More than 20 students of architecture, urban planning, cultural studies, European studies, history, sociology, anthropology, and geography from Germany, Belarus, and Lithuania gathered to the Mapping Visaginas summer school organized by the European Humanities University (EHU) Laboratory of Critical Urbanism. This is a two-week course on mapping social practice in relation to the environment constructed in the Lithuanian post-industrial town of Visaginas, a former satellite town to a nuclear power plant erected in 1975.
The school is a mix of lectures, seminars, excursions, and supervised fieldwork in Visaginas from September 20th to October 3rd, during which participants will be guided in the process of how to research the social and spatial relations of contemporary Central and Eastern Europe. The aim of participants’ work at the school will be both to create an exploratory mapping project of a particular dimension of Visaginas and to develop a scenario for its future development.
“Visaginas can be taken as a showcase of the risks involved in the transition from a town reliant on an external top-down allocation of resources and workforce to a town compelled to survive in a competitive environment with a multilateral and multi-scalar distribution of resources and workplaces. The urban structure and services of Visaginas were planned and built from scratch in the context of the short-term economic abundance related to the project of the adjacent Ignalina nuclear power plant. For this reason, Visaginas was considered to be one of Soviet Lithuania’s best examples of a centrally planned, monofunctional urban unit, highly successful in terms of architectural decisions, quality of living, and human capital,” explains historian and anthropologist Felix Ackermann (EHU).
Since the 1990s, due to the gradual shutting down of the Ignalina nuclear power plant as a consequence of both the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and Lithuania’s accession to the European Union, the town has stopped growing, with concomitant social phenomena of swelling unemployment, dwellers’ anxiety about the future, and a population decline of around 20%.
This situation is made even more troublesome by the combination of the town’s ethnic and professional composition. Because of the rapid Soviet-mode of urbanization, Visaginas’s population historically consisted principally of nuclear scientists, engineers, construction workers, and their family members brought from the Soviet Union. What was then perceived as Soviet elite then primarily contributes today to the image of Visaginas as a problematic town.
Inhabitants of the town, meanwhile, identify with the prestige of the former nuclear power plant and the fact that they collectively constructed its housing blocks in the 1970s. However, it is not clear what role the engineers’ habitus and collective identification with the place can play in the new context of the present. From this perspective, nowadays Visaginas can be treated as a perfect case for defining and developing urbanism in shrinking cities under post-socialist conditions as well as beyond.
During the summer school, students will be guided by an international team of lecturers, including historian and anthropologist Felix Ackermann (EHU), sociologist Dalia Čiupalaitė (Vilnius University), Director of the EHU Laboratory of Critical Urbanism Benjamin Cope, interdisciplinary artist and urban theorist Miodrag Kuč (EHU), Lecturer in Sociology, Urban Studies, and Media Siarhei Liubimau (EHU), EHU Media Department Chair Alla Pihalskaya, and Professor of Design and Society Steffen Schumann (Berlin), who has explored shrinking cities in East Germany and elsewhere.
On October 2, 4:00 p.m., in the Aukstaitija Hotel art gallery (Veteranų St. 9, Visaginas) the summer school results will be presented to the public. Transport from Vilnius and overnight lodgings are possibile. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org .
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