Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, is almost unique in Europe. It has about 6,000 modernist buildings. Some are in poor condition, but many are intact. Collectively, they make up a captivating yet haunting assortment, built mainly in the interwar period of the 20th century: art deco apartment blocks and family villas; a huge modernist Catholic church; flat offices, banks and factories.
The city’s modernism reflects a time when Kaunas was changing rapidly. It is an understated, more functional version than Vienna’s, and more conservative than Germany’s. Few buildings are spectacular. But Kaunas is an almost perfect evocation of the mid-20th century. When the makers of Chernobyl, the HBO television series, needed locations to replace 1980s Moscow, they filmed the houses and streets of Kaunas.
The modernist cluster, usually in what is called the New Town, was built quickly and in a spirit of optimism when the partially medieval town was briefly the capital of Lithuania between 1920 and 1940.
“There are a large number of modernist buildings here,” said Vaidas Petrulis, an associate professor of architecture at Kaunas University of Technology. “They started construction around 1922 because of a complex political situation. The country had lost Vilnius and so very quickly needed new functions: housing, institutions, museums – everything.”
Scenes from the HBO TV series ‘Chernobyl’ were filmed in Kaunas, whose streets and houses shaped 1980s Moscow © Sky UK Ltd/HBO
This modernist house was one of them © Martynas Plepys
This year, the city of 300,000 inhabitants is one of the three European Capitals of Culture (with Esch in Luxembourg and Novi Sad in Serbia). It is an opportunity to attract international attention and tourism.
The artistic programmers and curators focus on Kaunas’ wealth of early modernist buildings in the hope of supporting the more fragile buildings and their future. They want to forge ‘an emotional connection’ between architecture and people.
“We want to present the value of modernist architecture to people who are not architects or experts,” said Zilvinas Rinkselis, program coordinator. “It’s experts who like it, and a lot of people think they don’t like it.”
“Some people just see boxes,” says Petrulis. “It is not easy.”
The Modernism for the Future exhibit allows visitors to book accommodation in renovated Art Deco homes, take architectural tours of private homes and restored apartments, and understand how Kaunas’ buildings compare to more celebrated examples around the world.
As part of the festival, visitors can book a stay in a restored house © Martynas Plepys
This can be seen in the Post Office, the city’s grand, modernist centerpiece with a sweeping, wing-like facade – built in 1931 to connect the city with the rest of the world. The architect was Feliksas Vizbaras – not a famous name, but one of a generation of Lithuanians who graduated from architecture schools all over Europe, from Paris to Russia (Kaunas’ own architecture school only opened in 1922).
In Modernism for the Future, 20 artists from around the world have created individual works imagining how to preserve modernist buildings. They spent time wandering the city streets before going to work.
I thought decoration was almost a curse to modernism, but here there is harmony in the shapes
Among them is Shay Silberman, an Israeli artist from Tel Aviv – a city with some of the best preserved examples of Bauhaus architecture. Silberman worked with leftover blueprints of 40 buildings in Kaunas and traced them with digital technology to produce “Outside the Lines,” a stenciled collage sequence he believes represents a new lexicon of modernism.
“Working with architectural blueprints was a way to expand the shapes and forms of the buildings, which I then broke apart with collage,” Silberman says. “I’m not inventing anything. I appropriate what already exists to create a vision, an idea of the city that only exists in the imagination.”
Kaunas, he says, has his idea of what modernism has changed. “Tel Aviv’s modernism is very clean and geometric,” he explains. “But here the geometry is mixed with botanical forms, or the moon or the sun, or forms associated with myths. I thought decoration was almost a curse to modernism, but here there is harmony.”
Some of the buildings he worked with have ornamental details, such as animals and folk motifs. “That’s one of the unique features of modernism in Kaunas and the Baltics,” says Rinkselis. Such differences explain why the curators have attracted international artists: “When you compare yourself with others, you understand what makes you unique in the world.”
A collage by Shay Silberman based on the city’s modernist buildings
A packed program of artistic events will take place in Kaunas throughout the year, including contributions from international artists such as Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic. The celebrations are also part of the city’s drive to secure UNESCO World Heritage status for its modernism.
Kaunas became the temporary capital of Lithuania after the country gained independence from the Russian Empire in 1918. Vilnius was largely occupied by Poles and was not returned until 1939. During that time, Kaunas was developing rapidly, just as modernist architecture flooded Europe. In the Soviet era, some buildings were nationalized and many modernist buildings were reconfigured and damaged, Petrulis says.
Nevertheless, Kaunas still symbolizes the birth of the country, and the buildings of the interwar period are important signifiers of independence – which is why their survival is important.
“If we compare it to the international context, we don’t have icons like Le Corbusier, and we don’t have a clear modernist style or anything very avant-garde,” says Rinkselis. But today Kaunas has recognition – and a possible future as a cultural center.
“Modernism for the Future”, until October 4, Kaunas Central Post Office; Kaunas 2022 has events throughout the year; kaunas2022.eu
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This post From Bauhaus to Kaunas: Lithuania’s Hidden Modernist Architecture
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