The Political Mission of Lithuanian Architecture in the Exile: Debates and Projects

Vaidas Petrulis (Kaunas University of Technology)

The presentation analyzes the architectural legacy and debates the (im)possibility of Lithuanian architecture in the USA and Canada in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite noticeable fragmentation along ideological, religious, territorial, and other lines, the debates in the diaspora press strongly suggest that the common denominator of the social activities of Lithuanians living in America was the mission of preserving their national identity and fostering political awareness. In the broadest sense, community building was primarily associated with education, language preservation, the preservation of traditions in the family, and active participation in the daily life of various organizations. In the cultural and artistic domain, the task of fostering identity was primarily assigned to painting, song and dance festivals, literature or theatre.

 Although architecture may not have been the first choice for presenting Lithuanian identity, around the 1950s, an increasing number of press publications on architecture, and especially the debate over the largest project, the Marquette Park Church, gradually shaped expectations of Lithuanian character or even style. In the 1950s, “Draugas,” “Aidas,” “Dirva,” “Lietuvių Dienos,” and other popular newspapers published a series of texts debating the possibility of giving the architecture built by Lithuanians a distinctive, national character. The fundamental premise of such debates was the conviction that any artistic freedom in occupied Lithuania is impossible, and that the diaspora naturally, must become the playground, where the Lithuanian tradition continues. Multiculturalism of American cities was interpreted as an opportunity to have its own distinctive voice.

In the context of mid-century modernism, such initiatives were rather naïve in terms of style. However, a strong political motivation enables the interpretation of these buildings as internationally important monuments to the Cold War. The presentation focuses on notable architectural experiments undertaken by Lithuanians in the 1950s and 1960s in U.S. cities, particularly in Chicago, New York and St. Louis. One such example is the Church of the Transfiguration in New York, designed by Jonas Mulokas in 1962. It was recognized as one of the finest architectural works in New York and even featured on the front page of the “New York Times,” alongside Eliel Saarinen’s T.W.A. airport terminal.