Talking Heritage, PVC Windows, Kaunas and Asmara

On June 25-29, 2018, the inaugural summer school for students of architecture and heritage protection, as well as professionals in associated fields, takes place in Kaunas. The project is part of the Modernism for the Future program of Kaunas 2022, an institution preparing for the year 2022 when Kaunas will take the seat of European Capital of Culture. Furthermore, the summer school pays respect and celebrates 2018, the European Year of Cultural Heritage. Together with local curators and lecturers, two architecture and heritage professionals from the UK have been tutoring at the summer school. We had the privilege to sit down with Hannah Corlett and Edward Dennison, both representing The Bartlett School of Architecture of University College London (UCL) and discuss the issues of Kaunas touched by the participants of the school. The students, divided into four groups, have been investigating four historical plots in the centre of Kaunas and trying to find development perspectives for them.

Our talk took place before the final presentations of the students – and after the public lectures both tutors read. Edward presented his work on the UNESCO World Heritage Nomination of Asmara, the modernist capital of Eritrea that carries a striking resemblance to Kaunas, and his research on Ultra-Modernism in Manchuria region in Northeast Asia. Hannah talked about a few fascinating projects she and her company have worked on, a couple of which were situated in Baghdad, Iraq. We couldn’t help but ask a few questions about these topics before we moved on to discussing all things Kaunas!

What was your initial relationship with heritage? Do you remember certain buildings that kind of influenced your future interest and careers?

Edward: I grew up in a school in London that’s nearly 600 years old. The school was rebuilt around 100 years ago, before the modernist era. Its architectural style is very prominent. So, the built environment and its character and layout always mattered. I always felt that history manifested in buildings and stories and any other forms of art is important and we need to remember it and look after it. To choose what to keep and what to discard is a huge responsibility for any single generation. We’re only custodians of our lifetime before the next generation takes over. When you choose to take something away, that’s a big responsibility you’re taking on board for the future.

Hannah: My father is in the military, so we travelled a lot, and I was very aware that you go to different countries and as much as the people are the faces of the country, so is the architecture. You become very aware of the differences and quite excited at the variety of the building types that you get. But then, we always lived in army accommodation which tends to be very incredibly dull, basically constructed. So I always had this craving of the way that other people live. As an architect, I never necessarily had particular strong leniency towards one type of architecture. You just become aware of good examples. You appreciate when something is really significantly different and innovating. Heritage shows evolution, too. Good examples should always be preserved.

Edward, when you talked about getting Asmara in the UNESCO World Heritage List during your lecture, you mentioned that one of the tasks was convincing the people from UNESCO that it’s not only about the modernist architecture but also about the intangible heritage of the city. How about the people of Asmara? Had they realised the beauty and importance of their surroundings, or did you also have to help them to see that?

The intangible was the obvious thing for the people of Eritrea. The relationship they had intangibly with the city was innate to them, and they knew the importance of it. So conveying that story within Eritrea was quite easy. Conveying that to UNESCO was harder. People might look at the buildings and might see them not as attractive because they appear rundown, they’re not modern in the contemporary sense. This has happened throughout history with medieval towns, for example. Of course, things go through a passage of time and become deteriorated, and people look at them negatively. But the character and quality of them is very good, they last the test of time, they’re built well.

It was really getting the Eritreans to see things from a different perspective regarding the architecture itself. They knew the city was important and had a character they liked. For example, there’s a classic phenomenon in Eritrea –it’s the passeggiata when all the residents come out to the streets about 6 pm and just enjoy walking on the streets. You could say it’s an Italian thing, but it’s also very Eritrean, too. To be with friends and family and enjoy the company in the city, in the street. The urban form encourages facilitates that. So, when you start talking to them, they realise there’s a deliberate design to create a space to allow that. That’s something in the context of Asmara which suits the city very well. The Eritrean culture perhaps coincidentally suits the layout of the city very well, with the form of the buildings, the climatic conditions, too.

Did Italian architects design the modernist Asmara?

Yes, it’s almost entirely Italian design. As we stressed very much in the nomination, it was almost wholly Eritreans that built it. There were of course expert Italian craftsmen who did concrete form, but the locals did the vast majority of work.

Do or did the locals have any problem with the design of their city done by someone who was not from Eritrea but an intruder? This is quite often a case in Lithuania when buildings from Soviet or Tsar era are not perceived as valuable because of political and historical reasons.

That’s the complexity of the colonial experience of Eritrea. You go from Italian to British to Ethiopian, then to liberation. It’s not like in, say, Libya or Somalia which were Italian colonies. When you go from occupation to freedom immediately, like in Lithuania, you tend to take down monuments, buildings and symbols immediately. And then you regret it.

Hannah, among other projects by your studio, you presented the Holy City masterplan in Kadhimiya,  a neighbourhood in Baghdad, Iraq. As I understood, the buildings surrounding the holy site that needed to be expanded for the convenience of pilgrims were surveyed and classified regarding historical importance. Who did the survey and how did the residents respond to that? Do they appreciate the value of the houses they live in?

In the 1970s, two architects surveyed the area, because there were bulldozers starting to clear the area around the mosque, simply removing houses. So the architects said, hey, there’s things of real significance here. So, they did a really informed survey. When in Kadhimiya, we took the survey which apparently is very out of date and went around the streets. The already rebuilt houses had taken very similar forms to the demolished ones. Minimal variation. One of the reasons our proposal didn’t win and the other one did was that its author had convinced the authorities it was too expensive to preserve the historical buildings, and much cheaper to knock them all down.

Almost universally people don’t want to be decamped out of their homes, to rearrange the setup of the street, who their neighbours are etc. It’s tough to literally pick people up and relocate them, even temporarily. It’s less about do I like the condition of my home than about do I want to move. So, they took it very negatively, and a lot of the old academics had an absolute outcry over the idea of levelling a city of that importance. But again, often these decisions are lost on money, and that was the convincing element, the price.

Let’s move to Kaunas! What was your previous knowledge of the city based on, before coming here?

Edward: Well, I have been here before, just over a year ago. I had seen Vaidas Petrulis present at a modernism conference in Gdynia. Quite a few East European academics present in that conference and I was sort of aware of Kaunas from what people had said about it. It was like Asmara 20 years ago; you hear murmurings of this place that you should go and see if you’re interested in modernism! After this presentation of Vaidas, I was very keen to come, and he was very kind to invite me over. During that trip, I also spent some time in Vilnius and talked about Asmara’s UNESCO bid.

There are lots of similarities between Kaunas and Asmara, for example being capital cities in their own right. There is an unfinished nature about the city where you can see the ambition, and even if it was temporary, there’s still intent that it’s going to fill up one day. But history has a peculiar way of functioning, and consequently, the city has this incredible layering of different periods and architectural typologies that is quite unique.

I don’t know if I’ve been to any other city where you can have such a strong streetscape, the primary axes and plots and frontages, and within those, you’ve got these little worlds that are entirely different from the rest of the city. There are gardens and orchards, 19th century wooden structures… In that respect, it’s one of the cities which you can explore for many, many days. I’ve only scratched the surface! But, even in a week, with the summer school, you can really get underneath the skin of the city and go behind the facades and understand the plots a lot better. We’ve only been investigating four plots, though, there’s a lot more to do.

Hannah: This is very much my first time in Kaunas. I’m fortunate that Vaidas and his team came to London and briefed us. I knew some history of Lithuania and, of course, things you can see on the internet and in books. But, it’s one of the places that you might think you’ve got the measure of, but you then realize you haven’t!It’s very difficult to come across the information about the inner blocks. Everything is very orientated towards street views and significant architectural features. There’s almost nothing about the hidden world of the inner block! You take any turning off, and you’re in a very unusual space for a city centre! I hadn’t prepared for that! Even now, I think I am cutting through a block that I know and come across something that’s so other-worldly!

What about the international students that have joined the school? I believe it’s a rather mixed group of individuals, right?

Edward: I sense that it’s quite mixed. They’re from different backgrounds and have mixed experiences. There’s the difference in expertise, too. We’ve got a couple of sociologists, some architects, some with planning background, some academics. Their expectations are probably quite different, too. Also, the way we work is probably quite new to them, as well. We try to get them to be more creative and a bit bolder in their visions for what they’re proposing, just to see what is possible. If you’re very tentative, you could do something so minimal anyone could provide that by just visiting the plot and seeing its conditions.

Hannah: For some people, it’s the first time they’re designing or thinking about the city and how they can affect change. For those who are interested in heritage, you do find that people come and they’re interested in the heritage on architectural scale, so they might be interested in individual buildings and how you would renovate or add to the building, but we’re actually zooming out and thinking about the whole blocks in the context of the city. I think some of them found that the sheer amount of information and level of detail you can possibly reach, it’s significant in a week and quite hard. Obviously, it’s a lot to ask from people who are very new to the subject. I think they’ve all had an enormous learning curve. They’ve all got to know Kaunas in a way that they would never have learned had they only visited. I think it has been a good experience, whether or not at the end of the week there’ll be some conclusive and evidential work.

Edward: I believe they all appreciate the immersion into the city. You don’t get to spend five days to understand a particular site. As a tourist, you usually try to see as much as you can. It’s a rare privilege.

Do the Lithuanian students value that as well; are they a bit protective of their city?

Hannah: We tried to split the Lithuanian knowledge between the groups, and I think that has generally been a very positive thing. There’s so much historical knowledge that they might share. But even for Lithuanians, the learning curve has been impressive. Not all of them are from Kaunas, they don’t necessarily understand how significant spaces can be affected, or cities generally developed. They have been learning alongside the others.

Edward: The beauty of working with people who are new to a place, if you’re familiar with it, is that you see through new and very different perspectives. You re-learn the city you thought you knew! It’s very important to expose yourself to new ways of seeing what you think is familiar. I hope they found that challenging.

Quote often residents, and not just in Kaunas, believe heritage buildings should all be state-owned or collectively operated, and the use of the buildings should be as culturally oriented as possible, like museums or galleries. Not hotels, for example, as a hotel is a commercial institution. Is it, from your experience, a frequent approach? How does one deal with that?

Hannah: Generally, through teaching, you find that there are certain go-to building types that people feel the city needs. But when you take a  closer look at the cities and the population, they need very few of them. There’s the wealth of other facilities, public or private, that support those. There’s this thing, oh, it’s an iconic building; therefore we have to do the Kaunas information centre in it! But the location is not good for that, so an information centre might not be the best choice. That logical thinking has to distribute the building forms, so that they’re not all prostatic but contributing to the city. That’s why we have housing as the actual focus. 90% of the most building types are housing. It’s the area of investment most people want to make. It’s what brings people to a city, the quality of the housing. Getting people to live in Kaunas would be a great thing. So, there’s a wealth of other options for heritage buildings, not just museums.

Edward: You have to define the attributes that are important to the site. Asking people what they think is valuable is critical. What are the valuable attributes that make the object important? As soon as you’ve identified that, then you can work with how to protect that and how to use it. All cities should constantly be changing and allow to change and evolve, but you need to protect the things that people value. That’s where developers and development play a critical role. They often tend to neglect things and not appreciate the value of the certain attributes. The financial value is, well, placed above the cultural value. You can’t monetise everything. So it’s critical to try and articulate what those values are. A building like this (the “Pienocentras” office building, – ed.) can have many functions, but you wouldn’t want, for example, to rip out the wooden windows or the radiators. They’re amazing and original! They make the building what it is. So, I think public awareness is critical.

Talking about windows! A lot of older houses, both public and residential, received a dramatic PVC window facelift in the 90s and 00s. Only recently more developers and owners have begun to restore original wooden frames or order new ones. But what about the existing PVC windows, as there’s so many of them now? Can this PVC period also be considered as historical and valuable in any sense? A symbol of the aughts perhaps?

Hannah: Yes, you could say there’s a certain era of PVC windows, and therefore if you’re changing your windows in a building of this era, you should use PVC. Considering the environmental impact, it should be noted that even if PVC was brought in because it’s low maintenance, it also doesn’t biodegrade. So even though it may have a lifespan of 25 years, we don’t know what to do with those windows when they come out. They technically don’t need to be repainted, but they’re turning yellow, right? They look reasonably horrific. So, to encourage the use of something we now know has a negative impact on the environment, I would always be against.

Edward: I absolutely agree. I also think replacing these old wooden windows with plastic is problematic because the buildings weren’t designed to have plastic windows. But, considering the number of the 90s and 00s buildings and plastic windows in them, there’s every reason to assume that in 40 years people will look back and say that was the mark of the era. But to take decent windows out and replace them with PVC is not a right decision. Why would you do that if PVC only lasts 25 years?! But, generally speaking, I am positively surprised with the condition of buildings here, considering your winters are cold and summers quite warm.

Last question – easy one – have you already chosen your favourite building in Kaunas?

Hannah: No! I’ve got lots, and I keep discovering new. I’m sure I’ll see more great ones on the way to the airport. This one’s really beautiful!

Edward: This particular building and the next to it (“Pažangos” building”, – ed.), post office, too, are great. They reflect the spirit of the times, how people had pride in the projects, the spirit of the temporary capital and its relationship with the capital that wasn’t theirs at the time. You can feel there’s a bigger plan, beyond the lifetime of anyone who had been dreaming this up. That’s a noble

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