Palace Intrigue

Originally published in 
In the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, architect Rytis Mikulionis spent several years property hunting for his first nesting ground and finally ended up inside a former Soviet army barrack, which was, before that, a building on the grounds of a Baroque palace. The city’s astounding collage of architectural histories, compounded with a stimulating encounter between eastern and western aesthetics, make for a unique visiting experience.
Project 
Mikulionis Residence
Architect 

It is safe, if clichéd, to bet that an average American cannot locate Vilnius on a map. It’s a city of 550,000 people and the capital of Lithuania. It populates a valley at the junction of the Vilnia and Neris rivers, some 194 miles east of the Baltic Seacoast. Now here’s a patriotic confession: Yours truly scarcely knew the aforementioned until arriving in Vilnius one freezing evening last February.

Wearing a fur-lined cap with earflaps that cradle a wide bespectacled face, architect Rytis Mikulionis gives me a lift from the airport in his black Citroen sedan. Born in Kaunas, a city 62 miles outside of Vilnius, and educated at the Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, he founded Plazma, a practice now eight-strong, six years ago. He is 37 and just moved into his first flat. In a booming real estate market, he took several years to find the property and spent the past couple years redoing it with his partner, Ausra Marcinkeviciute, an architect focused on interior design.

In the car, Mikulionis apologizes about his English, which is quite good, and I about my Lithuanian, which is limited to one word, aciu—thank you—from the passport control guy. Is Lithuanian anything like Russian or Polish? “No, we are Balts,” he says with almost-indignant pride. Though all the Baltic countries have distinct languages, Lithuanian and Latvian have a prehis-toric linguistic origin commonly called Balt—an Indo-European tongue in which some words resemble those of Sanskrit, ancient Greek, and Latin.

“We have always considered ourselves and our culture part of Europe,” Mikulionis adds, referring to the national mindset that survived nearly 50 years of U.S.S.R. occu-pation in 1991. “The resistance was hiding in the forest the entire time.”

Today, Vilnius is a great place to be an architect. Since the Iron Curtain disintegrated, the city has been building nonstop. High-rises are shooting up in the new center, an area formerly filled with sculptural concrete Soviet monoliths. The old center is a splendor of baroque churches and estates, many of which were built by Italian architects when a Lithuanian duke, Sigismund the Old, married an Italian princess, Bona Sforza, in the 16th century. Now it’s full of restorations that feature contemporary interiors. There is plenty of work to be done.

There is also a surplus of historical baggage, which, as in any former Eastern-block country, is palpably fresh. In the bleak winter, when the trees are bare and matted snow and ice cover every street, the architecture is para-mount. Colorful baroque buildings contrast the 20th-century Soviet architecture with keen, luscious clarity. In some cases, Soviet-era architects seem to have pulled gentle touches of baroque curves into their blocky compositions. And, even where they haven’t, the difference is exhilarating.

Mikulionis is fond of history. Driving by a city square where a huge statue of Lenin was dramatically pulled off its pedestal in 1991, he points out the lanterns still standing that once surrounded it. “There is a lot of talk in the city about rebuilding this square to make it more pedestrian friendly,” he says. “Our practice might be involved. Those lanterns are typically Soviet, and I’d like to keep them there.” 

But he is hesitant to explain the intricacies of why he wants to keep them. When pressed he simply utters “of course,” without pause. We chat about how in Germany’s former East there has been debate about what to do with Soviet monuments versus pre-Soviet ones—which are more worth saving, and whether it’s cathartic, pointless, or shameful to erase the recent totalitarian regime. He feels the debate is irrelevant. His mantra is, evidently, “What happened, happened.”

Mikulionis’s 1,130-square-foot property is inside what was once the outbuilding of a baroque 19th-century palace, and more recently a Soviet army barrack. It was later converted to apartments. Though his building’s façade was completely renovated due to years of weather damage, and much of the interior changed, the structure maintains its hefty 200-year-old construction and vaulted ceilings. Entering, he opens one door and then another, separated by three and a half feet of solid wall.

The apartment is comprised of a large parlor floor with a bedroom mezzanine that Mikulionis requested in the contract before signing to purchase. Scrawls and scribbles from Russian soldiers used to be on the vaulted ceiling, but were painted over during refurbishment. “They were invaders’ names, and they looked really ugly,” Mikulionis explains.

Outside the flat’s one huge window is a monastery with a domed church, circa 1700, and a newer building that houses a Lithuanian army academy and barracks. Sometimes we wake up in the summer to soldiers singing the national anthem,” he says, washing down a nutty chunk of dark chocolate with some burgundy.

Below the mezzanine, the living space is neatly divided between a lounging area with wide, flat sofas; a wall-mounted kitchen; a dining area; and a spacious enclosed bathroom fitted beneath the mezzanine. Curtains with a bold leafy pattern in both avocado and eggplant hues frame the oversized window and the bedroom storage area. Their pattern unites the space, while their luminescent fibers reflect quietly from opposite sides of the room as the sun goes down.

With the exception of a few antiques and a black Ligne Roset dining set, all of the flat’s furniture was designed by Mikulionis and fabricated by local manufacturers. “That’s the advantage of working in interiors and knowing the right people,” says the architect. He seems particularly pleased with his white steel staircase, low sofas, and heavy steel table perforated with a CNC-cut geometric pattern that holds a wood-burning stove.

“Building your own place,” he says, “you can do the things clients wouldn’t let you do.” He is looking at the staircase to the mezzanine, which he assembled by bending thick sheets of metal and applying thin boards of stained oak to warm the steps. It rises about seven feet with no banisters—a height that borders on uncomfortable, and the steps are so smooth that at one point Moby, the cat, slips while grooming himself.

Eastern-themed decorations are here and there—at one point I knock over a hookah that’s sitting by the stereo, which Mikulionis says is more for show than for shisha. A beautiful white panel covered with Arabic writing is spotlit on the wall. “It has all the words for ‘God’ written,” says Marcinkeviciute, adding that they’re not religious. “There used to be pictures of Stalin here in every shop and house. In Egypt, it’s that plaque instead.” A colorful assortment of pillowcases from various places, including Jordan and Egypt, adorn the sofas.

Mikulionis has been in Uzbekistan several times, and this comes as a geographic reminder (Iran is even closer). Being in Vilnius is an exotic European experience: so far east, packed with 16th-century buildings that could be in Naples, compounded with imposing architectures of the former Eastern Bloc.
 
Mikulionis likens Vilnius to Spain, another country he has frequented—one that combines Western and Arabic architectures with those of the somewhat recent fascist Franco regime. But this is the opposite side of the Union.

For an outsider, the Vilnius experience, its layers of history and rich contrasts, are a thrilling spectacle. “It’s impossible to explain our historical experience to some-one who hasn’t lived it,” Mikulionis says over a glass of local yeasty-flavored Vodka. His tone is wholehearted and devoid of arrogance. He is right.

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