Sunday 27 August 2017

Kaunas Modernism Part Two

Kaunas has one of the largest collections of interwar modernist architecture in Europe. In recent years, serious attention has been given to preserving this important element of the city's built heritage. The excellent Facebook page Kaunas Modernism has played a major part in this work whilst the city's status as European Capital of Culture in 2022 offers a great opportunity to promote these treasures to a wider  international audience. I have already written about some of Kaunas' best examples of modernist architecture, but the depth and richness of the style there is so great that I can't resist a second post on this subject!

63 Donelaicio Street, Gersonas Davidavicius, 1932.
The once elegant apartment building at 63 Donelaicio Street looks a little faded today. Completed in 1932 it was designed by the Jewish architect Gersonas Davidavicius, who was responsible for designing several residences in Lithuania. The block was commissioned by the brothers Dovydas and Gedalis Ilgovskis  who were also Jewish and who had a successful construction business.

The symmetrical main facade is animated by the rounded corner windows on the avant-corps at each side, a long central balcony at first floor level and two smaller balconies with metal railings at the next level up. Towards the summit there is a decorative cornice topped by a parapet. Originally, each floor contained two apartments with corridors separating private and common areas. The apartments contained built-in wardrobes as well as servants quarters located beside a rear staircase. It is believed that the Ilgovskis brothers maintained a construction office here.

Davidavicius, who was also known as Gerson Davids, escaped the fate of most Lithuanian Jews by leaving for South Africa in 1935. Shortly after arriving he had a serious accident that resulted in the loss of an eye but he continued working and designed several residential and commercial buildings before again emigrating, this time to Canada in 1959.

Chamber of Agriculture, Karolis Reisonas, 1931.
The Chamber of Agriculture stands a little further along Donelaicio at number 2. Karolis Reisonas a prolific modernist architect began work on the design in 1929 and construction was completed in 1931. In pre-war Lithuania, the Chamber was responsible for co-ordinating national agricultural developments and for the general education of agricultural workers including the promotion of traditional crafts.

The building has a long imposing facade behind which stands one wing of this L-shaped structure. The facade itself features elegant glazing and is topped by a parapet which carries the words Chamber of Agriculture in stylised lettering. A rounded turning point links the eastern wing, which with its stepped, tapering profile is a photographer's dream. There are also small references to the Art Deco style with symbolic reliefs of ears of corn in the entrance. As well as the offices of the Chamber of Agriculture, there was originally a student canteen in the basement. During the Soviet period the building was confiscated and used by the Lenin District Committee of the Communist Party of Lithuania. It was restored to its original purpose in 1991.

Chamber of Agriculture, side view.
The Pacevicius Villa is located on Vyduno Avenue, outside of the city centre and close to the Kaunas University of Technology. Designed by Vsevolod Kopylov this single storey home was completed in 1934. Kopylov was inspired by the work of Mies van Der Rohe, one of the leading exponents of modernist architecture. The facade is a simple asymmetrical design with a central entrance and large window to the sides, each of which have stucco surrounds. The house is fronted with a neat fence topped by a pergola. The interior is small with three rooms and a total volume of just 35 cubic metres. Small can be beautiful and in 1935, the owner, Ceslovas Pacevicius won a prize for possessing "the most beautiful and comfortable brick house".

Pacevicius Villa, Vsevolod Kopylov, 1934.
The former Butas Company apartment building at 5 Traku Street was completed in 1932. Butas was one of a number of co-operatives formed in the 1930s most of which drew their membership from a single profession. The company was established by senior members of the Supreme Tribunal of Lithuania, one of whom, Antanas Krisciukaitis was not only a legal professional but also a writer and the father of Jonas and Kazys, construction engineers who were also residents here. Jonas was responsible for the design of the building.

The building consists of nine standardised apartments with two extra, smaller units on the ground floor to accommodate service staff who entered through a door at the rear. The block also included offices to allow the lawyers living there to receive clients without having to bring them into their private apartments. The design allowed for the strict separation of public, private and domestic zones. The facade is symmetrical with a series of neat balconies, avant-corps and a spectacular glazed stairwell that runs the full height of the building.

Butas Company apartment building, Jonas Kriskiukaitis, 1932.
During the 1920's the Zaliakalnis neighbourhood of Kaunas began to see an increase in population. As a result of this, the Municipal Development Plan incorporated plans for a new primary school and in 1924 Feliksas Vizbaras was commissioned to carry out the design work. Unfortunately, his proposals were never realised due to a change in the economic situation and it was not until 1932 that the new school was built to a different design produced by Antanas Jokimas. 

The Jonas Jablonski Primary School was built on the corner of Ausros and Zemaiciu streets in what became a prestigious location due to the Resurrection Church being built on the opposite side of the road. Both the architectural design and the philosophy of the school were extremely modern. It was the first school in Lithuania to make use of functional zoning with the sports hall and auditorium located in an inner yard away from the classrooms. There was also a small swimming pool, the first in the country. Thought was given to the employment prospects of pupils and four handicraft classrooms were used to help children acquire skills for working in the craft industries and for managing their future households. The inclusion of these specialist rooms may also have been part of a general commitment to preserving traditional Lithuanian crafts. In addition to the classrooms and sports facilities, there was also a large canteen and a private apartment for the head teacher.

Occupying a corner site, the school has an asymmetrical, rectangular configuration with one wing substantially longer than the other. The main junction has a stepped projecting turret - emphasising the corner location - as well as a small balcony above the main entrance which acts as a canopy. The facade is interrupted by a series of wide, red framed windows contrasting with the rear wall of the auditorium which is blank. New sections were added during Soviet times and today the building is known as the Jonas Jablonksis Gymnasium, serving an older age range than the former Primary School.

Former Jonas Jablonksi primary school, Antanas Jokimas, 1932.
My final choice for this post is the Kaunas District Municipality which stands on the junction of Laisves and Vytauto avenues. Designed by Vytautas Landsbergis, it was completed in 1933 and originally housed two institutions - the Municipality and the State Security Department. The corner location and the need to accommodate two organisations impacted on the design.

The Laisves Avenue wing housed the municipal institutions whilst the State Security Department was accommodated on the Vytauto Avenue side. The architectural style has been described as "strict and solid", emphasising the functions of the building. The construction consists of a reinforced concrete frame and steel stilts sitting on granite slab foundations. The central masses of each wing are partitioned vertically with horizontal shifts, banded ledges and recessed windows. The interior is divided by a series of hallways and there are spacious staircases in the centre of each wing. There are rotating doors at the main entrances. As with many structures from the 1930's, provision was made for key workers and a two-storey garage at the rear also included apartments for drivers as well as a small printing press.

This striking building has a dark history. The detention cells in the basement of the former State Security Department were used to torture and kill prisoners during both the German and Soviet occupations and in 1940 the NKVD carried out executions in the garage. Today the building is used exclusively at the Kaunas District Police head quarters.

Former Kaunas District Municipality, Vytautas Landsbergis, 1933.
Kaunas has hundreds of modernist buildings from the inter-war period when it was the temporary capital of Lithuania. An application has been made to UNESCO to secure World Heritage Status for them. It is only possible to highlight a few examples here and visiting Kaunas is recommended to see the others for yourself!  

A few more treasures from Kaunas...

Apartment building, Laisves Avenue, built 1933, architect not known
Door, Karininku Ramove Officers Club, Anatoljus Rozenbliumas, 1937
Stairwell "ladders", street behind Laisves Avenue, details unknown

You can see more pictures of Kaunas here.

Monday 21 August 2017

Frantisek Zelenka - Tragic Czech Modernist

The Zadak Home, Na Baba Estate, Prague.
During the 1930's a number of housing estates were built in the modernist style with the principles of smooth lines, use of modern materials and a healthier way of life incorporated into the design. Several of these schemes were for social housing but the Baba Housing Estate in suburban Prague built from 1932-34 was a private affair attracting industrialists, artists and publishers. The homes were designed by leading Czech modernists including Frantisek Zelenka a Jewish architect who was responsible for the house of Jan Zadak on Na Ostrohu street.

Zelenka was multi-talented and in addition to architecture was also an accomplished author, graphic artist, stage and costume designer. Born in 1904, he studied architecture in Prague from 1923-28 and then from 1929 to 1932, worked as the main set designer for the avant-garde Liberated Theatre. This included designing sets for productions ranging from Shakespeare to contemporary satire. Combining Surrealist, Dada and Bauhaus elements into his work he quickly become one of the most influential set designers in the country. 

In 1934, Jan Zadak, industrialist, sports enthusiast and former member of the Czechoslovakian national football team commissioned Zelenka to design a home for him on the developing Baba Estate. In response, the architect created a simple structure of exterior brick walls and concrete pillars. The ground floor interior consists of a single living space whilst the upper level has three bedrooms at the rear with sanitary and circulation spaces located on the street facing northern facade. These latter spaces are lit by narrow strip windows reflecting traditional Czech style within an overall modernist design. The southern facade has views over the city - Na Baba is built on a hill - and the windows on this side originally had folding wooden blinds, a feature often seen in the more functionalist approach to modernism. This side also has a narrow terrace attached to the main living room with a staircase leading down to the garden, reflecting a key modernist theme of unifying interior and exterior spaces. There is also a small curved balcony on the side of the house, which together with the porthole window and canopy over the main entrance  is one of a small number of concessions to external decoration. The house led to further commissions for Zelenka and two of his buildings still survive in central Prague - an apartment block at Lodecka 3 and a former bookshop on Narodni Street. 

In 1938, conscious of the developing political situation in Europe, Zelenka considered emigrating to Switzerland  but decided to remain in Czechoslovakia, a decision that was to prove fateful when Germany occupied the country in 1939. For a time, he was forced to work as a cataloguer in the German run Central Jewish Museum in Prague. The Museum consisted of thousands of objects stolen from the murdered Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia and which were intended for display in a planned Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race. In 1942, during the occupation, he was deported to Terezin where he took part in the cultural life of the camp, overseeing the theatre. Between  July 1942 and October 1944, despite having little access to materials, he designed sets and costumes for 27 productions including Hans Krasa's children's opera Brundibar and Viktor Ullman's The Emperor of Atlantis. He was deported to Auschwitz on October 9th 1944 and it is almost certain that he was gassed on arrival as were his wife Gertrude and eight years old son, Martin. 

An edited version of this post will appear in the next edition of Jewish Renaissance - a magazine focusing on Jewish Culture and which is currently featuring a series on Jewish modernist architects of the 1930's.

You can see more pictures of Prague here.