Nine days in Vilnius

Reflections on a residency with B_Tour, the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre and Architecture Fund

A response to our residency in September 2016, with thanks to the Lithuania National Drama Theatre, the Architecture Fund in Vilnius and B_Tour.

On our first day in the city we look for traces, clues, atmospheres. Historic borders and public maps. The old ghetto; the missing synagogue. Wilno, Wilna, Вильнюс,Vilna, ווילנע, Vilno, Viļņa, Вiльня, Vilnius: name = identity = (ripped up and rewritten).

Maps and fragments of maps • on paper • on phones • in space • in memory • in the body.

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Benches everywhere – a commitment to public space? So many different kinds of benches. So many empty benches. The meeting point of private and public acts.

Private spaces spilling out on to the pavements. Nobody wants to hide. Why would they? Does anyone here need or want to be invisible?

The festival of street art • Editing the city as text • The ancient gates marked by billboards

In the future every building will be famous for 15 minutes

Absent monuments to the future

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Pasting folk heroes and stories over the holes left by soviet destruction; filling the plinths‘ empty spaces with flower bowls.

Hidden demolitions and a disappearing legacy.

The street inscribed on trolley buses / trolly buses inscribing the street.

Tony Soprano waits for a train with the hipsters. Albertas shows us a district in the shadow of a prison, where party officials used to have flats looking down on to the prison yard, and the Old Believers still have a church (piles of wooden orthodox crosses in a shed behind it). A man says something to us in Lithuanian: What are you looking at? There’s nothing here for tourists. There used to be gangs of criminals here, but they’ve all moved out, left the country for better pickings. The young professionals have noticed the affordable rents and started moving in. Gentrification (the western disease): what is a neighbourhood if the people are removed? Albertas has hundreds of locals taking his tours and sharing their stories. Such a hunger for history.

Lithuania is de facto a country of emigration. Lithuania’s emigration rate is among the highest in the European Union. Since independence in 1990 around 825 thousand people or almost one third of the population has left the country.

Where are the zones of suspicion?

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KGB agents listening at the Neringa Hotel (an anecdote for tourists now)

We discover the Planetarium and the square behind it. A shopping centre, a pedestrian zone, a car park with music playing, two strip clubs, betting shops, travel agents, two hotels, broken pavements, empty benches, ancient fashion shops, a Chinese restaurant, a museum of outer space. Some inscrutable public art in front of the Radisson Blu. Lots of stairs, busy roads, plants in pots, ramps for skateboarding (but no skateboarders). And no stargazing; the Planetarium is closed, it opens rarely and then mainly for groups. Just behind the centre, on the other side of a busy road, there loom shiny glass towers, like a vision of western wealth.

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Everything is built at an angle • cracks in the pavement • bunkers at the museum • the machine gives me blood instead of chocolate.

We think about processing sounds into abstraction (the sound of the stars, the sound of the cracks, the sound of the absences).

Listen

We watch people cross the square, come and go from VCUP. We think about the choreography of the gaze: who’s looking where.

The main characteristics of VCUP are its spaciousness and functionality, based on modern solutions … visitors have an opportunity to admire Neris River through a glass wall in all elevators and panoramic lifts

Arte Povera constructions litter the streets (so many piles of earth, as if the moles are at work beneath Vilnius, crumbling away the past and slowly, slowly burying it under the pavement).

We go to the Palace of Weddings – a secular cathedral – with Marija, and marvel at its careful restoration in textile and detail. I touch the soft cord of the interior walls and get a shock when my fingertips brush against rough concrete. Marriages, births, deaths all registered here, all the rites of passage under one modernist roof.

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At the parliament: a monument to barricades which is made of barricades. Which are in turn made from building materials: reinforced concrete, iron, barbed wire. Unbuilding in order to rebuild. Behind the parliament there are steps to nowhere in a forest of cats. A transient manifesto.

Inscribed into the city:

Out of this building came the evil thoughts

THE PERSECUTION OF THE OTHERWISE-MINDED

So many varieties of security camera and all of them are pointing at doorways and entrances, no one is looking at the street. No one is looking or listening to the otherwise-minded any more, all that is history.

One of us visits the Museum of Genocide Victims to explore how history has been written, and written over. It’s all about how her compatriots imprisoned, tortured and murdered the Lithuanians. There’s just one room on the Holocaust.

Since 1997, it has been run by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre. Despite its name, the institution is emphatically not a Holocaust museum. In what became a model for post-Soviet Lithuania’s new party line, the museum recasts the human rights abuses of the Soviets as the “genocide,” while the Holocaust is brushed under the rug, downgraded to what the permanent exhibit calls Gestapo “repression against Jewish and other populations of Lithuania.” … In one of its very first independent actions, before even fully breaking free of Moscow, Lithuania’s parliament formally exonerated several Lithuanian nationalists who had collaborated in the Holocaust and had been convicted by Soviet military courts after the war. The right-wing paramilitaries who had carried out the mass murder of Lithuania’s Jews were now hailed as national heroes on account of their anti-Soviet bona fides.

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We spend an afternoon at Lazdynai, the soviet modernist sleeping district. The decision to follow people off the bus and towards the towers leads to … the hospital. The longest corridor imaginable cuts through the centre of the hospital, like a corridor from a dream. At the end (of course) there is no way out and we have to retrace our steps, back through the dream to waking and walking in other directions. Up on the tenth floor of a tower we find a way out to the roof. A view across Vilnius. Closer there are red-and-white striped chimneys and empty playgrounds. More benches, all empty. The Television Tower with its revolving top.

I find something on a website, a joke that was current in the first part of the twentieth century, which said: Vilnius would be peaceful, if all the people left and it became a museum.

We discover that VCUP stands for Vilniaus Centrinė Universalinė Parduotuvė, the Vilnius Central Universal Shopping Centre, designed as a department store in the soviet era and, like GUM in Moscow, converted later into a western-style shopping centre. Unlike GUM, VCUP lacks luxury brands and sumptuous VIP toilets. It does have a constant soundtrack (Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Drake etc, or their imitators).

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In 1964, a contest announced in Vilnius calling for detailed proposals to reconstruct the right bank of the Neris River quickly became a competition between old and new ideas. One proposal in particular stood out among the various submissions prepared by architects from across Lithuania. Under the direction of Algimantas Nasvytis, a group of young architects (including his brother Vytautas Nasvytis, Jaunius Makariūnas, Vytautas Čekanauskas, and Vytautas Brėdikis) presented their interpretation of prevailing Western architectural concepts for commercial centers featuring a multi-perspectival commercial street and square for pedestrian shoppers. The proposal envisioned the intersection of two main arteries on the broad, flat embankment of the Neris River. One axis was to join the old section of Vilnius with the new districts by means of a bridge over the Neris (today’s Baltasis [White] Bridge, completed in 1995) and then ascend up the riverbank by means of broad, terrace-like steps to meet the second axis, Ukmergė Street (today’s Konstitucijos prospektas), beyond which was an area set aside for high-rise residential housing.

We learn about the emptiness of the urban planning; how plans were made dictating from the top, without reference to the particular needs and characteristics of Vilnius. We discover that the group of tower blocks (which Lithuanians describe as skyscrapers) are called the Glass Hill.

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The real face of the town is its people. The present day worker is more skilled and better educated, but more important, he has come to the realization that work is the only source of his well-being. The manufacturers of Vilnius export metal-cutting machine tools, drills, chemical goods, computers, electric, electronic, electrographic and radio equipment to 80 countries of the world. Knowing that the prosperity of the whole country depends upon their creative initiative, they spare no effort in speeding up the progress of science and technology. Workers of Vilnius take great pride in their modern enterprises, neat working places, high standards of technical design, consumer service and cultural establishments. …

New residential areas reach far into the hilly outskirts of the town. Their designers and builders continue the best traditions of urban architecture and landscaping. New housing developments of Vilnius reflect the republic’s progress in many spheres of life.

From Vilnius, edited by J Udraite, published by Mintis in 1985

From Jekaterina we learn of the grey spaces on the map that indicate nothingness, although many are filled with unauthorised housing. We visit the grey areas and see the wooden houses which officially do not exist. We are told they are likely to last longer than the glass tower blocks (if they are not burned down by mysterious fires). We see the model of the city, with its wood and plastic rectangles indicating the present and future buildings of Vilnius, the real and imagined, actual and possible, lasting and fragile.

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We imagine Tomas Grunskis’ noise concert in the underpass beneath Konstitucijos Avenue, between the VCUP’s pedestrian zone and its slick twin the Europa centre.

Due to emigration, Lithuania loses a high percentage of the young working-age population. Nearly 73 per cent of emigrants are between 15 and 44 years old. To compare, less than half (38,7 per cent) of Lithuania’s residents belong to this age group. Should this trend continue, it could undermine the development of the country, for two main reasons: first, the labour market might suffer from shortages of workers, especially those who can add value to the economy. Second, the burden on workers will increase as they will have to support more non-working people (i.e. those receiving benefits). On the individual level, emigration might have also positive effects: emigrants earn more money, gain new skills, some return after they reach their goals.

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We start thinking of dystopia as a failed utopia. As a failed dream. We talk to people in Vilnius about their dreams. We wonder where everyone is. We are told that a lot of them have moved to London.

Listen listen listen

We imagine following Vilnius to London …

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