With the news spreading through Lithuania and the world that Kaunas modernist architecture has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, it’s time to take an honest look at this heritage. From the inside! We’re sure you’re familiar with the most iconic buildings of interwar Kaunas - after all, 44 were awarded the European Heritage Label in 2015. But there’s more.
In autumn, we invite you to go beyond photo walks through the historic streets of Kaunas and plan cosy afternoons in the modernist buildings. From residential buildings open for guided tours to historical educational institutions, there is plenty to see and do. One day might not be enough (find a tip for that at the end of the article) - the UNESCO-listed New Town and Žaliakalnis covers around 450 hectares, with a buffer zone of almost the same area.
One of the largest to visit is a “double” modernist building - the National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art and the Vytautas the Great War Museum. The structure that crowns the temporary capital (the façade of the Čiurlionis Museum does resemble a crown!) is impressive both for its rich exhibitions and for its interior and exterior details. And then there is the garden of the War Museum, a focal point of statehood inspired by French and Italian examples.
The Kaunas Artists’ House, designed for the Vatican Nunciature and later given to the creative crowd, also has an Italian flavour. Events occur here almost every evening, and in the daytime, you are welcome in the reading/coworking room completely free of charge.
One of the symbols of K. Donelaičio Street, an essential artery of the city centre, is the Commerce, Industry and Crafts Palace. The value and grandeur of the building, designed by Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis, have been saved by the library that moved into it after the war. Its employees were very attentive to the environment. While the main building of the Kaunas County Public Library on Radastų Street is being reconstructed, it is again sheltering here, where you will even find original benches created by interwar masters. We recommend the very cosy audio library, where you can listen to classical and contemporary music recordings.
The façade of the most beautiful building on this street, and perhaps in the whole of Kaunas, is also one of the most photographed. The building’s sizeable round window inspired the concept of the Kaunas UNESCO application – the circle turned into the letter O, and the letter O into the phrase ‘architecture of optimism’. The rest is history! The Iljinienė House has been meticulously restored, and its grand apartment is now home to the Blank Page Studio. This design company regularly organises tours for the curious who want to see everything in depth. For more information about the tours, click here. Also, this building might soon become a LEGO set!
There are many small museums located inside interwar buildings in central Kaunas. These include the house of A. and P. Galaunės, famous for its impressive salon and beautiful study room, the music-filled home of Mikas and Kipras Petrauskas, as well as the cosy, sentimental villas of Juozas Gruodis, Balys Sruoga, Salomėja Neris and Juozas Grušas. And, of course, the former Japanese consulate, today known as the Sugihara House. The Children’s Literature Museum has a beautiful back facade – do peek inside the yard!
The Kaunas Central Post Office is yet to be a museum, as it has already been confirmed to house the National Institute of Architecture. Until the end of October, it is your last chance to study this work by the architect Feliksas Vizbaras as it is now. The Kaunas Biennial’s leading exhibition is located there, revealing unexpected postal contexts.
Before or after a visit to the famous Art Deco Museum and the Amsterdam School Museum (boo tours here and here), we recommend you look at the autumnal Kaunas through cafe windows. Caif Cafe is located in a house designed by Arno Funk - the architect’s contribution is immortalised on the cafe’s walls.
The history of theatres and performing arts in Kaunas today is closely linked to modernism. The oldest institution of its kind, the State Theatre (now the Kaunas State Musical Theatre), dates back to the 19th century, but it was renovated between the wars, so it has modernist features. And there were dozens of cinemas on Laisvės Avenue at one time - some of them you wouldn’t see a trace of anymore, while others have been transformed into different functions. For example, the Odeon, with its art deco elements, was built in 1925. In 1960, the cinema was transformed into a puppet theatre, which is still popular today. In the interwar period, one of the most glamorous was the art deco Metropolitan, built in 1928. After a reconstruction that changed the building radically, the drama theatre officially moved here in 1959, but there are undoubtedly modernist features.
The Romuva is the oldest cinema in Lithuania, completed in 1940 without changing its purpose, and every visit to the recently renovated building is a feast for fans of auteur cinema. It has a multifunctional hall, so it can accommodate both cinema screenings and stage arts.
Of course, there is a way (two, actually) to study architecture in Kaunas. But even if you choose a different field of study, you can still do it inside great architecture.
Located near the Vienybės Square, the Central Administration Building of Kaunas University of Technology was built in the interwar period as the Land Bank. The fact that this building was once used to decide the fate of farmers can be predicted by holding one’s head high and looking at the bas-reliefs. Interestingly, the bank was designed to be in the shadow of the War Museum.
The KTU School of Economics and Business on the corner of Gedimino and K. Donelaičio Streets was initially designed as a state printing house. The building, which houses an excellent library, also preserves the Laboratory of Material Resistance, founded in 1923. The university also owns the palace designed by Feliksas Vizbaras in 1926 for the Catholic youth organisation, which is now the KTU Culture and Events Centre (Laisvės al. 13).
The Central Hall of the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences is on A. Mickevičiaus street and is worth being seen from Spaustuvininkų Street, where it looks even more modernist. Here, Lithuania’s first crematorium was installed. The building also houses the Anatomy Museum.
And one more place for those interested in the study environment is the Owls Hill! Here, in the historic palace of Kaunas Art School, the Kaunas University of Applied Sciences Arts Academy operates, and in a modernist building nearby, future fashion designers are educated.
You can go up and down all day to the rhythm of modernism, as long as you don’t get dizzy! The two funiculars that became symbols of the city’s modernisation between the wars have survived and are still used daily. The panorama of Aleksotas is even more beautiful when you take the cable car, while its older brother, the Aleksotas cable car, takes you to Žaliakalnis in 1 minute.38 sec. Here, you can take a deep breath and admire the symbol of nationhood, the Kaunas Christ’s Resurrection Basilica. Built between the wars, it was used as a radio factory during the occupation and only invited the faithful after the restoration of independence.
... and then there’s the Kaunas Clinics, which, of course, we wish you visit just to admire the interior. Also, the recently renovated Kaunas Sports Hall, which commemorates the tremendous Lithuanian basketball victories… In short, you’ll have to stay at the Metropolis Hotel, which remembers the interwar bohemian and diplomat adventures, and stay in Kaunas for longer. Modernism is in our city’s DNA! We’ve prepared several architectural routes for those who want more walk ideas. They are all at www.kaunastika.lt and the Kaunas IN Tourism Information Centre at Laisvės al. 36.