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Kaunas — European Capital of Culture

So each year Europe runs a program called the European Capitals of Culture. The objective is to celebrate the richness of European culture and presumably drive throngs of tourists to its various locales. They do this by choosing a set of cities, designating them “capitals of culture”, and then running events and programming all throughout the calendar year in those places.

When the program was created in 1985, it was originally called the European City of Culture, as there was only one city being chosen at a time. In the first year that city was Athens. But the program has since evolved and now multiple cities are chosen each year. For 2022, the European Capitals of Culture are Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg), Kaunas (Lithuania), and Novi Sad (Serbia).

I was reading about Kaunas in FT this morning and I was fascinated to learn that this city of approximately 300,000 people has some 6,000 modernist buildings. Some are apparently in disrepair, but many remain in good form and, as part of the festival, visitors can book stays in some of the restored ones.

There is, of course, an interesting story behind these buildings.

This collection of modernist buildings is the result of a relatively narrow window of time and a specific set of circumstances. Lithuania gained independence from the former Russian Empire in 1918, following WWI and while Russia was busy fighting with itself. But at the time, its capital city Vilnius, which remains the capital today, was mostly occupied by Poland.

So Kaunas became its temporary capital city from 1920 to 1939, the latter date being when Vilnius was returned to Lithuania. This temporary designation created a tremendous need for new buildings, both public and private, and it just so happened to line up with the flourishing of European modernist architecture.

Kaunas didn’t get any modernist “icons” from architects such as Le Corbusier, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Kaunas instead created its own varietal of modernism, one that incorporated elements of Art Deco and one that you could argue is now deeply symbolic of a very important moment in its history: A peaceful period of interwar freedom and optimism.

Image: Kaunas 2022

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