After several years of experts’ intensive work, the nomination file Modernusis Kaunas: Optimizmo architektūra, 1919–1939 (Modern Kaunas: Architecture of Optimism) was submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris. It awaits assessment from international experts and the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for Kaunas’ modernist architecture to be granted the status of UNESCO World Heritage.
The document drafting process required for Kaunas’ modernist architecture to be granted the status of UNESCO World Heritage was started back in 2016. Only a country may submit this application, it is signed by the country’s Minister of Culture.
“I am sincerely delighted that today in our hands we hold a solid application, which we can already deem as an accomplishment for our whole country. This several year’s process allowed us to look at the unique Kaunas’ modernist architecture anew, highlight it as of especially significant worth, encourage larger interest of society not only in Kaunas, but in all of Lithuania. These results would not be possible without the leadership of Kaunas City Municipality, without the consistent dialogue with the local community and cultural organisations. I strongly believe that these endeavours will be awarded with a favourable decision and Kaunas’ modernist architecture will become part of UNESCO World Heritage,” claimed Minister of Culture Simonas Kairys.
The leader of the group of experts who prepared the application, Professor Marija Drėmaitė from Vilnius University Faculty of History, believes that the assessment may last until 2023 because of travel limitations due to the pandemic: “It all depends on how soon the international experts who will assess the application will be permitted to travel. They must arrive at the site, meet specialists, communities, local authorities. It is not simply an evaluation of the site, but communication with people as well.”
The urban heritage site consists of two parts
The nomination file Modernusis Kaunas: Optimizmo architektūra, 1919–1939 (Modern Kaunas: Architecture of Optimism) is a comprehensive 500-page publication.
“The process itself, of course, was very long and, therefore, useful because each member country of the UNESCO Convention which submits an application for the status of UNESCO World Heritage has enough time to evaluate what it has and what it can offer. It is a responsible decision because once the application is submitted, the country must undertake obligations to preserve the exclusive and universal worth: the recorded value of the object and the site,” notes M. Drėmaitė.
According to M. Drėmaitė, the drafting process of the application which started in 2016, the formulated application for inclusion in the Tentative List in 2017, and finally the complete application was an important time for the researchers themselves, the writers of the application, city authority representatives, cultural heritage experts: “One may say that this was the time to grow up, mature, comprehend what kind of thing, process, nomination, object it is. Because the boundaries and the conception whether it really is merely a list of buildings were changing. Now, the so-called urban landscape has been introduced. The urban heritage site is comprised of two parts: Naujamiestis and Žaliakalnis. The process is long, but very useful – for evaluating for yourself – what does Kaunas’ modernism truly mean.”
The territory of the property is comprised of Naujamiestis three thematic zones: central (administrative), residential and industrial; and Žaliakalnis five thematic zones: city-garden (Minties Ring), Kaukas District, Perkūnas District, Ąžuolynas Park with the sports infrastructure and Military Research Laboratory for the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence (current Kaunas University of Technology Faculty of Chemical Technology).
Provided nomination covers the construction years 1919–1939
M. Drėmaitė stresses that it concerns not separate objects, but their entirety and this entirety is a strength of Kaunas’ modernism. The provided nomination covers the construction years 1919–1939, when Kaunas was the temporary capital.
“And that capital status was sudden, unexpected because nobody was planning for Kaunas to become the capital. When in January 1919 the government had to suddenly relocate to Kaunas, everyone believed that the relocation would be temporary, but it lasted 20 years. During that time, a European city suitable for the new national state had to be considered and built. That is the main idea of the application: this is a modernist European city, which underwent an exceptionally swift and vast transformation of the modernist stratum. And after World War I, when the great empires collapsed, many new nations in Europe which had to found new capitals emerged and they all chose modernism as their architectural language. This allowed to abandon imperialist experiences, to create a modern image and no longer resemble provincial cities of the former empires,” the historian explained.
Does the city stand a chance?
Does Kaunas stand a chance? That is the question the creators of the application are most frequently asked. According to M. Drėmaitė, the answer to this question partly depends on the residents of Kaunas’ wish to preserve the modernist stratum.
“How strongly do they wish to preserve, emphasize, highlight this? As many cities modernised themselves during the inter-war period, this stratum in Kaunas remained authentic and, perhaps, still remains the most well-preserved one. In this compact area, the concentration of modernist buildings is immense. As much as the city residents, government, heritage experts, investors, businesses will be willing to preserve, emphasize, and highlight this stratum, that is how high of a chance we will have. Once UNESCO experts arrive, they will look not only at the level of preservation, but at the wish to preserve as well. I would even dare to say, the obligation to preserve,” continued M. Drėmaitė.
In the historian’s view, the preparation of the application and the publicity, comprehension, historical knowledge, the past’s urban stratum experienced during this time is already in itself tremendously useful. “The research completed in 2020, which is presented in a 500-page file, may be an excellent inventory of the city,” stated M. Drėmaitė.
Not only a privilege, but a great responsibility
Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022 programme’s Modernism for the Future curator Viltė Migonytė-Petrulienė claims that in the event of a successful outcome Kaunas receives UNESCO approval, it would be a great opportunity to promote the city and the country and become an inspiring example of heritage protection in the 21st century.
“On the one hand the inter-war period left an exceptional footprint on the city which provides Kaunas unique character and spirit, but on the other hand we are not the only city in the world which may deem itself as modernist. This means that if successful, Kaunas would receive the opportunity to represent the modernist city as a unique cultural, social, and, of course, architectural phenomenon of the 20th century on an international level. That is not only a privilege, but a great responsibility. By nurturing the modernist city as from the past inherited building, street, nature element, and finally, function entirety, the community will need to find the recipe for success on how to maintain the physical authenticity, but at the same time be a city of the 21st century. The heritage must be perceived not only as of historical worth, but also as an inspiration for high-quality, stable, and socially responsive creation of the future city. Kaunas 2022 strongly supports the ambition to be nominated, we wish you luck and have no doubts that this will be a part of Kaunas 2022’s Modernism for the Future aims,” stated V. Migonytė-Petrulienė.
Original text by Jurgita Lieponė, journalist of 15min. You can find the text on website here.