Neringa Forest Architecture
Reflecting on the agency of cultural practices and institutions in framing environmental relationships we initiated the project Neringa Forest Architecture (NFA) at Nida Art Colony (NAC) of Vilnius Academy of Arts (VAA), in Nida, which is located in the Lithuanian part of the Curonian Spit – a 98 km long, and 0.4–3.8 km wide sand dune that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. Over the past 200 years, afforestation and sequential planning on the spit have terraformed the environment to manage natural geomorphological processes. The unique role and duty of care for this constructed cultural landscape poses complex challenges for the agencies and institutions that maintain it declared the Curonian Spit National Park in the 1990s and later, together with the part in Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia, included it on the UNESCO world heritage list.
The main institutions responsible for forest management on the spit are the Curonian Spit National Park and Juodkrantė as well as the Nida forest districts belonging to the Kretinga Forestry. They plan and carry out fire prevention and landscaping fellings, design and implement open spaces for grasslands, and reconstruct mountain pine forests; vast landscape areas that have reached their biological age limit. Through this work, approximately three thousand cubic metres of wood is annually logged in Neringa.
As this timber is often irregular due to coastal climatic conditions it is considered unsuitable for more complex industrial processes. Therefore, most of the logged timber is currently shredded into chips that are used by biofuel or paper producing companies. In 2015 the last sawmill operating on the spit in Juodkrantė, which was preparing lumber for local use, was closed down. The remaining work spaces and storage facilities have been or are in the process of being redeveloped to become holiday rental homes. The forestry regulations on the spit were gradually adapted to optimise, simplify and prioritise outsourcing timber from mainland industrial suppliers – extending its geography by hundreds of kilometres.
As a continuous programme, NFA involves a growing assembly of collaborations and participants to look at this cultural landscape from myriad perspectives and practices as a case study in the context of the Baltic and Scandinavian forests, considering it as an entanglement of natural systems, representations, colonial and industrial narratives. NFA focuses on the forest as a constructed space, an infrastructure, an environment reliant on human actions – shaped, regulated, governed and exploited.
What narrative, which history and myths form the basis of the societal regulations, agreements, political decisions and understandings that define this landscape? Which definition of nature is used to perform the spatial arrangements and representations that this landscape stands for? Why does this landscape, this forest, look the way it does and what are the institutions that commonly formulate and implement its imaginary?
We said we would launch a programme that starts from, is based upon, and is represented by a pile of timber, first seeking possibilities to make use of the industrial process taking place in Neringa as part of NAC; an art institution invested in giving agency to matter. In order to modify the perception and enable an immersive approach to tackle some of the questions above, in dialogue with Forest Parts (a research project started in 2019 by Jurga Daubaraitė and Jonas Žukauskas in response to the urgency of societal debate sparked by recent forestry reforms in Lithuania) we thought this material, a nearby resource, could open up possibilities for diverse practitioners residing at NAC, as well as VAA students, to engage with the local infrastructure, acknowledging and studying the specificity of this material as well as contributing a little to breaking the spell of expanding the elimination of production facilities in the Curonian Spit. This practice results in the disappearance of public facilities tailored by and for the local inhabitants as most of the space is turned into the service of holiday makers.
Forest Parts, the Pine Sample – a display of Neringa Forest as infrastructure, past and future: a research project by Jurga Daubaraitė and Jonas Žukauskas, 2019
The Curonian Spit was declared a resort destination of Prussia by Wilhelm II in the late nineteenth century. Visitors from the north of Germany embarked to experience this region as a new holiday destination. In the realm of imperialism, similar to the exotisation of remote, not yet industrialised territories with a strong presence of nature in the European colonies, the Curonian Spit underwent a comparable process. Its unique white dunes and particular habits of the seemingly isolated local inhabitants, gave space to imagination based on comparisons en vogue at the time: ‘Sahara of the North’ has been an often quoted description of the grand dune surrounding Nida. Holiday makers, among them artists, writers, filmmakers, contributed to building this common imaginary based on a perception from the ‘outside’, depicted in the form of paintings, storytelling, and moving image that in retrospect continues to influence the formation of the landscape we are currently surrounded by.
A material study allows us to avert focus from the grand, distanced image to acknowledge the multiplicity of elements with their own histories and roots allowing us to trace the complex entanglements of narratives shaping nature as a human-made system. In conversation with forester Romas Andrusevičius, who is implementing logging plans and administering contractors in Nida, an agreement was made and a process was defined that allowed NAC to purchase timber from Kretinga Forestry. The first batch of around twenty cubic metres of timber logged during the winter months was acquired in 2020 and the second in 2021. A surprisingly broad spectrum of timber are logged in Neringa, among them pine, spruce, black alder, birch, ash, robinia, linden, maple and chestnut. These logs were then cut into planks of various sizes and thicknesses by the portable sawmill operated by Nerijus Bužas.
While the timber logs are stored and cut in the front yard of NAC, the car park is turned into a public workshop. In plain sight, NAC guests and passersby can follow the process of the timber entering this institution step by step from the nearby forest, to be used by VAA students and other practitioners associated with the NAC programme. Material processes are those that relate us to the place; local timber is not only a resource, it forms a portal, a possible entry point to study the landscape and complexity of natural processes in relation to the socio-political forces that form it.
Using the first batch of cut pine and spruce logs, a timber seasoning shed, designed by Jurga Daubaraitė and Jonas Žukauskas was constructed in June 2020 with the help of the artist Jurgis Paškevičius and many more supporters who were visiting and residing at NAC at that time. The structure floats on steel stilts fixed on foundation pads of shapeless concrete blocks salvaged from demolition works on the nearby Urbo Hill. The galvanised sheet metal roof is folded in sturdy U-shaped sections and untreated wood naturally greys from exposure to the sun and rain. The bark left on the outer edge of the boards softens the building’s silhouette against a background of regrowing woodland nearby.
Exposed to the wind, the shed is a display of different kinds of wood sampled from diverse locations in the Curonian Spit. Dedicated to the preparation and storage of this unique and, for us, priceless material on site at NAC, it is a display of analogue data, an archive, a document, a material memory, an imprint of the landscape: the local timber sections inscribed with the morphology of growth rings reflect coastal and soil conditions resulting in twisted geometries and textures. In addition to the timber samples and timber library itself, maps, diagrams and selected stories of afforestation and logging in the Curonian Spit, printed on galvanised tin and mounted on the walls of the shed, provide facts and further information for general contextualisation and an understanding of the intertwined narratives at stake.
Time in Neringa is defined by two seasons: the high season, the summer months, buzzing with visitors and seasonal workers, and the off-season – the rest of the year. NFA works to a different time scale and, besides tourism, focuses on maintenance and infrastructure activities carried out in the spit. Instead of an ‘off-season’, we call this time the ‘timber season’. This is the time when timber is selected, logged and processed in the woodlands of the spit. This time also marks the period in which the Neringa Forest Architecture residency programme takes place.
The first participants of the residency programme arrived in Nida in November 2020. The architect Mantas Petraitis began working on the Mountain Pine Alphabet; a selection of organically grown joints of branches from the mountain pine fellings that he will use for furniture making. As a continuation of her residency, the artist Laura Garbštienė proposed that NFA work with her flock of Skudde breed sheep and bring them to Nida to graze in the forests over the summer. This proposal led to the initiation of the shepherd’s residency and we welcomed the sheep to Nida from June to October 2021 as a means to open up a discussion on cultural practices in relation to agroforestry and shepherding as an artistic process.
The architect and artist Aistė Ambrazevičiūtė embarked on a period of in depth research of lichens morphology in the forests of the Curonian Spit, while the journalist Adomas Zubė looked into the topic of forest fires in the Curonian Spit over the last 30 years. Spatial practitioner Gabrielė Grigorjeva analysed concepts of forest time and cartographed its spatial definitions and the relationship to politics, while designer and researcher Signe Pelne researched the biofuel industry in the Baltics. The artists Antanas Gerlikas, Monika Janulevičiūtė, Andrej Polukord, and Nina Svensson worked in the wood workshop producing prototypes and sketches for works to come as well as furniture and textiles for NAC, thus contributing to changing the tactility of the industrial materials used in the building and enabling it to become a more authentic place and represent the production processes at stake in its programme.
The joy of experimenting with raw lumber and getting to know its character, and working with material that was not usually part of one’s vocabulary was shared by Bakers Forum (Jonas Palekas and Kamilė Krasauskaitė) and the graphic designer Nerijus Rimkus, who besides making timber furniture has developed the visual identity for the NFA project and its website. Furniture designer, maker, and one time journeyman Philipp von Hase supported NAC in planning and developing its workshops, while ecologist Emma Holmberg studied the language of woodworms and made tar from mountain pine roots. Film editor Anne Hovad Fischer, and researcher and environmental scientist Agata Marzecova investigated various kinds of stories of women appearing in the landscape of the Curonian Spit.
Besides the residency programme Neringa Forest Architecture is growing as a sedimentary infrastructure for many activities – children’s books that explore the natural world and the forest; walks organised in collaboration with local foresters, landscape planners and architects who are invested in the history, present and future of the Curonian Spit; as well as a series of talks and further occasions to share the viewpoints and create a platform using the local resource as a meeting point and common point of departure. The pile of timber becomes a signifier for shared knowledge and further debate on environmental relationships and cultural practices in the intersection of politics and technology.
Egija Inzule, is the curator and director of Nida Art Colony (NAC) of Vilnius Academy of Arts in Nida, Lithuania. In order to respond to the hybrid character of NAC that includes running a residency programme, organising an international doctoral school, curating the arts programme, hosting student seminars and managing the general premises of NAC, Inzule develops processes and initiates productions that emerge from historical, geopolitical and sociopolitical analysis and reflect on the Curonian Spit with a focus on the significance and agency of NAC in this context. Inzule has worked as a curator in the teams of castillo/corrales, Paris; Istituto Svizzero di Roma; and Shedhalle, Zurich. She is currently based between Zurich and Nida.
Jurga Daubaraitė and Jonas Žukauskas, are a duo of spatial practitioners currently based in Vilnius. Through architectural, curatorial and research projects they aim to create new relations between societies and their environment, past and future, by seeking to rearticulate architecture across a wider ecology of practices. They curated the exhibition ‘The Baltic Material Assemblies’ at the AA Gallery and RIBA in London (2018), and were co-curators of The Baltic Pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale (2016), and co-editors of The Baltic Atlas published by Sternberg (2016). Among other projects Daubaraitė and Žukauskas are currently working on the Creative Playground and Garden in Vilnius. Together with Egija Inzule, as well as working together on the new publishing initiative Kirvarpa, they initiated Neringa Forest Architecture at Nida Art Colony in 2019, as a research and residency programme based on spatial and material processes. The programme that investigates the Curonian Spit as a case study in the context of the Balticand Scandinavian forests, considering it as an entanglement of ecologies, representations, and both colonial and industrial narratives.