During the Architecture [Discussion] Fund talk “Narratives of dissidence in Lithuanian Architecture”, you talked about your generation, who started their architectural career in the late Soviet period. What were the options and opportunities for a young architect to implement new interesting projects in those times? What was the relationship with the well-established generation of modernist architects? Was there a need for rebellion?
After World War II, and following the Soviet occupation, the labour front lacked professionals in all fields. My father Vytautas, who had graduated from the Faculty of Architecture at Kaunas Polytechnic Institute in 1952, was thrown in at the deep end as a young specialist. His first job was to build the TV tower in Vilnius. Although just being a young man and having no experience, with the help of Moscow engineers he managed to build that tower. Those young professionals took up all of the positions in the young Soviet Lithuania.
When I graduated from architectural studies at Vilnius Civil Engineering Institute in 1976 and was employed at Kaunas City Planning Institute (Miestprojektas), I saw that all the positions had been taken; there was no rotation and virtually no competition. It was routine that a person started his job in his office and he either died in his chair or eventually retired from it. Like in the Japanese labour tradition – if someone starts a job at one company, then his company has buried someone. Something similar was present at the Soviet design institutes. I met many mature architects who were 10-15 years older than me and were real leaders. I started in the group led by the architect Boleslovas Zabulionis. I was lucky because one man in the group, Algimantas Sprindys, became the chief architect of the city (he was promoted and I took over his job).
Did we compete somehow? There were some internal design competitions at the Institute, in which I actively participated with my colleagues Eugenijus Miliūnas, Kestutis Kisielius, Evaldas Barzdžiukas, Algimantas Kančas, and Gražina Janulytė. These were architects of a similar age, who, like me, were in the absolute shadow of those people who had arrived at the right time. After eight years of ‘creative vegetation’ I felt tired and I quit. I left the Institute. But there was also another reason – at that time I was vigorously organizing and designing the first cottage cooperative, which was built in 1985 in Plienas Street in Kaunas. So, I received certain social guarantees for a place to live, whereas many of my colleagues were dependent on the Institute, simply because it provided an apartment as was the usual practice in the Soviet Union. When I left, I went to the Union of Architects and they offered me a small position as a steward. I was also elected secretary of the Union of Architects, which gave me an opportunity to organize public events. And so began my free life.
So after you left 'Miestprojektas', you never worked for any Soviet Institute again?
The position of a steward, a night guard, or a watchman was a very characteristic form of rebellion of the artists in the Soviet Union. Now it is regarded as one of the forms of dissidence as a public refusal to engage in the official artistic or architectural practice.
I never regretted it. And perhaps others even envied that freedom of mine.
Was there any possibility to design?
Not really, except for very small things, for example agitation stands or furniture for café interiors. Very small jobs, but still there was a possibility to make some extra money. Individual or private commissions were really a rare thing in those times. Only a few people did it now and again.
Did you feel exiled from architecture?
Well, during my Institute period I designed five hospitals. But why did I get those commissions? Because they were extremely boring, they were extremely technical work – with all those construction and sanitary norms. Of course, I tried to do something interesting at the beginning; I was full of enthusiasm, because I was a good student. But later I lost hope that something was actually possible there. You should understand one thing about Soviet architecture – only really exceptional buildings could get a wider range of building materials; otherwise we had to do everything from prefab concrete panels. One had to be very lucky if one was allowed to have some red brick elements in one’s building. There was no metal, no wood, no clay brick available; there were prefab concrete products only, and a very small selection at that. It was a kind of bizarre architecture – not even LEGO, but concrete panel monsters.
Your cooperative cottage project in Kaunas must have been a breath of fresh air then, because you had a chance to design not only a building but a lifestyle too?
Oh yes, it was an absolutely fantastic project, completely unthinkable for those times. I had a very strong vision of it, and I summoned up my whole spirit to make it happen. However, many were saying it was a complete utopia that would end as soon as someone complained. However, it all ended happily or perhaps our smart strategy helped this to happen. We collected nine architects into a housing cooperative and invited several influential bodies to join us, such as Kaunas house construction factory. We also used my father's network, because he was a rather high-ranking official – a manager of the Building Trust. He had a friend from the Planning Committee who was in charge of economic issues. And we also included in our cooperative the son of the high-ranking official of the Building Committee. To cut a long story short, we engaged many people with our bureaucratic lobbying – and we succeeded. Usually architects, being young specialists, lived in dormitories; so, you can imagine what it was like to come from a dormitory room into a four bedroom cottage. It was an event! So, ironically speaking, I cannot complain about the Soviet system.
Your story of subversive opportunism is very representative: you quit the Soviet planning Institute and started doing what you wanted. But what happened to other young architects who refused to design Soviet architecture? What were the routes of escape, what were their forms of rebellion?
Well, there were getaways, but they were very risky. The architect Albertas Stankevičius (1957-1997) opened the first private art gallery "AL Gallery" in the premises of the Union of Architects in 1987. The architect Erdvilas Tamoševičius was also self-employed as he had founded an interior design company in Kaunas. Both Albertas and Erdvilas eventually drowned in a swamp of alcohol. A number of those who tried to do private businesses finally had enough money and a lot of freedom, and they did not know what to do with it, when everybody around them was in harness and servitude. They used their freedom to feed their addictions. I used my freedom to play rock music. I was more fortunate, because alcohol was used in huge amounts in those times. It was used publicly, at work, and the authorities turned a blind eye. Basically, it was a never-ending party. All those birthday parties and ‘occasions’ became the daily routine of the Soviet white-collar workers.
Did you start playing rock music after you quit the Institute?
I played music at school, I also tried to play it during my studies of architecture, but failed to adapt to that Soviet style vocal-instrumental ensemble pop music, because I felt closer to rock music. Later in the early 1980s in Kaunas, on the initiative of my fellow architect Audrys Karalius, the rock band ANTIS formed and I developed it, since I was a free man. And then ANTIS, which means duck in Lithuanian, became "anti" – such an interesting phenomenon of the times. But I doubt if I could call us dissidents. We did not practice dissent architecture. We just kept dancing and singing. Of course, we probably could do ‘paper architecture’, but it seemed dead to me – I preferred to play live.
So your musical activities became your form of public disobedience. But was rock a conscious form of rebellion or was it more of a game?
Of course it was a game in the beginning. ANTIS had two objectives: to amuse our friends, and to feel the freedom, joy, and foolery. We were young and everything was real – we did not experience censorship, because everything was limited to a very small audience and everything was genuine. Later, when we joined the Lithuanian liberation movement ‘Sąjūdis’ in the late 1980s, we were obliged to feel a certain responsibility for that freedom of ours. ANTIS became a sort of association of Rock Marches. During the first Rock March in 1987 we performed a song called "The Coast" in which we expressed clearly our nostalgia for independent Lithuania without using the “wrong” or explicit words.
Remembering those times and my experience, I try to understand what freedom is. Now it is clear to me that freedom is an extremely strong element, like nuclear energy. If freedom is used irresponsibly or disrespectfully, it often might kill (this happened to my friends).
What was the imagined freedom of the architect at that time? You have mentioned that your generation did not believe in their mission in the Soviet architecture, nor Soviet values and vision for the future. Did you imagine what you could have done, designed and built if not for the Soviet system? What was the dream?
It should be understood that Soviet architect was a State servant. All those planning and design institutions were similar workplaces to factories. No exceptions. We were extremely jealous of sculptors and all those artists, painters and writers, who worked on a free schedule and received contract payments. It seemed that the sculptor was some kind of semi-god, because if he received a commission, he could think, create, and go for a walk in the middle of office hours or not work that day if he did not want to. Such working conditions for us architects were completely incomprehensible. Therefore, there was no vision that the architect could actually be something else. It only began to take shape with the advent of Independence in the late 1980s when State institutes began to crumble.
What was the mission and feeling of the architect in this transition period? You have said once that in 1990-1993 architecture and urbanism was non-existent in Lithuania. Was there any need for rebellion in this period of professional survival?
In 1990 I was invited to work as head of Lithuanian television and for three years I did not have to experience ‘the survival’. I can only say that by 1993, with the introduction of the Lithuanian currency Litas, very high inflationary processes were taking place and uncontrolled and unauthorized constructions had started, primarily as an investment. Monster private villas of 500-700 sq. m. started to be built of silicate brick. Everyone was longing for a private house after those Soviet years of shortage economy. In 1993, I established an architectural company called “Jungtinės pajėgos”, but there were no architectural commissions at all and we began trading new Western thermal insulation and finishing materials. This trade helped us to keep a few architects who did small interior designs. Only from 1995 did business begin to recover.
It seems that the vision of an independent Lithuania where everybody has private architectural offices and designs good architecture, proved completely different in reality?
Completely different. It was only trade that helped to save our architectural business. Then more work appeared. There was a very funny approach to the interiors of commercial premises in the 1990s – they were severely exaggerated and awfully overestimated. Instead of obtaining good kitchen equipment or goods, the interior was put into first place. Everyone wanted some kind of grandeur, wealth, and solidness. No one understood that interiors could only be done for a few years. And we architects also supported that approach.
You say that dissidence lies deep in faith. Do you think that today we have a fair value-based architectural ideology? Do you think young architects should go for subversion or rebellion in contemporary Lithuanian architecture?
I think they should. We need to improve our personal quality. This includes the search for identity, which is now very strongly intensified along with the ability to live in intellectual surroundings, and the ability to be a creator. Architects should take more social and professional responsibility. Do we have a fair value-based architectural ideology? I think that we have – this is sustainable architecture. Do we have our own understanding of the mission of the architect? I would say yes – the architect has to lead the environmental-making process. Because when we shape the environment, we basically form a human. The quality of the environment is a human quality indicator.
What is the biggest obstacle to implementing this mission of the architect? It is us – the architects. It is our lack of self-esteem. We must rebel against our own limits. We must oppose the unexpected dominant ideology of consumerism. I think the level of subversion is too low. There’s no revolutionary ambition that I can see. But it is generally necessary to make a cultural revolution. From that zombie culture of death, which is based on all kinds of addictions, prison culture and mentality, along with the Soviet disrespect for each other. We need to culturally achieve a whole new level, which requires coexistence, self-esteem, and dignity. This is not possible without a certain self-reflection. We need to take the lead. I'm looking forward to the young people's rebellion.