In Vileišio Square, behind the railway bridge, across the Nemunas in Freda, Vilijampolė, Ąžuolynas – did you know that what is now officially called the Hospital of Lithuanian University of Health Sciences Kaunas Clinics could have emerged in any of the aforementioned places?
In the mid-1930s there was finally a rush to build a large modern hospital, which was first spoken of in 1919. Everything related to this has been discussed in society and offices for a relatively long time. The clinics were opened in 1940, although Professor Vladas Lašas, who had the position of the dean of the Faculty of Medicine of Vytautas Magnus University from 1924 to 1940, immediately had a very clear vision of the University clinics. It was supposed to be a multi-profile hospital that would accommodate therapeutic, pedagogical, and scientific work. And that is how it functions to this day.
Today the campus of the clinics covers an area of about 36 hectares, but we are interested in something that was about a kilometre in the interwar period, and now – covers five and a half. That something is underground and helps maintain the optimal functioning of the clinics. This system of tunnels, passages, and parts of buildings – cellars – varying in levels, is the largest in Lithuania. Povilas Ruginis, the project manager of Kaunas clinics, who has a degree in engineering and his job is to manage the construction processes that take place in the campus, accompanied us to a shorter than you might think tour.
We agreed to meet with Povilas in the central and oldest building of the clinics. It is a monument of Lithuanian culture and something for the interwar architecture lovers to admire. Of course, it is rare for someone to stumble upon this object for their own pleasure: health is a serious thing, and it is better to not end up here. However, probably almost every Kaunas resident has visited this place at some point in their lives. If this happens to you, we recommend putting your phone away so you could admire the curved shapes, texture combinations, and other modernist or modernized historicistic solutions. And well, it is time for us to go under the ground.
The competition announced in 1936 was won by a French architect Urbain Cassan, who already had experience in designing hospitals. There are more traces of Francophonie in the history of the complex. Back then, the engineering tunnels were installed with the help of specialists who designed the vaults under the Seine and could ensure that moisture would not get in. There you have it – Kaunas as Little Paris. As far as P. Ruginis knows, the vaults of the clinics have never really been flooded.
It is interesting to analyze the development of the clinics by comparing the wall textures of tunnels and floor covering materials. The tunnels equipped in 1939 are the narrowest. Some are purely to do with engineering, inaccessible to casual visitors, others are quite old but beautiful. The floors are made out of chess tiles – a true an interwar aesthetic. The vaults that were excavated later, mark the period of Soviet occupation with the large-sized rectangular tiles decorated in patterns that we all know by heart. In some places, the pipes meandering along the walls are covered with wooden panels, which is also a solution common to the aforementioned epoch. In other tunnels, no communications are visible. They are nearby, in the already mentioned engineering tunnels. The colours used to paint the walls of the tunnels also differ. For the time being, the colour has no purpose and is more reminiscent of the historical periods, but in the future, it is planned to put together a colour scheme and other design-related decisions to help orientation. The new, most recently repaired tunnels dazzle with white and bright light as if straight from a TV series about the ER.
People, despite the fact that there are signs everywhere and, whether the light is bright or dimmed, get lost in the tunnels – be it new residents or other employees, visitors, or patients. “It took me a couple of years to finally understand this system,” our guide smiles. He adds that it is often up to new colleagues or casual passers-by to help find the most direct path from one block to another. But usually, people who get under the clinics do not complain. It is quite exotic (although P. Ruginis says that there is nothing special here – maybe only for those who pass through these tunnels every day) and very convenient especially during the cold season.
Although the history of the clinics’ underground system dates back more than 80 years, it is not finished, and it is written, one might say, that every day there is always some kind of renovation work going on, and a really great innovation is periodically introduced. For example, an innovation reminiscent of The Jetsons cartoon – an air-driven mail system installed in spring last year. Samples, documents, and other objects travel through it at a speed of 3-6 meters per second. This saves the employees’ time and energy: 120 stations send 1600 parcels per day. By the way, the route of pneumatic tubes is almost twice as long as the clinics’ underground system itself – almost 9 km long.
And do regular tunnel visitors try to reduce travel time? Yes, they do. Here are two residents whooshing by with scooters. Although this form of transportation is not encouraged because not all the tunnels are wide enough, no one forbids its use, especially if one has to cover a kilometre. There are doctors who cycle underground and some who jog in the morning before work. What else can you do when it rains? There are also little trains underground that carry laundry and food which is prepared centrally, however, above the ground. The tunnel also provides easy access to the chapel on the third floor, above the recently modernized canteen. By the way, there are several intersections under the clinics, reminiscent of urban underground passages. Only the press or flower kiosks are missing. The only difference is that when you descend into the pedestrian tunnel, you know that there is a street above you. Here, however, there is always a pending question: how many meters underground am I? Is there another tunnel at the top or a ward? Maybe the ER?
It is difficult to calculate exactly how many people per day descend into the vaults of the complex. But in general, Kaunas clinics employ over 7 thousand people, over 2 thousand patients are being treated at the same time, plus the visitors and so on; therefore, around 10 thousand people visit the complex every day, and part of them definitely descend under the ground. For example, to the locker-room. We visited two giant ones: one had almost 3 thousand lockers and the other – 1 thousand. There are no people working here and no hangers – everyone has a key now. To put it simply, a life that’s taking place under the clinics could easily be compared to an anthill – the photographer had to wait, for people to move away from the frame. Our guide said that the most ideal time for architectural photo shoots is around 7-8 pm or 5-6 am because the work here starts early. Next time we’ll know!
Story by Kotryna Lingienė
Photos by Arvydas Čiukšys
The article was published in the September issue of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine. Browse its digital archive here.