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Book in Focus
Site, Symbol and Cultural Landscape
Edited by Almantas Samalavičius
Sites, especially (but not exclusively) those of an urban nature, are closely related to visual symbols, rife with various meanings, while cultural landscapes provide us with possibilities to experience and understand the value of our immediate environment, especially architecture and urban scenes created by previous generations. Cultural landscapes also contain their relations to both enduring and shifting natural settings. For some years, I had a feeling that a book, focusing on sites, symbols, and cultural landscapes was needed. Of course, there have been a number of books discussing various urban relations and the importance of cultural landscapes, but this one is different from a number of preceding titles related to these subjects. Instead of lumping together different geographic locations and authors coming from different countries, I opted to work on a book focused on a particular geographic region and invited researchers from that particular locality. I was, and remain, pretty sure that such a locus is neither narrow nor superficial as serious research focused on a place like Lithuania can provide valuable insights and findings going beyond regional or national borders.
Lithuania has a rich architectural legacy, as well as a number of highly impressive and important natural sites, some of which had been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. These are the sites of Outstanding Universal Value: the Curonian Spit, the historical center of Lithuania’s capital city Vilnius, the Cultural Reserve of Kernavė, and the Struve Geodetic Arc. Two more culturally important sites—Trakai Historical National Park and the Modernist architecture of Kaunas city—are now on the waiting list. There are, of course, a lot more local territories rich with their cultural landscapes that are strongly related to values and meanings that are crying to be thoroughly discussed by architectural and urban researchers.
During recent decades, the awareness of the importance of historical architectural legacies, as well as the value of natural landscapes, has been growing. The global devastation of urban and natural landscapes that has accelerated since the Industrial Revolution and has taken on unprecedented scale during the last century has also given impetus to reflect upon our environment and take into consideration the fact that we, humans, are largely shaped by our environment. The losses of our landscapes are closely related to the loss of our own selves. This is why we tend to reflect upon our architectural, urban, and natural environment, hoping that a better understanding of its value and meanings might result in more balanced, nuanced, and culturally and socially responsible planning and building practices.
The authors of Site, Symbol and Cultural Landscape all share its editor’s attitude towards the importance of sites, symbols, and landscapes though they provide their own narratives through well-informed analysis of the key issues that make Lithuania both unique and, at the same time, universal. This is why its focus on specific Lithuanian sites transcends the local. As there is a surprisingly small amount of scholarship focused on Lithuania’s architectural and urban legacy available at the international level (my own book Lithuanian Architecture and Urbanism, published by CSP in 2019, is one of the few available titles), this collection of essays is an important addition to the scarcity of scholarly sources and resources in its own way. However, in my view, it offers something more than simply academic discussions of local Lithuanian material: cultural landscapes from different parts of the world not only differ, but also share something in common. First and foremost, they provide rich, lasting, and important experiences; they contribute significantly to meaningful environments that provide lived experiences and foster our growth as human beings capable of experiencing and reflecting upon our environment.
My own chapter in this collection of scholarly essays is focused on the durability and ephemerality of the Vilnius cityscape. Drawing on historical sources, including letters by renowned natural scientist Georg Forster (once a companion of Captain James Cook in his Pacific voyages), who was invited to take a chair at Vilnius University in 1784, reflections of Vilnius’ urban character and cityscape by well-known Polish photographer Jan Bulhak (1876–1950), and insights from his coeval architectural historian Dr Mikalojus Vorobjovas (1903-1954), I have aimed to explain what makes Vilnius a unique and, at the same time, universal European city. By adopting a phenomenological perspective and using the concept of genius loci provided by Christian Norberg-Schulz, I have analysed how nuanced interaction between historical architecture of Vilnius and its natural environment created a very special Lithuanian character, a sort of rus in urbe that captured the imagination of its observers in different periods of history despite recent urban transformations.
The delayed industrialisation and modernisation, which happened because Lithuania lost its importance after falling to the hands of the Tsarist Russian Empire, paradoxically allowed Vilnius to maintain its famous rustic qualities and create a meaningful balance between nature and architecture. My essay “Vilnius Cityscape and Genius Loci: Historical Architecture and Nature in an Urban Environment” is a reflection of my ongoing interest in the development of Vilnius’ cityscape that I have to a certain degree discussed in my previous publications. Among several aspects I targeted in this essay was to show that the application of the Norberg-Schulz intellectual framework is still valid and useful, despite its own limitations in dealing with historical cityscapes, not only in Europe but elsewhere as well. On the other hand, even the limited uses of phenomenology might be still helpful in allowing one to transform one’s own experiences into the analysis of cultural landscapes.
I have also approached historical architecture as a set of visual symbols that play certain roles in our lives and provide and enrich our urban experiences. Though the legacy of the last century is burdensome, modern urban planning and urban design, despite their promising vanguard ambitions, were largely insensitive to the character, atmosphere, and genius loci of historical cities in many parts of the globe. These negative consequences of modernist ideology have also provided us both with an impetus to look at things differently and the need to design new intellectual tools enabling us to approach historical sites and urban cultural landscapes without moral and aesthetic prejudices eschewed by stale and exhausted dogmas.
I am pleased that contributors to this volume have shared my intellectual concerns and have joined me in this ongoing research with their own glimpses into sites and the architectural symbols they contain and the cultural landscapes of various parts of Lithuania, providing well-informed, well-documented, and complex insights into the subject matter.
I can only hope that our efforts in discussing cultural landscapes of this particular country will draw more research in this direction, both locally and internationally. We are currently facing a number of threats, as well as challenges brought about by climate change and degradation of natural resources that are largely due to human activities on this planet including heedless urban planning of the modern era that is now being reconsidered on a worldwide scale. What we need is a careful examination of our cultural and urban legacies and an informed reconsideration of lasting urban landscapes, as well as an understanding of what Lewis Mumford called the uses of history. If this collection of essays at least modestly succeeds in contributing to the currently available knowledge on sites, their architectural symbols, and diverse cultural landscapes, I could conclude that we as authors and contributors to this volume have done our work. More findings will hopefully follow.
Dr Almantas Samalavičius is Professor at the School of Architecture at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, Lithuania, and at Vilnius University, Lithuania. He is the author of many scholarly books, including Ideas and Structures: Essays in Architectural History (2011) and Lithuanian Architecture and Urbanism: Essays in History and Aesthetics (2019), and is the editor of more than a dozen collections of essays and anthologies, including Rethinking Architecture and the Built Environment (2017). His books, essays and articles have been translated into some 14 languages, and he serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Architecture and Urbanism.