Assoc. prof. Jūratė Tutlytė
Usually talks of Kaunas begin with an iconic quotation or a quality most characteristic of the city‘s identity – its location in an exceptional haven of nature, at the juncture of two great Lithuanian rivers, Nemunas and Neris. This is where the history of the city begins, reaching as far back as the Middle Ages. This is where it is today, too.
Surrounded by green slopes, Kaunas underwent transformation from a place with a stone castle to an actual settlement. At first its development was natural, adapting to the conditions of nature. The central market-square (15th century), later turned into a straighter one (16-17th century), then a town of rectangular layout with three chequered squares (19th century) and finally the downtown of today – the Old Town and the New Town, which represent the heart of the city, pulsating with the memories of now and before, as well as the current affairs.
The distinctive architectural and urban character of the city is undoubtedly the result of its unique situation: exceptionally picturesque frame of nature and strategically comfortable geographic location. Kaunas has historically established itself as a city of waterways, currently positioned at the crossing of two significant international transport routes and looking to get back the lost status of the city by the water. The river valleys, slopes and hills keep Kaunas closely bonded with nature, reveal the distinctive silhouettes of urban landscape and panoramic vistas.
Kaunas and its architecture are undoubtedly unique in the context of place and region. First and foremost, the city is centuries old, its historical roots being much deeper than many other European cities. The Kaunas Old Town reflects the history of a medieval city. This Gothic city is adorned by buildings of Northern Renaissance, while its suburbs are a magnificent heritage of Baroque architecture.
The 19th century has left a distinct mark to the formation of Kaunas, as well as a planned, bulk and spatial composition of its own. For a third of the century (1879–1915), the life of Kaunas as the centre of a tsarist Russian governorate was affected by the rules and the needs of a military fortress: the city was given the status of a first class military fortress. All of this created a unique system of fortress equipment and forts in the territory of the city, leaving distinguishing marks of historical architecture in the central part of Kaunas.
However, it is not just the old architecture that is separating Kaunas from other cities. Kaunas is the only city in Lithuania boasting such a rich and unique heritage of the modern interwar architecture. Unlike most European cities, Kaunas has a concentrated exposition of the 1920s-1930s Bauhaus architecture.
The modern traditions of national Lithuanian architecture were forming in Kaunas during the interwar. The features of the architecture were decided by force of historical and political circumstance. In 1920, when Vilnius was occupied by Poland, Kaunas became the capital of the independent Republic of Lithuania and the most important city in the country. This created conditions for the city to quickly develop and transform from a provincial town to a modern European capital in barely two decades, providing meaning to the development of the structure of the city and its expression of national identity, indications of which are observable in the architectural and urban forms of the city.
The development of the city after World War II was inevitably decided by volitional characteristics of Soviet planning, on some occasions including its brutal varieties. In the purlieus of the city which had grown over two times larger in size, a program of mass urbanization was carried out, new living and industrial districts were formed, the main transportation arteries were established, while the river Nemunas served as the+ location for a dam and a hydroelectric power plant, giving birth to Kaunas Sea. In addition to this, the reconstruction of the Old Town was performed, as well as changes to the features of the New Town, such as the significance of Laisvės avenue as a walking avenue and the pivotal part in the composition of the New Town. Such intensive expansion conditioned the consequence of Kaunas acquiring modified forms of city structure and its visual expression – inconsistent, sometimes uneven shape.
After Lithuania restored independence in 1990, in the context of changed social, economic and cultural conditions and the background of the speedy and sometimes reckless development, Kaunas of the last few decades can be characterized by a certain stagnancy. So far it has avoided any major urban changes and has an opportunity to protect itself from hasty mistakes. The established architectural tradition of the pre-war period is provoking the ambitious goals of the Kaunas’ architect community to continue the national architectural traditions by realizing the vision of a harmonious, humanist city by the water. Romantic disposition in the whirlwind of global revolutions is a challenge which has helped to preserve and strengthen old urban traditions, claim back the lost value and open the doors for the potential spatial evolution of Kaunas as the central Lithuanian city.
Historical Kaunas: From the First Traces of a City to the Legacy of Russian Empire
The most important historical, cultural and architectural landmarks today are located in the oldest part of Kaunas, around which the city has gradually formed. Historic marks representing different periods reveal themselves here. These objects are the heritage of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque. Culturally and also visually, a significant part of them is comprised of the early traces of the city.
One of the most important and also initial signs of the city is Kaunas Castle – the progenitor of the city itself. It is the oldest stone castle in Lithuania, standing in the place where a settlement appeared as early as in the 4th or 5th century. In the first half of the 14th century, the complex of a castle with a double enclosure, only one of its kind in Lithuania, was built in Kaunas. When the Crusaders destroyed the castle in 1362 after a three-week siege, a second castle was erected in the Southeastern corner – a stone bastile used for wing defense. It was conserved in the beginning of the 20th century, later partially restored. Today the castle reflects the layout of the second enclosure castle.
The Town Hall (Rotušė) Square demonstrates the dramatic quality changes in Kaunas during the first decade of the 15th century. The city rights were granted to Kaunas between the 14th and 15th centuries. Immediately afterwards, i.e. in the beginning of the 15th century, the plan for the city’s Town Hall (the section of Kaunas Old Town located between the Nemunas river, Daukšos and Raguvos streets’ castle and the junction) was laid out according to the typical medieval Western and Central European cities’ plans with rectangular grid structure. This is a testament to the fact that since its establishment Kaunas has always been a modern city reflecting contemporary urban tendencies. In the beginning of the 15 century, the city became one of the primary transit points for foreign trade in Lithuania. The market-place in Kaunas started receiving goods from near and remote countries. Now 600 years old, the Kaunas Town Hall Square is unique because of its size of 26 000 square meters, which was almost twice the size of the regular town hall squares in Western and Central European cities. Gothic Town Hall, erected in 1562, was rebuilt soon afterwards and acquired elements of Northern Renaissance. However, the current façade of the Town Hall represents an architectural amalgamation of Baroque and early Classicism. The only architectural heritage of the second half of the 16th century remains in the Gothic cellars, the authentic exposure holes in the interior and exterior and the reproduced layout of the plan.
Significant reforms occurred in the city during the period of the Kaunas Governorate (1843 – 1915). For several decades, Kaunas was being developed according to the new plan supported by the tsar of Russia in 1847. A new part of the city was formed, based on the rectangular grid structure and surpassing the old one at least twice. It laid out three of the most important squares and the wider central boulevard (the Nikolai Prospect, currently Laisvės al., or the Freedom Alley) chequerwise; the trolley line stretched out from the Town Hall Square to the railway station. Two-floor stone houses of historical style were built in the New Town, while its current dominant was formed in 1895 – the Neo-Byzantine Garrison Sabor (currently, the St. Michael the Archangel Church). An Orthodox sabor for the army cemented the status of Kaunas as a first class military fortress in one of the most important centres of tsarist Russian Governorate.
The Interwar Period in the Architecture of Kaunas: National Traditions and Modernism
During the interwar period, important architectural transformations ensued in Kaunas. Kaunas turned from a small city of tsarist governorate into a Western city now hailed by the architectural community as the citadel of modernist architecture. The buildings and building complexes of this period were keeping in step with the modernist tendencies in Western Europe. Generally speaking, the identity of the past and the present of Kaunas is decided by the high class architecture of this exact period. It is one of the most significant and interesting periods in the architecture of both Kaunas and Lithuania. Summing up the insights by the architecture historians who analyzed those years in-depth the most, Jolita Kančienė and Nijolė Lukšionytė Tolvaišienė, it is possible to claim that the architecture of the interwar reflected the main global architectural tendencies – from historicism (Neo-Baroque, Neo-Classicism) to distinctive national explorations, rational architectural expressions of functionalism, following in the steps of the most advanced school of Bauhaus. Some of the better examples of retrospectivism and historicism, surviving to this day, are the buildings of the Bank of Lithuania, Kaunas Philharmonic, the Credit Association and the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Vytautas Magnus University.
The Bank of Lithuania (1924–1938) was designed by Lithuanian professor Mykolas Songaila, though it was an unknown architect from Paris that won the international competition for the project of the bank building in 1924. The French architect’s project was deemed too complex and expensive by the commission. The building of the bank of Lithuania, still in a good condition today, is a construction of neoclassicist architecture. Its façade accentuates the dome-covered oval section with Doric entablature, which connects the façades of Donelaičio and Maironio streets. Luxurious bank interiors are decorated with natural and synthetic marble and granite. Especially impressive is the main hall, which is surrounded by a colonnade of synthetic marble. The flat of Augustinas Voldemaras, then the Prime Minister, was located on the third floor of the bank, together with the library, work office and the rooms for official receptions. The roof terrace was decorated by the winter garden.
The building of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Lithuania (currently the Kaunas Philharmonic), designed by Edmundas Alfonsas Frykas in 1930, is a monumental building of spans of reinforced concrete, boasting a unique exterior composition – an angular circular section accentuated by Corinthean columns. Both the façades of the structure and its interiors show distinct features of neo-classicism, matching the elements of Art Deco stylistics in an interesting way: geometric, stylized symbolic compositions and details.
The building of the city theatre (currently Kaunas State Academic Drama Theatre) is an amalgam of many different architectural styles and trends: from eclectics and interwar Neo-Baroque to Art Deco with national explorations. The audience hall is decorated with national motives of tulips, lilies and sunbeams decorated in the style of Art Deco. In 1922, after the reconstruction of the theatre with the consultations of German engineer Hoffman, the project for the technical stage equipment was planned by Dubeneckis and Songaila. Later, in 1930, the theatre reconstruction was continued by Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis and in 1980-1984 by renovators Žalnierius and Staskevičius.
The Kaunas Christ’s Resurrection Church, designed in 1930 by architect Karolis Reisonas and rebuilt in 2004 by architect Algimantas Sprindis, is a local staple of rationalist and functionalist architecture. This place of worship most clearly marks the Lithuanian road to independence in the 20th century, from the first declaration of independence in the early decades of the century to the national rebirth at its end. Turned into a radio factory during the Soviet era and rebuilt just a few years ago, this monumental shrine is possibly the highlight of the Kaunas’ cityscape, as it reveals itself at different locations offering panoramic vistas of the city and has a commanding role in linking visual connections of the city. It is one of the key symbols of Kaunas’ identity, opening up to the city with white, dynamic tower rising upwards. The initial contest of architecture was looked after by the President of Lithuania himself, Antanas Smetona, and was conceived this way: the church was going to be Neo-Gothic, boasting a huge tower decorated with chapel columns and rising above in a whirl, spirally and dynamically, its top crowned by the seven-meter statue of resurrected Christ. The rebuilt Kaunas Christ’s Resurrection Church is faithful to its predecessor – a monumental basilica based on the logic of rationalist architecture and remaining one of the biggest churches in Baltic countries to this day.
The funiculars of Žaliakalnis (built in 1931) and Aleksotas (1935) are unique objects of technical heritage, built in downtown during the interwar and still functioning with their architectural and technological authenticity in tact.
The Architecture of Kaunas: In Between Now and Then
The natural architectural development of Kaunas, and the entire Lithuania as well, was disturbed in the Soviet times. Further evolution of architecture was decided by political, social and economic reforms. Noticeable typification, standardization, poor possibilities and means standardized and uniformed the architectural expression. In spite of all criticism, and a certain sense of irony at times, one must appreciate the attempts that the architects of those days made to create as humane environments as possible, looked for links with natural and urban surroundings, ways to break out of the off-putting standardization and monotony.
Some of the successful examples of Soviet architecture are the still remaining building complexes designed according to the principle of free plan: the ensemble of Vienybės square (architects Valdas Stauskas, Stasys Bartusevičius and Algimantas Sprindys, 1966–1968), the Kalniečiai housing development (arch. Alvydas Steponavičius, A. Miškinienė, A. Krasilnikova, 1974–1985), the Kaunas University of Technology campus (arch. Nina Špikienė, Algirdas Antanas Kulvietis, Kostas Zykus, Jonas Algimantas Zeidotas, Vytautas Dičius, 1964–1972), the expansion of the Kaunas University of Medicine Hospital complex (arch. V. Zabulionis et al, 1972–1982).
There are several buildings of late-Modern architecture standing out with originality: the Kaunas Picture Gallery (arch. L. Gedgaudienė, Jonas Navakas, 1978), the new building of the M.K. Čiurlionis National Art Gallery (arch. Feliksas Vitas, 1968), the Mykolas Žilinskas Art Gallery (arch. Eugenijus Miliūnas, 1981–1983) and funerary house at the Ramybės park (arch. Alfredas Paulauskas, 1975–1978). The Soviet era was also the time when the identity of Laisvės alley as a pedestrian precinct (reconstruction arch. Alfredas Paulauskas, Vanda Paleckienė, 1982).
In the realm of artistic expression, the desire to continue modernist tradition in architecture is noticeable in Kaunas of today. More often than not, the city architects themselves acknowledge having caught the “virus” of purist Dutch or Spanish architecture. However, one can also observe colourful stylistic explorations ranging from minimalist and postmodern to deconstructivist variations.
*More about this topic is available in the article “The European traditions in the architecture of Kaunas” by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Jūratė Tutlytė in the publication “Revelations of Kaunas”, 2009 (Kaunas: VMU).