Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, is close to unique in Europe. It has about 6,000 Modernist buildings. Some are in a poor state, but many are intact. Collectively, they are a compelling yet ghostly assortment, built mostly in the interwar period of the 20th century: Art Deco apartment blocks and family villas; a vast Modernist Catholic church; slabby offices, banks and factories.
The city’s Modernism reflects a time when Kaunas was changing fast. It is a restrained, more functional version than Vienna’s, and more conservative than Germany’s. Few buildings are spectacular. But Kaunas does form an almost perfect evocation of the mid-20th century. When the makers of Chernobyl, the HBO television series, needed locations to stand in for 1980s Moscow, they filmed the homes and streets of Kaunas.
The Modernist cluster, mostly in what is called the New Town, was built at speed and in a spirit of optimism when the partly medieval city was briefly Lithuania’s capital, between 1920 and 1940.
“There are a huge number of Modernist buildings here,” says Vaidas Petrulis, associate professor of architecture at Kaunas University of Technology. “They started construction around 1922 because of a complex political situation. The country had lost Vilnius, and so it needed new functions very quickly: housing, institutions, museums — everything.”
This year, the city of 300,000 people is one of three European Capitals of Culture (with Esch in Luxembourg and Novi Sad in Serbia). It is a chance to attract international attention and tourism.
The artistic programmers and curators are focusing on Kaunas’s wealth of early Modernist buildings in the hope of shoring up its more fragile ones — and their future. They want to forge “an emotional connection” between architecture and people.
“We want to present the value of Modernist architecture to people who are not architects or experts,” says Zilvinas Rinkselis, programme co-ordinator. “It is experts who appreciate it, and many people think they don’t like it.”
“Some people just see boxes,” says Petrulis. “It’s not easy.”
Visitors can book accommodation in renovated Art Deco homes, take architectural tours of private houses and restored apartments, and understand how Kaunas’s buildings relate to more celebrated examples around the world, with the exhibition Modernism for the Future.
That is on display in the post office, the city’s grand, Modernist centrepiece with a sweeping, wing-like facade — built in 1931 to connect the city to the rest of the world. Its architect was Feliksas Vizbaras — not a famous name, but one of a generation of Lithuanians who graduated from architecture schools across Europe, from Paris to Russia (Kaunas’s own architecture school did not open until 1922).
In Modernism for the Future, 20 artists from all over the world have produced individual works that imagine how Modernist buildings might be preserved. They spent time wandering the city’s streets before starting work.
Among them is Shay Silberman, an Israeli artist from Tel Aviv — a city with some of the best-preserved examples of Bauhaus architecture. Silberman worked with surviving blueprints of 40 buildings in Kaunas and retraced them with digital technology to produce “Outside the Lines”, a stencilled collage series that he says imagines a new lexicon of Modernism.
“Working with architecture blueprints was a way to expand the forms and shapes of the buildings, which I then broke apart with collage,” says Silberman. “I’m not inventing anything. I’m appropriating what exists already to create a vision, an idea of the city that exists only in the imagination.”
Kaunas, he says, has changed his idea of what Modernism is. “Tel Aviv Modernism is very clean and geometric,” he explains. “But here geometrics are mixed with botanical forms, or the moon or the sun, or forms that relate to myths. I thought decoration was almost a curse to Modernism, but here there is harmony.”
Some of the buildings he worked with have ornamental details, such as animals and folk motifs. “That’s one of the unique features of Modernism in Kaunas and the Baltic states,” says Rinkselis. Differences like that explain why the curators have brought in international artists: “When you compare yourself with others, then you understand what makes you unique in the world.”
A full programme of artistic events will run in Kaunas all year, including contributions from international artists, such as Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic. The celebrations are also part of the city’s bid to secure Unesco World Heritage status for its Modernism.
Kaunas became Lithuania’s temporary capital after the country gained independence from the Russian empire in 1918. Vilnius was occupied mostly by Poland, and was only returned in 1939. During that time, Kaunas developed rapidly, just as Modernist architecture swept Europe. In the Soviet era, some of its buildings were nationalised and many Modernist structures reconfigured and damaged, says Petrulis.
Nevertheless, Kaunas still symbolises the country’s birth, and its interwar buildings are important signifiers of independence — which is why their survival matters.
“When we compare it with the international context, we don’t have icons like Le Corbusier, and we don’t have a clear Modernist style, or anything very avant-garde,” says Rinkselis. But today, Kaunas does have recognition — and a possible future as a cultural centre.
“Modernism for the Future”, until October 4, Kaunas central post office; Kaunas 2022 has events all year; kaunas2022.eu