LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2010 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 56, No.2 - Summer 2010
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Vilnius City: Urbanism Driven by Consumption
ALMANTAS SAMALAVIČIUS holds a Ph.D in art history and theory and is an associate professor at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, Faculty of Architecture. He is the author of seven books and numerous journal articles on architectural history and criticism, city culture, higher education, and Lithuanian literature. In addition, he teaches literary and cultural theory in the Department of English at Vilnius University.
This article covers changes in Vilnius’s urban structure and cityscape during the last twenty years, since the reestablishment of independence. Drawing on theoretical analysis and firsthand observation, the author demonstrates that during this period Lithuania’s capital underwent rapid urbanization of a new kind because of the rise of a capitalist market economy, the commodification of culture in general, the expansion of the real estate sector in the city’s economy, and the construction of large-scale business centers and shopping malls. All these factors and tendencies resulted in creating a new image of Vilnius – one of a globalized capitalist city with a strong shift towards commercialization, urbanization, and internationalization. This trend in the city’s development had an ambiguous impact on public spaces (squares, parks, etc.), and in fact contributed to their erosion in the structure of Vilnius. This implies that a new kind of thinking is needed to prevent further uneven urbanization of Lithuania’s capital.
During the last two decades, Lithuania’s capital and its urban life have experienced significant changes. This applies not only to the disappearance of the grayish color scheme of apartment blocks constructed during the Soviet period, but to the city’s entire visual character – including the present undeniable dominance of high-rise buildings in the central area and on the right bank of the Neris, and the density of international luxury shops and shopping centers on Gediminas Avenue, the capital’s main street constructed during the Tsarist period and occupied mainly by administrative buildings and offices in the Soviet era. The very character of historic Vilnius, its genius loci or spirit of place, is shifting rapidly, and some critics would go so far as to claim – radically. There might be different opinions about which of these visual changes are most effective at creating a new character for the present urban structure of Vilnius, but few would refuse to admit that all of them have been extremely profound, and anyone who has visited Lithuania twenty or even ten years ago and recently returned would agree that what we see today is a totally new image of the city – that of a truly Western capitalist metropolis, hardly resembling the gray and shabby backward city of the Soviet era.
This new post-Soviet image of Vilnius came into being through various factors triggered by the fall of the communist regime and activated by the post-Soviet “fast-food” market economy: it was created hastily, without much consideration of possible economic alternatives like, say, the Swedish model. Some of the factors that reshaped the urban tissue of Vilnius were: an uneven distribution of finance capital in Lithuania’s largest cities; the reconfiguration of money-flow; the rapid development of a real estate sector; and hasty attempts to solve housing problems, but in one way or another, post-Soviet urban development was directly related to the rise of the culture of consumption, a phenomenon most gloriously represented by high-rise commercial buildings, large-scale supermarkets and, most recently, gigantic shopping malls that were first built on the outskirts, but lately have made their way into the central or subcentral areas of Vilnius as well as other large cities. This article attempts to map out the main visual changes in Vilnius during the post-Soviet decades and to analyze to what degree the present character of the city was and continues to be shaped by the culture of consumption that replaced the culture of scarcity dominant during the Soviet era.
Cathedrals of the Culture of Consumption
During the reign of communism, individuals destined to remain on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain had a rather vague understanding of the Western market economy, or capitalist system as such. The vast and mysterious area that stretched beyond the barbed wire of a Soviet borderland was imagined as a promised land of plenty and abundance. Renowned British novelist and cultural critic John Berger had already insightfully noted four decades ago in his well-known essay on advertising, long before the dissolution of the socialist system, that “The great hoardings and the publicity neons of the cities of capitalism are the immediate visible sign of ‘The Free World’. For many in Eastern Europe such images in the West sum up what they in the East lack. Publicity, it is thought, offers a free choice.”1
Today, no one in the eastern part of Europe, including Lithuania, is emotionally or psychologically moved by the presence of far more advanced advertising and publicity technologies in large cities than what was present when Berger wrote these lines; they are just taken for granted as a natural part of contemporary life. However, the grand-scale shopping malls that appeared in Lithuanian cities considerably later than the visual signs of publicity continue to captivate city dwellers and visitors from provincial areas alike. Vilnius’s Acropolis complex – one of the largest shopping malls in the country – became both the visual symbol of the current culture of capitalist consumption and a center of attraction, bringing in tens of thousands of shoppers and visitors every day. Its central location in the topography of urban consumption is pretty well documented by several facts: the permanent traffic jams not only in adjoining territories, but on the highway that leads to Utena through the residential district of Šeškinė, as well as along the special bus routes and mass transportation designed for the potential visitors that start right from Vilnius’s central railway station and lead to the last stop at the Acropolis. Moreover, it is well known that provincial bus companies arrange many one-day tours for local shoppers to visit a place that might be called the great National Cathedral of Consumption. Television interviews reveal that many teenagers know only one semantic meaning for Acropolis, and it has nothing to do with Ancient Greece or Classical Antiquity. For those who are just maturing as consumers, it is THE center of mass entertainment, with its abundance of stores, coffee shops, restaurants and other places of attraction.
British urban researchers Steven and Malcolm Miles have recently argued that “Perhaps the influence of consumerism on our society, but also on our psychology, is so profound that its effect on our urban environment is in turn actually as emotional as it is physical and it is precisely for this reason that it is so difficult to assess the impact of consumption on the urban landscape.”2 However, this impact on individuals’ mental and emotional life, as well as on the general cityscape, is much more evident in the postcommunist realm, where the rise of consumerism and a culture of consumption was so fast that it brought clearly visible changes to most urban areas. The main building of Acropolis rising over the hills of Šeškinė can hardly be said to destroy the natural landscape of the outskirts, as some architects argued a few years ago when the plans to add several more floors on top were widely and heatedly discussed, at least compared to other high-rise buildings, like the recently renovated Reval Lietuva Hotel (constructed by architects Algis and Vytautas Nasvytis in the Soviet period), or the tallest of Vilnius’s buildings: the business center “Europa,” with its adjoining municipal tower and the half dozen other structures visually “deconstructing” a cityscape organically shaped over centuries. The urban changes fostered by the expansion of shopping malls are even experienced physically: the presence of a kind of circumferential machine can be felt as soon as one approaches the Šeškinės district by car: the traffic gets heavier and heavier with every kilometer, and eventually a huge parking lot opens to view, like an ‘automobile ocean’ (to borrow a phrase from a poem by Alis Balbierius).
Contemporary shopping malls in Vilnius are designed to create an easy and relaxing atmosphere for endless consumption. Inside, Acropolis is constructed to resemble a city in itself, with broad avenues and large shop windows, bars and restaurants that can be seen from both the outside and the inside. The routes are planned so a potential customer has to walk long distances while looking for a particular shop, brand, or commodity. Alhough everything the interior design of Acropolis represents is hardly new to Western shoppers, it creates a special atmosphere for Vilnensians, who hardly had an opportunity to experience such “joys” of shopping a decade ago. Acropolis and other large shopping malls in Vilnius (like Ozas or Panorama) are designed to symbolize the gates to the Paradise of Endless Consumption – one of the central myths generated by advanced capitalism. The urban image these commercial structures create is extremely effective in pursuing their goals. As Austrian urban critic Robert Misik has insightfully noted:
Shopping malls are zones with the affects of city life – but by no means does that make them urban spaces. In these mock public spaces, regulations are imposed. That which is perceived as public space is in fact private space that has been opened up, to enable – while simulating public space – traffic back and forth. The owners control this traffic in order to allow access to only certain people or, in the case of a violation of the rules, to give a ticking off. At the same time, an atmosphere conducive to lingering must be created that suits the aims of the owners: music and so on should create a pleasant, relaxed or stimulating atmosphere appropriate for consuming. That’s why wiling away one’s time is only desirable in commercial zones. Everything is planned in advance and controlled.3
The same applies to Vilnius’s Acropolis – an openly commercial structure that bears the characteristic features of a globalized shopping mall one that contains almost no references to anything local or national, except perhaps a few restaurants that serve Lithuanian food with a more or less standardized décor of wood and thatch in a pseudo-folkloric style, examples of which can be found all over the country. Even in terms of size, Acropolis and other shopping malls in Vilnius closely follow the global model of such commercial enterprises. Though it can hardly compete in size with the world’s largest shopping malls – like the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota (built in 1992), which covers four million hectares of land, a mega structure containing four hundred shops, forty-five foodservice centers, four supermarkets, three hotels, a fourteenscreen cinema, night clubs, and a theme park – it imitates the variety of services and entertainment provided by such commercial centers.
The tendency toward cultural commodification and commercialization influenced by American mass culture in Europe became evident shortly after World War II . As sociologist of culture Daniel Snowman has observed, the British society that scorned American-style consumerism during the first post WW II decade eventually appropriated mass culture with pop icons and goods that came from the other side of the Atlantic. According to him, the British people gave themselves up to American goods in their stores and this means, in a certain sense, the Americanization of Britain.4 One of the largest British shopping malls – Metro Center in Gateshead (in the northeastern part of the island), containing 360 stores, fifty restaurants, and a parking lot for 12,000 automobiles – is both a model of present-day commercial enterprise and a symbol of contemporary global culture that lost its supposedly “American” character years ago. Today, as many researchers into globalization agree, one can no longer speak of the dissemination of a culture produced by one and only one center. The present globalized culture has long assumed a character of anonymity. Commercial centers and shopping malls in present-day Vilnius can only be described as having no particular local character. These structures can be found on any continent and in any city, like contemporary chain hotels or brand-name fast-food restaurants, and are equally out of place wherever they are located.
The Erosion of Public Space
Ali Madanipour, while diagnosing the urban condition of current Western societies, noted:
Throughout history, urban public spaces have always played a central role in the social life of cities. But they have lost their significance and are no longer the main nodes of all social networks. Technological change, larger population and specialization of activities have led to a fragmentation of functions and a despatialization of the public sphere. Treatment of space as commodity and stratification of society have led to social-spatial segregation and privatization of space. Treating city design as merely providing aesthetic experience is in line with marketing the cities and a new attention to cities by capital markets.5
This statement also applies to the changes in post-communist urban life. There was a short period throughout the East European domain when public spaces reacquired the lost public functions and public character par excellence – during the years of the Velvet Revolutions, when crowds of individuals longing for freedom rallied in squares and parks. However, this triumph of a truly public spirit was short-lived. Changes in the economy and in social life have also had an impact upon the fate of urban public spaces. After the reestablishment of independence, only a few large public spaces in Vilnius – Gediminas Square, Town Hall Square, and a few others that had a certain representational status – maintained their public spirit due to their centrality in the city’s life and/or sufficient funding for their reconstruction and maintenance. However, even one of the largest squares in the center of Lithuania’s capital – Lukiškės, known as Lenin Square during the Soviet period – remained devoid of any public character throughout the last twenty years. The site of a spectacular public demonstration on the eve of independence – the demolition of Lenin’s statue that symbolized Soviet power for almost five decades – has been almost totally neglected since 1990 and, despite numerous national design competitions for its revival or reconstruction, not much came of it. Rival groups of politicians, real estate developers, and architects were unable to reach any compromise over the future vision of this square. This is witnessed by the fact that no less than ten architectural competitions have proved ineffective, despite the fact that a number of the projects had received prizes. Most of the competitions, however, were compromised by the jury canceling all the prizes, a fact widely discussed in Lithuania’s cultural and architectural periodicals. Architect and architectural critic professor Rimantas Buivydas commented as early as 1996 on the supposed failure of Lukiškės Square’s architectural competitions. According to the author:
Many of those (architects) who took part in competitions in this country have criticized their principles and the way they are organized. Thus the failure of the Lukiškės Square competition was not an somewhat exceptional unfortunate event. […] So one can agree with most architects that it is impossible to organize competitions as badly as it is being done in our country. And we can only boast that in this sphere we have already reached “bottom.” The peculiar thing is that the process goes on against all known laws of nature, since no attempts are made to move upward, but rather to lie on the the ground and crawl around.6
Despite the somewhat vague rhetoric, the diagnosis of the critic proved to be almost prophetic: it took fourteen more years for the state powers to finally decide to end the twenty years of abortive attempts to envision the square’s future. Finally, a few months ago, it was agreed by the state council set up by Lithuania’s government in 2009 to make provision for a public monument in Lukiškės Square and to reconstruct it to meet that purpose.
Although the case of Lukiškės Square has revealed the prolonged impotence of post-Soviet Lithuanian political powers to make a decision on behalf of the national public interest, the present state of affairs in the sector of public space is complicated all over Europe. As British urbanist John Whitelegg has insightfully noted:
Our planning and development systems are still delivering large, land-greedy, energy-wasting leisure, recreational and retail facilities, at the same time as our urban communities wither and die because of lack of facilities and lack of attractiveness.7
And this is especially true of public places that are under constant attack in Eastern and Western Europe alike, where “It is not possible to defend any places on historical, social, religious or environmental grounds. In Germany, national sites of environmental significance are made into roads.”8 Meanwhile in Vilnius, most public places of lesser symbolic importance than the Gediminas or Town Hall square are almost totally neglected, and some of the few that were lucky enough to be renovated were, until very recently, in danger of falling into the hands of private owners. For example, Odminiai Square – a place of utmost historical significance in the neighborhood of Gediminas Square – was threatened with conversion into a roof for an underground parking lot. Some ten years ago it took the efforts of seventeen independent public organizations and cultural associations (Lithuanian PEN Club was one of the first to start a public action) to prevent this important site from being forever disfigured and transformed into a garage. Today, however, Vilnius center can boast an Odiminiai Square for public recreational purposes: its fountains, trees, benches, and open air restaurants attract many city dwellers, visitors, and tourists during the travel season.
Many more potentially attractive and useful public spaces remain outside any municipal initiatives to become “active” places for recreational purposes. The square adjoining Pylimas Street between Basanavičius and Kalinauskas streets is perhaps one of the best examples of post-Soviet urban policy failure in Vilnius. Once a green space full of stately old trees, it was reconstructed into the site of a huge monument to Soviet Lithuanian partisans. After the fall of the Soviet regime, the ideological monument was demolished, but its concrete base remained much as it was designed by Soviet urban planners, except for the large male figures that were pulled down and eventually transferred to Grūtas Park, where many communist-era monuments are now preserved. The whole disfigured place remains deserted, badly taken care of, its concrete block and huge staircase falling apart – nothing that one should find in the center of 52 a large city or capital. The site only comes alive in summertime, when students and residents of the area use it for leisure. The lack of municipal power and interest in investing in the public domain has spawned a haunted space near the semi-central part of Vilnius. And there are a number of public places that look almost identical: lacking care, devoid of truly public character, aesthetic shape, or any element that would make them public places Vilnius could boast of. The sad combination of a lack of truly public spirit in postcommunist society, a morally corrupt state and municipal powers, along with greedy investors interested only in immediate profit-making projects, chosen at the expense of renovating the public spaces of cities, make all of this our everyday reality. How this reality might be changed remains to be seen. One can only hope that the lost public spirit will somehow reawaken.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books, 1972.
Buivydas, Rimantas. “Architektūra: pozityvai ir negatyvai,” Vilnius: Ex Arte, 2006.
Madanipour, Ali. Public and Private Places of the City. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
Miles, Steven and Malcolm Miles. Consuming Cities. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Misik, Robert. Simulated Cities, Sedated Living. htttp://www.eurozine.com/articles/2006-12-15-misik-en.html.
Snowman, Daniel. Britain and America. An Interpretation of Their Cultures 1945-1975. New York: Grove Press, 1975.
Whitelegg, John. “Building Ethics into Built Environment,” Ethics and Built Environment, edited by Warwick Fox. London: Routledge, 2000.