By Sarah Reddan, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, Masters Candidate – Historic Preservation
This summer I have been living and working in Vilnius, Lithuania as a 2016 US/ICOMOS International Exchange Program Intern. I have been placed with the host organization, Lietuvos Paminklai (Lithuanian Monuments), a state enterprise that restores important sites including individual buildings, castles, and churches. In addition to restoration work, Lietuvos Paminklai creates Special Plans for managing and restoring the heritage in cities and towns.
My task for this summer is to assist with the Special Plan for Trakai, a town not far from Vilnius that is known for its beautiful 14th century, red-brick castles surrounded by lakes. In addition to the beautiful castles, monasteries, and religious buildings, the town of Trakai has an assortment of small, wooden houses which were inhabited by a mix of ethnic groups, most notably the Karaim group. I have been collecting data on the wooden houses throughout the town and documenting their materials, dimensions, dates, and styles.
In addition to documenting Trakai, I have met amazing people who dedicate their lives to saving Lithuania’s heritage. I have been given personal tours by the architects of the reconstructed Lower Castle in Vilnius and the Paliesiaus manor, both with interesting interpretations of how to represent a building’s history and significance over time. I spent a few days in Kaunas, the capital of Lithuania during the Polish occupation of Vilnius, where I toured the city’s Art Deco architecture (a potential World Heritage Site), intertwined with Soviet style plazas and concrete structures. Another highlight of my time here has been meeting Jonas Glemza, the ICOMOS Vice President of Central and Eastern Europe from 1981-1990, who has been an integral part of heritage protection in Lithuania through his books, lectures, associations, and restoration work.
Vilnius is an amazing city with a long and sad history. Its history is weaved into the city’s fabric as a story you can read as you walk down the winding streets of Old Town or stroll through the wide, fashionable boulevards. Most of the restored buildings here show some sort of “window to the past” with a square of historic brick or a piece of a gothic arched window left visible to show the building’s construction, history or previous style. While known for its collection of Baroque Catholic churches, Vilnius has a handful of ornate Russian Orthodox churches, which tells the story of its occupation by the Russian Empire. A difficult part of its history is the murder and deportation of its large Jewish population during WWII, a group that was prominent and integral to the city. However, Vilnius’s loss of Jewish architecture, came after WWII when the Soviets demolished many Jewish buildings, including the Great Synagogue, for schools and apartment buildings. Vilnius now has a handful of monuments, statues, and museums to tell the story of this massacre and significant change in population.
The most obvious story integrated into the architecture of Vilnius, and most of Lithuania for that matter, is the Soviet occupation after WWII through 1990. The wide streets, monumental concrete public buildings, destroyed interiors of churches and manor houses, and the extensive amount of high-rise Soviet Block apartment buildings has completely altered the urban fabric, city plan, and attempted to destroy the of identity of Lithuanians. These stories of the past through architecture, while difficult at times, are so important for future generations understand and learn from.
I look forward to the rest of my placement here in Vilnius and learning more about the Lithuania heritage and history. Something I’ll be looking more into over the rest of the summer is how climate change is affecting Lithuania and the other Baltic States, particularly their heritage, and how the countries are managing these effects.