(Published in MONU  #25)

By Tomas Grunskis, architect. Ph.D. 

Features of Stagnant Situation  

At first sight, the term “post-communist” may look no longer relevant and quite speculative, especially when talking about the transformation processes of urban spaces in Europe and at the beginning of the 21st century, in particular. But its relevance becomes obvious, when we start comparing the urban development processes in the West and sociocultural and socioeconomic transformations typical to the Eastern European countries. It may seem that transformations of the sociocultural context conditions encompassing such characteristics as social order, locality, social mentality, culture and its expression forms have taken place in these countries a long time ago, and their results are evident, thus making any discussion on the post-communist condition the matter of the past. But when taking a closer look at the urban contexts and nature of still existing problems in the former communist block countries, especially their urban public squares, the reality of the post-communist condition and its transformations, as well as the fact of dealing with its after-effects, are obvious. To cut it short, the problems of urban development and planning, including public space formation, typical to the post-communist countries, still exist and the ways of their solution still are rather peculiar. On the one hand, many post-communist cities, especially the capital ones, have obtained features typical to the Western sociocultural space in the accelerated way, experienced their image brandifications and have not avoided some of the urban planning errors, quite common in the Western European cities of the 1970s and 1980s (e.g., unnatural densification of downtown areas and building the capitalist business “sanctuaries” in them). On the other, these typicalities are present not only on the macro, but also micro levels of the urban structure, such as public space, the need for and quality of which is constantly increasing. Besides, the contemporary society in Lithuania is trying to take more active and intense part in transformation and formation processes of such spaces. But the post-communist cities badly lack the practice and experience of collaboration among different social power subjects (such as Municipality, communities, state administration and financial elites). In Lithuania, the urban formation processes are still taking place in the neoliberal spirit, as the downtown areas are significantly transformed according to the 20th century urban planning principles and concepts, which have clearly turned out to be wrong.


Speaking precisely of the representative urban public spaces, it is quite obvious that their transformations have been stagnant and inefficient in Lithuanian larger cities. This tendency has been analysed by the author in a number of articles and presentations[1], moreover, the problems of the post-communist sociocultural context have been discussed not once at different angles and by different experts. Still in many cases in Lithuania, the reorganization and redevelopment of former communist representative urban public spaces has been quite challenging. This problem has been tackled rather poorly in small, peripheral towns of Lithuania, but the post-communist representative squares in larger cities is a real Gordian knot. The problem becomes even more evident, when we compare the reorganization of public spaces in the capital cities of the three Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) (see Fig. 1). After the restoration of independence in the 1990s, the former communist representative squares in many cities were transformed by destroying them and replacing their basic identifiers, namely the symbols of the communist power and ideology. Such fast changes also presented an important task of finding new identities, appropriate morphology and composition for these newly shaped squares, which could reflect the new and relevant expectations of society. In many cases, the morphological spatial solutions, which formerly represented the soviet social power and ideology, were replaced with the similar objects representing current social (or national) ideas. Interestingly, in difference from the present-day situation in Lithuania, the central Brivibas Square in Riga, the capital of Latvia, was reconstructed to represent the national freedom. The main public space in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, was reshaped with an emphasis being made on the aspect of the soviet genocide and freedom of Estonian nation, the issues of similar importance to all three Baltic States. A new representative space with a gigantic cross was formed there. Meanwhile in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital (and the majority of other larger cities), the public squares and other representative spaces still remain empty after the communist signs and idols have been removed from them. Within 26 years of its independence, Lithuania has failed to find any appropriate urban, morphological and compositional solutions to reconstruct and regenerate the public squares. In Kaunas (the second largest city), the problem has been partially solved by the main memorial public space downtown (formed in the interwar period), where the entire complex and monuments represent the values and collective memory of the First Republic of Lithuania (1918-40), when the city held the status of the temporary capital of the country. Meanwhile, the situation of the main representative squares in other larger cities, including Vilnius and the port-city of Klaipėda, is much more problematic and still is in urgent need for further reconstruction, both structural and spatial. Such unsolved situation quite clearly indicates the transitional status of the post-communist existence, including social mentality, as well as certain pressures of social values. Settled after the destructive phase of transition of the post-communist spaces, following the Independence of 1990, the present situation can be described as stagnation (see Fig. 2).


Possible Causes and Peculiarities of the Stagnant Situation

One of the possible causes of the stagnant situation under the present discussion may be the obscurity of the urban development concept in Lithuania and still applied paradigm of the post-communist urban planning and urban design. The foundational values of the soviet Lithuanian school of urbanism (back then called urbanistics) were developed under the soviet planned economy and according to the communist ideology prevalent at that time. Although, when judged from the present-day perspective, the Lithuanian school of urbanism has had some progressive elements[2], but in its essence it was an instrument of political power in the socio-cultural context and social order of the time. The quintessence of its negative features was the prohibited participation of society in the processes of urban and public space formation, non-existence of the main traditional morphological elements, such as ownership and privately owned land-plot, and delegation of all powers for reconstruction of cities after the World War II to the political bureaucratic apparatus, to which architects and urban planners were servants. Speaking of the latter two, they had a huge, if not unlimited, authority on the process of urban public space formation, and this has determined the tradition to create public spaces, city blocks, districts or even entire cities as the finite results of architectural creation. The tradition to shape an urban space and structure as a piece of art was the only acceptable concept of the soviet urbanistics, therefore first of all the aesthetical (necessarily related to the social power) rather than any other requirements were raised to it. Thus, the present stagnant situation in the former representative public spaces has been possibly preconditioned by a few contradictions, one of the main being the inadequacy between the urban tradition from the communist past and current social reality. The contemporary urban planners still see the formation of the city and its public spaces as an artistic creation and its result, whereas the society demands its own rights to the city and participation in its development processes, including the public space formation. Still applied post-communist paradigm of urbanism does not provide for such possibilities.


Such situation of contradiction and even conflict may be referred to as “the post-communist urbanism”, where the term “urbanism” is used to define the city formation concepts and paradigms, which have been and still are related to artistic creation and essentially or at least in part discord with the traditional (western) approach of city formation. According to the latter approach, the aesthetical aspect is not the key one and the socioeconomic, sociocultural and aesthetical issues harmoniously correlate. The existing situation obviously presents a contradiction between the method and approaches, as attempts are being made to apply the concepts and approaches of the 19th and 20th centuries in the contemporary urban planning processes, thus focusing on the aesthetical aspect of urban form and space. The post-urbanism as the post-soviet urban formation doctrine can easily be recognized in Lithuania. One of the most controversial examples illustrating this statement is the case of the new downtown district in Vilnius. After the independence of 1990, Lithuania has been implementing the concept of the “architectural hill”, developed and started back in the 1960s. It is still under the process of realization in Vilnius, where its new (third) identity of the modern capitalist “Euro” city is being formed. In essence, this activity resembles the soviet period attempts to create a new identity of Vilnius through the development and image of the modernist “bedroom” districts. It is noteworthy that, alongside the representation of financial power nearby the historical city centre and core, such neoliberal transformation of the existing urban environment has provoked one of the strongest social responses. Nevertheless, the society’s participation in these urban formation processes has been limited to such response only, and its requirements for this location have been and still are ignored. This example is one of the clearest illustrations of the post-urbanism (see in Fig. 3).[3]


Curious Case of the Post-communist Public Square

Urbi et Orbi (“To the city and to the entire world”) – this could be the title of the discussion held on the post-communist public squares in Lithuania. Although being quite different in the cases of Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipėda, such discussion would be united by the aspect of the national level. Still prevailing significance of the national level almost in each representative public square of the larger Lithuanian cities can be explained by the fact that all public spaces in the Soviet Union were used for expression of the values and ideology of the soviet state. Such spaces had the highest position in the hierarchy of urban public spaces. Although the sociocultural situation in Lithuania has changed, the society’s mentality has not been altering so fast. It may be so that post-communist recurrences in the collective memory and social mentality have determined the society’s unaltered expectations related to these spaces, especially, regarding their hierarchy and significance. Thus, at least the major part of the society is still willing the central square of the city to represent the national values of the country. One of the clearest examples of this is the Lukiškiu Square in Vilnius. It has been legally confirmed to be the main national square, where the symbol of the national importance must be presented to embody all the fights for independence and history of the Lithuanian nation. A long discussion (lasting for almost 25 years) between the society, municipal and governmental authorities has failed to produce any result.


But suddenly, a very specific solution was found to such seemingly impossible situation.  In 2016, Vilnius City Municipality announced the project for rearrangement of the quays, squares and public spaces of the central part of Vilnius (including the Lukiškių Square). Through different channels of communication the society was informed on a number of solutions designed to transform aesthetically the quays and public spaces in Vilnius downtown (see Fig. 4).[4]  The course of such “forced” transformation is regulated by the law, but no Lithuanian legislation foresees the participation of society in such activities. This allows the authorities to look very formally to the processes of cooperation with society and ignore any “bottom-up” initiatives. Social critique towards the newly developed public space solutions can make influence neither on their process, nor the results. Thus, one of the post-communist squares in Vilnius is reconstructed according to the principles and doctrine of post-urbanism, which is dictatorial by its essence. Again, the contradiction is obvious, but the difference this time lays in the fact that the process is undertaken by no longer post-communist, but rather neoliberal Municipality of Vilnius City declaring the values of liberal democracy. The formal presentational activities instead of informal participation of society, directive rather than initiative-related model of activities prevail, without any promotion and encouragement for the social initiatives. The respective authorities specify directively the future of any given public space, attempts are being made to implement the “realistic” solutions at any cost within the framework of the political term. Thus, the public space formation process is turned into a political issue isolated from any society’s influence, which indicates the application of post-urban doctrines and methods of post-communist school of urbanism. In essence, the problem of reconstruction of public spaces and social involvement in the process has not been solved, the society demands to take part, but the neoliberal government behaves in dictatorial way eliminating any possibilities of direct social participation, including also the deciding of the fate of the still post-communist Lukiškių Square. [5]



Because of such still prevailing post-soviet methods of city formation and their essential conflict with the contemporary views on urban development, the discussed above situation of post-urbanism has preconditioned quite a number of social reactions manifested not only by criticism and demands for social participation, but also not a few social campaigns in Vilnius and Lithuania. One of such campaigns has been Burbuliatorius (the Bubbler), which eventually has become a national phenomenon reoccurring in different cities all over Lithuania to emphasize the social aspect of urban public spaces (see Fig. 5). It started in the Lukiškių Square, Vilnius, where people were invited to come and blow bubbles or just spend time on the lawn of this messy public space. Social campaigns like this assert the people’s need to participate in public space formation processes in their native towns, directly or indirectly suggesting the alternative ways for the use of urban spaces beyond their representative function. By such social action, a relatively small group of people has been communicating another important thing: the inadequacy of the urban planning tools used by the city planning bureaucracy and expectations of the contemporary society, or the conflict of the post-urbanism situation.


It is important to add that in the period of the recent 10 years Lithuania saw quite a number of such social initiatives, campaigns and reactions, in which architects also took part. Following the economic crisis of 2008, several cases of architectural activism related to the younger generation of architects appeared. They do not only promote social participation in architecture, but also are engaged in educational activities. Such movements as Lietuva be kabučių, Archfondas, Beepart, projects  K-LabLaimikis.lt, Burbuliatorius, Vietos.org, Šančių kioskas, Nulinis laipsnis and others are worth-mentioning.[6] These movements and projects make an interesting and peculiar map of architectural activism[7], and indicate the relevance and need for the method of initiative model, idealistic goal and informal communication in Lithuania.


Thus, a conclusion can be made that the results suggested in the process according to the post-urbanistic logics and principles are likely to further fail satisfying the society, if the paradigms of post-urbanism and tools used by the municipal bureaucracy still remain unchanged. The present situation can be defined as contra-urbanism with the characteristic feature that society rejects not only the conventional urban space formation methods acceptable to professionals, but also the results of their activities. Thus we shift from the post-urbanism to contra-urbanism, or rather contra-urbanistic social reactions. A reasonable question should be asked now: what is next? Anti-urbanism? Or… what?









[1] See in the following texts: T. Grunskis, “On Some Contemporary Square Formation Trends in Lithuania”, Town Planning and Architecture, Vol.33(3), 2009 , p. 135-144.

  1. Grunskis, “System of Urban Public Spaces: Some Theoretical Premises”,Town Planning and Architecture, 2002.Vol. XXVI, No3.
  2. Grunskis, “The Problem of Aesthetical Transformation of Lukiskiu Square in the Discourse of the European Town Square Tradition”, Town Planning and Architecture, Vol. XXIV, 2000 No.3.
  3. Grunskis, “Tradition and Ideology of the City Public Space in Changing Conditions of Sociocultural Context”, in Historic Towns: Old and Modern. Vilnius, Savastis, 2003.
  4. Grunskis, “Tradition and Social Convention in the Development of City Morphology: The Law of Decalogue and Freedom of Constitution”, 2005 Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, Vardo Seminar Foundation, Stockholm.
  5. Grunskis, “Architecture of Dictatorship I. Lukiskiu Square”, Archiforma 2007, No.1.


[2] They manifested by application of the modern network concept in the development of the even and disperse urban system and in several cases of urban regeneration of old towns.

onclusion4 space rearrangement (see ilustration nerwas impossible requirement to fulfill

[3] See more on visions and utopias of Vilnius city in: http://www.miestai.net/forumas/showthread.php?t=16216&page=3

[4]See in more detail : http://www.vilnius.lt/index.php?3923466880





[5] See more about the Lukiškių Square: http://www.vilnius.lt/index.php?4094174050

[6] See in more detail: http://artnews.lt/tomo-grunskio-paskaita-archaktyvizmas-socialumo-vektoriai-architekturoje-ndg-36108;

[7] http://www.0-x.eu/archactivism/architectural-activism-typologies-and-case-of-lithuania-tomas-grunskis/