Vilnius – Metropolis Explained

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, unlike the other two Baltic capitals is not a port city. Located deep inland on a hilly, forested landscape with two rivers piercing its urban centre, Vilnius scores high in many rankings for the green vs urban area ratio. Even though Vilnius can be proud of the quantity of green and biodiverse environment for its residents, at the same time this layout results in an expansive urban structure that leads to intense car use and decreased air quality. In contrast to its metropolitan role as the most important cultural, political and economic city in the country, Vilnius has also, to this day, preserved many unique qualities of a countryside.

Built at the confluence of two rivers, the city is famous of its oldtown – one of the largest surviving medieval urban fabrics in Northern Europe, listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. During the Industrial Revolution, which spurred the growth of many European cities, Lithuania was under the rule of the Russian Empire. Its capital Vilnius was a provincial centre at the periphery, therefore the urban development of that period was rather slow. Although it sounds disadvantageous, it allowed Vilnius to preserve its meandering, somewhat accidental medieval oldtown street structure as a foundational ground for the future character of the city – diverse, spontaneous and organic.

Intense, often chaotic urban structure

Highly multicultural due to its history, Vilnius was often the place where the interests of various countries and political groups collided. Even in the short time span between the end of the 19th century and the present day, given that Vilnius is almost 700 years old, the rulers of the city changed multiple times. Some of the reigns were too short to leave a mark on the city’s development; nevertheless, the implementation of sometimes drastically different policies and a succession of divergent cultural ideologies have brought forth an intense, often chaotic urban structure characterized by the merging of unfinished visions as much as the clash of various architectural periods.

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From top-down urban planning to unregulated urban sprawl

The close proximity of historical heritage, dense urban environments, rural settlements and almost untouched natural landscapes is what makes Vilnius different from other European capitals. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, which over a period of five decades had expanded the map of Vilnius with large-scale industrial andoften monofunctional developments common in the era of socialist modernism, the city started a new chapter of its evolution. During Soviet rule, cities were shaped through a top-down urban planning practice, but after gaining independence, Lithuania went into the opposite direction. Now urban processes were driven by the neoliberal principles of government deregulation and a free market economy. Controlled urban growth was replaced by unregulated urban sprawl, spontaneous developments and in general a lack of urban planning.

Full of unexpected and sometimes perplexing juxtapositions

As a result, since the 1990s the urban character of Vilnius as a city of contrasts has deepened. Given the lack of experience in controlling the forces of capitalism and due to weak democratic resistance to the influence of investors, empty plots were filling up with new architecture as if the urban fabric was a Baltic forest where growth happens rather accidentally. Although this kind of urban development brought about negative consequences, it also further saturated the existing identity of Vilnius as a multi-layered and heterogeneous social, cultural and architectural fabric. The city is full of unexpected and sometimes perplexing juxtapositions that enliven as well as jolt the viewer’s consciousness.

This urbanisation that followed vastly contrasting ideologies, philosophies and cultures has resulted in a patchwork, leaving accidentally preserved gaps of countryside, natural landscapes and wild forests in between newly developed neighbourhoods and historically formed areas. One may find oneself in the middle of a cobbled street surrounded by wooden houses that resemble rural living while the high-rises of the central business district dominate the background; it is possible to enjoy a vibrant oldtown with still intact local communities and to walk into a lush natural forests five minutes outside the centre.

Identity of imperfection shaped over centuries

When the lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic imposed unheard-of restrictions on citizens’ personal freedom, Vilnius proved its resilience precisely through its abundance of open spaces to be enjoyed by its residents. For the past several years the city’s urban strategy has been slowly returning to textbook urban planning, aiming to densify the central areas and increase the overall efficiency of the city. In the process, abandoned, leftover, post-industrial patches have been revived and opened up in the attempt to unite the disparate urban structure into a continuous cityscape and correct the mistakes of previous developments. Nevertheless, while there is an understandable rush to catch up with the efficiency and density of Western cities, Vilnius should proudly be aware of its unique qualities and stand by its identity of imperfection shaped over centuries. Those who make the decisions on the future of Vilnius’ landscapes as well as built environment should be careful not to systematically remove the contradictions, unconventionalities and provocations that come with the patchwork.

Find out more about Vilnius in topos 114.

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AFTER PARTY is a Lithuanian architectural practice founded by Giedrius Mamavicius and Gabriele Ubareviciute. Giedrius and Gabriele graduated in Architecture and Urban Design in 2012. In 2016 both joined OMA Hong Kong where they lead large scale masterplanning projects as well as architecture projects in China and South East Asia. Prior to that, they worked at BIG Bjarke Ingels Group in Copenhagen. Creating value through the means of sustainability, conscious design and social awareness is the fundamental principle of Gabriele ̇’s and Giedrius’ work.

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All Images © Andrej Vasilenko