Green connections

A reuse proposal to create a new transport hub in Vilnius was used by ZHA as an opportunity to provide a new connectivity across the city for its inhabitants, as well as improve rail infrastructure and sustainability

The design for the new railway station in Lithuania’s capital by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) will make it an “integrated transportation hub for the 21st century.” However, more importantly, it will be a key part of a sustainability-oriented urban improvement scheme which takes in adjacent public space, creating a new visitor destination in itself, and new civic spaces which are “enveloped by nature.”

ZHA triumphed in an open international competition for the project in 2021, two years after the practice won a similar contest to design the new rail terminal in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. The competition was organised by the Lithuanian Association of Architects for Vilnius City Municipality and Lithuanian Railways and asked for an “iconic and globally recognisable” scheme to upgrade the station (which connects Lithuania with Belarus and Kaliningrad), but also the central station square and adjacent bus terminal.

The resulting project will not only be a transport hub for national and local rail services in addition to the new Rail Baltic line that links with Europe’s high-speed network, but also a means to resolve the wider urban planning issues caused by current rail infrastructure.

Scheme design
The project is integral to the city’s ongoing sustainability agenda, which prioritises pedestrians and cyclists. ZHA’s competition-winning proposal, called ‘Green Connect,’ includes a new 9,500 m2 public bridge created over the existing station and railway tracks that connects the Naujininkai district to the south with the city centre and Vilnius old town. The wider connectivity aspect which the design provides, bringing parts of the city together, is arguably its strongest feature.

The bridge is a key part of how the scheme aims to “transform the existing rail infrastructure from a barrier that divides the city into a connector that unites Vilnius,” said the architects. The renovation and reuse of the original neoclassical station has resulted in a “concourse bridge” added above, with pedestrian walkways and cycle lanes. The architects commented that this was a “contemporary reinterpretation informed by the existing heritage building.”

The bridge’s timber roof undulates from a pitched form defined by the existing 9,000 m2 station’s triangular pediment into “softer geometries and volumes” that reduce in scale as the bridge descends to street level in the Naujininkai district.

A linear skylight runs along its length, and glazed facades provide light and views over the railway tracks, helping “intuitive navigation through the concourse,” said ZHA.

The concourse bridge is 46 metres wide and spans 150 metres across the railway platforms (supported 10 metres above the tracks). The roof’s “fluid forms,” similarly to the roof of the adjacent bus terminal, are constructed in locally-sourced laminated timber.

The project creates a major new feature in the city which should attract locals, even those who aren’t travelling – in contrast to the current rail station, hampered by the presence of various temporary buildings. Gianluca Racana, director at ZHA said: “Our proposals transform the site into a destination not only for those using the transportation hub but also for the city and the local community.”

Clear connections
Removing the temporary kiosks and offices installed over recent decades, the “clarity of the existing station has been restored.” The scheme links the station to the new bus terminal to provide better connectivity for passengers. There will also be an “inhabited landscape” within the park that sits in front of the station; an outdoor “amphitheatre,” plus a ramp leading to a roof terrace on the bus terminal.

Existing car parking in Stoties Square, which sits next to the park, has been moved to a new underground facility. This allows the square and park to become a “vibrant civic space” which can be better used. More than 300 trees and 4,000 m2 of landscaping for the project include the creation of tree-lined avenues along main axes, and water gardens for the collection, filtration and purification of rainwater.

Nature-based solutions are “integral to the design,” said ZHA. Green roofs, landscaping and planting will “lower temperatures in summer and provide heat insulation in the winter.” The urban green spaces provided will give an “interconnected series of natural habitats within the city, which are easily accessible and can be enjoyed by communities throughout the year to enhance wellbeing and interaction.”

The design also incorporates technologies and “depolluting strategies” designed to improve air quality within adjacent neighbourhoods. Annual solar radiation analysis has been used by ZHA to design glazed facades in order to maximise sunlight within interiors in winter and reduce glare in the summer.” This analysis also determined the positioning of photovoltaic panels for optimum efficiency.

The Mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Šimašius, commented on the project goals: “We are working to ensure that the entire station district meets the criteria for the city we are developing today: green, comfortable and inspiring.”

The body managing the railway network, Lietuvos Geležinkeliai (LTG) wanted the station and its surroundings to “become a destination providing public spaces with leisure and service areas, convenient connections for pedestrians, cyclists and all those who choose to travel comfortably and sustainably by train,” according to its head, Mantas Bartuška. He added: “We are determined to open and convert the station’s formerly inaccessible industrial spaces for use by all residents.”

Vilnius’ chief architect Mindaugas Pakalnis commented on why ZHA’s scheme won, against many “strong proposals” for the project. “They know Vilnius, and have extensive experience designing detailed projects, including the Rail Baltica railway station in Tallinn.”

He added: “The concept presents a unique, recognisable, contextually appropriate design for the new terminal that creates a network of public spaces of the highest quality and establishes important connections between districts.” He said it also “creates opportunities to convert the former railway maintenance yard and surrounding areas.” The project will now be developed in detail.

ZHA’s scheme for the reuse of the station looks to be a great example of how architecture can resolve several problems at once, in this case creating a “future-proof” transport hub designed with passengers in mind. However, it’s also one that provides a wealth of new public space, and connectivity that improves the wider urban context.