of almost 20 participants they discussed how ‘the power of sentiment’ may be applied in organizing such exhibitions and thereby gaining some added value to the showpieces in an exhibition. David Crowley stated that historically the attitude towards modernism has always fluctuated between nostalgia and absolute rejection or disgust. According to Svetlana Boym, “nostalgia is not only an expression of some local longing, but also a result of new understanding of time and space, because of which such division into local and universal had become possible at all.”
So, what is it we long for today? There are different types of longing. One of which – the architect’s longing for the lost honourable status of the master after the fall of modernism (and the entire system). David Crowley presents a hypothesis that in the East and in the West alike there were architects whose personal vision coincided with the official one and this became a key to their success. This is related to the ‘urban legends’ that have subsequently arisen – Lithuanian architects like telling stories about their ‘silent resistance’ to the Soviet regime. By repeating it again and again they uphold the myth on the exclusivity of the architecture of the Baltic States. Architects at that time were young, respected, and influential and they enjoyed many privileges. According to Andres Kurg, the loss of such strong positions in 1990, when an architect became just a part of the real estate development programme, encouraged a nostalgic feeling for former positions and former powers: “It is quite paradoxical. They became theoreticians when they lost their power as architects. I think they are nostalgic for their lost status in society”.
Traditional questions on the differences of modernism in the East and in the West were also raised in the seminar. It was stated that the attitude towards Socialist modernism has been changing over time – the judging aspect has been gradually diminishing (backwardness in comparison to the West or being in search for Western copies), more contextual questions appear (what were the conditions of the time? why were such commissions made?). In the post-Socialist world, an evaluation of architecture based on ideology is no longer relevant. Even more so, buildings of the Socialist modernism are being devastated more often not because they are ‘Socialist’, but because of their strategic locations in city centres, under the pressure of developers or any other commercial interests. The issue on the wish (need?) to modernize modernism has arisen – we should admit that aging modernism becomes ugly, but nevertheless does it look insufficiently modern, or are these just technical issues of warming and insulation?
Surprisingly the most dynamic discussion was conducted on the feeling of (imaginary) nostalgia experienced by the later generation who never lived and cannot remember ‘those times’, is it real, or assumed nostalgia? Without a context all buildings and all environments become just ‘an exhibition’. Could it be just retro rather than nostalgia? Maybe these are just attractive forms of a bygone style, in vogue at present, but soon to be replaced by some other more fashionable forms of some other period?
Crowley presents an analogy as proof that nostalgia to the unknown past is also possible. He talks about Alison Landsberg’s theory of ‘prosthetic memory’, with the help of which the scientist explains how people who have never experienced the Holocaust can feel strong emotional connections to it. According to her, this happens due to the modern technologies that are applied to keeping memories (exhibitions, museums, narratives, visualizations, TV programmes, etc.) which generate strong emotions. However, it presents certain threats that emotions may replace the intellect (and critical thinking). It is important because according to Lolita Jablonskienė, today we keep and convey our memories by different technology, regardless of the fact that there are lots of different memories.
Usually architecture historians focus on the circumstances of developing one or another building, its sketches, design projects and implementation peripeteia. But here, today at the Architecture [Publications] Fund we discuss the life of modernist architecture, about memories of buildings and also about their future. In fact, we talk about our own life as a backdrop of the architecture of modernism.
The editors of the issue would like to give their sincere thanks to all seminar participants, especially to its speakers: David Crowley, Lolita Jablonskienė, Andres Kurg and Aet Ader, organizers of the special tour Indrė Ruseckaitė and Viltė Janušauskaitė, guide Laima Kreivytė, authors of the interviews Eglė Juocevičiūtė, Aistė Galaunytė, Viktorija Šiaulytė and the volunteers who typed the lecture texts Aistė Galaunytė, Julija Jurevičienė, Milda Grabauskaitė, Norbert Tukaj, Laura Bagdonaitė, Gabrielius Varnelis, Vaidotas Vaičiulis, Aurelija Krasauskaitė, Margarita Kaučikaitė, Sabina Grincevičiūtė, Monika Augaitytė, Dovilė Krikščiūnaitė and Rūta Valiūnaitė. Thanks also go to the illustration editor Aistė Galaunytė, editors and translators Jurga Grunskienė, Eligijus Skirkevičius, Stephen Dean, Nerijus Šepetys, public relations representative Matas Šiupšinskas, programmer Martynas Bardauskas, and the photographers Norbert Tukaj, Ieva Marija Malinauskaitė, and Aurelija Slapikaitė-Jurkonė.
We would also like to give our special thanks to the sponsors of the lectures: the Culture Support Foundation, Department of Cultural Heritage, the British Council, Think Light Illumination Studio, Velux, Paroc, KG Constructions, GlassPro, Goethe-Institut, Hauraton, Exterus, and Institut Français de Lituanie.
Our heartfelt thanks also go to the curators of the lecture series: Julija Reklaitė and Tomas Grunskis (Modernism.lt: Influences, Ideologies, Heritage, 2010), Marija Drėmaitė and Lukas Rekevičius (Modern Heritages, 2012) and the volunteers of all the lectures.