Creating an oasis in Vilnius Old Town

  • 2003-04-17
  • Darius James Ross

When a group of old buildings on Boksto St. in Vilnius Old Town was placed on the municipal auction block in December 2002, Aage Myrhe decided to take a look.

"At first I was very doubtful about their value," the Vilnius-based Norwegian architect and developer told The Baltic Times. "From the outside I just saw a big brick wall and everything looked quite gray."

But once he entered the courtyard, he saw beautiful mature trees and green lawns.

"That's when my heart started beating," he said.

The group of buildings was once the Saviciaus hospital, a landmark dating back to the 17th century that boasts an illustrious history.

Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote in his "Dictionary of Wilno Streets" that the street once had a bad reputation. During the interwar years, when Vilnius was under Polish control (the city was even known as Wilno from 1920 to 1939), the buildings housed the hospital for venereal diseases.

"At the upper windows sat whores who were there for compulsory cure... mocking the passers-by and screaming ugly words," he wrote.

Boksto means tower (or bastion) in Lithuanian, and the street leads to the Vilnius Bastion, a part of the city's defensive wall dating back to the early 1600s which now houses a museum of fortification. The imposing outside wall conceals a quiet green space with a commanding view of the picturesque Uzupis neighborhood and an Orthodox church.

In recent years the Boksto St. buildings have been empty and forlorn, waiting for someone to give them a new life.

Myhre said that his professional mission was always "to create life," not to just deliver a building. The Boksto space, he said, is the perfect opportunity to deliver something original.

Myhre's goal is to create an oasis in the Old Town so that future residents can enjoy the "barefoot experience" while still living in the city center.

He sees the development as a small community settlement within a larger urban context.

"I'm creating a place where you can have grass between your toes, have a great view and also be able to interact with people," said Myhre.

Part of his sales pitch is showing photographs of similar garden developments in other cities, such as Istanbul.

"This will be a park-like place with well-groomed trees and beautiful landscaping, where it will be possible to have small private gardens and balconies, as well as access to public areas."

Myhre is a conservative architect who dislikes buildings that do not conform to an existing architectural context.

"Vilnius has a beautiful balance of Baroque, Renaissance and some Gothic buildings. It's one of the reasons I fell in love with it when I first came here in 1990," he said.

Architects working on the project have been looking at photograph archives and examining the historical architectural layers. Recently they discovered a perfectly dry, vaulted basement that Myrhe plans into convert to an artists' cafe.

"Most of this project involves renovation. Very few new building will be going up," he said.

The Boksto project will be a mixed office and residential development. Myhre's company, which has a 50 percent interest in the development, plans to build 20 residential units ranging from 65 square meters to 250 square meters. Eleven of these will be townhouse-style and the rest condominium apartments.

Three 180 square meter offices will be incorporated in the design, and a heated outdoor swimming pool is also in his sketches.

The modest price tag for an unfinished unit will amount to 4,000 litas (1,142 euros) per square meter. Another 1,500 litas per square meter for architectural details can be added.

"This is probably the last large-scale, private, green development in the Old Town," said Myhre.

While Myhre agrees that the Old Town is being gentrified, he said that there was still enough time for the center to avoid becoming a ghost town, as has occurred in other Western cities where offices, nightclubs and restaurants predominate in the downtown area.

"Maybe [Old Town residents will be] people with a higher income, but I think that's better than having just offices here," said Myhre.

He said that the response from prospective buyers had been very strong and that the development will be fully sold by June 2003.

Myhre, who has lived in Vilnius with his family since 1992, also plans to move into the complex and have offices there.