Back 2021.03.18

A new UNESCO candidate: Kaunas modernism – architecture of optimism

Architecture of optimism – a state of mind

The state of mind which embraces a belief and hope that one’s efforts will produce positive and desirable results is called optimism. Such a conviction prevailed in interwar Europe, particularly in countries whose independence had been either restored or newly won after the First World War.

In 1918, the founders of the newly proclaimed independent Republic of Lithuania declared Vilnius to be their capital. One year later, however, geopolitical tensions and territorial conflicts forced Lithuania’s government to quickly relocate to the country’s second largest city. Kaunas took on a unique status – that of provisional capital, which led to the city’s radical transformation. Over twenty years, the city’s area increased seven-fold. Ten thousand new buildings were constructed, incorporating cleanliness, openness, and light. By the 1930s, Kaunas began to see the return of young Lithuanian specialists who studied architecture in Western Europe, bringing new trends home with them. These modernists became a powerful collective force that shaped Kaunas’ unique style, displaying a bold plurality of modern architectural expression.

Kaunas became an exceptional example of the city where architecture reflects the process of social, political and cultural modernisation. Every generation has its own interpretation of Kaunas modernism.

Learn more in a short film – “Kaunas modernism – architecture of optimism”.

Candidate of UNESCO World Heritage List

The Nomination Dossier ‘Modernist Kaunas: Architecture of Optimism, 1919-1939’ has been submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Now it is under consideration of international advisory bodies, and latter will proceed through the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Unlike many experiences of urban and architectural modernity, Kaunas reflects an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process of and response to modernisation of the early 20th century Europe. The nominated property is a unique ensemble of two complimentary urban landscapes: Naujamiestis (New Town) and Žaliakalnis (Green Hill). A rich architectural heritage of emerging modernism overlaid on the 19th century urban grid and a new garden suburb create a unique ensemble of two complimentary urban landscapes. The sensitive adaptation of the pre-existing 19th-century urban grid, implementation of a garden city residential suburb, the successful integration of the natural environment, and the assimilation of local and global interpretations of architectural modernism gave birth to Modernist Kaunas, that reflects a diverse and innovative response to Lithuania’s encounter with modernity and early 20th century European modernism.

The historically evolved areas of Naujamiestis and Žaliakalnis have changed relatively little – Modernist Kaunas is truly a time capsule of the 1919-1939 period that has retained its authenticity and historical, cultural and symbolical significance. Kaunas lost its status as Lithuania’s provisional capital in October 1939, and the sudden change in the city’s political status helped to preserve the physical attributes of the 1920s and 1930s. Under the Soviet rule (1944-1990), the physical state of interwar modernist buildings was not deliberately neglected since the superior quality of the architectures was put to pragmatic use. Today the nominated property continues to see the highest concentration of active social, cultural and economic activity, as well as the evolution of new traditions and initiatives inspired by the legacy of Kaunas Modernism.

Of 46 properties inscribed as part of the 20th century heritage on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2020, 17 properties are listed for their outstanding contributions to the development of modern urban areas and cities (e.g., Brasilia, Tel Aviv, Rabat, Asmara, etc.). Nevertheless, the dynamic construction and modernisation of European capital cities in the interwar period is not represented.

Modernist Kaunas represents plurality of modernism, that was characteristic to the early 20th century globally, and so fills the gap of the multifaced heritage of modernist architecture representation on the List. Other properties, already in the List, illustrate classical icons of Modern Movement and International Modernism (e.g., Bauhaus and its sites in Weimar and Dessau, Berlin Modernism Housing Estates, Centennial Hall in Wroclaw, Ivrea, etc.). A few examples only demonstrate the diversity of modernism, including Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles in Mumbai, Asmara, Pampulha Modern Ensemble.

Recognition of Kaunas. In 2015, the European Commission awarded the European Heritage Label to ‘Kaunas of 1919-1939’, and Kaunas also received the status of UNESCO City of Design. In 2017, Kaunas was inscribed on the Tentative List of Lithuania, a party to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, and in 2022 Kaunas will be the European Capital of Culture, with the city’s modernist architecture playing an important role as part of the ‘Modernism for the Future’ programme.