Žemaičių highway will take you to Kaunas, going down Milikonių hill, passing through the Ford factory, harbour of Vilijampolė and the freight station nearby. Crossing the old Vilijampolė bridge over Neris river uncovers views of Vytautas Magnus University on the hills of Aleksotas, accompanied by tiled rooftops of individual and communal buildings. The tunnel of Jonavos-Gimnazijos streets is great for “piercing” through a hill that supports the oldest part of Žaliakalnis, and then you move along Laisvės Alėja with three-to-five storeys high buildings surrounding you. The centre of this avenue is graced by a white Orthodox church that acquired a similar form to the one of catholic establishments, and a big complex of Government and Presidential Houses is situated a bit further on Parodos hill. The old railway station leads to the transport viaduct towards Aukštieji Šančiai, one of the most modern neighbourhoods of the city.
All this is part of our well-known friend Kaunas which still sits on the junction of Nemunas and Neris rivers, yet is a bit different from other cities: think about the fact that many interesting architectural and urbanistic projects of Interwar Lithuania were actually built here. Some of this type of dreams never had a chance because of the loss of independence in 1940, however others were not meant to be constructed for economic reasons or being not important enough for the state, while traces of other reasons for rejection got lost in the archives.
A proposal for the Christ's Resurrection Church
At the beginning, when Kaunas took the role of a temporary capital, it soon became obvious that the planning, infrastructure and the housing economy will not be able to handle the domestic migrants flooding the city; it was also made clear that Kaunas could not be a good representation of a modern capital. There wasn’t a lot of money for city planning specialists, and 1923 saw a Danish urbanist Peter Marius Frandsen being hired to work alongside Antanas Jokimas.
Together they quickly came up with a project based on the principals of a city-garden. This plan wasn’t fit for the urban terrain, it was a huge economic challenge and it basically just gave Kaunas its most recognisable map element – the Vydūnas Avenue neighbourhood in the shape of a trapezoid. Locations for House of Government and the university complex were already selected; these projects actually later went on to become some of the most representative ones.
The House of Government, hosting the best part of the state’s governing bodies, was meant to be put in the middle of Gėlių circle, incorporating the building into surroundings of the neighbourhood with residential houses. However, like most structures in the plan, this one was placed elsewhere. Even though ideas about the need for a central government complex were spreading through official meetings and press, it all came down to limited resources and more urgent things to take care of, so the process was being regularly postponed. An international contest for a complex of Government and Presidential Houses (this time – in Parodos square, where the Kaunas County Public Library is now) was announced only in 1939, when Vilnius became the capital again and then the Soviet regime took over, making talks about the project silent.
Perspective plan for the university campus. Technika, 1933. Picture from autc.lt
The university campus, by earlier plans, was expected to be built near the radio station, in the current neighbourhood of Perkūno Avenue. Later another location – near the current Amerikos Lietuvių street in Linksmadvaris – was picked for the Vytautas Magnus University complex. All faculties and student dorms should have been built here, also a block of villas for the professors. The story of the first (and, unfortunately, so far the only) building is a great reflection of the slow development of the campus: the House of Physics and Chemistry, which was one of the biggest structures of the city, was being built for almost a decade because of miscellaneous obstacles. A lot of state institutions felt the lack of buildings and space for proper expansion, the same was the case for the university, yet the Faculty of Physics and Chemistry was considered to be a priority not only because of the horrible conditions but for its significance to the country’s future. Actually, at first there was a spot reserved for the Institute of Veterinary Science here, which later was built in Vilijampolė. Linksmadvaris, on the other hand, remained the main choice for expansion right up until losing the independence, and all faculties of the university were scheduled to move here. 1944 saw the Faculty of Physics and Chemistry being blown up, which put the hopes of Linksmadvaris to become an academic centre of Lithuania to rest.
Front and back facades of the Faculty of Physics and Chemistry, Technika, 1933. Picture from autc.lt
1930s introduced strict laws of industrial neighbourhoods, hence areas along rivers were picked for industrial expansion. One of these zones was the riverside next to Vilijampolė, the latter being one of the best choices to have a city port and a railway station for trading. There were other options for the railroad to reach the junction of Nemunas and Neris from Slabada’s side: the first one is going across Žaliakalnis, the new bridge in Eiguliai and the valley of Veršvas stream; the second one goes through Aleksotas, down the valley of Marvelė and crosses Nemunas; the third one reaches Vilijampolė via Žemutinė Freda. At the destination, the railroad was expected to connect to a three-river port that meets all the requirements of an industrious city. Sadly, the costs were too high and the harbour continued to expand in Nemunas island, while the railway station for trading was hoped to be built in Žaliakalnis, close to the Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. These plans were still relevant after the Soviet occupation: right after the war, the expansion design map shows a city that’s surrounded by railroads from all sides. Many companies were based around Vilijampolė, so there were plans for a few factories, however the new world war stopped the process. One of the most peculiar goals was to have a Ford workshop in Varnių street that was destined to become a new step towards the motorisation of Lithuania. It’s quite symbolic that the architect of this project – Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis – was the author of many texts for motorisation and even had a specific strategy prepared.
The second decade of independence witnessed an economic revival of the country; problems as big as a lack of educational institutions were solved and so there were talks of building new residential neighbourhoods in the temporary capital. Detailed plans of Aleksotas and Aukštieji Šančiai were prepared, including spots for schools, churches, markets, parks and so forth. Both these neighbourhoods – including Aukštieji Šančiai that was poorly set up at the time – should have turned into areas as modern as Žaliakalnis. The “new” Šančiai today has troublesome logistics of getting to the city centre, and the earlier aspiration was connecting the neighbourhood to the railway station area and Žaliakalnis using viaducts and new roads.
Plan for Aukštieji Šančiai, 1940. Picture from the Kaunas State archive
There were two approaches to the reorganisation of Kaunas’ central part: firstly, people wanted it to be representative; secondly, the city needed to handle the growing number of transport vehicles. Sometimes these two approaches intertwined, and so taking care of the streets was thought to be influenced by representative aspects. For example, at one point there was an intention to make most streets of the Old Town wider and straighten them out because “current city planning doesn’t fit the modern image”. It’s also worth noting that most city planners of Kaunas were pretty longsighted in relation to transport: even at the end of the independence period, there were still just a few thousand cars in the whole country. The Interwar years already had locations selected for bridges that people were speaking of during the Soviet occupation and even up until recent times. A tunnel between the old Vilijampolė bridge and the current Gimnazijos street was an idea that came from the previously discussed 1923 plan of P. M. Frandsen; it’s still sometimes mentioned in the city planning discourse today.
Plan of the tunnel between Vilijampolė bridge and Gimnazijos street by M. Vilkelis, 1934. Picture from autc.lt
The construction rules of 1930s stated that higher buildings and quality materials should be the main traits of a representative city. Brick houses with tiled roofs should have been built in the central part of Kaunas, also close to the main transport routes by using the perimeter block development principle. This last rule was valid for Žaliakalnis and other neighbourhoods near the centre. One could not build new structures that were lower than three stories in Laisvės Alėja and Vytauto Avenue, whilst other main streets could not have fresh one-storey ones. Even though Laisvės Alėja didn’t have many representative buildings during the Interwar years, this started changing at the end of the independence period. One of the most surprising structures that wasn’t built was the Mother and Child Museum, boasting very modern architecture and implementing a noble mission that is to drop the number of unhealthy or dying babies while educating the society.
Facade of the Mother and Child Museum by J. Kovalskis, 1938, Lithuanian Central State Archive. Picture from autc.lt
In spite of varied opinions still floating about, the last years of the first republic were important in the sense of professional discussions which were quite different from the ones ten years ago that had ideas of romanticism, like putting an old-castle-styled war museum on a hill at the centre of Laisvės Alėja, or changing the architecture of Garrison Church to suit principles of a Catholic temple.
Facade of the proposed War Museum, Karolis Reisonas, 1929 (17 projects participated in the contest). Picture from autc.lt
The Garrison Church and Laisvės avenue today. Photo by Ignas Širka
Text by Paulius Tautvydas Laurinaitis
Kaunas Full of Culture, October’2016