There is no way to describe the current state of Latvian architecture without at least mentioning the so-called “large cultural buildings”. During the last decade, these have been the words constantly repeated by ministers, city mayors, directors of cultural institutions, and the media.
The cultural buildings, which have overtaken the Latvian architectural debate in recent years are concert halls, libraries, museums, and theatres. These were dreamed up before and during the financial crisis of 2008, and have been slowly coming to fruition over the last few years.
The expectations placed on these products of political ambition and generous funding from the European Regional Development Fund are almost impossible to meet. Not only do the new cultural giants have to satisfy the yearning for contemporary architecture and resonate with the gentle strings of the Latvian soul, they are also expected to kickstart a spiritual renaissance in the country. These buildings are supposed to help raise quality of life in the regions, attract tourists and investment, and perhaps even persuade expatriates to return home. Large cultural buildings are seen as something that we have to accomplish as a nation as they will be our legacy for the generations to come. It is therefore logical that most of these buildings are designed as monumental landmarks — impressive in scale, sculptural in form, and charged in their imagery.
Music in the regions
The first regional concert hall to open (2013) was Gors in Rēzekne, designed by Vizuālās Modelēšanas Studija. It surprised the public with a large, angular volume, bold colours in the interior as well as the local-patriotic name Gors, which means “spirit” in the Latgalian language spoken in the Eastern part of the country. The town of Cēsis in the Vidzeme region opted for a different strategy — to re-use its old culture centre by incorporating it into a concert hall. In this small medieval town, the concert hall’s offices can be considered a high-rise, clad in glass and with decorative shutters painted orange, a signature colour of the architecture firm Arhitekta J. Pogas Birojs.
Arguably, the most distinctive of the five regional concert halls is the Great Amber (2015) in Liepāja, designed by Austrian architect Volker Giencke. The symbolism here is quite literal — the orange-tinted glazing is a nod to the gem of the Baltic Sea while the stair labyrinths comparable to a cruise ship’s pay tribute to the role of Liepāja as a port city. Despite obvious flaws in its layout and detailing, the expressive volume has proved to be highly instagrammable and managed to seduce architecture lovers around the world. In contrast, the Dzintari Concert Hall (2015) in Jūrmala added only a light entrance pavilion and an underground lobby to an accurately restored 1930s wooden heritage building. The architects, Jaunromāns un Ābele, have designed the interiors as a gradual transition from minimalistic transparency to the saturated wooden panelling of the chamber music hall.
Finally, the concert hall Latvija, which opened in Ventspils just last year, has received mixed reviews. There are two things that stand out about it: its vast deconstructivist roof and highly progressive energy concept. The former is a characteristic gesture of Behnish Architecten who started the project, and the latter — a passion of haascookzemmrich STUDIO2050, a spin-off of Behnish, who completed it.
Undoubtedly, the new concert halls have raised the self-confidence of regional centres, provided the warm and well-lit spaces needed for cultural creation and musical education, enriched urban landscapes, and created new gathering places for local communities. The new architecture has solved acute needs and fulfilled cherished dreams of many, but more could have been done to make it more sustainable and fitting for the local context. The ultimate test is still ahead of us — the Riga Acoustic Concert Hall has been a subject of discussion for more than 10 years, and recently a new site has been proposed for it.
The most significant of all the “large cultural buildings” by far is the National Library of Latvia, a colossal effort that took 25 years of planning, debating, designing, building, moving, and accepting. A need for a centralised National Library, previously scattered in numerous buildings across the city, arose already in the 1980s. In 1989, the internationally acclaimed Latvian-born architect Gunnar Birkerts was tasked to design the library. He delivered a sketch loaded with metaphors referring to the rebirth of an independent Latvian state, Latvian literature and nature. Construction began only in 2008, and when the library finally opened in 2014, it caused such a bittersweet euphoria that neither local architecture critics, nor the international jury of the Latvian Architecture Award were able to give it a proper evaluation.
Read more from Maja’s 2020 spring edition (No 100). Maja is on sale in Estonia, for international subscribers click here to order the magazine.
EVELINA OZOLA is a Latvian architect, urban designer, and editor. In 2018, she co-curated the Latvian Pavilion “Together and Apart” at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
HEADER: Latvian National Library, architect Gunnar Birkets, 2014. Photo Reinis Petersons.