'Romuva', at the time a garrison cinema; from Kauener Zeitung newspaper; October 25th, 1941.
Article by Paulius Tautvydas Laurinaitis
At the beginning of the 20st century, when cinema had already begun it’s spread throughout Europe and America, movie theatres became centres of city entertainment: for it’s low prices and visual nature, the so-called cinematographer was available and comprehensible to almost everyone. For this reason, the film industry had survived the great economic crisis of the 30s escaping any big losses: for poor people it remained the only break from all the miseries of those hard times. No wonder why the competition among the cinema theatres was so great: theatres in the city centres would compete as to which of them could come up with more luxurious building, larger auditoriums or more contemporary architecture, whereas in the districts of the working class, these buildings were usually regarded as the most distinct buildings, surpassed only by local churches.
In the temporary capital of Lithuania this phenomenon was also present, though, on a much smaller scale, like the majority of other cultural processes of that time. Observing the development of cinema theatres in the interwar Kaunas from an architectural point of view, we may distinguish three periods. When the capital of our young nation was shifted to Kaunas, we faced many problems since this marginal city of the former Russian Empire was lagging behind and was not suitable to be the centre of a European country. The problems arose not only because the capital did not have enough space for living and commercial needs, which raised the so-called flat crisis. It was also because the city lacked buildings which could function as official premises for state administration organs. This shortage of free space, difficult economic situation and the overall lagging behind were the reasons why cinema theatres in the early years of independence were located in unsuitable buildings and worked in anti-sanitary or even dangerous conditions.
The 2nd period is related with improving economic situation as well as growing popularity of cinema business; here, stricter regulations for cinema theatres played the part. In 1925-1935 the first buildings designed specifically for cinema theatres were built: newly built “Odeon” (now turned into Kaunas Puppet Theatre) as well as “Saturn”, situated in a reconstructed former factory in Šančiai, which was distinguished by a historical architectural stylistics, which was quite popular at that time.
Kaunas Puppet Theatre; picture by autc.lt
These buildings reflected an attempt to make cinema theatres more representational, although, still, their exterior did not look cinema-like. Correspondingly in 1928 and 1930, in Laisvės alėja, two cinema theatres opened their doors, i.e. “Metropolitan” and “Forum”. They had become not only the most luxurious theatres at that time but also, practically, the only ones designed according to the examples of zigzag moderne, which is strongly related to art deco style famous in the US at that time. The essence of Art deco lay not only in strict geometrical forms but also in highlighting technological development, thus, no wonder why this style reached Lithuania via cinema theatres: this is the phenomenon which symbolized the century’s spirit of technological evolution.
‘Metropolitain’ cinema; from the book ‘Kaunas State Drama Teatre – 90: 1920-2010’
Unfortunately, none of these exceptional buildings has reached our days in their authentic form: “Metropolitain” was reconstructed into Kaunas Drama Theatre during the soviet times, while the facade of “Forum” (later “Laisvė”) was drastically changed when modernizing it. A few minor cinema theatres had also emerged during this period, though they were not distinguished in any architectural aspect.
The third period, starting from the 30s, may becalled the golden age of cinema theatre buildings. Although Lithuania did not suffer much from the world economic crisis, it’s suppression in the region marks the most advanced period in the nation’s history, during which the temporary capital experienced the main boom of modern architecture. Improving financial situation of the citizens allowed them to visit cinema theatres more often and this increased demand caused the emergence of new film theatres.
The first theatre of modernistic architecture showed up in the city landscape in 1936. “Daina” was designed by Stasys Kudokas and located in Žaliakalnis. It is interesting, that the same project served when building a theatre in Šiauliai, which was later successfully turned into a drama theatre. In 1940, the city’s cultural life was improved by building three large, extraordinary cinema theatres, which used to race with one another in terms of architecture, progress in technology, spacious auditoriums as well as quality of ventilation systems.
“Aušra“, which represented Kaunas modernistic architecture and perfectly merged with the populated “cloth” of Žaliakalnis, was advertised as the largest theatre in Kaunas of that time and appealed to national feelings with it’s interior decorated with traditional Lithuanian forms.
“Pasaka” (now a club “Nautilus”) could be called a representative of streamline moderne, a variety of art deco in the 1930s and a perfect example of the architecture of the 30s. This style was notable for aerodynamic forms and lack of decor, which reflected changes in “the face” of art deco after the world crisis. A cinema theatre of similar architecture was planned to be built in Šančiai but these plans were ruined by the occupation.
‘Pasaka’ cinema during the Soviet occupation. Picture by S. Lukošius (1956); from the archives of autc.lt.
The only cinema theatre which managed to retain it’s function till this day is “Romuva”, which is a representative of more conservative architecture of cinema theatres in central Europe. And still, the theatre’s little glass tower accentuated it’s function and the quality of the services provided, which corresponded to the modern spirit of those times.
‘Romuva’ drawing from Lietuvos Aidas newspaper, April 18th, 1940
The majority of cinema theatres in the late inter-war period were quite distinct from other buildings shaped by Kaunas modernism, reflecting not the architectural fashion but the new important kind of buildings and characteristic stylistic fashions. Therefore, distinctness was one of the features that helped the theatres in this fierce competition and now makes those theatres stand out and become important landmarks in the city context.