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The Modernist Architecture of Kaunas: A Step Closer to UNESCO
 

The Modernist Architecture of Kaunas: A Step Closer to UNESCO

During the period 1918 to 1940, Lithuania was one of the newly restored states that had formed in Central and Eastern Europe on a national-territorial basis after the First World War. Vilnius, its historic capital, had been lost in 1919, and Kaunas became the new capital city. Formerly a modest Imperial Russian garrison town, it suddenly acquired a new importance on the map of Europe. Its status as capital provided an impulse to accelerate its integration into the political, social and cultural context of interwar Europe, through material and non-material forms, such as architecture, diplomacy, culture and education.

During a short but very intense period, Kaunas lived through the most important phase in its historical development. The years from 1919 to 1939 were a time of revolutionary cultural breakthroughs for Kaunas, which was especially evident in architecture. Its status as a capital city provoked a huge construction boom, aiming to create all the necessary infrastructure: government institutions, museums, educational institutions (a university, academies and schools), business offices, hotels, industrial premises, housing, and the general infrastructure of the city (water supplies, the sewerage system, a new transport system, roads and parks). The architectural landscape of multicultural Kaunas was enriched by the buildings of various ethnic communities, such as churches, banks and schools, with distinctive forms of expression (in 1937 the population of the city was 61% Lithuanian, 25.5% Jewish, 3.9% Polish, 3.3% German, and 3.3% Russian). In 1938, it attracted 68% of all Lithuanian investment in the construction of towns and cities. The area of the city expanded more than seven times (from 557 hectares in 1919 to 3,940 hectares in 1939). More than 6,000 buildings from this period have survived till today.

 

For political and economic reasons, the main construction work in Kaunas lasted less than two decades. The most intense period of construction was from 1927 to 1940. This corresponds with huge changes in architecture. In the 1930s, in a very short period of time, Modernism became the international style. The revolutionary seeds sown by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and other world-class architects and schools of architecture, found fertile soil in thousands of places all around the world. Modernism is expressed in different local architectural languages. The urban and architectural development of Kaunas during the 1930s is one the most significant manifestations of the early stage of the Modern Movement, where the style is represented not as a distinct urban and architectural monument, but as a place inspired by the Modern Movement.

The limited financial means of this small East European state predetermined not the revolutionary but the evolutionary character of its architectural and urban development. The need for a public face for the capital, and the inspiration of the modern world (cleanliness, hygiene and social infrastructure), in Kaunas correspond with the delicate scale, the careful adaptation of the 19th-century urban grid, and the creative use of the natural environment (for example, one of the most distinctive urban features of Kaunas is the Resurrection Church, which was constructed at the top of the slope surrounding the city, as if illustrating the concept of Stadtkrone, the City Crown, formulated by the renowned German architect Bruno Taut). Therefore, Kaunas can be characterised by its small scale and disparateness, rather than by clear functional zones, by the consistent development of the townscape, rather than by dramatic restructuring, and by the development of the local character and topographical elements, rather than by a clearly recognisable Bauhaus architectural look (Functionalism).

The generation of architects who were educated in Western Europe, and graduates of the University of Lithuania (Vytautas Magnus University from 1930), brought international ideas, but they expressed them in a different way compared to the classic concepts of “heroic modernism”. The architectural style of Kaunas reflects various stylistic tendencies of the interwar period, and expresses a general tendency towards the steady evolution from Eclecticism to Modernism. This architecture was defined accurately by Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis, one of the most famous architects of the period, as “a classical rhythm of monumental construction in a modern form”. However, the intimate scale and the organic incorporation of elements of national art ensure the distinctive local architectural character of these buildings.

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