Black Boxes and Flying Bunkers
A specter is haunting Riga: the looming forms of 1950s, ’60s and ’70s buildings. Many residents demand their demolition, while others prize the city’s Social Realist and modernist architecture. by Mihai Hodrea 18 October 2002
RIGA, Latvia--Rooted in Riga's rich and varied past, a debate is taking shape between traditionalists and modernizers over the architectural heritage of the Latvian capital's old center. Focusing on the reconstruction and preservation of buildings from both the pre-Soviet and the Soviet past, the controversy continually circles back to a central dilemma: Which takes priority, architectural value or historical significance? And who decides where to draw the line?
It is an illusory goal, suggests Janis Lejnieks, director of the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
He argues that even the buildings designed under the most difficult years of Soviet rule incorporated a high degree of local stylistic influence, which raises them above standard-issue. "We don't have absolute Soviet-style buildings in the city center," he says. There are those who dub them as such, "but in details and decorations you can find some national decorative elements."
But what is a “national” element in a city whose citizenry for much of its history included many Germans, a city that became a key trading center in the Hanseatic league, then was absorbed into the Russian empire for two centuries until becoming the capital of an independent state in 1918? This mixed ancestry was covered up during the Soviet period, when the city witnessed the construction of dark, shadowy buildings that remain prominent in its historic Old Town.
Amid the domestic and wider political turmoil of the 1930s, Riga’s reputation as a city of fine old buildings and streets of handsome Art Nouveau facades was on the rise. Under authoritarian-minded President Karlis Ulmanis, no friend of the artistic avant-garde, surfaced an omen of things to come: a grandiose scheme for transforming the Old Town. In 1938, city planners led by Eizens Laube, one of the finest representatives of the Latvian Art Nouveau, drew up a blueprint for the redevelopment of the city’s old nerve center, the Town Hall Square, on Ulmanis’ direction. Within a year, much of the hodgepodge of structures along and near the banks of the Daugava River had been erased from the scene. Once the square had been stripped bare, the way was clear for a bombastic office complex joined to the 17th-century Town Hall. Ulmanis’ vision finally foundered as the Red Army occupied the city, followed in 1941 by the Nazis.
WAR AND ITS AFTERMATH
German cannon obliterated a large swath of Riga's historical center, including, among other notable structures, the Town Hall and the ornate Gothic merchants’ hall known as the Blackheads’ House. Guns--whether from the German invaders or fleeing Soviet forces is unclear--also took aim at St. Peter’s Church, whose tall Baroque tower was a strategic observation point, and pounded away until the tower collapsed.
After the war, the new Soviet rulers of Latvia were faced with the choice either to pull down the remaining buildings and remap the entire Old Town area, clearing its dense network of narrow lanes to ease access to outlying boulevards, or to fill in the gaps with new structures.
They ended up choosing the second option, although at the outset a more drastic solution looked likely. In 1948, on Kremlin orders, German POWs pulled down the ruins of the Blackheads’ House: cruel symbolism, seeing that the merchants the building served for centuries were mostly German. Six years later came the razing of the Town Hall, although completing the job took some time owing to the stubborn, massive brickwork.
Thus, a blank spot replaced the pride of old Riga, until, in 1958, the Old Town’s first Social Realist project broke ground: the bulky, red Technical University, designed by Osvalds Tilmanis, one of the few Latvian architects who thrived in the early years of Soviet rule. Tilmanis, who held the post of chief city architect, was also the lead architect for the Social Realist, high-rise Academy building. The three-story university stretched along the Daugava, with a short wing entering the former Town Hall Square. Tilmanis’ solution avoided the pomposity and heavy adornment associated with "pure" Stalinist architecture. He accommodated the setting by extending the structure in length rather than height so as not to unbalance the scale of the quarter. A later addition to the university penetrated the space of the square more forcefully. This wing was demolished in 2001 to make way for a reconstruction of the old Town Hall--a kind of stylistic revenge.
FREEDOM, UP TO A POINT
Under the umbrella of Social Realism, Latvian architects found they had a certain freedom of movement as long as they did not stray too far afield. This continued even when the Moscow-approved version of the modernist International Style began to make inroads in the 1960s. Rationally conceived facades, a general sobriety of design and avoidance of vivid color are the hallmarks of Riga’s architectural additions in the four decades following the war.
Unlike the Technical University, though, attempts by other buildings to blend in proved less successful. The years from the late 1950s to the mid-’60s saw a number of houses and a secondary school built uncomfortably close to St. Peter's Church, which was gradually being restored at the same time.
In 1971, planners sliced Town Hall Square in two by siting the Strelnieki Museum very nearly where the Blackheads’ House had stood. The following year a sculptural group depicting the Strelnieki went up in front of the museum, facing the river. The Strelnieki, a special unit of Latvian riflemen, were Lenin's bodyguards during the 1917 Russian Revolution. The museum originally designed in their honor is a black oblong box resting on pillars, devoid of windows or any decoration. Once one of Riga's main tourist attractions, the museum was slated for demolition by a city council ruling until the Union of Latvian Architects countered by holding a competition for a design to better integrate the building into its surroundings. A winner has not yet been chosen. At the very least, the structure stands as an eerily appropriate embodiment of the suffering of the Latvian people under the Nazi and Soviet occupations, all the more so since being renamed the Occupation Museum and rededicated to documenting the victims of both totalitarian regimes.
Other examples of eye-catching Soviet-era structures--such as the protruding stage of the Russian Drama Theater on Kalku street--also raise the question of whether their architectural merits warrant preservation. The stage, a gray concrete cube overhanging a 19th-century building, was a sound solution in the context of the 1960s modernist explosion, according to architectural scholar and member of the Union of Latvian Architects Janis Krastins. Despite its functionality, however, it still looks like a flying bunker. A few meters further along the same street, at No. 22, stands a remarkable mongrel from the 1950s: Inside the Art Nouveau Nostalgia Cafe, frescos depict muscular workers under the hammer-and-sickle flag. Not far away, the facade of the Hotel Riga displays its own blend of Art Nouveau and Social Realist styles. Striking though such buildings are in their way, given the memories they arouse and the era they represent, the question of their preservation remains very much open.
YOUR TOWN, MY TOWN, OUR TOWN?
The drab, boxy buildings of postwar Riga are indelibly associated with a particular regime and political philosophy, yet they can also be seen as a natural product of the 1930s' turn toward simplicity. They emerged from the climate of their times. “There are differences between Ulmanis' [style] and Stalinist style, but there are also similarities,” Janis Lejnieks says. “For instance, the heavy monumentality of buildings like the War Museum and the Universal Store”--two controversial projects of the 1930s, the former attached in 1935 to the only surviving tower of Riga’s medieval city wall, with the loss of many surrounding historical structures; the latter a department store near St. Peter’s Church, whose construction also erased buildings of historical value. In the 1930s, “there were plans to widen streets in the Old Town, to put in large new blocks and to preserve only the religious buildings."
Partisans of rebuilding the city’s lost monuments scored big when reconstructions of the Blackheads’ House, Town Hall, and a few other distinguished buildings sprouted up on and around the old central square over the past three years. In the view of the Old Town from the opposite shore of the Daugava, however, these lie hidden behind the black bulk of the Occupation Museum. This image might symbolize the divided state of public opinion over what parts of Riga’s urban landscape to preserve and in what way. Down one track lies the alluring image of a reborn, thriving commercial center, but some see a kind of Eastern Euro-Disney at the end of this road. "It is inadmissible," says Sandija Verite, an advertising professional, "to have these historical monuments rebuilt in such a grotesque manner. They are unable to convey a real feeling for the centuries that passed." A parallel course involves preserving buildings from the Soviet era that some praise for their architectural value--and others castigate as a disfigurement of one of the jewels of the Baltic. Unaccountably, the option of new buildings in a contemporary style seems to have been overlooked amid all this awkward dredging of the city's past.
After centuries during which languages, religions, and building styles met and mixed in Riga, there is little unanimity today when it comes to deciding what constitutes the city's common inheritance. Something of a generation gap may be opening up. Private and governmental projects to promote the Old Town tap the energies of Latvia's youth, which has reclaimed its historical heritage with unfeigned pride. "I think the Old Town was, is, and will be the symbol of Latvia, and we have to respect it. That's why we have to clean it up a bit," a young art student told me. People of older generations may feel uneasy in the face of change and novelty. Feliciana Rajevska, a sociology professor at the Latvian State University, says, "You know, you may say that these [Soviet] buildings are ugly, but you can't deny their functionality throughout this time. People worked and were trained here."