The upheavals of the 20th century have left an indelible mark on Lithuania’s second city. But as Kaunas becomes the European Capital of Culture for 2022, it is shrugging off the effects of a restrictive Soviet past to reveal the heritage of its liberating architecture. We head to Freedom Avenue to explore the places that make the country’s old capital unique.
Kaunas rarely receives international attention. While its wide boulevards dotted with baroque spires and Soviet housing blocks offer impressive views to visitors, Lithuania’s second city has remained off the tourist trail for most of its history. But this could be about to change. Kaunas has been named European Capital of Culture for 2022 – and it’s taking the title seriously. When Lithuania separated from Russia in 1918, Kaunas served as the newly independent country’s capital. Architecture was key in transforming this provincial city into an elegant European centre. And it was in this brief period that great swathes of Kaunas were built in a boxy Lithuanian version of modernism. “It’s a big mixture of interpretations,” says architectural historian Vaidas Petrulis, who helped to prepare the city’s bid for the Capital of Culture title. “It’s not quite Bauhaus or art deco. There are influences from Italy, Germany, Belgium and other places too. And instead of looking for a vanguard, Kaunas’s modernism retains local traditions and a national style.”
These buildings, from social housing to museums and government offices, became important symbols of renewal as the city rid itself of its imperial past. The most impressive edifice is the colossal Christ’s Resurrection Church. High on a hill just outside the centre of the city, this vast white structure with a 70 metre-tall bell tower looms over Kaunas. “As a visual symbol, the church is very important for the city,” says Petrulis. “It’s a monument to independence.” Architect Karolis Reisonas’s final design for the church, accessible by a funicular railway that chugs slowly up the hill, was approved in the early 1930s. When dwindling funds caused its construction to stall a few years later, some of the city’s residents were so keen to keep the project going that they organised various large-scale fundraising efforts. A donation booth was set up at the construction site and potential supporters were given the opportunity to purchase a brick that would be set in the church walls. Eventually, more than half of the construction costs were covered by private donations.
In 2015 a European Heritage Label was awarded to parts of the city built between 1919 and 1940. And since winning the title of Capital of Culture, a committee has been set up to curate a programme celebrating Kaunas’s architectural history. “We have about 6,000 buildings in the city from the interwar period,” says Zilvinas Rinkselis, co-ordinator of the Modernism for the Future programme. “But a large proportion of these are residential housing, so it’s important for us to work closely with communities. We want to focus on people’s emotional attachment to these buildings.”
To achieve this, the programme is putting visitors in touch with people living in (or who once lived in) some of the city’s historic buildings so that they can hear their stories first-hand. One couple taking part in the scheme is Petra Gaidamavicius and Karolis Banys, who in 2017 bought an apartment in a block from 1929 and who have painstakingly returned it to its former grandeur. From tracking down the Czech factory that made the original bathroom tiles to filling the flat with the exact pot plants that were popular at the time – “The palm tree doesn’t love the weather here,” says Banys – the duo have done everything to ensure that the apartment is faithfully restored. And they haven’t stopped there; the couple persuaded their neighbours to get together to fund the repair of the building’s stately façade and stained-glass windows.
Banys and Gaidamavicius are also in the process of restoring a nearby apartment that was used as a set in the television series Chernobyl. The hbo hit is just one of a string of high-profile international productions that have been shot in the city. Shows shot in Kaunas over the past few years include Catherine the Great, starring Helen Mirren, and the bbc’s Rise of the Nazis. “It’s such a cinematic city,” says producer Lineta Miseikyte, who helped set up the Kaunas Film Office. “Location scouts fall in love with Kaunas and its architecture.” For them the city’s draw goes far beyond the interwar period. There are ancient fortresses, castles and baroque monasteries on the city’s fringes as well as a perfectly preserved medieval Old Town in the centre.
The Soviet occupation that started during the Second World War and lasted until 1990 also vastly changed the architectural make-up of the city. When the Iron Curtain descended in 1940, many of the country’s most influential architects fled to the West. Those who stayed were considered part of the intellectual elite and therefore a potential threat to the Soviet regime. They were relegated to lowly positions within government bodies, fated never to design another building. In the early years of the occupation, efforts were focused on building housing for workers on the city’s industrial outskirts. These took the form of unornamented, highly functional blocks in the style of socialist realism. Stalin’s death in 1953, however, saw a general thawing of rigid aesthetic restrictions, allowing architects more freedom to design interesting and characterful buildings. Examples of this shift towards more expressive architecture include the modular Kaunas Picture Gallery and sleekly geometric Vytautas Magnus University. The city’s grand interwar architecture was, however, considered by Soviets to be a symbol of Kaunas’s distasteful bourgeois aspirations. In an effort to dampen its grandeur, the majestic Christ’s Resurrection Church was repurposed as a television and radio set factory.
Today the city’s central artery, Laisves Aleja, presents Kaunas’ history in microcosm. The tree-lined boulevard stretches from a domed neo-baroque church built under Russian Tsarist rule, past some of the finest examples of early modernist architecture, including cafés, pharmacies and bookshops with perfectly preserved Soviet-era interiors. When the country became part of the Eastern Bloc, the street was renamed Stalin Avenue. Following Lithuanian independence, however, its original name was restored; fittingly, it translates as Freedom Avenue. More than 30 years on, as the ever-evolving city once again enters a new chapter as the European Capital of Culture, the bright future to which Kaunas’s architects throughout the ages have aspired seems closer than ever.