Brief Encounters

In the heart of Vilnius’s Old Town, Veronica Simpson visits an unlikely but ambitious refurbishment of a medieval palace

‘THERE WERE THREE young Swiss brothers who, after the Berlin wall fell in 1989, decided to go East into the former Soviet territories and see what opportunities they could find for themselves.’ It was with these words that architect Christina Seilern first grabbed my attention, in describing her latest project, the refurbishment and repurposing of a Polish Cardinal’s medieval palace in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. These brothers, she continued, chose Lithuania as the most attractive prospect for their youthful economic experiments, ending up with a thriving supermarket business they partially sold to a multi-national chain in 2008. With the proceeds, they bought the aforementioned palace – which had also once been a monastery, a hospital and even a VD clinic under the occupying Soviet forces. Although it was almost derelict, they wanted to transform it into something wonderful. They just didn’t know what.

 The uplifting white walls and spiral staircase add a sense of wonder to the site. Image Credit: Roland Halbe

This is where Seilern came in. The Londonbased but Swiss-Austrian architect had known these brothers since childhood. But when they invited her to get involved, she had only just started her own practice, and had never done a restoration project. But she – and they – could see the charm and character of these buildings. Unlike the usual property developer mainly interested in maximising their profits, the brothers wanted not just to preserve the site but transform it into an asset for the city and people of Vilnius, as well as homes and as an HQ for themselves in a city they now regard as their main base. Having tried and failed to get planning permission for a hotel, Seilern developed a proposal for a mixed-use campus with offices, event space, restaurant and residential accommodation, woven into and around the site’s gothic and baroque buildings. These would be accessed via a public garden, so that all residents in this historic city could enjoy the delightful views from this hilltop site, set in the heart of the city’s 500-year-old, UNESCO World Heritage-designated Old Town.

project pays homage to its 500-year-old surroundings, while adding modern touches and preserving such treasures as the ancient linden tree at the centre of the landscaped gardensImage Credit: Roland Halbe

A year after our conversation, I am lucky enough to visit. And the complex is truly remarkable. The ancient buildings fit in perfectly with their Old Town neighbours, though their white rendering is particularly dazzling and the windows are an obvious upgrade, glossy and clean, sitting snugly within their new, contoured metal frames. Through the large, open gate in the perimeter wall, a glowing, landscaped garden, with an ancient linden tree at its centre, invites you into the site. Only here will you notice some intriguing additions: tucked neatly into a corner of the northern wing of the complex there is a mirrorclad lift and stair tower, its polished exterior reflecting the pristine surfaces of the restored buildings as well as the planting. Three large circular skylights are embedded in the garden – from above, they seem like semi-opaque, seaglass discs, but they allow those swimming in the 25m spa pool below to look up at the sky. Tucked into the southern side, a restaurant terrace has been excavated in the garden, in order to bring daylight into a contemporary dining interior carved out of the original medieval crypt. The roof of the restaurant, extending forward at garden height, is a shimmering expanse of mirror-polished steel, reflecting sky and cloudscapes and the buildings behind and beyond it. The project still speaks of Vilnius’s complicated past – entailing multiple occupations by invading imperial forces, from Russian aristocrats through Napoleon’s French army, then the Nazis and finally the Soviet Union, who left in 1991. Seilern has done a masterful job of stripping out the later, ungainly 20th century accretions to reveal the historic forms and textures, while her contemporary interventions bring the facilities bang up to 21st century standards.

project pays homage to its 500-year-old surroundings, while adding modern touches and preserving such treasures as the ancient linden tree at the centre of the landscaped gardens. Image Credit: Roland Halbe

To get here has been an epic project, spanning 13 years, in which she even took on – and changed – ancient planning laws. While Seilern’s proposed dialogue between old and new is not an unusual approach in conservation, it was in Lithuania in 2008. At that time, conservation tended towards pastiche. There were strict rules insisting on clay tiled roofs – though they were allowed to be liberally pimpled with Velux windows. Seilern wanted to reinstate the original large, simple roof volumes, while allowing substantial daylight into the top floors through strategic glazed panels, hidden behind slatted screens of bronze-anodized aluminium. These ensure that the glass is almost invisible from the outside (except after dark, when the stripes of interior lighting gleam in a rather magical way). From the inside, the wonderful spaces Seilern has conjured for offices and residential in the timber-beamed attic levels are regularly animated by shards of sunlight.

project pays homage to its 500-year-old surroundings, while adding modern touches and preserving such treasures as the ancient linden tree at the centre of the landscaped gardens. Image Credit: Roland Halbe

To tackle the planners’ resistance, she deployed Article 21 of UNESCO’s Vienna Memorandum, which reads: ‘One historical view should not supplant others as history must remain readable while continuity of culture through quality interventions is the ultimate goal.’ Says Seilern: ‘Through this, we were able to argue that what we were doing wasn’t radical but right – well, it was radical, but it was right.’

Working closely with conservation architects, the scheme preserves and enhances the original spaces and materials while giving each facility a unique and delightful character. Navigation around the underground spa is almost entirely along richly textured, bricklined gothic vaulted tunnels, their walls protected by softly undulating oak panels behind which services and lighting are hidden. This offers a tactile surface for the hands, while also protecting the building’s ancient fabric. There is something timeless and eternal about these spaces, but also luxurious. Perhaps the fact that her clients were willing to authorise the same attention to detail in the public areas and offices as they wanted in their homes – three apartments tucked invisibly into various parts of the complex, along with others that are rented out – is what makes the whole experience just that bit more uplifting, thoughtful, unified by the same aesthetic ambition and refinement. This includes the uplifting white walls and huge ceiling of the chapel, a scheme of stark simplicity that celebrates all the height, the curves, the grandeur of the original while turning it into an outstanding and distinctive performance space.

Client and architect clearly know they have done something special here. But perhaps the biggest compliment to Seilern’s ingenuity and creativity – and her client’s faith in it – is the fact that aluminium roofs are now becoming de rigueur in Vlinius.

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