Gedimino pr. 4
number of theatre staff
theatre building opened
Kostas Biliūnas, Artūras Savko
If in the architecture of many Lithuanian theatres one can see the typical, sometimes even standard principles of theatre’s architecture, traditional and recognizable solutions, then the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre falls out of context. This building was formed as a whole by its surrounding environment and the historic development of a specific place. To understand the uniqueness of this theatre, one must first get to know the past of it.
At the end of the 19th century, a luxurious palace of the Agricultural Bank of Vilnius (now the Bank of Lithuania) was built next to the recently constructed St. George (now Gediminas) Avenue. The bank occupied only one part of the spacious land lot where cabbages were grown before the avenue was built. The remaining undeveloped part of the land lot next to the bank is the space of the current theatre. In it, next to the bank that had just been built, the Craftsmen’s Fair building was erected in 1893 (a second floor was added a couple of years later) – the ground floor of this building now houses the theatre’s box office and café. The architects of this building were Kiprijonas Maculevičius and Vladislovas Stipulkovskis.
One of the first private banks in the city at the time was run by Józef Montwiłł, who was also the founder of a charity organization for arts and crafts, so the headquarters of this charity organization were built in the remaining vacant lot next to the bank. However, it was detached from the bank building, forming an open space symmetrical to the undeveloped space on the other side. There was a hall on each of the three floors of the small Craftsmen’s Fair Building. On the first floor, in a hall full of plaster models, there would happen free drawing and sketching courses for craftsmen, as evidenced by the decoration on the façade, reminiscent of Masonic symbolism. On the second floor the Polish music society “Lutnia” was founded, with a small hall and a stage.
Without leaving these premises, in 1910-1911, on the same plot, further from the street, a theatre of the society “Lutnia” designed by Wacław Michniewicz, meeting the minimum requirements of the auditorium, was erected next to the bank building.
The small theatre, modestly built in the depths of the lot, was very popular both during the Polish interwar and the Lithuanian post-war period, therefore, a subsequent reconstruction and expansion was a logical and natural stage in the development of this space.
The hall of the Music Society, in addition to entertaining performances and operettas, was also leased to the Bronisław Kuliaszynski’s Cinema. The access to it was from the side of the avenue through the bank gate (current empty site in front of the theatre entrance), the continuation of which on the right side of the bank is still visible today. Behind the gate, a footpath led to the theatre, which was accessible from the side. At first one entered a small elongated foyer, from there through four openings – into the hall. An analogous foyer for hanging out during breaks was on the other side of the hall. One staircase near the entrance led to the balcony. The hall itself was similar to many other halls dedicated to the performing arts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – an elongated space, a narrow single-row balconies on the sides, and an amphitheatre balcony at the back. The slightly decorated, rectangular volume of the hall with rounded corners was reminiscent of the Polish Theatre in Pohulanka, also designed by Michniewicz at around the same time.
The stage in the theatre of the Music Society was not developed, it was surrounded on both sides by simple technical rooms, and the floor above the stage, reminiscent of a stage box, was actually a room connected to the bank building and used for its purposes. During World War II, the roof of the theatre burned down and the building was not in use for some time.
In 1950-1951 the old “Lutnia” Theatre was reconstructed and decorated after the project of Vladimiras Vorobjovas, meeting the standards of socialist realism, and the interior was decorated after the project of Simonas Ramunis, on which 4th year architecture students brothers Algimantas and Vytautas Nasvytis worked as well.
The project for the reconstruction and expansion of the “Lutnia” Theatre was ready in the 1960s, but the works took quite a long time and the reconstruction was completed in 1981. The architecture of the theatre was also awarded the Soviet State Prize.
The new building of architects Algimantas and Vytautas Nasvytis covered almost the entire remaining undeveloped lot of land that once belonged to the bank. Three buildings standing in different parts of the lot were integrated into the structure of the building designed in an architecturally atypical for a theatre way, filling the space between them. The architectural concept of the Drama Theatre is truly astonishing – denying the entire 18th century developed tradition of theatre as a stand-alone dominant, the architecture of the building adapted itself to the somewhat chaotic, multifaceted historical situation and as if it were water in a vase taking its shape. To this day, theatre buildings are inseparable from show-off architecture – the brothers Nasvytis Theatre is the complete opposite of the eye-catching, ubiquitous architecture offering luxurious entertainment and bringing up feelings of bourgeois envy. The Drama Theatre building is not even visible – the real size of this construction, hidden by the surrounding buildings becomes evident only from a birds-eye view. And yet this theatre, almost invisible, with a single-floor entrance pulled back from the avenue with a blackened copper roof, is one of the most memorable buildings on Gediminas Avenue today. Instead of openly displayed luxury-shining architecture, this theatre reveals only one small part of its whole when viewed from the outside. It is as if a small exhibit lit up in the showcase of a luxury store – the gilded faces of Calliope, Melpomene and Thalia shining in the black waves of the entrance roof reveal a “less is more” strategy.
In 2021, the newest part of the building, marked with historical layers, was opened, completely filling the technical yard remaining after the reconstruction in 1981. This is perhaps the last stage in the growth of an architectural organism that has began in the late 19th century.
The most important and highlighted fragment here is the entrance, which contrasts by all means with the Neo-Renaissance buildings between which it is tucked in. On the right – the bank building, on the left – the oldest part of the theatre complex, the former headquarters of the Craftsmen’s Fair, although it belongs to the theatre, but visually it is not part of it. There is a competitive struggle between the façades of ornate historical styles and the modest, pulled back from the street entrance of the theatre. Apparently all bets are on the former. However, the disadvantages of the entrance part translate into its advantages, and precisely because of the fact that its fighting with entirely completely different arms. Contrary to the usual traditional model of the theatre building, which dates back to the historicist era, one of the most important ritual elements outside the Drama Theatre, the staircase, was abolished. The glass entrance door and the lobby behind them were lowered just to the natural level of the former arcade. After the reconstruction of 2021, the only outside step was replaced by a smooth ramp, further highlighting this drastic refusal of modern architecture to continue the theatrical canon. Similarly, the sculpture “Feast of Muses”, which suddenly grew out of the shadow of the retreated part of the entrance – without any pedestal, any frame, even without the usual distance, reaches for the passer-by on the street with masks resembling real faces. The mosaic of Greek masks once adorning the entrance to “Lutnia” and the new entrance with an interpretation of the same theme seem to be separated by centuries, not three decades.
During the latest reconstruction, the box office room was slightly expanded, and is now supplemented by a permanently operating café. These premises, which housed product exhibitions during the Craftsmen’s Fair, a local furniture store and, in the Interwar period, the confectionery “Jugosławia”, retain the impression of a neutral, intermediate space. Through the windows of the box office and the café, the junction of the avenue and the entrance to the theatre is visible.
Walking down the avenue, turning towards the entrance of the theatre and entering the lobby which is on the same level as the sidewalk through a transparent glass door, the theatre visitors essentially follow the steps of the audience through the path which was formed when the “Lutnia” Theatre was built here in 1910-1911. Only this path of the spectators’ movement, which stretched in the space of the outdoor arcade, changed from the outside to the interior after the reconstruction. The old arcade, apparently, was only to be covered by a roof, and the architecture provided a safe and comfortable environment for the already established movement of people.
The first part of the interior, the lobby, is emphatically designed as an extension of the sidewalk. The contrast between the outdoor space and the interior is also reduced by 24 diffused skylights. In the brothers Nasvytis project, the left side of the wide lobby was dedicated to the spectators’ cloakrooms. The two large columns in this part are the boundary of the Craftsmen’s Fair building – they hold the upper floors of the old building, which now houses the administrative premises. The strip of cloakrooms immediately behind the columns was eventually considered unsuitable for serving a large number of spectators after the performance, with long rows of people starting to line in the lobby. During the latest reconstruction according to the Kančas Studio project (architects Algimantas Kančas, Gustė Kančaitė, Orlandas Narušis, Gediminas Kezys, among others), the relocation of the cloakroom became the biggest intervention of the whole reconstruction into the interior designed by brothers Nasvytis. It was decided to carry out the construction of the necessary extension without violating the spatial structure – that is by digging additional basement premises under the lobby. Not only the cloakrooms but also the sanitary facilities were moved to the lower floor. This logical extension has an analogue in the history of Lithuanian theatres architecture – in 1984, when the additional basement floor was excavated, the sanitary facilities and cloakrooms of Kaunas State Musical Theatre were expanded.
The openings in the wall leading to the old sanitary units were filled with tiles analogous to the old ones during the latest reconstruction. And the restaurant, located on the site of the old cloakroom, is part of a new theatre concept where the lobby space is open to visitors not only during performances. The idea of openness and integration into city life is a continuation of the ideas of architects Nasvytis.
At the newly built Opera and Ballet Theatre in Vilnius, it was noticed that during the breaks the spectator flow naturally moves in a circular manner – this phenomenon continues to this day. In the great foyer of the Drama Theatre, the “ring path” of spectators is already encouraged in the architecture of the building itself, surrounding a slightly deepened central part.
However, such structure of the great foyer was not intended by architects Nasvytis from the beginning and came to be much later, when construction work began. The whole structure of the Drama Theatre, which complements the great stage, appeared as sort of a “negative”, i. e. an outside space being filled with architecture. On one side, this outdoor space was bounded by a bank and an old theatre, and on the other side, one can imagine the boundary of the former bank land lot. In Soviet times, in the absence of private property, design was characterized by a degree of freedom. Already after the start of the construction, on the initiative of the chairman of the executive committee, the area of the building was expanded by handing over to the theatre an old apartment building already outside the boundaries of the lot. This former apartment building became another inclusion in the structure of the theatre. The wall of the old building was transformed into one of the planes framing the great foyer, and a bar for theatre-goers was built inside the former narrow elongated building. The interior of the 1980s has now been thoroughly refurbished. After the reconstruction, the originally private (only for theatre staff) buffet in the further part of the old apartment building became an extension of the main bar.
The lobby immediately adjacent to the entrance and the great foyer are connected by a staircase – but, unlike in traditional theatre structures, these are as if underestimated, and the exaltation of the spaces is not formed intentionally. On the contrary, it is a repetition of the natural relief of the former arcade. The stairs leading to the upper rows of the Great Hall is the spot with the strongest energetic load – but even these stairs are more reminiscent of the outdoor elevations than the traditional main staircase. The repetition of the former old courtyard-arcade, as well as the culmination of the concept of a courtyard, typical of the old Vilnius quarters, is the central lowered foyer space. In it, natural light coming in through the skylights, as well as plants and water, reminiscent of the microworld of enclosed monasteries. This must be the most subtle manifestation of postmodernist ideas reflecting the past in this building.
“It doesn’t happen so often, that it is you who designs a building, builds and in the end destroys it. Making something else on the same site”. – Algimantas Nasvytis.
The first project realized during the studies, the interior of the old theatre, created under the direction of Simonas Ramunis, was destroyed by the architects themselves after returning to the building three decades later. Of the three old buildings included in the structure of the theatre, the architecture of the former “Lutnia” Theatre itself has survived the least. At first glance, traces of its reconstruction are not evident – the main premises are more reminiscent of a new construction. However, the entire project started from the auditorium hall, which was left in the same old place. The stage, which was right next to the bank, in the place of the current foyer leading to the balcony, was moved to the opposite side, thus rationally separating the audience part and the part of the staff. The auditorium includes a part of the former building along with the lobby and wardrobes. The main entrance to the parterre through the four openings is practically in the same place where the old theatre had its entrance from the outside – directly from the pedestrian arcade. The roof, wooden floors, decor and all other elements of the old building have been removed and only a few of the main masonry walls have been preserved. They have been made taller, incorporated into the new structure, and trimmed to become unrecognizable.
The auditorium space is covered with 21-meter-long metal girders, specially made by the constructor Janina Marozienė. Due to the high groundwater level, it was not possible to dig the required hold stage depth, so an East German company was brought to install special, lower stage equipment with a ring-and-wheel mechanism. This device, installed in all theatres of the Soviet Union, is not popular in theatres in other countries. As a result, it was replaced by a system of 4 plungers during the most recent reconstruction. Ventilation equipment has also been significantly renewed – now the air supplied to the spectators on the parterre from the technical basement room below them.
The Drama Theatre building is reminiscent of a growing organism – as the brothers Nasvytis building grew, filling the former courtyard-passage, so did the new Kančas Studio building, filling the Nasvytis-formed courtyard on the technical side of the theatre. The biggest changes and expansion of the building took place in the part usually invisible to the audience. One of the most important tasks of the recent reconstruction was the orderly separation of the auditorium and technical parts. Before that, the spectators had to use the technical entrance of the theatre on Odminių st. side.
The newly emerged spaces of the building follow the principle set by architects Nasvytis, when new architecture adapts to the existing one, filling the already created spaces. As a result, the new yard building is not a clear and quickly perceived volume, but a complex structure that has made the most of the development opportunities. The two newly designed halls – the New and the Small – are accessed through the same great foyer. Although the new extension of the theatre is a complex structure intertwined with the previous architecture, the audience walk has developed quite clearly and comprehensibly. The main leitmotif of this walk is like an extended space of the old arcade. If Nasvytis transformed the great foyer passage into an enclosed courtyard space centred around an oasis of plants, water and natural light, the foyer of the New Hall extends this enclosed courtyard even further. This path runs along the wall of the same house that once formed the arcade line. The new enclosed and dark foyer does not compete with the bright spaces of the great foyer, it is as if reverently dimmed, and the sheer wide strip of the suspended ceiling imitating daylight with a concealed light timidly echoes the inner courtyard. However, unlike the entire horizontal connection of the spaces from Gediminas Avenue to the basin, the foyer of the New Hall is dominated by verticals. Here, the entrances to the hall, the sanitary facilities, the rehearsal hall and the newly formed roof terraces connect on different levels.
The new hall is a mixture of the usual theatre auditorium and the black box type hall. It consists of traditional theatre elements – a parterre, a balcony and narrow side balconies. Such a structure was especially often used in the old theatres and halls of Vilnius, as well as in the old theatre of the “Lutnia” Society. The new hall has narrow side balconies for spectators with reduced mobility. The layout of the balconies creates the image of the usual, even traditional hall, however the remaining interior is shaped more in line with the principles of the transformable hall.
In response to the evolution of the genre, black boxes became popular in the 1960s, abandoning the long architectural tradition of theatre. Most importantly, the binary structure of the theatre, which divided the space into the auditorium and the stage, was eradicated. They were replaced by a solid black room without a stationary stage, for the audience seats and the venue of the performance are arranged freely, as necessary for each play. In the New Hall, the location of the stage is planned, but it can be easily changed, it is not framed by a proscenium arch. The main location of the amphitheatre is also formed, but it can be pushed to the wall as needed, and the open space is used as a stage. The main decoration system is located above the usual stage location, but the technical equipment of the theatre is adapted to various scenarios – on the perimeter of the hall and across it hang technical balconies for lighting and other equipment, and above the hall is the pipe grid for hanging other equipment needed for the performance.
The new Small Hall, designed on the site of the former warehouse, is a freely transformable black box-type space. It is also directly accessible from the great foyer.
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