“Freedom to build”
Society’s relationship with its architectural legacy shifted radically during the crucial period of redistribution of wealth in the 1990s, a period that also saw growing political apathy, moral indifference, alienation between social groups and loss of social solidarity, and fewer and fewer barriers against the aggressive penetration of private capital into the Old Quarters and central areas remained. After Gediminas Avenue, the main street in the city centre, had been rehashed as a luxury shopping area, the realtors, developers, nouveaux riches and municipal fathers turned their attention to one of the oldest suburbs of Vilnius, Snipiskes, which, as the city expanded, was more or less incorporated into the neighbourhoods of the central area. The historical structure of Snipiskes, which had remained almost untouched for centuries, was first targeted by urban planners during the Soviet period. The Lietuva hotel (Lithuania) – at that time the city’s tallest building, designed by architects Algimantas Nasvytis and Vytautas Nasvytis, subsequently renamed the Reval Lietuva and a few months ago again renamed the Radisson Blu – became a visual symbol of the “socialist achievements” of Lithuania’s capital and opened up the district for further changes. The Lietuva performed the same ideological function as similar representative edifices in other capitals of the Baltic republics, where hotels for foreign visitors were supposed to glorify the communist regime in visible form as the pinnacle of modern architecture.
It should be added, however, that architects themselves played an ambiguous role during the late Soviet period, especially when socialist realism became increasingly exhausted and unable to capture the artistic imagination. While artists in other fields were discouraged from using ultramodern forms or following the various “isms” that the authorities considered suspect, architects were not merely allowed but also encouraged to turn to modern aesthetics. However this freedom to build came with a price: the destruction of historically or symbolically important buildings and even entire old districts. This ideologically engineered “freedom to build” was a huge temptation to several generations of architects and urban planners, who chose to sacrifice professional ethics, historical memory and visual symbols of the past in order to pursue their own endeavours – to leave their individual traces on the rich texture of historical cities, as the signs of modern aesthetics.
Vilnius was no exception. The genius loci or spirit of place was disregarded, neglected and abandoned, standing as it did between the architect and urban planner and his right to build. Aesthetic modernism, so much desired by artists during the decades when any deviation from the code of socialist realism was considered blasphemy to the communist faith, emerged triumphant – however at the expense of visual history and cultural memory. Seduced by the promise to be allowed to implement modernism, leading architects of the period even endorsed the official view in public discussions, arguing for the need to renew Vilnius by simply pulling down morally and aesthetically “worthless” old buildings and erecting modern edifices in their place.
The post-independence resurgence of public interest in heritage conservation was impressive, but, alas, short-lived. Some former activists made their way into politics and gradually shifted their attention to other, more popular and seemingly more promising areas. Others, lacking adequate leadership and facing their own problems in an unstable, changing economic climate, retreated into their own professional fields. Some even succumbed to the idea that having built new national institutions, the time had come to let the professionals do their job. Whatever the reasons were, activism gradually faded away. No wonder the fate of the right bank of the river Neris, the former territory of Snipiskes, was decided as it was. Realtors, planners and municipal leaders blatantly ignored voices of protest that every year sounded weaker and those who considered it their duty to stand up to the urban “surgery” of near-central city districts that still contained certain signs of historical memory were derogatorily labelled “nostalgics”. Instead of reconsidering their development plans, municipal officials and investors opened the way to a drastic remaking of the Vilnius cityscape. The historical structure of Snipiskes was “deconstructed” and the area chosen as the new municipal centre of the capital, despite the fact that the highway running alongside the right bank was becoming a physical obstacle for the development of truly public spaces in the vicinity. This did not seem to bother those who saw a vast potential for expansion of various types of business in the area. The new buildings were designated to attract crowds of people, along with other rapidly growing high-rise buildings in the immediate neighbourhood.