Fotografas R. Ščerbauskas
© R. Ščerbauskas

Architecturologist Vaidas Petrulis is convinced that culture-based urban development accelerates the process of improvement. Here is an interview with the investigator of modernist architecture about the significance of Kaunas interwar architecture, plans to include it on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and growing Kaunas community that appreciates and takes interest in heritage.
Kaunas is famous for its modernist architecture of the interwar period and has been seeking the nomination of the UNESCO World Heritage Site for some time already. Is this a reasonable ambition? What changes would this nomination bring?
The idea to include Kaunas on the UNESCO World Heritage List is really ambitious, and it is quite a difficult task. But the most important thing is the process, not getting on the list. Currently, we are working on a preliminary application, which is fairly simple. However, then it is time for a long and complex homework that will last for years. The decision about the specific buildings that we want to protect and preparation of the management plan are equally important. And that is just the thing we lack critically today. Although, the Lithuanian law protects a relatively large number of the buildings, the common policy and vision what we should do with these buildings, why we protect them, and what the strategic criteria for selection are, does not exist. It is likely that the management plan for a small part of the cultural heritage registry, which is related to the interwar architecture, would provide an impetus, a direction. This plan is a necessary part of UNESCO application.
The preliminary application included 68 buildings. The number may vary, but the list will include both public and residential objects. Here lie the greatest benefits and potential. Today, the deserted Central Post Office, former House of “Pažanga” company, House of “Pieno Centras”, former House of Trade, Industry and Crafts are a shame. We need to look both for funding to resurrect those houses physically and ideas what to make of them. Maybe they can be used for the creative activities or perhaps they should become youth hostels. The opportunities that appear while discussing and trying to work out a truly functional management plan are numerous. Moreover, a part of our upcoming list consists of residential buildings.
And time will tell if such a goal is too ambitious. In Europe, numerous buildings carry World Heritage Site nomination, therefore, receiving this title is quite difficult. However, we are talking about the twentieth-century objects, and there are far fewer of them, and the possibilities are greater. It is exclusively and universally significant that in a very short period of time – in about 13 years – an enormous amount of modernist buildings rose in Kaunas, and that’s the basis of our claim to the UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination. Some of them were luxurious, extravagant, others – less spectacular but attractive enough, and created local atmosphere. It is the townscape, not separate buildings that we should present to the world. When speaking about the city, what comes to mind, first of all, are rather different functions of the city: public buildings of representational purpose, social infrastructure of the city, and residential buildings – everyday heritage. The management plan that I have mentioned before is a potential means to find a solution, what to make of these buildings. The municipality provides some money for the renovation of the buildings on a regular basis. However, if I was to decide, I would suggest funding primarily the buildings where we could discover a broader cultural and economic function in addition to residential space: the first floor, one or two rooms in many of the buildings could integrate into the cultural and economic life of the city. After all, the current Lithuanian law says that one of the key criteria to receive state funding is the availability of an object.
There is this term: culture-based urban development. It means that certain cultural features – if to perceive the culture in a broad sense – can become a catalyst that raises an overall city quality. If we encourage creative people to stay in Lithuania, create new jobs, and build creative environment, it will attract more creative and entrepreneurial people. So my suggestion is to look for financing mechanisms that would sponsor more than the repair of the structures, but at the same time to find ways to bring them to life. In other words, to find strategies for the sustainable utilization with a focus on the social impact of urban development. Fixing the facade is not enough, however, the function that interrelates both to the individual and strategic objectives of the city.
Have you seen any example of residential spaces exploited for creative and cultural activities in other countries perhaps?
Definitely, the examples are numerous and really diverse: from the museum in Gdynia’s apartments to cafés or youth hostels in various European cities that uphold the fashion of the period. If today we happen to invite a guest to visit Kaunas, that is becoming famous, the person will often express a desire to stay in the environment, that resembles the spirit of the interwar period, but we do not have similar spaces. It is paradoxical and strange. If, in addition to other solutions, we supported culture-based urban development model an entire network of different activities with the practice base – such as food and accommodation – that is organically linked with heritage should emerge in the city. True, it is important to avoid the primitive imitation of antique interiors and seek for more creative solutions, but maintain the remaining authentic elements and go a step further.
Do heritage-related initiatives come from the people who live in such space?
The best are the initiatives that combine an external investment for the preservation of valuable physical properties of buildings and internal needs to create jobs. For example, the modern urban environment has a variety of typical activities that could settle into the renovated spaces under preferential conditions. I will repeat myself, the more creative people we attract, the more creative activities will occur. A new creative business idea that requires physical space pops up almost every day. We should invest in the creative business, which raises the standard of living for Kaunas residents and at the same time gives hope that somebody will purchase the neglected residential spaces. There is a set of various heritage preservation requirements – and if to respect those – the process of bringing the buildings a new life will move forward step by step.
How is Kaunas city’s architectural view original? Does Kaunas population understand and appreciate it? Arguably, the most interesting is the so-called new heritage. It is Kaunas fortress and interwar layers. Though, definitely, we shouldn’t forget Pažaislis Monastery, the Old Town. Do we appreciate and understand this?
In the modern terminology of heritage protection, a group of people that appreciate the heritage relevant to them is referred to as a heritage community. I think that they are considerably expanding in Kaunas, lately. There are more and more people who realize that some spaces are attractive from the historical or architectural point of view. People attend those places, take an interest in the history, stories, so we can state that the appreciation of how architectural heritage is important gradually increases. However, the heritage hasn’t received the response expected by experts yet. After all, it’s not just the interest that indicates the understanding and appreciation but also taking care of one’s own values. I think this happened because the authentic connection between the space and the owner was broken during the Soviet era. Many residential buildings, commercial spaces, bookstores, cafes, restaurants, shops were nationalized and lost the owner. The example of Luxembourg, a relatively small city, is excellent: you can find cafes, shoe workshops, and other buildings where the interior hasn’t changed for many years. We could find a number places like those in Europe. This is the result of a process that goes on for generations, which leads to a completely different idea and appreciation of the heritage. In Kaunas, we have to build new, firm ties between the space and the person who respects, loves, and appreciates it. Perhaps, I am naive, but I think that when we are talking about the Capital of Culture – the city which is looking for the impetus from the creative initiatives and creative people – then these people will surely realize that the spaces, inherited from the past, are unique. We cannot create physical testimonies of the past anew, so we have to try and find novel approaches of how we can embrace it today. New spaces certainly have particular qualities, but the city is unique – and this could be our strength and appeal in competition – namely because of our heritage. There are many different ways to attract people: for example, not only cognitive but also conference tourism that allows evaluating the originality of Kaunas. We can build sterile twenty-first-century spaces anywhere. But every unique place of attraction – even if it’s in a small Lithuanian town – can become a reason to invite for a visit because people are often interested in learning something exciting about the vicinity, even in a conference.
The „Ekskursas” project which offers tours to various Kaunas sites, has been going on for some time already. It happens often that „Ekskursas“ routes include not only public buildings but also private houses that own a long cultural history. This is a unique opportunity for Kaunas residents to get to know their daily environment closer. How does this contribute to the formation of Kaunas resident identity?
Knowing your environment and finding mediators who would tell about it is one of the most fundamental things that initiates the heritage protection. Many people need a mediator who could explain why one building or the other is interesting: perhaps a famous person used to live there, or the architecture is really unique if compared to the architecture of other countries. Mediation between the heritage community and the professionals is inevitable for a successful employment of heritage for today needs. „Ekskursas“ is the modern means of communication. The project team consists of young and charismatic enthusiasts who create an excellent environment for heritage community to expand. There are more and more people who consciously regard the heritage not simply as a functional space, but also as a space with a cultural layer, and the likelihood that the same people will contribute to the preservation of the cultural layer without waiting for government initiatives increases. The architectural theory states that in order to create comfortable conditions in the city, in addition to basic hygiene, space for active recreation, and infrastructure, it is also necessary to have spaces that are thoughtful, meaningful, and symbolically significant. Local content always gives an extra dimension which is essential for the harmonious development of the city. Therefore, the initiatives like „Ekskursas” are the catalyst for the heritage community seeding the idea that the site or building where I live, probably, is very similar to the one I have visited. And if the visited sites were interesting, perhaps my place is interesting too, and perhaps taking care of my own environment, I will try and save something. And the preserved atmosphere – perhaps even a small element of the interior – will award me with the feeling of belonging to the community or simply make my living space more attractive, exciting. We need more initiatives like this and as various as possible. For example, the publishing project of the interwar advertising is a delightful example of such an initiative. The more numerous different approaches are, the denser the process will be and attract more people as people put most of their attention on each other. Back in the seventies, urban theorists pointed out that if the space is empty, a chance that someone will sit down is small, but if there are people, there will always be those who will want to join them too. „Ekskursas“ is a great example of a creative approach to the problem. It’s quite simple to organize a tour, but it is much more complicated to present in an attractive, contemporary, and relevant for today’s context manner; and „Ekskursas“ is great at doing this.
How can Kaunas become more innovative and modern European city? How „Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022” project can contribute to this?
If we talk about the physical spaces, urban structure, and culture of the city, it seems to me, the key is finding the way to give impetus to the development of the city namely by cultural means. It happens naturally as well. There are many people who say that supplementary investment makes no sense because the spontaneous processes are more authentic and natural, and this makes these initiatives organic and relevant. This is partially true. However, taking into account the experience of the modern world, I think that an additional stimulus from the state and city in self-positioning as of one that is open for cultural initiatives can provide a positive impetus for urban development. In the case of the Capital of Culture project, it is really important to highlight not only the year 2022 but the preparation process before it and the potential positive impact after this year. Without a doubt, the year of Cultural Capital would associate with more numerous conferences, events, and exhibitions. However, this should not be the main objective. Rather, an intermediate station, sort of an observation deck on the way to the mountain top. This is the moment when we can assess, what has happened, and enjoy the scenic view. However, the key goal is to climb the mountain further.
In „Kaunas: European Capital of Culture 2022” project you present the idea of the International 20th Century Heritage Interpretation Centre under the slogan „Modernity for the Future”. What would a center like this mean to Kaunas city and its residents?
We will see, but the initial idea is that the buildings and spaces not always can attract people on their own and tell their fascinating history. This requires processes for strengthening the relationship between the space and the owner, or a guest who visited it. The interpretation of heritage in today’s context consists of various heritage-related stories, involving the wider community, creating the biggest possible arsenal of activities.
Visit the souvenir shop and check how many of them are connected to the modernist buildings such as the Central Post Office, or the Christ’s Resurrection Church… Very few. There is no need to go to Rome full of actors dressed as ancient Roman legionnaires: it is enough to visit an ordinary East German town – such as Wittenberg which is a living memory of Martin Luther. They have built an entire Martin Luther industry. The city has opened children’s educational centers that teach painting and introduce ancient printing technology. There are plenty of different activities that aid the city to tell about Martin Luther’s life there. That is what we need: various outdoor initiatives that would tell of the interwar Kaunas and include a wide variety of daily details into the story.
And this story should not simply rest on facts – it should be comprehensible to an ordinary tourist or child not only to an intellectual. But we should not forget the academic and artistic initiatives. Conferences, exhibitions, and various professional events are necessary if we want to build Kaunas name among the professionals as well. Thus, the purpose of the Interpretation Center would be to combine the academic knowledge, creativity of artists, and daily life of the city.
We ask our interviewees to pick a location in Kaunas that is important for them personally. Why did you choose the Armament Management Research Laboratory of the former Ministry of Defense for our meeting?
Actually, the location is more than perfect for the meeting of this kind. We can see here the facade of one of the Kaunas architectural gems that is full of potential for the future. I would like people who sigh about our extremely neglected buildings to take a note. No, neglected facades don’t flatter the city. However, the lack of funds that led to this situation, in many cases, allowed to preserve the authenticity, therefore, the future is on our side. And our presence here, at this place that is as if waiting for its future, makes a symbolic statement that Kaunas is full of different values and authentic locations. We simply have to find them and expect the present activities to employ these locations for the future goals.

Video: Marius Paplauskas