Categorised in: Exhibitions

Curatorial statement. Exhibition 9 Conditions of Riga

November 2, 2015 8:48 am

9 Conditions of Riga. Regeneration and Transformation of the City. The Architecture and Urban Environment of Riga

Curatorial statement

Oskars Redbergs. An architect, researcher and curator. His main research focus is on the transformation of urban and cultural landscape in postcolonial cities.

Riga is the capital of the Republic of Latvia – it’s a political, cultural and economic centre and home to more than one-third of the population of the whole country. Therefore, it is only natural that the major construction activities with the largest investment take place exactly in Riga, creating new architecture. Besides, the Historic Centre of Riga has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. What makes Riga so unique in the context of Northern European cities is the well-preserved medieval urban fabric, the homogeneous residential areas that were developed at the turn of the 19th to 20th century with an abundance of Art Nouveau buildings, the rich and extensive industrial heritage areas, as well as the vast number of one and two-storey wooden houses in the historic centre of Riga.
Now, 22 years after the Restoration of Independence, Latvia once again finds itself in a state of metamorphosis, when the previous neoliberal economic, social and cultural system has collapsed, but a new one has not been developed yet. This is a favorable time to critically observe the transformations of architecture and urban environment from a different perspective. Cultural, economic and social ‘regeneration’ have become key words, especially after the global financial crisis, which severely affected the economy of Latvia. After the financial crisis a large number of residential buildings, office complexes and former factories were abandoned and still remain vacant. These are the main conditions which determine the need of contemporary architects to shift from the construction of new buildings to the adaption of existing buildings and complexes of the urban environment, taking into account the new functions of the buildings, as well as the needs of the customers. It is exactly the work on historical development and cultural heritage which has helped contemporary Latvian architects to earn recognition on a regional level. The large number of projects carried out counts as proof that new architecture can be combined with old architecture in very different ways. These projects demonstrate what someone could call ‘the Latvian approach and attitude’ towards both historical and contemporary processes.
In 2014, Riga will become the European Capital of Culture. This forthcoming event has given inspiration to create an exhibition that tells the story of interaction between historical and contemporary architecture over the last two decades. More than 50 architecture and urban design projects are included in this exhibition. All projects have been divided in 9 thematic groups or rather conditions that have been derived from attempts to classify these new urban typologies. The exhibition does not support the traditional classification of buildings according to their function and style. Instead, it introduces a new system of classification that aims to identify new urban typologies and highlight the processes of architecture and urban development in a much broader sense. In order to describe the 9 conditions of Riga, different medical, financial and economic terms are used. Architecture is the art of making connections between different seemingly unrelated things and ideas, combining them in a significant form and finding an ultimate meaning for their mutual existence. That is why this exhibition ‘9 Conditions of Riga’ shows architecture as a process and as an outcome of complex and multilayered economic, social, cultural and political dialogue due to the impact of different regulations and restrictions, as well as other important circumstances.
The exhibition has a cognitive rather than a representative character, and it also presents such architectural examples which, in terms of the quality of urban environment and architecture, are rather controversial. At the same time, these examples provide a clear insight into the conditions of contemporary architecture and culture which promote its development in current conditions. It should be noted, however, that the differences between the 9 conditions of Riga are rather vague, and some of the objects can be simultaneously associated with more than one condition. The curatorial team who created this exhibition are aware that the exhibition mostly only presents examples from the historic centre of Riga and its surrounding areas, since these are the areas which display the issues covered most vividly. This exhibition does not include the issue of the development of Soviet ‘mikrorayons’ and new residential districts on the outskirts of Riga, nevertheless, such topics might be explored in more detail in the future. These categories, which present the 9 conditions of Riga, offer just a quick glimpse into the architecture and urban planning processes of Riga. The aim of this exhibition is to reveal the relationship between the physical structure of the city, its social structure (in its broadest sense) and the intangible constituents of modern capitalism.

The conditions of Riga covered in the exhibition can be grouped into the following 9 typological categories:

New Pastoralism – ‘Reconstruction of the Image of a Traditional City’
New pastoralism is probably one of the most interesting movements in Riga of the last two decades. It is related to the efforts of individual activists, for example, entrepreneurs, architects and local authorities, to restore and improve some parts of the city from the Pre-Modernist era. This movement aims to restore the connection between city life and nature while still reserving the very image of a traditional European city. These projects are often characterized by the use of natural materials, attention to detail, relevance to the context of the cultural and historical urban environment, environmental harmony, as well as the use of expensive building methods and techniques. What is interesting is that when new pastoralism enters a certain part of the city, it usually results in the replacement of the previous residents with new ones, moreover, the parts of the city untouched by Modernism now develop into the most exclusive residential areas of the city.

En Plein Air – ‘Arrangements of the Public Space’
These projects are often characterized by the ‘arrangement’ of public space. ‘Arrangement’ is a typical post-socialist contribution to the Latvian terminology of urban planning derived from the primitive pre-election political rhetoric. ‘Arrangement’ or “making an order” means the implementation of any evident changes in the environment that are different from the existing/former ‘unarrangement’. The success of the term ‘arrangement’ lies in the philosophy that ‘the new is better than the mundane”. The difference between what is ‘arranged’ and what there was before the ‘arrangement’ is automatically seen as a quantitative improvement, nevertheless, at the same time, it does not give any professional or public explanation on whether and how the ‘arrangement’ could have been implemented in accordance with the objective criteria of quality, aesthetics and economics and by involving both the inhabitants and different urban planning and architectural mechanisms. Furthermore, those projects which are related to the improvement of Riga public space are sometimes financed by the European Union.

Upcycling – ‘Transformation and Regeneration of Former Industrial Areas and Industrial Heritage Sites’
This typological category focuses on the transformations of former industrial areas, which can be divided into two separate groups. The first group focuses on the conversion of industrial heritage sites from the end of the 19th century for the needs of different educational, cultural and creative industries institutions, developing creative quarters. Most frequently the red and yellow brick factories built before the World War I are regarded as aesthetic assets, besides their open-plan interior design can be easily adapted to the fast-changing requirements of functionality. The other group focuses on the transformation of whole former industrial areas, replacing their former function of manufacturing with the function of accommodation, trade and services. Mostly, such transformations have a hybrid nature – the less important elements are demolished, but the most valuable and potentially reusable are preserved and remodeled.

Highway – ‘Architecture in Motion’
Together with the socioeconomic transformation at the beginning of the 1990s, private transport became an integral part of the everyday life. The rapid growth of car usage in the last two decades has increased the importance of highways in the development of the city, promoting a new form of urban expansion in Riga – the development of commercial buildings along highways, which was not topical under socialist planned economic conditions. Highway architecture is characterized by both ideological and economic diversity and ambiguity.

Autonomy – ‘Virtually Superconnected / Physically Apart’
The buildings which belong to this self-sufficient typological category can be observed in areas close to the city center, which accommodate bank buildings, sports centers and residential clusters with multistory apartment buildings. These are exactly the bank buildings and financial centers which best describe this phenomenon. These buildings are virtually superconnected and superintegrated into the global data and financial networks, but at the same time they are architectonically and physically separated, alienated from the surrounding urban environment and do not have an articulated public open space in-between them. The only connection they have to one another and the rest of the city is on the level of public transport infrastructure. These pretentious buildings and cluster blocks are archipelagos of autonomous objects scattered all around the urban environment. The building of the new National Library of Latvia has also been included in this category. Although this building will most certainly function as an effective vault for books and other information resources, its enormous size and rather negative relationship with the surrounding urban fabric will promote its status as an autonomous object in the urban milieu.

Takeover – ‘Buildings that are ‘overtaking’ the City’
The development of this new urban typology in Riga in the last two decades is related to the rapid inflow of global capital, as well as to the overall development of real estate business in the city centre and Old Riga. If adjoining properties come in the hands of one owner, building regulations can become subject to interpretation, so that the owner could increase both the building density and the volume of property that can be used for commercial purposes without taking the characteristics of the ownership structure or traditional development in the historic centre of the city into account. Most frequently these are commercial projects, which are usually comprised of monofunctional and large-scale buildings in the centre of the city. Such buildings typically literally engulf extensive parts of the city – several plots of land, a city block or even a more extensive public space. These buildings can be considered as solutions of an architectural scale built in an attempt to solve problems of an urban scale.

Infills – ‘The Holes in the Whole’
The development in the city center comprises a large number of perimetrical buildings. The street network in some parts of the historic centre of the city is still preserved from the beginning of the 19th century, when this area was still considered a suburb with one and two storey wooden buildings. Together with the Industrial Revolution and the demolition of the fortification system in the middle of the 19th century, this construction of brick buildings took over this area, reaching its peak at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Changes in the development of the city centre were also made during both World Wars and in Soviet times, nevertheless, they were not implemented systematically. In the 20th century, this homogeneous perimeter development was not in harmony due to the large number of holes in-between. Nevertheless, the conversion from communism to capitalism promoted the development of a new typological category called infill, which now has become an integral part in the development of Riga. Infills are new buildings that are built within an existing perimeter development tightly enclosed by the adjoining buildings typically from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century. Since the city centre of Riga is an urban heritage site, which is subject to strict building regulations, the development of infills is a
rather challenging task for architects.

Amplifications – ‘Pendulum of Historical Heritage Interpretation’
This typological category focuses on the reconstruction and conversion projects of historic buildings whose spatial transformation techniques can be compared to amplifications determined by the intensity and nature of the interactions between the new and old architecture. Depending on the level of tolerance, which derives from the architect’s and customer’s intelligence, professionalism and the strategy applied, the ‘pendulum of historical heritage interpretation’ swings from one extreme to the other – from scrupulous restoration to complete ignorance or even demolition of the historic building. Depending on both the potential of the historic building and the approach of the architect, the examples, which belong to this
typological category, are rather diverse.

Elusions – ‘Everything Goes!’
This typological category includes objects whose construction has become possible due to such factors as the rapid entry of capitalism, loopholes in the legislation system, lack of civil society and democratic control, opaqueness of bureaucracy and the impact of money on underpaid government and municipality workers who work in poor and incompetent civil services. The architecture is like a business deal between the bureaucratic apparatus and the customer. This kind of architecture is capable of combining all kinds of contradictions and discrepancies, resulting in the loss of meaningful interaction and coexistence of different objects and interests. These projects demonstrate an enviable ability of architecture to combine contradictory and mutually exclusive elements. The main key words, which describe the objects grouped into this typological category, are simulacra, mimicry and fiction – meaning that in reality these objects are of little or no added value. Such projects have been carried out thanks to the conjunctural policy, however, paradoxically, often they can be described using the slogan “everything goes”. On the one hand, the examples of elusion can be considered as clever and conceptual solutions, but on the other hand – as ignorant interpretations of the existing building regulations and as symbols of the opaque bureaucracy and the overall condition of Riga.