O P I N I O N
by Christian Bonneville
Leffond, France, 5 July 2015
Hon. Remigijus Šimašius, Mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania
Monsieur le Maire,
- Convention and Congress Center
- Conversion of the Sport Palace Center along the Neris at the Piramónt Location
Congratulations on your election and your determination to develop the cohesion and the attractiveness of the city to be enriched with new facilities and services including a new Conference and Congress Center.
I hope you do not mind if a citizen of the European Union who shares his working life mainly between France and Lithuania has some suggestions on upcoming projects in Vilnius, especially when this comes from a citizen of our new united European house who actively works on behalf of projects and start-up by young Lithuanians.
I am sorry not to write in Lithuanian because of my average level in this beautiful but difficult language.
A new Congress and Convention Center is a fantastic idea but a challenging one too.
As you know, many cities roughly the size of Vilnius have in the fullness of time faced daunting difficulties in managing such center. There is little room for error.
The first challenge is the location.
The choice of a huge and historic cemetery that has never been deconsecrated by a truly full consensus of the progeny, relatives, heirs of the people buried there is inappropriate for reasons of ethics (not to mention that thousands of still-existing graves have never been moved with universal agreement, and with human dignity, to a new agreed site). Such an ethical proposition is one that comes from the heart of the basic values of Europe, not from any form of religious extremism which we would both be the last to accept.
“Such an ethical proposition is one that comes from the heart of the basic values of Europe.”
We have to bear in mind how the place looked between the two world wars, and what it will look like with the convention and congress center.
A fine example of a successful Congress and Convention Center is to be found in Erfurt, with which Vilnius is happily twinned. The Erfurt project is renowned for three qualities that help explain its success. These are: services, dimensions, accessibility.
I understood you have a good example of a successful Congress and Convention Center in Erfurt, your twin city. Erfurt project focuses on three points to explain this achievement.
As for services, no doubt Vilnius could offer among the best.
As for dimensions, the Erfurt project comprises 46,670 square meters. Car parks make up an important part of this area. Even with the best landscape designers, the view from the castle would be a problem for the city’s majest. Moreover, a car park means ever more cars generating traffic in an already congested area.
Regarding accessibility, Erfurt has fine access to the very city center, by way of a hub connection that gracefully synthesizes ECI rail linkage, motorway junctions, a dense network of urban streets, modern public transportation and connection to the airport. Obviously, the Piramónt area cannot be made to compete here without vast damage to some of the old town’s most beautiful historic components. In any case, the Vilnius project will need a lot of road and park infrastructure entailing much digging for foundations and retention basins.
Which would then be the future for the former Sports Palace and the old Jewish cemetery site at Piramónt?
It is good to criticize. It is even better to make constructive proposals.
Vilnius has already some fine examples of successfully employed public buildings that arose in a Soviet spirit of architectural Brutalism: the Opera and Ballet Theater, the National Art Gallery, SMC/CAC and of course, the former Sports Palace at Piramónt in Šnipiškės. Brutalism is, first, an Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian architecture school. We have to remember an anecdote often told by today’s Vilnius architects: Some local authorities accused SMC of “betraying Soviet arts norms” but an important figure from Moscow said it looks okay, and the building was left standing.
The rehabilitation of the National Art Gallery and its wider environment is a real success. It integrates perfectly the banks of the Neris which are another wonderful potential attraction for the city and its visitors. Strasbourg, another twin city, has made a successful attraction of its enlightening river bank. Sightseeing tours could be organized (the ferry was discontinued in 1990) along the Neris — the historic Viliya River of old Vilna — which is a powerful multicultural waterway in every symbolic sense. Perhaps the renovation of the former Sport Palace could follow the same orientation. The former Sports Palace with a large public park could be a fair answer to the respect of the former cemetery.
Among many ideas, the present building, with no digging or upgrade of any architectural kind, could become a magnificent international sculpture center’. Eastern Europe and Lithuania had some outstanding sculptors like Jacques Lipschitz and an exceptional contemporary dynamic in this field. Such an idea could improve the international image of Vilnius. Vilnius could be for sculpture what Cannes is for cinema or Frankfurt for books!
This proposal has others advantages:
The sad and damaging controversy about the proposed multimillion euro conference and congress center in the heart of a historic Jewish cemetery that means so much to Jews around the world, would be resolved instantly.
The banks of the Neris (Viliya) would become a major part of the European art circuit.
The river bank would be creatively preserved in perpetuity.
This project could win support from European structural funds.
Moreover, there would no longer be a risk that Vilnius would find itself withdrawn from the UNESCO list. Dresden was withdrawn after it went ahead and built its historically unacceptable “double bridge.” And there is ongoing litigation over the Mont St. Michel because of a wind turbine that is a full ten kilometers away.
And what about a new Congress and Convention Center?
Your staff is no doubt at work on alternatives given the rapid intensity of international shock at plans to desecrate one of European Jewry’s most sacred sites.
But perhaps is time to link LITEXPO (plus the camping site) to the center of Vilnius by the airport and the railways and bus station. The section between the airport and the station is already done. A modern tramway (most likely to be supported by European funds) along, for example, Pylimo Street with the renovation of the environment and the many historic facades highlighting the beauty of Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. Lithuania, a magnificent country that for centuries of its erstwhile Grand Duchy was one of the largest European countries to be governed by the rule of just law and by the spirit of tolerance and peace between its constituent nations.
I wish you a successful term and the best projects for your city.
Christian Bonneville is an urban planning manager, and has been a senior civil servant with extensive experience in European Union funding projects and issues in public law.