Saturday, 16 September 2017

A Postcard From India 3 - Mr Tikam Chand, Jaipur's famous street photographer

Every year when I was growing up I would be taken to a photographic studio with my brother and sometimes cousins for a family photograph. It was an occasion. Few people had cameras then and photography was a serious, professional business. Today it seems that anyone can be a photographer. Mobile phones snap away millions of times a day and images are quickly circulated on Facebook Twitter, Instagram and whatever other channels I have yet to catch up with. Few people bother to print hard copies of pictures, preferring to stick to digital files, understandable in a way as millions of images can be kept electronically without the need for any physical space. But convenient as all of this may be, it has none of the romance of having your photograph taken in the old way.

Today in Jaipur I stepped back into the glorious past of photography and took advantage of the excellent services of Mr Tikam Chand, a third generation street photographer who, since 1977 has been using his grandfather's 160 years old German Zeiss camera. Pahari Lal (the grandfather) and then his father occupied the same spot outside shop 120 on Hawa Mahal Road in the old city. Examples of his work are attached to the side of the camera, whilst pictures of the previous two generations of photographer are affixed to the wall behind him. These include a picture of his father, strikingly handsome with a mop of wavy black hair. 

The process is not rushed. Mr Chand explains a little about the camera. Then he positions clients on an 80 years old black metal chair, also purchased by the grandfather, disappears briefly under the hood and makes sure all is well before removing the lens cover for just a few seconds in order to take the picture. Black and white images are developed immediately using a bucket, water and various chemicals to complete the process. Sepia pictures can also be produced but take 2-3 days to be developed. This kind of business is always a tough one and as time goes on more challenges are presented.  He can no longer obtain the chemicals he needs in India and has to import them from France at some expense.

As I waited for the picture to develop, Mr Chand spoke to passing tourists, inviting them to look at the camera with its internal darkroom, developer and fixer. He also asked me to re-take the seat so that they could see me "upside down". Many of them are too young ever to have had their picture taken in this way and few will have much experience of seeing black and white photography. 

In just a few minutes my picture is ready. For just 300 rupees - about £3.40 I am handed a black and white image together with a negative. Using my camera, Mr Chand kindly took a picture of me standing beside these two images. I am delighted. I was also delighted by his proximity to Pandit Kulfi - a little shop selling this delicious Indian dessert. For just 30 rupees - less than 50p - I enjoyed a very satisfying almond and pistachio kulfi on a stick. Only in India.

If you visit Jaipur, don't just come and see the camera - have your picture taken. Mr Chand also has a Facebook page - the Old Photography

My picture cost 300 rupees. Three sizes of photograph are available at varying prices.

With the exception of his portrait, all the pictures on this post were taken by Mr. Chand.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

A Postcard from India 2 - The People of Spice Alley, Mumbai's Lalbaug Market

Mumbai's Lalbaug neighbourhood was once home to several mills employing many workers in a range of industries. Today, the mills are gone and many of the chawls, communal housing built to house workers who moved to the city are being demolished and replaced with expensive high rise apartment buildings. However, some of Lalbaug's more interesting characteristics have survived, including the wonderful market with its spice alley of shops and stalls selling every spice you could ever want.

I visited Lalbaug in the afternoon after the main business of the day was concluded. Most of the  stalls were still open although one or two of the owners were napping on sofas or mats set out in the shops. I normally enjoy watching the drama of busy markets, watching people haggle about the price, choose and reject items or stand and gossip with the shop keepers and each other. However, visiting during the quiet time brings other delights - the possibility of more time to talk to the merchants and to walk freely without struggling through the crowds.

Strolling along the alley, you can see chillies being prepared for sale, with the non-usable parts being stripped away from the red or green fruit. This is done by hand. It is hard work and can result in painful burns if not done carefully. Most of this work is done by women who sit at the front of the stalls where the chillies will later be offered for sale. Once the customers have bought their spices, they take them to one of the small businesses at the rear of the market for mixing and grinding. I saw a young man heating a huge cooking pot before adding chillies and other spices under the watchful eye of the gentleman who had just bought them, stirring and folding them in the fierce heat.

In this part of the market, there is a constant loud, industrial, pounding noise as the cooked and mixed spices are then ground by young men operating powerful machinery. This results in spectacular red, yellow and other coloured ground spices ready for use in Mumbai's kitchens. The smell is intoxicating.

As with other markets, Lalbaug offers many opportunities for candid photography. The content looking  vested man sitting in the front of his store reading the newspaper made me think of a character from a Narayan novel whilst the man with the small general store noticed me taking his picture and responded with what must be the biggest smile in the market. Of course sometimes I ask for permission before clicking as I did with the lady separating the parts of the chillies. She gave her permission with a smile but then assumed a very serious pose for the camera before laughing when I showed her the result. 

Lalbaug also has a fish market which begins early in the morning and was practically concluded at the time of my visit. A number of cats were prowling the fish section, looking for any leftover treats. I noticed what might be the smallest kitten in the world, asleep beside a discarded chappel which might just have been a little bit bigger than the cat. Whilst looking at the kitten a man seated on a stone bench pointed out other kittens, took one on his lap and smiled into the camera.

Just across from the man with the kitten a woman was frying fish, liberally adding spices no doubt obtained from the alley. Not only did she say hello she also offered me some of her cooking. Sadly I had to decline. Disappointed at first, she understood when I explained my vegetarian leanings. She explained that she was not selling cooked food but was preparing a dish for her helpers now that the day's work was completed. An older man in a yellow and purple bandana sat beside her, grinding garlic and onion with a wooden mallet. When he saw me photographing his boss he moved towards me and positioned himself for a picture too.

Despite its name, the alley offers more for sale than spices. You can pick up your supply of paan - a combination of betel leaf and areca nut combined with herbs, spices and sometimes tobacco and then chewed and either spat out or swallowed. It is widely used in Asia although it can be injurious to health depending on the level of use and on what is included in the mixture. Other shops offer earthenware jugs for keeping liquids cool during the summer or grinding of wheat to make flour. Everything is laid out to attract the attention of shoppers. They goods are fresh and of high quality and the alley is clean unlike many similar markets across the world.

The spice market at Lalbaug is something to treasure in a city that is rapidly changing. Let's hope the creeping gentrification of the area does not impact adversely on this wonderful slice of old Mumbai. 

You can see more pictures from Mumbai here.

Friday, 8 September 2017

A Postcard From India 1- Mumbai's Cafe Britannia

It is believed that the first Parsis came to India some time between the 8th and 10th centuries, fleeing persecution in what is now Iran. Together with the Iranis, the Parsis are one of two groups practising the Zoroastrian faith. They have been extremely successful in India, particularly during the period of British rule when several members of the community achieved positions of prominence including in science, industry and the military. In recent decades the community has declined significantly in number due to emigration and an extremely low birth rate, but their presence is still felt though their historical achievements, the remaining Parsi temples and through their contribution to the city's cuisine.

Boman Kohinoor, proud owner of Cafe Britannia and fan of the Royal family
During the middle decades of the 20th century, Mumbai was home to several hundred Parsi/ Irani cafes serving authentic dishes including sali boti (mutton pieces cooked in a special gravy), fish patra, berry pulav and Parsi chapatis. Whilst most of these cafes have disappeared, some have survived through reinventing themselves as places to drink beer and to have snacks and a few have clung on to their roots. 

Cafe Britannia is one of the few remaining authentic Parsi cafes in the city. Founded in 1923 by Rashid Kohinoor, a Zoroastrian immigrant from Iran, it was originally established to serve continental dishes to British officers during the colonial period. Rashid's son, Boman, the current owner and still working despite being in his 90's tells a story that the name of the cafe was chosen because eating places needed to be licensed by the British and his father thought the name might encourage them to deal quickly and positively with the application. He was proved right and the cafe has been operating since then.

Some of the keynote dishes are advertised at the entrance
I ate lunch there a few days ago. I was charmed by the peeling paint, the beautiful bent wood chairs imported from Poland decades ago and the idiosyncratic rules and regulations displayed on the wall and on the menu all of which give a glimpse of a world almost disappeared. The rules include sensible stuff such as not allowing outside food to be brought in and a requirement to vacate seats as soon as you have paid to allow others to sit down but my favourite was a little less expected - do not argue with the management. I wish I'd thought of that when I worked with the public.

My food was delicious - vegetable biryani with a lemon soda - but perhaps the most memorable part of my visit was meeting Boman Kohinoor. He took my order, asked me where I am from and said I'll be back. A few minutes later he returned to the table saying I am back before proceeding to show me a number of laminated press clippings picturing him with Prince William and Kate Middleton as well as other articles about the cafe.  He is a devoted royalist and recently made the press when he was invited to meet the Royal couple when they visited the city. The invitation came as a result of a video appeal he made explaining how thrilled he would be at the opportunity to meet them in Mumbai. He continued to come and go from the table to speak to other customers, but always saying I'll be back and I'm back at the appropriate point before telling me a little more or even teasing me a little about where I come from. So are you from England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles or the United Kingdom he asked me. I told him London and he agreed that this was a good answer. Before I left he asked me for three favours - to ask the Queen to visit Mumbai, to kiss the children of William and Kate when I see them (!) and to come back and eat there again. I will definitely deliver on the third request, the first two will be more difficult.

Cafe Britannia can be found at Wakefield House, 11 Sport Road, 16 Ballard Estate, Mumbai 400038. Note - the cafe opens only between 12 and 4 and payment must be made in cash.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Kaunas Modernism Part Two

Kaunas has one of the largest collections of interwar modernist architecture in Europe. In recent years, serious attention has been given to preserving this important element of the city's built heritage. The excellent Facebook page Kaunas Modernism has played a major part in this work whilst the city's status as European Capital of Culture in 2022 offers a great opportunity to promote these treasures to a wider  international audience. I have already written about some of Kaunas' best examples of modernist architecture, but the depth and richness of the style there is so great that I can't resist a second post on this subject!

63 Donelaicio Street, Gersonas Davidavicius, 1932.
The once elegant apartment building at 63 Donelaicio Street looks a little faded today. Completed in 1932 it was designed by the Jewish architect Gersonas Davidavicius, who was responsible for designing several residences in Lithuania. The block was commissioned by the brothers Dovydas and Gedalis Ilgovskis  who were also Jewish and who had a successful construction business.

The symmetrical main facade is animated by the rounded corner windows on the avant-corps at each side, a long central balcony at first floor level and two smaller balconies with metal railings at the next level up. Towards the summit there is a decorative cornice topped by a parapet. Originally, each floor contained two apartments with corridors separating private and common areas. The apartments contained built-in wardrobes as well as servants quarters located beside a rear staircase. It is believed that the Ilgovskis brothers maintained a construction office here.

Davidavicius, who was also known as Gerson Davids, escaped the fate of most Lithuanian Jews by leaving for South Africa in 1935. Shortly after arriving he had a serious accident that resulted in the loss of an eye but he continued working and designed several residential and commercial buildings before again emigrating, this time to Canada in 1959.

Chamber of Agriculture, Karolis Reisonas, 1931.
The Chamber of Agriculture stands a little further along Donelaicio at number 2. Karolis Reisonas a prolific modernist architect began work on the design in 1929 and construction was completed in 1931. In pre-war Lithuania, the Chamber was responsible for co-ordinating national agricultural developments and for the general education of agricultural workers including the promotion of traditional crafts.

The building has a long imposing facade behind which stands one wing of this L-shaped structure. The facade itself features elegant glazing and is topped by a parapet which carries the words Chamber of Agriculture in stylised lettering. A rounded turning point links the eastern wing, which with its stepped, tapering profile is a photographer's dream. There are also small references to the Art Deco style with symbolic reliefs of ears of corn in the entrance. As well as the offices of the Chamber of Agriculture, there was originally a student canteen in the basement. During the Soviet period the building was confiscated and used by the Lenin District Committee of the Communist Party of Lithuania. It was restored to its original purpose in 1991.

Chamber of Agriculture, side view.
The Pacevicius Villa is located on Vyduno Avenue, outside of the city centre and close to the Kaunas University of Technology. Designed by Vsevolod Kopylov this single storey home was completed in 1934. Kopylov was inspired by the work of Mies van Der Rohe, one of the leading exponents of modernist architecture. The facade is a simple asymmetrical design with a central entrance and large window to the sides, each of which have stucco surrounds. The house is fronted with a neat fence topped by a pergola. The interior is small with three rooms and a total volume of just 35 cubic metres. Small can be beautiful and in 1935, the owner, Ceslovas Pacevicius won a prize for possessing "the most beautiful and comfortable brick house".

Pacevicius Villa, Vsevolod Kopylov, 1934.
The former Butas Company apartment building at 5 Traku Street was completed in 1932. Butas was one of a number of co-operatives formed in the 1930s most of which drew their membership from a single profession. The company was established by senior members of the Supreme Tribunal of Lithuania, one of whom, Antanas Krisciukaitis was not only a legal professional but also a writer and the father of Jonas and Kazys, construction engineers who were also residents here. Jonas was responsible for the design of the building.

The building consists of nine standardised apartments with two extra, smaller units on the ground floor to accommodate service staff who entered through a door at the rear. The block also included offices to allow the lawyers living there to receive clients without having to bring them into their private apartments. The design allowed for the strict separation of public, private and domestic zones. The facade is symmetrical with a series of neat balconies, avant-corps and a spectacular glazed stairwell that runs the full height of the building.

Butas Company apartment building, Jonas Kriskiukaitis, 1932.
During the 1920's the Zaliakalnis neighbourhood of Kaunas began to see an increase in population. As a result of this, the Municipal Development Plan incorporated plans for a new primary school and in 1924 Feliksas Vizbaras was commissioned to carry out the design work. Unfortunately, his proposals were never realised due to a change in the economic situation and it was not until 1932 that the new school was built to a different design produced by Antanas Jokimas. 

The Jonas Jablonski Primary School was built on the corner of Ausros and Zemaiciu streets in what became a prestigious location due to the Resurrection Church being built on the opposite side of the road. Both the architectural design and the philosophy of the school were extremely modern. It was the first school in Lithuania to make use of functional zoning with the sports hall and auditorium located in an inner yard away from the classrooms. There was also a small swimming pool, the first in the country. Thought was given to the employment prospects of pupils and four handicraft classrooms were used to help children acquire skills for working in the craft industries and for managing their future households. The inclusion of these specialist rooms may also have been part of a general commitment to preserving traditional Lithuanian crafts. In addition to the classrooms and sports facilities, there was also a large canteen and a private apartment for the head teacher.

Occupying a corner site, the school has an asymmetrical, rectangular configuration with one wing substantially longer than the other. The main junction has a stepped projecting turret - emphasising the corner location - as well as a small balcony above the main entrance which acts as a canopy. The facade is interrupted by a series of wide, red framed windows contrasting with the rear wall of the auditorium which is blank. New sections were added during Soviet times and today the building is known as the Jonas Jablonksis Gymnasium, serving an older age range than the former Primary School.

Former Jonas Jablonksi primary school, Antanas Jokimas, 1932.
My final choice for this post is the Kaunas District Municipality which stands on the junction of Laisves and Vytauto avenues. Designed by Vytautas Landsbergis, it was completed in 1933 and originally housed two institutions - the Municipality and the State Security Department. The corner location and the need to accommodate two organisations impacted on the design.

The Laisves Avenue wing housed the municipal institutions whilst the State Security Department was accommodated on the Vytauto Avenue side. The architectural style has been described as "strict and solid", emphasising the functions of the building. The construction consists of a reinforced concrete frame and steel stilts sitting on granite slab foundations. The central masses of each wing are partitioned vertically with horizontal shifts, banded ledges and recessed windows. The interior is divided by a series of hallways and there are spacious staircases in the centre of each wing. There are rotating doors at the main entrances. As with many structures from the 1930's, provision was made for key workers and a two-storey garage at the rear also included apartments for drivers as well as a small printing press.

This striking building has a dark history. The detention cells in the basement of the former State Security Department were used to torture and kill prisoners during both the German and Soviet occupations and in 1940 the NKVD carried out executions in the garage. Today the building is used exclusively at the Kaunas District Police head quarters.

Former Kaunas District Municipality, Vytautas Landsbergis, 1933.
Kaunas has hundreds of modernist buildings from the inter-war period when it was the temporary capital of Lithuania. An application has been made to UNESCO to secure World Heritage Status for them. It is only possible to highlight a few examples here and visiting Kaunas is recommended to see the others for yourself!  

A few more treasures from Kaunas...

Apartment building, Laisves Avenue, built 1933, architect not known
Door, Karininku Ramove Officers Club, Anatoljus Rozenbliumas, 1937
Stairwell "ladders", street behind Laisves Avenue, details unknown

You can see more pictures of Kaunas here.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Frantisek Zelenka - Tragic Czech Modernist

The Zadak Home, Na Baba Estate, Prague.
During the 1930's a number of housing estates were built in the modernist style with the principles of smooth lines, use of modern materials and a healthier way of life incorporated into the design. Several of these schemes were for social housing but the Baba Housing Estate in suburban Prague built from 1932-34 was a private affair attracting industrialists, artists and publishers. The homes were designed by leading Czech modernists including Frantisek Zelenka a Jewish architect who was responsible for the house of Jan Zadak on Na Ostrohu street.

Zelenka was multi-talented and in addition to architecture was also an accomplished author, graphic artist, stage and costume designer. Born in 1904, he studied architecture in Prague from 1923-28 and then from 1929 to 1932, worked as the main set designer for the avant-garde Liberated Theatre. This included designing sets for productions ranging from Shakespeare to contemporary satire. Combining Surrealist, Dada and Bauhaus elements into his work he quickly become one of the most influential set designers in the country. 

In 1934, Jan Zadak, industrialist, sports enthusiast and former member of the Czechoslovakian national football team commissioned Zelenka to design a home for him on the developing Baba Estate. In response, the architect created a simple structure of exterior brick walls and concrete pillars. The ground floor interior consists of a single living space whilst the upper level has three bedrooms at the rear with sanitary and circulation spaces located on the street facing northern facade. These latter spaces are lit by narrow strip windows reflecting traditional Czech style within an overall modernist design. The southern facade has views over the city - Na Baba is built on a hill - and the windows on this side originally had folding wooden blinds, a feature often seen in the more functionalist approach to modernism. This side also has a narrow terrace attached to the main living room with a staircase leading down to the garden, reflecting a key modernist theme of unifying interior and exterior spaces. There is also a small curved balcony on the side of the house, which together with the porthole window and canopy over the main entrance  is one of a small number of concessions to external decoration. The house led to further commissions for Zelenka and two of his buildings still survive in central Prague - an apartment block at Lodecka 3 and a former bookshop on Narodni Street. 

In 1938, conscious of the developing political situation in Europe, Zelenka considered emigrating to Switzerland  but decided to remain in Czechoslovakia, a decision that was to prove fateful when Germany occupied the country in 1939. For a time, he was forced to work as a cataloguer in the German run Central Jewish Museum in Prague. The Museum consisted of thousands of objects stolen from the murdered Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia and which were intended for display in a planned Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race. In 1942, during the occupation, he was deported to Terezin where he took part in the cultural life of the camp, overseeing the theatre. Between  July 1942 and October 1944, despite having little access to materials, he designed sets and costumes for 27 productions including Hans Krasa's children's opera Brundibar and Viktor Ullman's The Emperor of Atlantis. He was deported to Auschwitz on October 9th 1944 and it is almost certain that he was gassed on arrival as were his wife Gertrude and eight years old son, Martin. 

An edited version of this post will appear in the next edition of Jewish Renaissance - a magazine focusing on Jewish Culture and which is currently featuring a series on Jewish modernist architects of the 1930's.

You can see more pictures of Prague here.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Jewish Kaunas - Fragments of the Past

The Litvaks, or Jews of Lithuania once formed one of the world's most vibrant Jewish communities. According to the YIVO organisation Kaunas was home to 32,000 Jews in 1939 - 23% of the city's population. About 3,000 survived the Holocaust and the 1959 census showed 4,792 Jews living in the city.  Today at most there are a few hundred. Numbers declined during the communist period due to falling birth rates, inter-marriage and restrictions imposed by the state. Then, following the collapse of the Soviet Union a wave of immigration further reduced numbers. This tiny community is the remnant of what was once a large, diverse and accomplished Jewish presence in the city they knew as Kovne. Although there are few Jews here now there remain many reminders of the old days including former community buildings, various memorials and a growing interest in the Jewish past.

Choral synagogue
The Choral Synagogue at E. Ozeskienes street is the only remaining Jewish house of prayer in a city that was once home to more than 35 synagogues and shtiebels. Funded by local merchant Lewin Boruch Minkowski, this Baroque revival style building was completed in 1872. During my time in Kaunas, I met the caretaker who told me that in pre-war days, so many people attended Rosh Hoshanah, Yom Kippur and other holiday services that they could not all fit in to the building. Today there are still holiday services attended by local community members with numbers boosted by students from the nearby university, tourists and foreigners working in Kaunas. There are rarely enough attendees to form a minyan on shabbat.

Main prayer hall, Choral Synagogue
Hebrew book, Choral synagogue
The interior is in the eastern style with a beautiful aron kodesh as well as stained glass windows. The upper level, formerly the women's gallery, is now home to a small museum of Jewish life in Kaunas. This includes an exhibition of portraits of important rabbis and black and white photographs of community life before the Holocaust. There are also photographs of a Yiddish Theatre performance in the postwar period when the surviving Jews tried to rebuild their community. Unfortunately such expressions of Jewish cultural life were suppressed by the Soviet regime, opposed to anything outside of politically approved activity.

Stained glass window, Choral synagogue
Before the war, the community produced many famous artists, writers and musicians. These included poet and author Leah Goldberg, born in Konigsberg (today Kaliningrad) in 1911. Her mother preferred to give birth there as she believed the medical facilities were superior to those of her home town. However Goldberg referred to herself as a native of Kaunas. Educated at the Hebrew Gymnasium, she continued her studies at the Lithuanian University and then in Germany before moving to Tel-Aviv in 1935. In Israel she worked as an advisor to HaBimah (the national theatre). and later as a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She published poetry, drama and children's literature as well as one novel - And This Is The Light - believed to be at least partly autobiographical. Goldberg was posthumously awarded the Israel Prize for Literature, the highest recognition for a writer in her adopted country.

The Jewish contribution to popular music in Kaunas was also significant. Violinist Daniel Pomeranz had studied at the Berlin Conservatoire and led a jazz ensemble that played regularly at the former Konradas Cafe at Laisves 51(now a branch of the Vero Cafe chain). His group became so well known that they were asked to record a number of shellac discs for the Columbia record label. During the German occupation, Pomeranz was imprisoned in the Kaunas ghetto where he formed an orchestra together with Moishe Hofmekler, another band leader. Hofmekler had been the leader of the orchestra at the Metropolis Restaurant and his concerts were broadcast live on the radio. Both Pomeranz and Hofmekler survived the Holocaust.

A number of famous singers accompanied Hofmekler's orchestra including Danielus Dolski, born in Vilnius in 1891 and who popularised singing in the Lithuanian language. During the 1920's he was known internationally but sadly contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 40 in 1931. There is a statue of Dolski on Laisves Avenue opposite the former Metropolis cafe. Many of his songs are available on youtube including this one.

Danielus Dolski, Laisves Avenue.
Former Jewish residents, Yard Gallery
Just around the corner from the Choral Synagogue there is a small alley with apartments that were once home to Jewish families. When artist Vytenis Jakas moved into an apartment here he became curious about the families that had lived there before the War. In order to remember these people, he established the Yard Gallery - an open air art gallery, placing photographs of former residents on the facades of the houses, some with notes and messages added. A number of artists live in the vicinity and there are also interesting installations and murals unrelated to the Jewish past.

Yard Gallery
Yard Gallery
The images in the Yard Gallery act as a memorial to ordinary families consumed by the Holocaust. They give a glimpse into the lives of everyday people, people otherwise perhaps not commemorated. Walking the streets of the city it is possible to see more formal memorials. The facade of number  8 Kestucio Street bears a plaque with text in Hebrew and Lithuanian explaining that Doctor Elchanan Elkes lived here from 1939 to 1941. Somewhat ironically, as well as working at the Jewish hospital he had been physician to the German Ambassador for many years before the War. In 1941, he became head of the Judenrat - the organisation established by the German occupiers to implement their commands regarding the Jewish community. After reluctantly accepting this role, he is known to have been involved in supporting partisan actions against the Germans as well as refusing to participate in selections for deportation. As a result of this he was sent to a sub-camp of Dachau where he died in 1944. His wife Miriam survived the Stutthof camp and moved to Israel after the war whilst his son became a prominent researcher into schizophrenia.

Plaque for Doctor Elkes
Abraham Mapu was born in the city's Slabodka neighbourhood in 1808. He became known as the first Hebrew novelist, setting his romantic adventure stories in the biblical land of Israel. A library was established in his name in 1908 but was destroyed during the Second World War. A street in the Old Town bore his name from 1919 until the Soviet period when it was renamed before being restored to "Mapu Street" in 1980. Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language met and married his wife Klara Zilbernik in Kaunas, probably in the former synagogue that stands in the street named after him. The synagogue is now a psychology institute and is not accessible to the public. 

Former synagogue, Zamenhof Street
The story of the Holocaust in Kaunas is similar to that of most other Eastern European cities. A series of pogroms were perpetrated by the German occupiers with Lithuanian assistance before the remainder of the community was enclosed in a ghetto in Slobodka. Several thousand Jews were also killed in the building known as the Ninth Fort on the outskirts of the city. The Fort can still be visited. Several thousand Jews were deported to the Riga ghetto in Latvia, to camps in Estonia and to Dachau and Stutthof in Germany. 80% of those deported did not survive the war and most that did chose not to return to Lithuania.

It is known that several Lithuanians took part in massacring their former Jewish neighbours, particularly in the earlier pogroms. However, there were also Lithuanians who tried to help Jews. Yad Vashem in Israel has recognised rescuers from Kaunas including the Blazaiciai family who hid and cared for Rosa Fin, a Jewish girl until, miraculously, her parents returned at the end of the War.  Sofia Binkiene has been similarly recognised for sheltering Jews she found wandering in the street during the final liquidation of the Kaunas ghetto. The penalties for harbouring Jews were harsh usually ending in the rescuer being shot and the bravery of these individuals should not be underestimated.

Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese Vice Consul in Lithuania at the beginning of the Second World War. In 1940, he became aware of large numbers of Polish Jews fleeing the German invasion of Poland and needing exit visas to escape before Lithuania was overrun. The policy of most governments was not to grant a visa unless the applicants had the right to enter a third country. However, by this stage in the War, no countries were willing to grant settlement visas and the Jews were trapped. Sugihara sympathised and three times requested permission to issue visas regardless of the applicants' status. Three times he was refused. He decided to take matters into his own hands and from July 18th to September 4th 1940, issued thousands of transit visas having secured agreement from Moscow to permit travel across Russia en route to Japan albeit at hugely inflated cost.

He continued writing visas until the Consulate was closed, even throwing them from the train to the waiting crowds as he left. In total he issued around 6000 visas but saved many more lives as the documents allowed heads of families to take relatives with them. As a relatively junior diplomat, Sugihara's decision to act alone was at great risk to himself. Not only that, Japan was an ally of Germany who viewed the refugees as enemies. He ended the war as the Vice Consul to Romania and when Bucharest was captured by the Soviets he and his family spent 18 months in a prison camp. Following their release and return to Japan he was removed from his post and reduced to working in menial jobs to survive. He was invited to Israel in the 1960s and in 1985 was granted status of Righteous Amongst The Nations after lobbying from some of those he had saved. The Sugihara House at 30 Vaizganto Street has a small museum about the former Vice Consul. It is currently being refurbished but is still open for visitors.

There are few Jews in Kaunas today, but there are echoes of the past everywhere and the Jewish contribution to the city's development is again beginning to be recognised.

The Choral Synagogue
Kaunastic  the Visit Kaunas team, has produced an excellent map and guide to Jewish Kaunas. The Litvak Landscape can be picked up at the Tourist Office and the Sugihara House or downloaded from the website.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Kaunas Modernism Part One

Kaunas has one of the largest collections of modernist buildings in any European city. I first became aware of this a couple of years ago when a friend drew my attention to Kaunas Modernism, an excellent Facebook group concentrating on the inter-war architecture of Lithuania's second city. Last week I spent thee days there, admiring some of the city's best examples of modernism and finding out how there came to be so many of them.  I also managed to find a little time to enjoy some of the city's best cakes!

Until the 1920's this was a relatively small city, characterised by wooden houses and baroque churches. A construction boom during the 1920's and 1930's changed this with many new civic and commercial buildings as well as stylish new apartment blocks. This was because from 1918-1940, Kaunas acted as a temporary capital for Lithuania. Vilnius was under Polish rule during this period and Kaunas needed to acquire the trappings of a national capital. Unfortunately, the new found confidence and period of growth was not to last as invasion by the Soviets (1940) and then German occupation (194-45) preceded incorporation into the Soviet Union. Lithuania did not regain independence until 1990. During the intervening years many outstanding buildings fell into disrepair, were significantly altered or even demolished but a lot survived and this post highlights a few of my favourites from my recent visit.

Central Post Office, 1931.
Laisves Avenue is the main thoroughfare of the New Town. Pedestrianised during Soviet times it is today a tree lined boulevard where people come to shop, stroll, sit outside the many cafes or ride along the green coloured cycle path. It is also the location of four outstanding modernist buildings, two of which were the work of architect Feliksas Vizbaras.

The Central Post Office was built in 1931 and stands at number 102 . Vizbaras combined elements of folk architecture with the principles of modernism including wide modern windows, convex glass on the facade's corners and internal murals depicting Lithuanian postage stamps. The interior also features stained glass with heraldic symbols and figurative compositions. During the Soviet period some of the original stained glass works were removed and replaced with images of zodiac signs. The tiled lobby and main hall floors are also said to make reference to Lithuanian folk art. The facade is especially striking with its mixture of curves, the flat faced clock in the central section and  the squared off towers to each side. Each of these elements rise to different heights.

This is a large building, costly to maintain and heat, which is probably the reason that it has recently been sold. I understand that the new owner is to use it as business premises, the nature of which is not yet known. Vizbaras' Post Office enjoys official protection but it is to be hoped that the new owners respect this and that the public are still able to enter and enjoy it.

Detail, Central Post Office, 1931.
Former Pazanga building, 1934.
Vizbaris' second building here is on the opposite side of the street at number 53 and was completed in 1934. Designed for the Pazanga (progress) publishing company, it was owned by the then ruling National Union Party to produce and distribute books and journals carrying the party's message. The offices of the party newspaper were also here as was a second floor snack bar and restaurant open to the public, accessed by a lift which also took visitors to the roof terrace. A large basement contained a meeting room with natural light admitted through skylights made from glass bricks. 

As with the Post Office, the facade has varying depths and heights and includes references to Lithuanian folk art. The central part features three balconies with decorative metal railings that combine folk art with Art Deco motifs. It is flanked by curved and sectioned windows leading to loggias that run to the extremes of the building. The ground floor has large shop windows reflecting its use as a retail space and mirrors the curved elements of the upper floors. Although in good physical condition, some original features were lost during the Soviet period when those glass skylights were removed and some of the interior spaces partitioned. Today the upper levels are used by the administration section of the Vytautas Magnus University whilst there is a supermarket on the ground floor.

Former Dairy Centre, 1932
Our third stop on Laisves Avenue is next door to the former Pazanga building on the corner of Daukanto Street. Now the School of Economics and Business within Kaunas University of Technology, the former Dairy Centre was the headquarters of Lithuania's milk processing companies. It was designed by Vytautas Landsbergis and built from 1931-32. Occupying a commanding corner position, the exterior is defined by its interactions between vertical and horizontal elements. Each level is marked by uninterrupted panels running the length of the building. The rounded corner has convex glazing descending to the ground floor and main entrance which in turn is shaded by a wide illuminated ledge reminiscent of Parisian department stores. This may have helped it to win the Bronze Medal at the 1937 International Exposition des Arts et des techniques in the French capital. The entire structure is built around a reinforced concrete frame intended to offer the possibility of reshaping the interior if necessary. As with the Pazanga, there was a large basement, this one equipped with an icehouse.

The ground floor originally contained the Dairy Centre shop, a cafe, milk bar and the rather fabulous sounding Muralis men's hairdressing salon which extended over two floors. A few pictures of the salon's interior have survived and show a crisp, functionalist environment with barbers' chairs, large mirrors, screens and wall mounted lighting. The salon was designed by Arnas Funkas - a prominent Lithuanian architect of this period. The administration functions were spread over two floors with apartments at the upper levels - three units to each floor. A number of prominent tenants lived here over the years including Dovas Zaunius, one time Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vince Jonusaite, his opera singer wife. The Dairy Centre was used for various purposes during there Soviet period with the University taking up residence in 1946.

Romuva Cinema, 1940.
During the 1930's, cinema design was heavily influenced by modernist principles. Examples of this can be seen all over the world including in Kaunas. The Romuva cinema is located in a small alley, recessed from Laisves, but still carrying the address of the avenue at number 54. Completed in April 1940, it was the biggest cinema in Lithuania, seating 687 people and benefitting from the most modern technology with mechanical ventilation and state of the art screening equipment. An oval shaped auditorium, special wall coverings and a vaulted reinforced concrete ceiling were included to enhance the acoustics. The decision not to include a circle in the auditorium was taken for the same reason.

The tall glazed advertising tower on the exterior of the cinema was intended to be illuminated with lighting in changing colours. The Second World War had already commenced by the time the cinema was completed and the device needed to provide this lighting feature was held up en route  and so this part of the design was not realised. The main part of the facade is divided by moulded frames and has two rows of different sized windows. The original plan had been to use the upper level for advertising but the windows were installed in order to light the office spaces behind them. A number of changes have been made over the years including moving the ticket office, increasing the slope of the hall and reducing the number of seats to 482. Brothers Antanas and Petras Steikunas, members of the Lithuanian Businessmen's Union commissioned architect Aleksandras Maciulskis  to design their cinema which is still in use today.

Detail, former Daina Cinema, 1940.
Detail, former Daina Cinema, 1940.
There are two modernist cinemas in the Zaliakalnis neighbourhood of the city. Sadly neither of them are being used for their original purpose. The Daina at number 74 Savanoriu is in very poor condition with the main entrance and some of ground floor windows bricked up and the facade covered in grime. Despite this, it is possible to imagine its original grandeur. It still bears the stylised signage carrying the cinema's name, those impressive columns above the entrance and at least a few of the Art Deco style portholes at ground floor level.

Completed in 1936, the Daina could seat 614 viewers across the stalls, balconies and circle. It was designed using the most up to date technology with a roof top ventilation system that blew in fresh heated air as well as extracting stale air. The facade was illuminated by neon tubes which was also technically advanced at the time. Engineer Antanas Breimeris, husband of one of the owners was engaged to design the cinema. When he encountered difficulties he was joined by Stasys Kudokas who was responsible for several Kaunas buildings during this period.

The Daina ceased operating as a cinema after Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, was sold  and used for a time as a carpet shop. It was sold a second time and there were plans to use it as a casino before these were blocked by the municipality. Its future now appears uncertain. A little further along Savanoriu at number 124, a use has been found for the former Pasaka cinema, completed in 1940 and boasting some delightful Art Deco fins on the facade. It is now a "gentleman's club". I suspect not many gentlemen go there.

Resurrection Church, 1933-2006.
The Resurrection  Church is one of Kaunas' most iconic buildings. It has quite a history. Building a new church to commemorate the Lutheran revival was first mooted in 1922 but it was not until 1928, following the purchase of a plot of land on Zaliakalnis Hill, that a competition was held to choose a design. Karolis Reisonas who headed the city's Construction Department was chosen to design the church despite placing only third in the competition. Not only did he not win, but his proposal for an 82 metres high spiral tower with a statue at the summit was rejected on grounds of complexity and cost and a simpler plan adopted. The plan may have been simpler but the resulting church is spectacular. An enormous white structure supported by 1,200 reinforced concrete pillars, it has two towers of differing height, a roof top chapel and can hold more than 5,000 people. For a small fee, visitors may take a lift to the roof terrace and enjoy views across the city.

Most construction took place between 1933 and 1940. Lithuania was first absorbed into the Soviet Union in June 1940 and the church was nationalised. The German occupation came soon after this and during this period it was used as a paper warehouse. The returning Soviets converted it to a radio factory in 1952 but worse was threatened with Stalin demanding demolition of the taller tower and the chapel at one point. It was not until 1990 that the church returned to its original purpose following Lithuanian independence and further construction works continued until 2006.

Resurrection Church 1933-2006.
My final choice for this first of two posts on Kaunas Modernism is the Elias Schneider apartment house on Vaidilutes Street. Designed by Stasys Kudokas, who we came across earlier, it was completed in 1938. The upper levels include two apartments per floor each with three or four rooms. There are three flats in the basement. At time of construction the apartments would have been very desirable - some have more than one bathroom, a number of pantries, balconies and even servants quarters. The asymmetrical facade is a modernist delight with Bauhaus style balconies,  a stone "ladder" on the exterior of the glazed staircase and even Art Deco portholes. The balconies are set within a recessed section of the facade but protrude from the edge of the building, further emphasising the nautical feel suggested by the portholes. The Schneider apartments may be in a poorly maintained side street and the facade could use a good clean but this is still a wonderful example of the confidence and modernity of Kaunas in the pre-war period. 

Schneider apartment building - 1938.
This must have been some city in the 1930's with its many cafes, theatres, cinemas and new sports facilities. Over the last few years, the importance of Kaunas' modernist architecture has been recognised and engaged with due in large part to the efforts of a small number of enthusiasts. This has resulted in an application for World Heritage Status for the city's interwar architecture. If successful, this will bring both opportunities and responsibilities, especially in relation to preservation. Kaunas will be European Capital of Culture in 2022. This will be a great opportunity to showcase the modernist past and to continue the good work being done to promote Kaunas.

The cakes were good too...

I must say thanks to Kkastytis Rudokas for ensuring that I saw some great modernist buildings and also for his Kaunas Modernism Facebook page.

If you wish to read more about the city's 20th and 21st century architecture, the English language version of the book Kaunas Architectural Guide is an excellent guide.

You can see more general pictures of Kaunas here.