Thursday 18 August 2022

Kaunas Modernism

Kaunas in Lithuania has been designated European Capital of Culture for 2022, together with Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg and Novi Sad in Serbia. This post which draws on my earlier articles about Kaunas' extensive collection of modernist architecture and appears in the current edition of Spirit of Progress - the magazine of the Art Deco and Modernism Society of Australia.

Until the 1920’s Kaunas was a relatively small city, characterised by wooden houses and baroque churches. A construction boom during the 1920’s and 1930’s changed this and left many new civic and commercial buildings as well as stylish apartment blocks. This was partly due to the city acting as temporary capital for Lithuania from 1918-1940. Today’s capital, Vilnius, was under Polish rule and Kaunas needed to acquire the trappings of a national capital. Unfortunately, this new found confidence and period of growth was not to last as the 1940 Soviet invasion, and then the German occupation of 1941-45, preceded incorporation into the Soviet Union. Independence was not regained until 1990. In the intervening period, many outstanding buildings fell into disrepair, were significantly altered, or even demolished. Despite this, Kaunas has one of the largest collections of modernist buildings in any European city. I first became aware of this about ten years ago and managed to visit the city in 2017. 

Former Post Office, Laisvés 102

Although examples of modernist architecture can be found all over Kaunas, several of them cluster on Laisvės, a tree-lined avenue pedestrianised during the Soviet period and today a place where people come to shop, stroll, sit outside the many cafes or ride along the green coloured cycle path. The former Central Post Office at Laisvės 102, was built in 1931. Feliksas Vizbaras’ design combined elements of folk architecture with the principles of modernism, including wide modern windows, convex glass on the façade’s corners and internal murals depicting Lithuanian postage stamps. The interior also features stained glass with heraldic symbols and figurative compositions. During the Soviet occupation, some of the original stained-glass works were removed and replaced with images of zodiac signs. The tiled lobby and main hall floors also reference folk art. The façade features curves, a flat faced clock in the central section and squared off towers to each side. Each of these elements rise to different heights. The building currently stands empty. Discussions have been held about using it for a museum of architecture but no date has been set for this.

Laisvés 53


Laisvės 53 is another Vizbaris designed building, designed for the Pažanga (progress) publishing company and was completed in 1934. It was owned by the then ruling National Union Party who produced their newspaper, books and journals here. It also had a second-floor snack bar and restaurant open to the public, accessed by a lift and a roof terrace. The upper floors were accessed by a lift and the large basement contained a meeting room with natural light from skylights made from glass bricks.


As with the Post Office, the façade has varying depths and heights. 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 running the length 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. Some original features have been lost, including the skylights. In 2017, the upper levels were occupied by Vytautas Magnus University, but today the building is unoccupied.


Vizbaris was born in 1880 and is known to have lived in Ukraine from 1909-1918 where he worked as a construction engineer and an architect. From 1922-25 he headed the construction department of the Kaunas municipality. He later worked on the extension of the port of Klaipėda before emigrating to Germany in 1944.

Former headquarters of milk processing company, Laisves


The building next door to Pažanga was the former headquarters of Lithuania’s milk processing company. It was designed by Vytautas Landsbergis and built from 1931-32. 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 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. As with the Pažanga building, there was a large basement, this one equipped with an icehouse. 


The ground floor originally contained the Dairy Centre shop, a café, 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 barber’s chairs, large mirrors, screens and wall mounted lighting. The salon was designed by Arnas Funkas, a prominent architect of the period. The administration functions were spread over two floors with apartments at upper levels – three units to each floor. Several prominent people lived here, including Dovas Zaunius, one time Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vincė Jonušaitė, his opera singer wife.  


Romuva Cinema, Laisves 54

During the 1930’s cinema design was heavily influenced by modernism. The Romuva cinema at Laisvės 54 was completed in April 1940. At the time, it was the biggest cinema in Lithuania, seating 687 people and benefitted from the most modern technology including mechanical ventilation and state of the art screen equipment. An oval shaped auditorium, special wall coverings and a vaulted reinforced concrete ceiling were included to enhance the acoustics. A circle was omitted from the auditorium for the same reason.


The tall, glazed tower on the exterior of the cinema was intended to be illuminated in changing colours. The Second World War had already commenced by the time construction was completed and the device needed to provide this feature was held up en-route and so this design element was not realised. The main part of the façade is divided by moulded frames and has two rows of different sized windows. The original plan was to use the upper level for advertising, but instead, windows were installed to light the office spaces. Numerous changes have been made to the original structure including moving the ticket office, increasing the slope of the hall and reducing the number of seats to 482. 


Brothers Antanas and Petras Steikūnas, members of the Lithuanian Businessmen’s Union commissioned architect Aleksandras Mačiulskis to design their cinema which is still in use today. Kaunas’ other modernist cinemas have not fared so well. The former Daina cinema at Savanoriu 74 is in very poor condition. When I visited the main entrance was bricked up and the façade covered in grime. It was operating as a “gentleman’s club” and scowling security staff stood guard at the entrance. 


Resurrection Church,  Žaliakalnis Hill

The Resurrection Church on Žaliakalnis Hill is one of Kaunas' best known buildings. In 1928, a competition was held to design a new church to commemorate the Lutheran revival. The entry from Karolis Reisonas, head of the city’s construction department, was chosen, despite his only placing third in the competition. His original proposal included an 82 metres high spiral tower with a statue at the summit, but was rejected on grounds of complexity and cost, and a simpler plan adopted. The church is an imposing white structure, supported by 1,200 reinforced concrete pillars. It has 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. The church was nationalised after Lithuania’s incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 and during the German occupation it was used as a paper warehouse. The returning Soviets converted it to a radio factory in 1952, but worse was to come. Stalin demanded demolition of the taller tower and chapel – fortunately this was not followed through. It was not until 1990 that the church returned to its original purpose following Lithuania’s regaining independence.

Jonas Jablonski Primary School, Ausros and Žemaičiu streets


The Jonas Jablonski Primary School is opposite the Resurrection Church on the corner of Ausros and Žemaičiu streets. 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. It was also the first school in Lithuania to have a swimming pool. 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. There was also a large canteen and a private apartment for the head teacher.


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 façade is interrupted by a series of wide, red framed windows, contrasting with the blank rear wall of the auditorium. New sections were added during the Soviet period. Today the building is known as the Jonas Jablonski Gymnasium, serving an older age group than the original primary school which was completed in 1932 and designed by architect Antanas Jokimas.

Donelaičio 63


The once elegant apartment building at 63 Donelaičio Street looks a little faded today. It was built in 1932, to the designs of Jewish architect, Geršonas Davidavičius, 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 had a successful construction business.


The symmetrical main façade is animated by rounded corner windows, 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. Each floor originally 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 in the building.


Davidavičius, 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 emigrating again, this time to Canada in 1959.

A programme of events has been designed to celebrate Kaunas' European Capital of Culture status, offering visitors from all over the world the chance to discover and enjoy the city's busy cultural life and architectural heritage.  Visitors may wish to obtain a copy go the superb book, “Kaunas Architectural Guide” edited by Julia Reklaitė, published in 2017 by Architektūros Fondas, which includes many outstanding modernist buildings. 


I would like to note my thanks to Kastytis Rudokas for his help, support and advice in 2017 and with this article.