Just when Wizz Air started flying from Turku to Kaunas, we received an exciting letter from Finland. Mikko Laaksonen, a writer on architecture, and representative of Bryggman institute in Turku told us he’d be coming over to Kaunas to explore our modernist architecture and to meet some of the people involved in its revival. We couldn’t help but ask the architecture professional – lover, too – a few questions about his trip. In exchange, our guest shared some tips for those thinking about visiting Turku with the very same Wizz Air route. Make sure you check Mikko’s travel photo page on Facebook for more snapshots from Kaunas and other interesting places.
Hi Mikko, so lovely to have you in Kaunas! Have you visited Lithuania before?
Yes. I have worked for two EU projects in which Kaunas also was a partner, so I have visited Kaunas and Vilnius three times before, in 2006 and 2010. On the previous trips, however, I had a more fixed work schedule, so I did not have as much time to explore. Now I could decide where to visit and focused on documenting the architecture. Also, particularly Kaunas seemed to have become considerably invigorated since my last visit.
When and how did you learn about the extensive modernism network in Kaunas?
I saw some of the modernist buildings such as the Central post office and Pažanga building, Christ’s Resurrection Basilica and Vytautas the Great War museum together with M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art on previous trips.
I have been planning an exhibition of the Finnish architect Erik Bryggman with the Estonian architecture museum, and they had publications about Lithuanian architecture, such as Kaunas and Vilnius architecture guides and Marija Drėmaitė's book “Baltic modernism”, which I bought [available here - ed.]. I also heard there was an exhibition on Kaunas architecture, so when Wizz Air opened the new route, I decided to travel. I had plans to go to Lithuania regardless of the new connection.
Can you compare the tete-a-tete meeting with the Kaunas modernist architecture with your presumptions about it before your trip?
I had visited Kaunas before, so I had a reasonable picture of what to expect.
I think that for a Finnish researcher, an exciting feature was the combination of modernist elements with classical and national themes. In Finland, we had a national romanticism phase earlier, combined with Jugendstil in the very beginning of 20th century – in Turku, the Michael church by Lars Sonck and the Art Museum by Gustaf Nyström are in this style.
In our country, modernism or functionalism as introduced by Alvar Aalto and Erik Bryggman in 1928-1930 was more internationally directed and connected with ideas of social reform. By the end of the 1930s, it was used in practically all public buildings –functionalism also became in Finland a “national” style but with almost no decoration at all.
I think that the combination of functionalist, classical and national elements makes the Kaunas Modernism particularly interesting. It can also now be easier to see the value in the architecture itself, rather than by comparing it to a dogmatic model.
One positive surprise was that in many of the buildings I visited, there were a lot of original interiors and fittings either still in place or restored.
Which buildings would you say are the most interesting?
I think the chemical laboratory by Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis, now part of the KTU campus, was the most important impression from this trip.
The Central post office and Pažanga buildings by Feliksas Visbaras remain particularly interesting. The Christ’s Resurrection church by Karolis Reisonas was also exciting, as I now had time to explore the interior and the roof.
What are the connections between Kaunas and Finnish architecture?
The Finnish modernist projects were published internationally already in the 1930s in architecture publications, so it is likely that Kaunas modernists knew about Finnish architecture.
Architect Väinö Vähäkallio, who was a central figure in Finnish architects’ society, participated as a jury member in the War and Art museum competition in Kaunas in 1930, and he has likely passed his observations on to colleagues.
However, strangely enough, the closest architecture contacts between Finland and Lithuania were in the late Soviet period. Khrushchev decided in 1957 to allow architects' study trips to Finland and some other countries. Several Lithuanian delegations visited Finland starting in 1959. This has affected late-Soviet period architecture.
Another detail I can point out is that we are actually building a funicular up in Turku on Kakola hill, based on the Žaliakalnis and Aleksotas funiculars. The planning of the hill was active during the joint projects, and our traffic engineers saw the Kaunas funiculars in 2006.
Before the trip, you mentioned you would meet architecture experts dr. Jolita Kančienė and dr. Marija Drėmaitė. How did the meetings go?
We will hopefully organise an architecture exhibition exchange so that we will find a place for one of the Kaunas architecture exhibitions in Turku, and we hope to exhibit an exhibition about the Turku functionalist architect Erik Bryggman (1891-1955) during the next Kaunas architecture festival [KAFe2019, themed “Landmark architecture – creating or destroying the city’s identity?”, will take place in September and October next year, - ed.]. Also, we will likely invite Lithuanian specialists to our seminars.
Do you think Kaunas could be considered as a weekend trip for architecture lovers?
Yes, definitely. You can see a lot in a couple of days. I recommend buying the Kaunas architectural guide [available here – ed.] and plan based on that. In the churches and public buildings, it may be possible to go inside too. Someone for whom architecture is more marginal interest could use the Kaunastic Modernism map [more on it here – ed.]
What about the Kaunas way to UNESCO? Do you think our modernist architecture should be included in the heritage list?
I think it cold. The value and the originality of the Kaunas modernism are comparable to other UNESCO heritage sites. However, such a decision requires also a plan to renovate and maintain the modernist heritage. Also, private owners need advice and financial support, for instance, government guarantees for loans, to renovate their modernist buildings. There must be a clear commitment to the protection, renovation and maintenance before UNESCO will seriously consider a proposal.
A visitor and advice centre in one of the modernist buildings would also be a good idea.
For the disused buildings, a good idea would be to allow temporary uses such as artists’ studios, exhibitions, pop-up shops and restaurants.
Apart from the architecture, what were the highlights of your trip?
You mentioned you also want to check out the new route from Turku to Kaunas. So, how is it? Did you meet many Finnish tourists on the plane?
I talked with several people on the plane both on the way to Kaunas and back. Many people had used the earlier Wizz Air flights to Gdansk and were eager to see a new, exciting destination. Also, I understood that most had had a nice trip.
For Lithuanians, I of course also recommend a trip to Turku. We have a long history, a fascinating castle, a lot of students, nice bars and restaurants, especially along the river Aura. From spring to early autumn, you can also go on a boat to the archipelago. Also, we have many key buildings of Finnish modernism by architects like Alvar Aalto, Erik Bryggman and Pekka Pitkänen. Our most important Modernist church is the Resurrection chapel by Bryggman. Aalto and Bryggman buildings can be found from navi.finnisharchitecture.fi website.
A few tips for a trip to Finland:
• Bus and train tickets can be much cheaper if bought well in advance.
• Most restaurants have inexpensive lunch choices on weekdays.
• We have an old Sweden ferry, Bore, in the river, which is a beautiful and affordable place to stay in. The bus from the airport goes there directly!
Thanks, Mikko! Hope to meet you in Turku and Kaunas again.