Beacon of Happiness. The story behind the building of NGA

Beacon of Happiness. The story behind the building of NGA

In the framework of the project From Complicated Past Towards Shared Futures, Jonas Žukauskas realised an augmented reality project and app Beacon of Happiness, through which visitors of the National Gallery of Art can see how the building of the gallery came into being, and also can virtually visit the Museum of the Revolution that the building housed before, to compare the elements of the current and former exhibitions, and to see what changed and what stayed during the building’s reconstruction. Jonas also offers a look at the history of the NGA building through the twists and turns of history in the form of an essay from his perspective as a professional architect.

The main exhibit of the new museum is the building itself, an example of late modernist architecture.

Lolita Jablonskienė, Head of the National Gallery of Art

The architecture of the National Gallery of Art (NGA) building, designed by Gediminas Baravykas and Vytautas Vielius and reconstructed by architects Audrius Bučas, Darius Čaplinskas and Gintaras Kuginis, reflects the contradictory and multifaceted stages of Lithuania’s modernization and its meaningful continuity. In collaboration with Jurga Daubaraitė we have created an augmented reality app that helps to tell the stories of the gallery’s building. When you scan the symbols that you find while walking around the building, you see documents, photographs, flags, palm trees, and pieces of furniture popping up on your phone or tablet screen. In our opinion, architecture is often created in a dissident way, when you contribute to a process that you cannot change or fundamentally affect, but your participation itself can make an impact. The spatial solutions of this building have revealed their references and meanings gradually over time. The same applies to the Museum of the Revolution of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic (LSSR), which was designed in 1966 with more than just the Soviet context in mind. Perhaps that is why the public appreciates its architecture, and it was one of the first museum buildings to be renovated after Lithuania regained its independence. In 2013, on a green lawn in front of the restored building, President Dalia Grybauskaitė raised the flag of Lithuania’s presidency in the Council of the European Union. Now, the architecture of the NGA building seems to convey a different message – the massive sandstone volumes of the façade, hovering above the transparent glass of the base level, no longer evoke the fluttering flag of the Soviet revolution.

The Museum of the Revolution of the LSSR opened in Vilnius in 1948. It was “the main museum in our republic showcasing historical-revolutionary content”. It aimed to present “the history of the people’s revolutionary movement” of Soviet Lithuania, from the late 20th century to the building of socialist society and the period of full-scale creation of communist society”.

To mark a new era of revolutionary struggle and to enhance the Museum of the Revolution of the LSSR and its propaganda role in society, the Council of Ministers of the LSSR ordered a tender for the museum’s new building on April 30, 1965, a year after Leonid Brezhnev came into power. The State Committee for Construction, the Ministry of Culture of the LSSR, and the Union of Architects of the LSSR were made responsible for the tender.

Museum of the Revolution of the LSSR
Unknown photographer
Archive of the National Museum of Art

The innovations in the museum’s activities were associated with changes in Soviet life, but the Stalinist-era narrative clichés still limited the interpretation – a Soviet author working with ideological narratives was like a mediaeval icon painter. The propaganda machine created Soviet identity and destroyed class enemies in Soviet Lithuania. It portrayed the revolution as a grassroots process coming from the people, the proletariat. “In the Soviet era, there were no ‘ethnic’ ensembles, but people’s ensembles, people’s culture, and people’s artisans. Culture linked to ethnicity was relegated to the level of ‘primitive’ culture, which showed itself in its ‘natural’ state.”

In order to erase any hint to the history of Lithuania as an independent state, the museum pushed the narrative of the revolution of the “oppressed people”. The terms of the tender for the new building of “modern architecture and original forms” followed that principle. They set the hierarchy of the arrangement of spaces that showed the ideologized concept of causality of the Soviet revolution, focusing on the history of 19th- and 20th-century socialist movements and the Sovietization of Lithuania, and paying special attention to “the achievements of the period of the building of communism”. Architecture became a powerful propaganda tool, and an architect became a silent illustrator.

The jury announced the winner of the tender a year later. They opened an envelope titled “Beacon of Happiness” with the names of the winners. A joint project by architects Baravykas and Vielius, constructor Povilas Adomaitis, and sculptor Steponas Šarapovas won. The authors created purely modernist architectural forms that were found the most suitable for the building. The architects turned the history of the Soviet revolution, planned in the layout, into a language of stately and minimalist architecture.

The open tender was anonymous, so the authors printed a sign in the corner of their drawings. It was the motto of the architectural solution of the proposed layout of the museum’s halls, rising to the second floor and descending on the other side of the building. The letters in a spiral formed the slogan “Beacon of Happiness”. It was the title of a short story by writer Jonas Biliūnas (1879–1907). This allegory of self-sacrifice for others pleased Soviet ideologists who claimed that the 19th century anti-tsarist movements in Lithuania were part of the same history of Soviet revolutions.

After Khrushchev’s speech on excesses in building and architecture in 1954, architectural optimization reforms started. Industrialized mass construction of apartment buildings, aiming to give each family an apartment in a decade, became a priority in the Soviet Union. Functionalist architecture based on constructivism spread. Architects revived this style after Stalinist repressions ended. However, this freedom was a mere illusion, and architects still were systematically forced to work under strict rules. They could not change or in any way alter prefabricated construction components, planning models and building typologies from institutes centrally managed by the State Planning Committee, or Gosplan, in Moscow.

Interior and furniture designed by interior designers Kazimieras Miežinis and Julius Masalskas for the Museum of the Revolution of the LSSR. 1980
Archive of the National Museum of Art

In the 1950s, architects from Russia gradually left and architects who studied in Lithuania took over. Their works show the influence of Western architecture ideas, which they got from the press occasionally brought from the West. Lithuanian architects aspired to a higher level of architectural modernization and looked for ways to expand the boundaries of their profession. Baltic architecture stood out in the Soviet context by the purity of form, which linked it to Western architecture examples.

The tender project for the Museum of the Revolution of the LSSR by architects Baravykas and Vielius of 1966 might have been inspired by the drawings and sketches of the Everson Museum of Art designed by architect Ieoh Ming Pei in 1961 and opened in Syracuse, New York State, in 1968. It was echoed in the generalized geometric volumes hovering over courtyards and lobbies, modelled with pencil stroke textures. The round forms of Henry Moore’s reclining female figure appear in the sketch proposal by sculptor Šarapovas. Thus, the concept of “modern architecture” was defined by Western architecture examples, apparently hoping that these references also meant a possibility that architecture could affect society.

Remembering the time when he arrived to study in Vilnius in the late 1980s, contemporary art curator Anders Kreuger wrote about the prevailing mood of the time: “There were of course poets writing poems about Vilnius in Lithuanian, and painters painting pictures of its ruins. A film studio was set up there for the first time, and a television station, and there were orchestras allowed to tour internationally and research institutes with scientists and intellectuals attempting to follow the latest international developments in semiconductor physics, cybernetics or semiotics. But a ‘manifested’ Socialism only managed to create a surface illusion of post-war modernity and normalcy in this frontier province that violently resisted its new conquerors. Vilnius under the Soviets was never more than a reasonably well-aired prison cell.”

The location for the new museum was found on the right bank of the Neris River, and urbanists Jaunutis Makariūnas and Romualdas Šilinskas prepared the territory plan. They suggested to put high-rise buildings in this part of the city, rhythmically arranging them in the open space visible from the Old City. Hotel Lietuva was already planned nearby, and the central shopping mall designed by architects Vielius and Zigmantas Liandzbergis was under construction.

In the building project prepared in 1971, four years after the tender of 1966, the extensive programme of halls and spaces changed slightly, and the exhibition area shrank. Architect Baravykas said that the architecture of restrained, humble forms, created by him and his colleagues, would never get old. It made the building look modern even in 1980, when it was finally finished fourteen years after the tender.

During the events of January 1990, the Museum of the Revolution of the LSSR employees dried children’s drawings collected from the barricades at the Seimas building in the museum’s halls. Today, these drawings are held in the National Museum of Lithuania. After the Singing Revolution, when Lithuania became independent, the Museum of the Revolution closed in 1991. Photographer Juozas Kazlauskas captured the moment when the sign “The Museum of the Revolution” came off the building’s façade. The building briefly housed the Museum of the State, most of the artefacts went to the storage of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art (LNMA), and the exhibition showed the history of repressions and resistance to the Soviet power. The uniform of Kraujelis-Siaubūnas (“The Monster”), who was presented as a bandit before, was now showcased as an artefact of a partisan who fought for Lithuania’s freedom.

Exhibition of the Museum of the Revolution of the LSSR, Hall XII, Friendship of the Nations
Unknown photographer
Archive of the National Museum of Art

The state gave the building to the LNMA, and from 1993, it houses the National Gallery of Art, which holds exhibitions, shows the collections of folk art and the works of sculptor Vytautas Kašuba who emigrated to the USA during the Second World War. Because of the poor construction quality, in the late 1990s the building went out of use. The head of the gallery Lolita Jablonskienė said that lime from the Lithuanian dolomite façade exposed to precipitation blocked the drainage systems, water came through the skylights, all the steel pipes rusted, and the rest of the infrastructure wore out.

The oppressive post-communist atmosphere slowly cleared. Near the NGA, in Šnipiškės, new high-rise office buildings appeared, and the fast curve of economic growth and foreign investment was called “The Baltic Tigre” in the Western press. After the “well-aired prison cell” opened to the international cultural context, the understanding of culture also changed. In 2002, when creating the concept of 20th – 21st century art exhibition of the NGA, the aim was to make this institution “a place of society’s aesthetic education and personal development, which would reflect a mature contemporary national identity, be open to innovations, and be part of global processes.”

A year later, an architectural competition was announced. One of its terms was keeping the building by Baravykas and Vielius and designing a new annex with exhibition halls, office spaces, and other rooms. The project by the winners, architects Audrius Bučas, Darius Čaplinskas and Gintaras Kuginis, was fully implemented. The original structure of the building stayed, but its architecture got a new robe of the technological age. The rebuilt National Gallery of Art opened in 2009, when Vilnius was a cultural capital of Europe.

The reconstruction project for the NGA building basically adapted the architecture of the Museum of the Revolution, adding a technological-aesthetic annex, thereby reflecting the idea of dialogue between past and future. Like in the 1960s, the architects tried to contextualize the architecture of the newly reconstructed museum in the context of Western equivalents. Sandstone façade volumes and steel constructions, the “screens” of the annex with the gallery’s offices echo the mood of the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, by the architects of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture OMA built in 1992. It is not a copy, but a clear reference to an important value orientation in architecture, much needed in the post-Soviet context.

The double meaning inherent in the architecture of the Museum of the Revolution, created in 1966, has become an important artifact, facilitating a new reading of the practices of architects who worked during the Soviet era under the conditions of finding compromises with the system, as belonging to the international rather than Soviet modernist architectural tradition. The building was partially demolished, preserving only a part of the construction, and was newly fitted out in conformity with the highest climate control standards applicable to museums, “dressing it up” in a new sandstone façade. The retroactive process, incorporating elements of the Soviet-era architecture and combining them with contemporary architecture, proved to be an authentic example of working with the past, constructing an identity based on variety and orientated towards the future. The NGA lobbies and exhibition halls became a clean operating theatre for the critical work with the society’s collective subconscious, haunted by the Soviet past. The ambiguous presence of Soviet-era architecture from the reconstruction of the partly demolished building, and a touch of high-tech aesthetics – these elements make a multi-layered project that gathers cultural controversies prevailing in society.

Text by Jonas Žukauskas

Augmented reality project Beacon of Happiness. 2021.

Link to the app “Beacon of Happiness” in App Store is HERE.

QR code with the link to the app “Beacon of Happiness” in Google Play:


The app contents, design, research, 3D models and texts: Jurga Daubaraitė and Jonas Žukauskas

Programming: Gluk Media, Tomas Klebonas and Kristina Mažeikaitė

The visitors of the National Gallery of Art can download the app on their smart devices, and can see how and why this building was built, and also can virtually visit the Museum of the Revolution that the building housed before, to compare the elements of the current and former exhibitions, and to see what changed and what stayed during the building’s reconstruction.