Between recognized as heritage and vibrant city: the case of Vilnius

Author Skaidra Trilupaitytė

City as a place of coexistence and tension

The image of the capital of Lithuania, a historically significant cultural city in the public space has long been developed by emphasizing Europeanism, highlighting the metaphor of the crossroads between East and West. In turn, the processes of urban planning in the new millennium have been based on more active public relations. Pragmatic (though not always spoken) interests of real estate developers in the visions of the capital have become inseparable from optimistic rhetoric in the future modeling strategies. Thus, in Vilnius, as in other major cities of the region, incentives to modernize were constantly present, it was aimed to improve the investment climate, attract tourists and highly skilled workers. The discourse on urban development and sustainable growth developed by construction companies (developers) and city leaders has raised investor expectations and justified the seemingly “natural” processes of urban densification.

Nevertheless, the new policy had little to do with sensitive planning tools, and, as a result, the ephemeral vision of the alleged economic or cultural capital’s ”superiority” had nothing else to say in the long run. In the context of the permanent “challenges”, the clear logic of fast-moving construction was obviously spreading, which was one-sided and had nothing in common with the requirements of heritage protection and the needs of multicultural city. In other words, from the beginning of the new millennium, city executives and strategists and real estate business development advocates imagined that the Europeanity of Vilnius could be proven by modeling a spectacular future (by computerized presentations) and by practically fast-growing shopping centers, multi-story office buildings and new residential neighborhoods. In turn, cultural scientists, prominent architects or heritage protection specialists warned of the extremely problematic rapid decline in the identity of the capital of Lithuania. They disparaged new “skyscrapers” filled with obsolete old esthetics of the late eighteenth century and the mechanical multiplication of square meters that did not have characteristics of quality and were determined by the greed of the builders [1].

Almost everyone has admitted that the identity of the city or its public space has little to do with stability or consistency. According to Vytautas Rubavičius, a culture educator who speaks on the issues of public space, “people in the city create a certain image of the identity of the environment, however this image and the living environment constantly change. Urban identity is developed and redeveloped all the time.”[2] In turn, globalization has offered some lively urban scenarios. After all, postindustrial city centers and public spaces around the world are generally transformed into a part of the service economy with financial transaction areas serving the international corporations or tourist attraction points with unique heritage. However, in literature analyzing extensive urban regeneration, it is also acknowledged that the implementation of this type of scenario most often affects traditional public spaces and local communities.

Globalization processes affect not only urban architectural set-up of the city, but also (often simplified) ways of popularizing the heritage and cultural habits of consumption. On the one hand, we still feel the pressure of corporations to use the same mass production products. On the other hand, the level of mass cultural habits promotes the local specificity represented by small businesses, therefore local products are purchased, national ethnographic crafts or historical traditions of a specific city are supported. International class tourists also look for the uniqueness of a specific place. However, “the distinction between global and localized cultural use is often aligned with the cultural and creative industries that offer a culture “packed” under the recognizable model. Events in the capital of Lithuania such as Kaziukas Fair or other unique religious festivals (such as Palm’s Sunday) that have saved their religious traditions, are specifically characteristic to Vilnius, but they are constantly supplemented by new traditions, more modern goods, and so on. Many events on the Town Hall Square or Gediminas Avenue offer old crafts fairs, historical performances (for example, at the access to the Royal Palace) or authentic “cradle” of ancient times, and mass production kitsch as well. In other words, the imperative of mass, commercial interest and entertainment transforms even the most traditional holidays of the city.
Similarly is with the café’s leisure culture. We do not have such public people gathering places that due to long-standing traditions would have become emblematical resting zones or cultural icons like the Spanish Plaza, the English pub, the French cafe or the German Beer Garden. On the other hand, due to globalization, things like this are spreading very rapidly. For example, just a few years after the regaining of independence pubs have become a popular leisure space in Vilnius; later, in the Old Town and beyond, Mediterranean-style wine-bars have opened, often represented as spaces of “cultured consumption”. At the same time, new types of local craft beer bars have developed that promoted the taste and variety of flavors. However, it is still unclear what fashion will come into effect tomorrow.

Considering the wider perspective of the time, it is obvious that the change in the identity of the city and public spaces cannot be predicted in the context of flexible and creative forms of consumption; it is shown by the abundance of small everyday events [3]. It is impossible to program or regulate such things as the offer of the Vilnius coffee houses to take coffee out that began in the past decade. It is not possible to capture the time when a bicycle (and to a lesser extent, scooters and skateboards, etc.) became a trendy and rapidly expanding vehicle for the wealthy townspeople, and not just the people who utterly live healthy lives (Soviet-era type), or the attribute of “poor” who cannot afford a car. Not to say about the periodic supply from the city leaders of the latest means of mass communication, new communities (for example airline clubs) or various peripheral behavioral things (eating, communicating, street games) that change the functions of a public space and urban designs for new transport or leisure activities!

It can be argued that the concept of a real public space is not determined by universal urban theories that claim fluidity and multiple identities (this has been talked about for a long time), but conflicts and tensions of different public interests, such as peripeteia of Reformatu Square’s management and “negotiations with public” by municipality designers in summer, 2018. The construction of new monuments or the redevelopment of important urban complexes in the public space reveals ideological quarrels, when the sentiments of national history are activated and the debate about the concepts of public space and leisure begin to emerge. A wave of public outcry due to formal design decisions of urban parks and loss of healthy trees and green areas that are meaninglessly cut in order to create the “euro-maintenance” arrangement of streets and squares move from social networks to the media. A younger generation of townspeople who is developing new, lively urban traditions have repeatedly testified that living cultures cannot be planned “from the top”, and the ideal models for an imaginary “national community” in the public space or festive weekend scenarios (the example of developing the Lukiskes square) have little in common with the realities of everyday life in the city.

In other words, the change in identity and the public space, or even loss of it, is determined by seemingly universal economic factors; on the other hand, the degree of change is also determined by the conscious relationship between the cultural society and the local spirit. Extreme sudden changes in the processes are causing protests against ostensibly inevitable solutions to modernity and provoke dissatisfaction of local communities and wider intelligence community. The complicated relationship between institutions that have a responsibility to protect heritage can today become a separate topic. After all, the inter-institutional struggle against the scandalous construction of the “Missionaries’ Gardens” on the Savior’s Hill is going on for several recent years. In 2018, protests (pickets, public letters and mutual accusations) against other designed buildings were taking place; it is expected to build new office and hotel buildings near St. Apostles Philip and Jacob’s Church at Lukiskes Square (in the territory of former monastery hospital).

From bottom to top rising dissatisfaction with the destruction of the genius loci of the capital of Lithuania shows that contemporary intellectuals are sensitive to new threatening situations in which the leverage of power is tied to the interests of financial capital. More and more people are aware that disregarding the cultural needs of the city also promotes erosion of democracy. Former Chairman of the State Cultural Heritage Commission, heritage guardian Gražina Drėmaitė pointed out the increasing extent of deformations of Old Town, and emphasizes two seemingly contradictory ideas today: the development promoted by globalization and the protection of local spirit. Interests of transnational capital are totally indifferent to this spirit, despite the fact that the laws regulate any architectural invasion in the city: “Lithuanian laws on the heritage are excellent, but there is nothing sacred for barbarians, they have no laws in force. Moreover, the development of “Missionaries Garden” is headed by the Georgian, while the approaches to Lukiskes Square, I guess, is of interest for the Norwegian company, – this heritage is not valuable to them, they need only profit.” [4] Such reactions of culture cultivators to the management of the representative spaces in Vilnius become an important aspect of local identity and its deliberate creation.

Local spirit and critical culture cultivators

In 2007, poet and publicist Liudvikas Jakimavičius confessed: “The Town Hall Square with all that red marble imitation and cut trees is now awful to me. Those frightening black dolls in the windows cause horror. Those who planned this nonsense, do not understand anything. They probably think that everything is “fashion” right now. They try to plagiarize something, but that plagiarism is very cheap, plastic. Now, everything looks like three times cheaper than cheap.” [5] Almost at the same time, poet Marcelijus Martinaitis said that Vilnius “is losing the features of the city of culture, while its center, the prominent center of the capital – Gediminas Avenue, the former municipality building, our unique old town becomes the largest commercial “market”, because the architectural peculiarity of it is being dwarfed by the commercial kitsch <…> There are no small “objects” left where people meet with each other in, know them, know each other’s needs. It is gone – interconnections between the townspeople are discontinued!”[ 6]

Similar opinions are overwhelming in the last decade of journalism, and we cannot in any way relate these thoughts to the groaning of the traditional sentimental and “retrograde” culturalists. The representatives of contemporary art, Svajonė and Paulius Stanikai, who have been living in Paris for several recent years, have made a confession in a program of a public broadcaster of culture in 2007 of what “prevents” them from living in Lithuania – it turns out that returning to their homeland “shocks” them by the “unculture hovering in the air” that falls in the eye. P. Stanikas said that there is nothing left to see in Vilnius; he identifies all the processes of commercialization in the old town of Vilnius with the aggressive “disinfection wave” that washes away any traces of the old spirit of the city. People arriving here see “an emasculated poor old town, which will soon “disappear” from the list of UNESCO cultural monuments” [7], and these processes, according to the artists, are felt each day even stronger.

Other Lithuanian developers, living and working abroad for a long time, who use modern means of expression have also expressed their opinion on the drastically “deformed” Vilnius from a heritage guardian’s position. One of them – the winner of the national prize, media artist Gediminas Urbonas, who relates the processes of expropriation of public spaces with the aggressive development of ideological “progress” [8]. Urbonas, like some other cultural representatives who became public intellectuals, criticized the city’s growth processes from the left perspective, blaming for the cases of unrestricted growth of capital and for the capture of public communication spaces of citizens. In the summer of 2008, a left-wing activist Karolis Klimka, who was revolting at the intentions to close the “Milk Bar” in Vilnius City Hall Square, said similarly: “We talked a lot about “privatization” in the past. This category describes the stage of local seizure and division. But now the process has obviously moved to the stage of sterilization: when the whole space is seized and divided, the purification of the environment begins, the cleaning is done in the way that there is no room for the least foreign body left, so that the environment is absolutely homogeneous, “own” (for nouveau riche), and there is no air for anything that is democratic, accessible to many, simple, cheap, alternative.” [9]

Similarly, the closure of cultural institutions, especially cinemas, or their transformation into institutions having a commercial function has been repeatedly spoken about. In this case, it is important that the public spaces in the city (cafes) in the above quotes are perceived as an opportunity for the development of informal contacts between townspeople. It was obvious to these culturalists who cherish the local spirit that such relationships are much more difficult to develop, for example, in the constantly crowded Pilies street and its cafes, pizzerias serving fast-food establishments and international networks. After all, disregarded non-formal citizen’s communication possibilities and the evolution of the city’s public space in a way that it unconditionally serves the commercial interests of private owners, is indicative of just a declining cultural diversity. The resentment against the financial power that exacerbated the public space has provoked the battle for the preservation of the former “Lietuvos” cinema in Vilnius in 2005, which was widely described in the academic literature. In this case, it was not a matter of trying to preserve the movie theater from Soviet-era (as opponents of the opposition wanted to argue), the battle was not for the building itself, but for the preservation of the public space.

City squares and green areas seemed to be important for culture cultivators due to their communicative functions, and the interiors were more often regarded for the uniqueness of the heritage, but in one way or another the represented opinion sounded more like an imperative of fostering the local spirit. For example, Linas Vildžiūnas, editor of the culture newspaper “7 Meno dienos”, speaks from a historical perspective about the children cafe “Nykstukas”, which had been operating for many years in Pamenkalnio street in Vilnius, and the destruction of its historic interiors (cafe became a restaurant “Kaukazo belaisve” in 2010) in the same way as K. Klimka about the destruction of the “Milk Bar” in the Town Hall Square: “Children’s cuisines have long been absent from all Lithuanian cities. There are not many former interiors left, and “Nykstukas” is not the first or the last instance of vandalism. We could have got used to it. Only for some reason, looking into the windows creates the feeling of total helplessness (highlighted by author – S.T.). It is like the last point, eloquent metaphor of the twentieth century of cultural and social change” [10].

Unfortunately, practically all public-cultural spaces in Vilnius (in particular cinemas) and food-related recreational interiors (e.g. catering enterprises) are in short of historical continuity. After all, post-Soviet cities are best characterized by a radical visual change and abrupt growth in commercial advertising, while the privatization processes have led to the fact that after the regaining of independence almost all restaurants and cafes have been destroyed and replaced by “unexpressive commercial interiors” [11]. In publicism there were repeatedly talked about the “lost” places of Old Cultural Bohemia, the “lost” places that were called “simple” meeting places by townspeople like “Literatu svetaine” or the Writers’ Union’s Cafe “Treciasis brolis” (also called “Suokalbis”), etc.. It illustrated the inevitable process when old Vilnius residents were pushed out from the cafes of the Old Town of Vilnius.

The history of the modern city is marked only by the “living legend” “Neringa” restaurant-cafe on Gediminas Avenue, which has gained the cultural monument status and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary in 2009 (it was founded in 1959, interior designers – architects Algimantas and Vytautas Nasvyčiai). This interior is notoriously mentioned in the media and in popular literature, and it is nevertheless the only example of a real historical continuity in the public interior. Therefore, the unrepentantly widespread concern of the intelligentsia about the reworks in this building reflects the growing cultural anxiety about preserving the local spirit (justified and unreasonable fears in social networks) [12]. Sustainable urban development cannot be directly linked to the emerging economies and international financial flows. These are also clear by the examples of the main streets or squares of Lithuania’s capital, as well as images of the aforementioned “euro-maintenance” blocks and cut trees. In turn, business decisions or fears about stagnant business often lead to unified “easier ways” but not unique solutions.

Expectations of businessmen and sustainable culture?

The fact that the abundance of large and small trading companies does not in itself create a culturally and viable space has been revealed by the problems of Gediminas Avenue in Vilnius, especially after economic crisis that was rocking in 2008. In the autumn of 2009, the media stated that the main street of the city was getting empty. Business sharks (media named “Apranga”, “Stikliai”, “Omnitel”, who left the Avenue) and many smaller companies were forced to shut down their unprofitable business here. Problematic locations were those places where restaurants, bars and clubs have been located in recent decades, and they could not be saved by constantly changing ownerships, names, increasingly newer interiors and marketing strategies [13]. In spite of the reconstruction of the Avenue made at the beginning of the millennium by city’s initiative, the city’s shopping street was eventually deserted, along with the flow of visitors in stores that were still in operation. At the end of January, 2010, it was observed that some premises in Gediminas Avenue have been still empty for more than a year, others have been emptied recently or are about to close in the near future [14].

Business people blamed high rental prices and unfavorable laws, and in particular any remaining constraints on comfort consumption. Talks about “necessary conditions” to revive the city center, as usual, were not original: owners of restaurants, cafes, and other business blamed the authorities for the apparent collapse of the Avenue and stated car traffic constraints as one of the main problems; problems in the City Hall Square during the crisis, as mentioned by businessmen, were similar. For example, the CEO of “Apranga” Group, Rimantas Perveneckas, has repeatedly linked the vitality of the city and, in particular, the “popularity” and “interest” of the Old Town with the consumers of luxury goods and unrestricted mobility of vehicles (i.e. access to the shop’s facade) [15].

On the initiative of Mayor Artūras Zuokas, prominent for his public relations, there was the “Fluxus Ministry” (active for more than a year) established at the premises of the former Ministry of Health in Vilnius Gedimino Avenue which fostered both: political public relations and various youth activities; during the cultural events organized by artists, as well as during mass city holidays, the Avenue was temporarily “revived”. Informal initiatives had a slightly different impact on the target audience than mass gatherings on city holidays or activities of the luxury boutiques. The “Fluxus Ministry” was a temporary initiative, which was later replaced by one of the cafe networks – “Vero Café”. Unfortunately, in the middle of June, 2018, this building, designed by Stanislavas Mužinskis and Jezet Soltan (raised in 1938), made the architects and public figures intimidating. Current owners have paned the facade of the building that is included in the Register of Cultural Property, and the cultural society, which has gained greater sensitivity to change, has treated this as a distortion of the heritage. The Department of Cultural Heritage made a public statement to inform that it will immediately react to this scandalous situation.

Not surprisingly, the city’s “revival”, implemented by influential entrepreneurs, has little to do with democratic, i.e. not necessarily luxury goods-oriented, cultural forms, which are discussed by artists and culturalists. For example, the president of the company “Eika”, Robertas Dargis, who represents the business of real estate development and who has advised the Prime Minister of the Republic of Lithuania, said that there are too many ministries and state institutions in the “expensive building” in the Gediminas Avenue and that it would be expedient to move them elsewhere, whereupon the Avenue will get the chance to reborn [16]. However, such thoughts are in themselves a matter of doubt, as the media describing the change in the Avenue continually mentions a number of active and owners-changing businesses. It may even be suspected that the employees or visitors of several ministries presently support the turnover of cafes in the Avenue. There is still no evidence that the businessmen who groan for the “constraints” of the luxury business and the consumers of this luxury who do not value the heritage will ever be able to create a viable city atmosphere in Vilnius. The props of the failed “Vilnius Gate” store and the fake luxury brands in the Town Hall Square illustrate the tendency of commercial “islands” of the kind to become sterilized ghettos endangered by their own fault (referred to by Klimka, cited above) and not spaces that promote cultural diversity.


As some examples of Vilnius in recent years show, the negative impact on the historical heritage of Vilnius after the difficulties of 2008 due to increase in the number of square meters of offices and apartments has risen. This is also reflected by the intense to build on the Missionary Hill and at the St. Apostles Philip and Jacob Church. It has also become apparent that the economic benefits of an actively consuming city, promoted by the big businessmen, have their own “invisible” and not very attractive price. Therefore, there should be a permanent democratic debate on viable urban spaces kept present in the public space, so that during the construction of images that are, for example, attractive for tourists and investors, the city was still own in the eyes of its people. The dissatisfaction of intellectuals for the devastated local identity and various forms of protest is becoming increasingly relevant to a democratic society. The opinions of cultural figures often give rise to certain imaginations, expectations, and finally disgust and impatience; however, the sensitivity of urban people to its environment becomes an extremely important factor in combining different interests. The paradigm of cultural planning, as a coexistence of democratic contexts and the interests of different communities, can help control the reality of a city as viable and recognized as heritage at the same time only when city strategists begin to seriously treat the rights of citizens, their interests and their need to foster the continuity of their own traditions the way they treat the financial expectations of international companies and owners of new public spaces that have emerged in the process of privatization.


[1] Jūratė Markevičienė, „Senamiesčio įvaizdžiai Vilniaus kultūros paveldo saugoje XX a.: nuo kraštovaizdžio iki praeities skeveldrų“, Kultūrologija, 10, Vilnius: KFMI press, 2003; Almantas Samalavičius, „Urbanistinės erdvės ir „bakalėjų“ kultūra“, Kultūros barai, No.. 4, 2008; Vytas Rubavičius, „Miesto tapatumas ir išskirtinumas globalizacijos sąlygomis“, Urbanistika ir architektūra, Vol. ХХIX, 4, 2005, p. 157–163; Tomas Grunskis, Vietos tapatumo krizė Vilniaus centro raidoje (erdvės morfologijos diskurse), Urbanistika ir architektūra, Vol. ХХIX, 1, 2005, p. 13–18. Extremely many critical criticisms of this kind of architecture can be found in the publication „Vilniaus miesto savitumai“. See: Algimantas Mačiulis, sud., Vilniaus miesto savitumai, Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis 40, Vilnius: VDA press, 2006.
[2] Rubavičius, op. cit., p. 158.
[3] Until recently, Lithuania did not have a common coffee take-out culture that is very characteristic to Western cities, so it would be easy to prove that this thing is not typical of Vilnius. The same can be said about newly emerging smoking areas in cafe accesses (smoking in the dining room is prohibited today) and so on.
[4] „Paveldosaugininkė Gražina Drėmaitė: Šis jovalas negali tęstis amžinai“, Respublika, [interactive], April 8th, 2018 [viewed on 17-10-2018]. On internet:
[5] Lukas Miknevičius, „L. Jakimavičius: Miestas tampa plastmasinis“, Sostinė, December 16th, 2007.
[6] Marcelijus Martinaitis, „Vilniau, kaime mano…”, Literatūra ir menas, April 20th, 2007.
[7] LRT TV show „Kultūra“, October 13th, 2007.
[8] Gediminas Urbonas, „Viešoji erdvė versus tarybinė dešrelė“, [interactive], August 14th, 2007, [viewed on 17-10-2018],
[9] Karolis Klimka, „Kas nužudė pieno barą?“, [interactive], July 18th, 2008. [viewed on 17-10-2018]. On internet:
[10] Linas Vildžiūnas, „Valstybės podukra kultūra arba Atgal į komandinį vadovavimą“, 7 Meno dienos, December 25th, 2009
[11] Algimantas Mačiulis, „Kodėl naikinami senieji interjerai ir dailės kūriniai juose“, Kultūros barai, 2003 No. 11.
[12] For example, when there were concerns about the supposed repairs in the “Neringa” restaurant raised in social networks in the summer of 2018, the representatives of the Cultural Heritage Department were forced to go to the area of Neringa Hotel and Restaurant, and afterwards assured that there were no restaurant interior works being performed.
[13] Arūnas Dumalakas, „Imiesi verslo – kvieskis ir kunigą“, Lietuvos rytas, September 26th, 2009. Addresses like Gedimino Avenue 46 (there were various cafes like „Prie parlamento“, „Ministerija“, „Pas Rudolfa II“), and Gedimino Avenue 5 (there were „Avilys“, „Apinys“), as well as many shops, cafes and bars that were present at Gedimino Avenue 32 and etc. were named.
[14] Šarūnas Černiauskas, „Gedimino prospektas pasmerktas žlugti“, Vilniaus diena, January 27th, 2010. The article says that “there are about 25 closed or intended to be closed shops, cafes, salons and customer service points in the whole Avenue“.
[15] „ Ar gali sustoti Lietuvos širdis? “ (debate), Lietuvos žinios, December 11th, 2009.
[16] According to Dargis, „there are still no so-called shopping and entertainment streets in Vilnius as in other capitals of the world. Gediminas Avenue is an alley of authorities now“. See: Birutė Vyšniauskaitė, „Pinigų plovyklos – ir teatrai, ir garažai“, Lietuvos rytas, June 17th, 2011.