From Bauhaus to Kaunas: Lithuania’s Hidden Modernist Architecture

Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, is almost unique in Europe. It has about 6,000 modernist buildings. Some are in poor condition, but many are intact. Together they are an intriguing but haunted collection, mostly built in the interwar period of the 20th century: Art Deco apartment blocks and family mansions; a huge modernist Catholic church; shabby offices, banks and factories.

The modernity of the city reflects a time when Kaunas was changing rapidly. It’s a more reserved, functional version than the Viennese and more conservative than the German. Few buildings are spectacular. But Kaunas is an almost perfect evocation of the mid-20th century. If the makers of Chernobylthe HBO TV series needed locations for 1980s Moscow, they filmed the houses and streets of Kaunas.

The modernist cluster, mainly in the so-called New Town, was built quickly and in an upbeat mood when the partly medieval city was briefly Lithuania’s capital between 1920 and 1940.

“There is a huge number of modernist buildings here,” says Vaidas Petrulis, 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 therefore needed new functions very quickly: housing, institutions, museums – everything.”

Film crew on a street with one member holding a boom mic over a car

Scenes from the HBO TV series Chernobyl were filmed in Kaunas, whose streets and houses embodied 1980s Moscow © Sky UK Ltd/HBO

A modernist house in Kaunas

This modernist house was one of them © Martynas Plepys

The city of 300,000 is one of three European Capitals of Culture this year (with Esch in Luxembourg and Novi Sad in Serbia). It’s a chance to attract international attention and tourism.

The artistic programmers and curators focus on the wealth of early modern buildings in Kaunas, hoping to shore up the more fragile buildings – and their future. They want to create “an emotional connection” between architecture and people.

“We want to bring the value of modernist architecture to people who are not architects or experts,” says program coordinator Zilvinas Rinkselis. “It’s experts who appreciate it, and a lot of people think they don’t like it.”

“Some people only see boxes,” says Petrulis. “It is not easy.”

Visitors can book accommodation in renovated Art Deco houses, take architectural tours of private homes and restored apartments, and through the exhibition understand how Kaunas buildings relate to more famous examples around the world Modern for the future.

Living room of a restored house

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 heart with a sweeping, wing-like facade built in 1931 to connect the city to the rest of the world. Its architect was Feliksas Vizbaras – not a famous name but one of a generation of Lithuanians who graduated from architecture schools across Europe, from Paris to Russia (Kaunas’ own school of architecture did not open until 1922).

in the Modern for the future, 20 artists from all over the world have created individual works imagining how modernist buildings could be preserved. They spent time wandering the city streets before starting work.

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 surviving blueprints of 40 buildings in Kaunas, tracing them with digital technology to produce Outside the Lines, a stencil collage series that he says envisions a new lexicon of modernism.

“Working with architectural designs was a way to expand the shapes and forms of the buildings, which I then broke apart with collages,” says Silberman. “I don’t invent 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 changed its idea of ​​modernity. “Tel Aviv modernism is very clean and geometric,” he explains. “But here geometry mixes with botanical shapes or the moon or the sun or shapes related to myth. I thought decoration was almost a curse for modernity, but there is harmony here.”

Some of the buildings he worked with have decorative details such as animals and folk motifs. “This is one of the unique features of modernism in Kaunas and the Baltic States,” says Rinkselis. Such differences explain why the curators brought in international artists: “When you compare yourself to others, you understand what makes you unique in the world.”

A collage by Shay Silberman based on Kaunas modernist buildings

A collage by Shay Silberman based on the city’s modernist buildings

Kaunas hosts a full program of artistic events throughout the year, including contributions from international artists such as Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic. The celebrations are also part of the city’s bid to secure Unesco World Heritage status for its modernity.

Kaunas became Lithuania’s temporary capital after the country gained independence from the Russian Empire in 1918. Vilnius was mostly occupied by Poles and was not returned until 1939. During this period, Kaunas developed rapidly as modernist architecture conquered Europe. During the Soviet era, some of its buildings were nationalized and many modernist structures were remodeled and damaged, says Petrulis.

Nonetheless, Kaunas still symbolizes the birth of the country, and its interwar buildings are important symbols of independence – which is why their survival is so 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 4th, Kaunas Central Post Office; Kaunas 2022 has events throughout the year;

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Adam Bradshaw

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