Sunday 23 July 2017

Kaunas Modernism Part One

Kaunas has one of the largest collections of modernist buildings in any European city. I first became aware of this a couple of years ago when a friend drew my attention to Kaunas Modernism, an excellent Facebook group concentrating on the inter-war architecture of Lithuania's second city. Last week I spent thee days there, admiring some of the city's best examples of modernism and finding out how there came to be so many of them.  I also managed to find a little time to enjoy some of the city's best cakes!

Until the 1920's this was a relatively small city, characterised by wooden houses and baroque churches. A construction boom during the 1920's and 1930's changed this with many new civic and commercial buildings as well as stylish new apartment blocks. This was because from 1918-1940, Kaunas acted as a temporary capital for Lithuania. Vilnius was under Polish rule during this period and Kaunas needed to acquire the trappings of a national capital. Unfortunately, the new found confidence and period of growth was not to last as invasion by the Soviets (1940) and then German occupation (194-45) preceded incorporation into the Soviet Union. Lithuania did not regain independence until 1990. During the intervening years many outstanding buildings fell into disrepair, were significantly altered or even demolished but a lot survived and this post highlights a few of my favourites from my recent visit.

Central Post Office, 1931.
Laisves Avenue is the main thoroughfare of the New Town. Pedestrianised during Soviet times it is today a tree lined boulevard where people come to shop, stroll, sit outside the many cafes or ride along the green coloured cycle path. It is also the location of four outstanding modernist buildings, two of which were the work of architect Feliksas Vizbaras.

The Central Post Office was built in 1931 and stands at number 102 . Vizbaras combined elements of folk architecture with the principles of modernism including wide modern windows, convex glass on the facade's corners and internal murals depicting Lithuanian postage stamps. The interior also features stained glass with heraldic symbols and figurative compositions. During the Soviet period some of the original stained glass works were removed and replaced with images of zodiac signs. The tiled lobby and main hall floors are also said to make reference to Lithuanian folk art. The facade is especially striking with its mixture of curves, the flat faced clock in the central section and  the squared off towers to each side. Each of these elements rise to different heights.

This is a large building, costly to maintain and heat, which is probably the reason that it has recently been sold. I understand that the new owner is to use it as business premises, the nature of which is not yet known. Vizbaras' Post Office enjoys official protection but it is to be hoped that the new owners respect this and that the public are still able to enter and enjoy it.

Detail, Central Post Office, 1931.
Former Pazanga building, 1934.
Vizbaris' second building here is on the opposite side of the street at number 53 and was completed in 1934. Designed for the Pazanga (progress) publishing company, it was owned by the then ruling National Union Party to produce and distribute books and journals carrying the party's message. The offices of the party newspaper were also here as was a second floor snack bar and restaurant open to the public, accessed by a lift which also took visitors to the roof terrace. A large basement contained a meeting room with natural light admitted through skylights made from glass bricks. 

As with the Post Office, the facade has varying depths and heights and includes references to Lithuanian folk art. The central part features three balconies with decorative metal railings that combine folk art with Art Deco motifs. It is flanked by curved and sectioned windows leading to loggias that run to the extremes of the building. The ground floor has large shop windows reflecting its use as a retail space and mirrors the curved elements of the upper floors. Although in good physical condition, some original features were lost during the Soviet period when those glass skylights were removed and some of the interior spaces partitioned. Today the upper levels are used by the administration section of the Vytautas Magnus University whilst there is a supermarket on the ground floor.

Former Dairy Centre, 1932
Our third stop on Laisves Avenue is next door to the former Pazanga building on the corner of Daukanto Street. Now the School of Economics and Business within Kaunas University of Technology, the former Dairy Centre was the headquarters of Lithuania's milk processing companies. It was designed by Vytautas Landsbergis and built from 1931-32. Occupying a commanding corner position, the exterior is defined by its interactions between vertical and horizontal elements. Each level is marked by uninterrupted panels running the length of the building. The rounded corner has convex glazing descending to the ground floor and main entrance which in turn is shaded by a wide illuminated ledge reminiscent of Parisian department stores. This may have helped it to win the Bronze Medal at the 1937 International Exposition des Arts et des techniques in the French capital. The entire structure is built around a reinforced concrete frame intended to offer the possibility of reshaping the interior if necessary. As with the Pazanga, there was a large basement, this one equipped with an icehouse.

The ground floor originally contained the Dairy Centre shop, a cafe, milk bar and the rather fabulous sounding Muralis men's hairdressing salon which extended over two floors. A few pictures of the salon's interior have survived and show a crisp, functionalist environment with barbers' chairs, large mirrors, screens and wall mounted lighting. The salon was designed by Arnas Funkas - a prominent Lithuanian architect of this period. The administration functions were spread over two floors with apartments at the upper levels - three units to each floor. A number of prominent tenants lived here over the years including Dovas Zaunius, one time Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vince Jonusaite, his opera singer wife. The Dairy Centre was used for various purposes during there Soviet period with the University taking up residence in 1946.

Romuva Cinema, 1940.
During the 1930's, cinema design was heavily influenced by modernist principles. Examples of this can be seen all over the world including in Kaunas. The Romuva cinema is located in a small alley, recessed from Laisves, but still carrying the address of the avenue at number 54. Completed in April 1940, it was the biggest cinema in Lithuania, seating 687 people and benefitting from the most modern technology with mechanical ventilation and state of the art screening equipment. An oval shaped auditorium, special wall coverings and a vaulted reinforced concrete ceiling were included to enhance the acoustics. The decision not to include a circle in the auditorium was taken for the same reason.

The tall glazed advertising tower on the exterior of the cinema was intended to be illuminated with lighting in changing colours. The Second World War had already commenced by the time the cinema was completed and the device needed to provide this lighting feature was held up en route  and so this part of the design was not realised. The main part of the facade is divided by moulded frames and has two rows of different sized windows. The original plan had been to use the upper level for advertising but the windows were installed in order to light the office spaces behind them. A number of changes have been made over the years including moving the ticket office, increasing the slope of the hall and reducing the number of seats to 482. Brothers Antanas and Petras Steikunas, members of the Lithuanian Businessmen's Union commissioned architect Aleksandras Maciulskis  to design their cinema which is still in use today.

Detail, former Daina Cinema, 1940.
Detail, former Daina Cinema, 1940.
There are two modernist cinemas in the Zaliakalnis neighbourhood of the city. Sadly neither of them are being used for their original purpose. The Daina at number 74 Savanoriu is in very poor condition with the main entrance and some of ground floor windows bricked up and the facade covered in grime. Despite this, it is possible to imagine its original grandeur. It still bears the stylised signage carrying the cinema's name, those impressive columns above the entrance and at least a few of the Art Deco style portholes at ground floor level.

Completed in 1936, the Daina could seat 614 viewers across the stalls, balconies and circle. It was designed using the most up to date technology with a roof top ventilation system that blew in fresh heated air as well as extracting stale air. The facade was illuminated by neon tubes which was also technically advanced at the time. Engineer Antanas Breimeris, husband of one of the owners was engaged to design the cinema. When he encountered difficulties he was joined by Stasys Kudokas who was responsible for several Kaunas buildings during this period.

The Daina ceased operating as a cinema after Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, was sold  and used for a time as a carpet shop. It was sold a second time and there were plans to use it as a casino before these were blocked by the municipality. Its future now appears uncertain. A little further along Savanoriu at number 124, a use has been found for the former Pasaka cinema, completed in 1940 and boasting some delightful Art Deco fins on the facade. It is now a "gentleman's club". I suspect not many gentlemen go there.

Resurrection Church, 1933-2006.
The Resurrection  Church is one of Kaunas' most iconic buildings. It has quite a history. Building a new church to commemorate the Lutheran revival was first mooted in 1922 but it was not until 1928, following the purchase of a plot of land on Zaliakalnis Hill, that a competition was held to choose a design. Karolis Reisonas who headed the city's Construction Department was chosen to design the church despite placing only third in the competition. Not only did he not win, but his proposal for an 82 metres high spiral tower with a statue at the summit was rejected on grounds of complexity and cost and a simpler plan adopted. The plan may have been simpler but the resulting church is spectacular. An enormous white structure supported by 1,200 reinforced concrete pillars, it has two towers of differing height, a roof top chapel and can hold more than 5,000 people. For a small fee, visitors may take a lift to the roof terrace and enjoy views across the city.

Most construction took place between 1933 and 1940. Lithuania was first absorbed into the Soviet Union in June 1940 and the church was nationalised. The German occupation came soon after this and during this period it was used as a paper warehouse. The returning Soviets converted it to a radio factory in 1952 but worse was threatened with Stalin demanding demolition of the taller tower and the chapel at one point. It was not until 1990 that the church returned to its original purpose following Lithuanian independence and further construction works continued until 2006.

Resurrection Church 1933-2006.
My final choice for this first of two posts on Kaunas Modernism is the Elias Schneider apartment house on Vaidilutes Street. Designed by Stasys Kudokas, who we came across earlier, it was completed in 1938. The upper levels include two apartments per floor each with three or four rooms. There are three flats in the basement. At time of construction the apartments would have been very desirable - some have more than one bathroom, a number of pantries, balconies and even servants quarters. The asymmetrical facade is a modernist delight with Bauhaus style balconies,  a stone "ladder" on the exterior of the glazed staircase and even Art Deco portholes. The balconies are set within a recessed section of the facade but protrude from the edge of the building, further emphasising the nautical feel suggested by the portholes. The Schneider apartments may be in a poorly maintained side street and the facade could use a good clean but this is still a wonderful example of the confidence and modernity of Kaunas in the pre-war period. 

Schneider apartment building - 1938.
This must have been some city in the 1930's with its many cafes, theatres, cinemas and new sports facilities. Over the last few years, the importance of Kaunas' modernist architecture has been recognised and engaged with due in large part to the efforts of a small number of enthusiasts. This has resulted in an application for World Heritage Status for the city's interwar architecture. If successful, this will bring both opportunities and responsibilities, especially in relation to preservation. Kaunas will be European Capital of Culture in 2022. This will be a great opportunity to showcase the modernist past and to continue the good work being done to promote Kaunas.

The cakes were good too...

I must say thanks to Kkastytis Rudokas for ensuring that I saw some great modernist buildings and also for his Kaunas Modernism Facebook page.

If you wish to read more about the city's 20th and 21st century architecture, the English language version of the book Kaunas Architectural Guide is an excellent guide.

You can see more general pictures of Kaunas here.

1 comment:

  1. Yes indeed... love it. During the 1930s, cinema design was heavily influenced by modernist principles, as were clothes, sports, adverts, books and every other thing. The Romuva cinema is exactly what we would have expected from a large c1938 cinema, modern right down to the screening equipment, air flow, concrete building material and advertising tower.