After World War I, the small central Lithuanian city of Kaunas suddenly and unexpectedly became the de facto capital of a European state. This surprising situation was the result of a dispute over the current capital, Vilnius: the Republic of Lithuania claimed Vilnius as the historic capital of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but Poland also laid claim to it on the grounds of its large Polish-speaking population. After changing hands several times in the years after the Russian Revolution, a coup was staged in 1920 by Polish general Lucjan Żeligowski, creating a short-lived Republic of Central Lithuania, which was soon absorbed into the Polish state. Lithuanian hopes of recovering the city in the near-term seemed distant.

Kaunas, the back-up option, was only ever referred to in official documents as the “temporary capital”. Lithuania never dropped its claim to Vilnius, but the need to construct a seat for the government and administration transformed Kaunas, a previously ramshackle garrison town with a population of around 90,000, into a showcase for the new state. The distinctive and innovative modernist and Art Deco buildings put up throughout that era are receiving increasing attention on the world stage.

A recent travelling exhibition, Architecture of Optimism: the Kaunas Phenomenon 1918-1940, has drawn attention to the explosion of creativity in Kaunas and the accompanying debates on architecture and culture taking place in Lithuania at the time. In the foreword to the accompanying book, architectural historian and Professor at the History Faculty at Vilnius University Marija Drėmaitė describes the transformation that the city underwent in the interwar period as “nothing short of miraculous. Kaunas’ identity changed radically: in less than twenty years, its residents transformed the city into a modern, elegant and European capital. Architecture played a particularly important role in that transformation, which is why its significance endured even after the loss of Lithuanian independence in 1940”.

Optimistic Kaunas, photo: Veronika Sleivyte, 1937. [Image: Kupiskis Museum of Ethnography]

In June 2019, a discussion inspired by the book took place in London on the idea of optimism as an architectural concept. Deep Baltic presents an edited version of two of the presentations that took place then, from Marija Drėmaitė and Kaunas-born academic Eglė Rindzevičiutė, along with some photos from the book.

Marija Drėmaitė: In preparing the exhibition about the modern architecture of Kaunas between 1919 and 1939, the main question was: how to make modernist architecture comprehensible and attractive to the audience?

As researchers, we noticed that Kaunas’s architecture of this period seems to lack a radical social transformation of society, and focuses more on the aesthetics. But also we wanted to present the huge construction boom and ask what was behind it. We relied mostly on the concept of Martin Kohlrausch’s book Races to Modernity about the development of the new Central and Eastern European states in the interwar period. After the collapse of the great European empires in the wake of World War I, new independent states appeared on the European map in 1918. These countries shared an optimistic vision of a more promising future – one based on hopes of self-sufficiency, democracy, prosperity, social equality, social mobility, and technological progress, promised by urbanisation. So these new states became enthusiastic participants in the race to modernise, hoping to keep pace with global trends and become more European. In this context we could present Kaunas as a new capital city that developed during the interwar period where architecture was an important factor in becoming a modern city.

Because we did not want to make an exhibition just about an architectural style (Modernism), we used instead the concept of optimism, which sounds like an architectural style, or a modernist movement among the many that emerged in interwar Europe, but it was not – it’s a state of mind; it’s an outlook, an expression of faith and hope that the outcome of it will be both positive and desirable. And as a curatorial team, we thought that it was a distinguishing characteristic of urban modernisation in these countries. So in the three parts of this exhibition, we present three types of optimism: political, technological and cultural.

The first was political. As the provisional capital of Lithuania from 1919 to 1939, Kaunas became an example of rapid urbanisation and modernisation, and an expression of the values and aspiration inspired by an optimistic belief in an independent future – an attitude shared by many nation-states in interwar Central and Eastern Europe. However, Kaunas took on a unique status – that of provisional capital. And it’s interesting, because the impermanent nature of Kaunas’s official status acted as a dampener, inhibiting progress, because the Kaunas elite felt that investing in the construction in the country’s second city would signify that they were resigning themselves to the loss of Vilnius, the historical capital.

The Bank of Agriculture built in 1935 (architect Karolis Reisonas) housed both the bank and the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry. Such hybrid administrative buildings shared by several state institutions were common in Kaunas in the 1930s. [Image: Lithuanian Central State Archives]

It was interesting to notice that none of the three main state buildings were built during that period in Kaunas – not a presidential palace, not a Parliament, not a Council of Ministers building; they were all located in nineteenth-century buildings, with the hope that the real capital would be constructed in Vilnius, when Vilnius, the historical capital that was lost to Poland because of political tension in 1920, became the capital again. However, people in Kaunas had to construct a city for modern living because they needed housing, schools, places of work, factories. The majority of buildings that were constructed were constructed by Kaunas citizens. So the status of de facto capital gave a chance to get rid of the imperial past and dream about utopian projects for the future.

When we collected all the utopian visions published in the press or in literature, or expressed by famous intellectuals, it was interesting to find out that most of the visions resembled the American metropolis – New York or Chicago. So the urban visual future was America.

Urban modernisation was the goal of many European cities that had recovered their status as capitals or been newly designated as administrative capitals, such as Warsaw, Tallinn and Riga. It can be called functional optimism, because major transformations in these cities, as well as in Kaunas, were connected to engineering infrastructure, the transportation network and the construction of comfortable housing. It all helped Kaunas cast off its previous image as a provincial imperial Russian town, and present itself as a modern metropolis.

Although Europe‘s new countries adopted modernism as the foundation of their new national architecture, they were faced with the dilemma of reconciling modernity with the pursuit of their unique national identity. Creation of national styles based on folk art or historical references therefore became the central component of the urge to balance modernist aspirations with nation-state ideology. As a result, Kaunas saw the gradual proliferation of the Art Deco style, which was seen as both sufficiently modern and receptive to individual stylisation, with multiple examples of the Lithuanian national approach appearing particularly in interior design. However, in the 1930s, one can see the clash between generations, and between traditionalists and modernists. Young architects who came back after graduating from Bauhaus, from Berlin, from Prague, from French cities, they said that Lithuanians do not need to revive folk art, because the contemporary architecture that was being built in Kaunas was the true national art. There were real architectural debates about national modernism.

Kaunas in 1937. [Image: Lithuanian Central State Archives]

Kaunas lost its status as capital in 1939, when Vilnius was given back to Lithuania. After the Second World War and throughout the Soviet occupation, Kaunas‘s heritage of pre-war modernist architecture served as a memory of former statehood and a benchmark for architectural excellence for the Soviet era. We wanted to stress that in the exhibition too – this continuation into the Soviet era, into the modernism of the ’60s, and to emphasise the impact of pre-war modernism.

Today the heritage of pre-war architecture of Kaunas is being kind of ‘rediscovered’: under the banner of “the contemporary capital”, the people of Kaunas have begun to rekindle the memory of the city of modernist architecture – they organise tours, events and building restoration programmes. We can really say that the interwar heritage has become the optimistic foundation of the contemporary identity of Kaunas citizens.

Last year the exhibition travelled to Paris (UNESCO Headquarters), to Rome, Milan, the Estonian National Library in Tallinn, Wrocław Architectural Museum, and to BOZAR in Brussels. For us, the three curators of the exhibition (Giedrė Jankevičiūtė, Vaidas Petrulis and myself), it was very important to test the concept of ‘architecture of optimism’, and it seems that this idea of a shared, common East Central European past was very well accepted. In 2018 there were different discussions, conferences and cultural events discussing this legacy. This exhibition is therefore more than just the story of one city; it speaks to the perpetual birth and collapse of dreams, about creative endeavours, and the appeal of rewarding optimism – and about the migration, locality and commonality of ideas.

The new central post office building, designed by architect Feliksas Vizbaras in 1930, combined modernism and national style. [Image: Lithuanian Central State Archives]

Eglė Rindzevičiutė: First of all, I was really enthused to be asked to come and comment on this absolutely brilliant book. This wonderful book is in English and it is beautifully illustrated. It was an absorbing read: I was born in Kaunas in 1978, but I never realised that my personal life was shaped so profoundly by the architecture of modernism. So I discovered that I grew up not far from the interwar Research Laboratory of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence, which was later turned into the Chemistry Institute. As a child, I spent some considerable time in my father’s office at Kaunas Polytechnic, now Kaunas University of Technology, the main campus of which was built in the 1960s in the Soviet modernist style. I would also go to borrow books from the public library, which was situated in the building of the former Chambers of Trade and Commerce. Then I attended the Kaunas Secondary School of Art, which was nested in the private villa of the former Prime Minister of Lithuania, Juozas Tūbelis. One of our drawing studios was in what had been his dining room.We had our graduation party on the roof as the sun rose over Kaunas. To reach my school, I walked past the beautiful water-pumping station.

Although I am not a proper historian of architecture, I thought I would comment on how special this architectural version of Kaunas was, in the Lithuanian context and in the Eastern European context in general. One way to approach Kaunas’s architecture of the interwar period is to look at it as a very particular articulation of the nation-building project. And it is a very particular articulation, because it departs radically from the dominant cultural idiom at that time. In the early twentieth century, Lithuania was an old state, but a young nation. The question “what is the Lithuanian nation culturally, and in what material forms should it be expressed?” was far from trivial.

One answer was proposed in 1884, by the key nation-builder Jonas Basanavičius, who was looking back at Lithuania’s history. Well, Basanavičius was obviously an optimist – he was a nation-builder, after all – but he was quite pessimistic about the availability of cultural building materials. For Basanavičius, the only resources that the Lithuanian nation and culture could be built from were castle mounds – the medieval heritage. I have detailed this search for the “ethnic Lithuanian” architectural heritage and debates about what would be an appropriate “national museum” in my article “Imagining the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: The Politics and Economics of the Rebuilding of Trakai Castle and the ‘Palace of Sovereigns’ in Vilnius” [in Central Europe, vol.8, no. 2 (2010): 180-202]

Consider an important historical heritage site in Lithuania, Kernavė, the first historical medieval capital. The castles have not survived, because they were built from wood and burnt down, but the mounds survived. One can understand Basanavičius’s thinking: “OK, so we don’t have much in terms of the medieval material architecture, but we have these archaeological sites”. So Basanavičius’s vision of Lithuanian heritage is based on the medieval romanticism, glorifying the countryside, but is at the same time quite pessimistic because the architecture is gone – only cattle are grazing on those mounds. This is just a snapshot, but perhaps it gives some context to the vision of nation-builders in interwar Lithuania’s temporary capital, the capital of a country which has lost its eastern part, together with Vilnius region, to Poland. The architects work with very different materials and they made very interesting choices.

New administrative buildings on Laisvės alėja, the main avenue of Kaunas, in the mid-1930s. [Image: Lithuanian Central State Archives]

When Lithuania lost Vilnius region, it lost some of its most important medieval castles. Just to remind you, Lithuania has remains of the sites of more than 500 castles, which were built to withstand an invasion – Kernavė is one of the most important ones; another important castle is Trakai Castle, but Trakai went to Poland in 1922. Recall the image showed by Marija Dremaite of a poster on the church saying “Without Vilnius we will not calm down.” [Mes be Vilniaus nenurimsim]

Trakai Castle was also part and parcel of the struggle to regain Vilnius. Literature came to hand. In 1894, the prominent Catholic priest and national poet Maironis wrote a poem about Trakai Castle – a very gloomy, pessimistic poem, that relates how the protagonist is in a carriage riding past Trakai Castle, contemplating the decline of Trakai Castle, standing in ruins. On the other hand, Kernavė was still on the territory of Lithuania proper in the 1920s and 1930s. Did the Lithuanian government care about Kernavė at that time? Not much. Equally they did not care about, for example, the country estates.

My hypothesis is that although these structures were archaeologically and historically important, they were not something that could be considered modern. Trakai Castle was a modern castle, because it was built with bricks by Teutonic masons; many other medieval castles did not survive because they were built with wood. The government also looked away from the country house estates, because they stood for the Polish-Lithuanian landowner class and hence were deemed unsuitable for modern nation-building.. There is no space to expand on this more, but I would like to emphasise that the Kaunas architecture as showed in Drėmaitė’s book suggests a very interesting case of modern nation-building that departs from the widely known narrative of East European nationalisms, characterised by conservative values and backward-looking. Indeed, as the interwar Kaunas architecture shows, the available cultural repertoire was not limited to an ethnic and archaeological notion of cultural value. This is not to suggest that ethnic culture was not important – it was – but rather to draw attention to the fact that in interwar optimistic Kaunas, architects worked as if the myth of the golden Middle Ages did not exist, conceiving a new possibility for the future.

New multi-apartment and multi-storey houses changed the streetscapes of previously small-scale two-storey Kaunas. The Chaimsonas family residential building designed by architect Vytautas Landsbergis, 1931. [Image: Centre for Research of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Kaunas University of Technology]

All images taken from the book Architecture of Optimism: the Kaunas Phenomenon 1918-1940 and used with permission

Deep Baltic will also publish a chapter from Architecture of Optimism, looking at futuristic visions of Kaunas in the interwar period

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