The Twists and Turns of the Traffic Police Building

An axonometry of the Traffic Police building (Giraitės str. 3, Vilnius). Authors – architects K. Pempė and G. Ramunis.

The former building of the Traffic Police became a ghost both literally and figuratively. Its shadow will continue to haunt the pages of Lithuanian architecture for a long time. Not just because something makes its history new or somehow different from others. More likely for the peak of cynical power achieved using it. The peak of faulty practices. We can only hope that we will be able to avoid similar stories in the future or that they will turn out much more successful.

The fate of the Traffic Police building could be examined by taking several approaches. First of all, we could ask what has lead to this dead-end. Second, we could go deeper into the faultiness of the architectural tender, organised for the building on Giraitės Street. Third, raise questions on what the heritage of modern architecture is, what makes it valuable, as well as how (and should we) protect it. The latter issue will soon be discussed in another article of the author, published on Fourth, there is the vague, though possibly significant public involvement. However, the major focus of this article will turn to the political-economic situation currently developing in the field of Lithuanian heritage and the fate of a specific architectural object.

vaml-iiis-3-07 The northern facade of the Traffic Police building (Giraitės str. 3, Vilnius). Authors – architects K. Pempė and G. Ramunis.

What has led to indiscriminate destruction of the Soviet legacy?

Two key factors: ineffective legal base for heritage protection (including the entire system), as well as lack of appreciation of Soviet architectural heritage [1] (or inability to appreciate it due to its characteristics, compared to the heritage from previous periods of time, although many prefer hiding under statements like “too little time has passed”).

In October the State Commission for Cultural Heritage under the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania organised a hasty conference Advanced Protection of Architectural Heritage — Mission (Im)Possible? Once again discussions on painful issues included several valuable insights. One of them suggested involving the public by, first of all, publishing information on more important objects of heritage and architectural legacy. Here the virtual space — the ideal medium for fostering democratic processes — becomes especially handy. Second, it is necessary to provide owners even with the simplest of tools to take care of buildings that were not given the status of a cultural monument, but are worth of being preserved: publishing recommendations for taking care of valuable real estate, of course, supplemented by appropriate legal acts.

Even greater help in taking care of objects of cultural heritage would be concessions for their owners, because it’s more than obvious that state funds cannot cover all objects. According to A. Stancikienė, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel and using the good practice of other countries would suffice: for example, various tax concessions for owners, like direct partial funding of renovation costs (Lithuania also uses this practice, although on a smaller scale), smaller real estate taxes, compensations for heating costs, etc.

An effective system for heritage monitoring would help to monitor and maintain the entire Lithuanian heritage (or perhaps even the entire architectural heritage). So far the area, lacking strategic and systemic approach from the state the most is the cultural heritage, which will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary, i.e. will become a serious candidate for the status of cultural heritage. Here we refer to the legacy of the second half of the 20th century — the modern and post-modern architecture from the Soviet era.

First of all, we should agree that if cultural heritage is more than just a matter of heritage protection experts, then architectural legacy is not just a matter of architectural experts. Meanwhile, in case of the former Traffic Police building, opinions often sound similar to “architects want something unimaginable”. Architects don’t want anything for themselves. They try to warn the public of an actual threat of destroying a unique object, which should be preserved for the future generations. It is not their fault (at least not only their fault) that we’re at least one step behind — various architectural organisations and the previously-mentioned conference have already been suggesting of making at least the initial steps in making an inventory of the Soviet legacy of modern architecture, which are crucial, although would not require much time and effort. These steps would be then followed by data analysis, as well as evaluation and selection of objects.

The Commission for Cultural Heritage tried to take a short-cut and recently addressed various organisations working in the field of architecture, asking to provide… data on the objects of the above-mentioned period, located in their territories. The lists received were published as a rough draft for the list of objects of Soviet architecture. Unfortunately, this list is neither comprehensive, nor exhaustive, nor it includes the most valuable examples of cultural heritage.

What systematic approach do we need? To see the full picture, knowing what is valuable, why is it valuable and define exact criteria for evaluating objects of cultural heritage. Then we would know what we protect, how and why. The information would be available to all, from heritage protection experts and the public to politicians and business representatives that make the decisions.

vaml-iiis-3-08 The first floor plan of the Traffic Police building (Giraitės str. 3, Vilnius). Authors – architects K. Pempė and G. Ramunis.

A new recipe for architectural tenders

The fact that it is namely businessmen and politicians, who form the face and condition of our cultural heritage, was reaffirmed with the construction of the new Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. This action definitely was not approved by UNESCO, ICOMOS or foreign heritage experts, who politely identified the object as what it really was: “a political project”.

The case of the Traffic Police building would be referred to as “a business project”. State, municipal, as well as other related institutions, participating in the project, acted merely as implementers and helpful tools. The process, which determined the sad fate of the Traffic Police was faulty from the very beginning. Yet, it was anything but new. An example of an analogous situation could be the K18 competition, although the roots lie much deeper than that: more than a decade a go a similar scenario was used to build the current Barclay building on Upės Street. And before that there was the “competition” for a transformation of Velga Factory territory, which helped Vilniaus Prekyba Group legalize high-rise buildings and intensive constructions in the neighbourhood of Vingis Park. All these cases have developed a faulty practice of architectural competitions.

It is faulty, because architectural competitions have became a tool in order to bypass, violate and adapt situations to one’s needs, often using this format to evade regulatory restrictions posed by cities’ general plans, squeeze in situations that seem impossible, get around public opinions, etc.

Thus the “architectural competition” regarding the former building of the Traffic Police became an ace in the hands of the “big players”. Or, perhaps, magicians? Because only magicians can trick their audiences and turn architectural competitions into means of defining the valuable characteristics of an architectural object or a tool to achieve the intended product, not only using the help of “appropriately” formed expert commission, but also being able to “purchase” any project, which wins the competition. How could an architectural competition ever define the valuable characteristics of an object? These are usually defined by experts and become the criteria for evaluating competition offers.

True, LIDL representatives and their supporters popularized the idea that this competition will help to identify the traffic police building valuable properties, was only an empty declaration to appease the public. The same rules of the competition declare: “The participants of the competition allowed to presume that the building may, but need not be saved, however, bidders are invited to submit proposals for the current postmodern architectural elements of the building integration and replication office park architecture” [2]. The fact that the building is doomed to destruction, it turns reading goals (objectives and aims of the competition): “the most important – the maximum and best reflects the needs of the customer area development option” [3].
Architectural tenders are not creative workshops, where you can try out various scenarios and find the best solution. The purpose of tenders is to select the best architectural solutions and its rules, evaluation criteria, etc. should be clear from the very beginning. The conditions of tenders should include not only a political-business project, but also the entire context, including the socio-cultural one. Evaluation commission and experts should be competent, transparent and leaving no doubts in their competence to select the best architectural work.

Despite efforts to convince otherwise, the evaluation commission in the case of Giraitės Street 3 leaves us unable to say that it was architects, who “decided which tender offers were worth of being implemented” [4]. Not only because some members of the commission included people, who sought to demolish the building on Giraitės Street 3, which interferes with their plans, since spring. The best idea was chosen by as much as three LIDL representatives (aside from the architect, delegated by LIDL and another LIDL representative “on the bench”). Other members of the commission include Diana Varnaitė, Director of the Department of Cultural Heritage (DCH) under the Ministry of Culture, who supports the client opinion (!). Although she usually does not participate at meetings of the Commission for Cultural Heritage, on 17 October Ms Varnaitė came to the meeting and, after asking for an opportunity to speak, declared that she will not allow the DCH to interfere with business investments. Nobody even blinked at the fact that being a director of the institution, she could refer to its activity as interference. Nobody requested a resignation and nobody is intending to. And who could trust the opinions of two representatives of Vilnius City Municipality Administration, included into the commission, declaring their will to reconsider the suggestions of the architects and preserve the former building of the Traffic Police?

Thus, the purposes of the “tender” are doubtful, conditions — pitiful, while the evaluation commission consists of conformists or those, who are interested in demolishing the building. The statement of the tender participants being faithful to the Code of Ethics (and to the copyrights) is faulty as well: “LAA confirms that participation at this tender and the preparation and submission of the project offers to transform the former Traffic Police building, as well as the realisation of the offers in accordance with the tender conditions is not and will not be regarded as a violation of copyrights or the architectural ethics approved by the LAA” [5]. The Lithuanian Architects’ Association organising this “tender” issued an indulgence to its participants… without the approval of the authors of the building.

Then there are the tender participants and their works [6]. Unfortunately, we can mention only those, who declared their participation and, of course, the prize winners (there were as much as 4 of those, since the 3rd prize went to two participants).

This was a mixed tender (!): an open tender, which could be participated by anyone, and the same time specific participants received invitations. One way or another, the tender was participated by serious Lithuanian award-winning creators, as well as architects of entrepreneurial spirit, able to prove and implement their clients’ needs. There were also the young, hungry and ambitious.
Accordingly, the 14 offers featured interesting ideas, worth of implementing and seeking for an equal balance between the public and business interests, there were also strange ones and liberal ones, which focused only on the voice of the client. These were the winners, however, the press boasts of the “architects making the decision”. It doesn’t matter that the expert commission was far from providing a solid and competent opinion on behalf of the architects. The worst is that the winners of the tender regard what could be referred to only a shadow of the original building as the “preservation of the key features”.

Here we are left with two unanswered questions: a) why Lithuanians don’t feel responsible for protecting Lithuanian cultural heritage? b) what are the Lithuanian businessmen lacking most: vision, ambitions or culture? Perhaps this is the reason why the civilised law on patronage doesn’t make its way to adoption?

vaml-iiis-3-09  The photo of the Traffic Police building’s model (Giraitės str. 3, Vilnius). Authors – architects K. Pempė and G. Ramunis.

Conclusions with even more coincidences

It remains a secret, why neither of the LIDL representatives could participate at the first meeting of the Department of Cultural Heritage, regarding the assessment of immovable cultural heritage on 3 October, which discussed whether the former Traffic Police building should be included into the Register of Cultural Heritage. The question was postponed to 17 October. Perhaps it was a coincidence that in the meantime the Presidential Palace and other institutions received a public address from LIDL, regarding damages and threat to their business, which caused a great stir on the mass media, was overloaded with texts full of compassion for the honest business. While on 17 October the meeting was attended not only a group of LIDL officials led by their lawyer, but also an impressive number of TV, radio and other media representatives.
At least we can say that business strategies and tactics in Lithuania are doing okay.

Architecturologist Aida Štelbienė


[1] Heritage protection includes the following concepts: “legacy” includes everything, which survived to this day, while “heritage” refers to objects officially protected by the state.
[2] Architectural tender regarding the office park at Giraitės Street 3, Vilnius. Client: Closed joint stock company Lidl Lietuva, organiser: Lithuanian Architects’ Association (hereinafter — LAA), p. 11.
[3] Ibid. p. 4.
[4] Ibid. p. 17.
[5] Ibid. p. 19.
[6] one can look through competitors’ works here.