Construction could put Old Town on UNESCO black list

  • 2005-09-07
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - Members of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee are shaking their heads over the number of high-rise buildings mushrooming throughout Vilnius' Old Town. A new playground for quick profit-hunters and architects without respect for the city's unique setting, the Old Town could be eliminated from the World Heritage List if the situation doesn't change.

Lithuania's UNESCO representative, Ambassador Ina Marciulionyte, said if new buildings continue to mar the Old Town's protective zone, it could be added to the World Heritage in Danger List.

"If things go on as they are, it may be listed," she told journalists.

There is currently no well-defined framework for maintaining the integrity of the Old Town, which has been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. The construction of glass buildings has created a great deal of public frustration and mistrust, due to their modern juxtaposition with the Old Town's existing architecture and history.

The city's main problems are inadequately renovated old buildings and the construction of skyscrapers that, in many cases, do not complement the Old Town's architecturally homogenous areas.

Mechtild Rossler, chief of UNESCO's North American and European unit, said her feelings after seeing Vilnius' Old Town in May "were not very joyful." In some cases, the expert said, the situation in Vilnius was worse than in Koln, Germany.

Last year, Koln's Cathedral was enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger List when municipal authorities ignored UNESCO demands to cease the construction of high-rises. The community replied that changing city development would signify Koln's inability to correspond with architectural trends as a modern European city.

With numerous tall buildings having already begun construction in Vilnius, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee urged Lithuanian officials to revise the capital's development goals.

Both experts and community leaders consider the Novotel hotel and residential living complexes on Juozapaviciaus Street, Delfinas Street, and 22 Mindaugo Street as disagreeable city development plans. On top of this list, UNESCO representatives have pointed to skyscrapers being built on Savanoriu and Gyneju Street.

"State and municipal authorities working with Old Town questions have no responsible coordinator, as none wants to relinquish their powers. Various committees make recommendations, but none of these are binding and so, in the end, the politicians do whatever they want anyway," said a member of the Save the Old Town organization.

Meanwhile, Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas and his administration repeatedly disagree with UNESCO warnings. Political authorities claim that new developments on the right bank of the Neris River are integral to the capital's modernization.

"Experts and the majority of city residents approve of the urban hill that has appeared on the right bank of the Neris River. This is a great example of how the city center has pursued the idea of continuing urbanization. It has lessened economic pressure on Vilnius' Old Town and created better conditions for value protection," said a representative of the Vilnius municipality.

Vilnius' Old Town was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994.