Riin Alatalu. Oskars Redbergs PhD Dissertation—Review. 15 January 2019
Oskars Redbergs has undertaken a challenge to critically analyze the protection of Historic Centre of Riga since the restoration of independence of Latvia in 1991. The job done is especially noteworthy as the study of a very recent period needs courage to draw conclusions and potentially face the criticism as the majority of people involved are still active in the field. But it also needs a good self-discipline to remain on the position of observer.
Protection of heritage is not only a tool of creating and preserving the values but also a tool of urban planning as it influences the decisions where and what and in which scale to build, which areas are open for new development and which not. It also needs the skills to predict future developments, to define potential new, not yet recognized layers of heritage and to be prepared for potential harm.
The time period when heritage protection has really influenced the urban planning is not very long anywhere. However, the ideology of heritage protection is much older than the institutions and regulations. It is interesting to note that nor the heritage protectors nor urban planners usually do not criticize the planning decisions that have marked the end of significant fortifications, whole quarters of ancient housing, etc. The earlier changes in the urban landscape are understood as natural part of the development of the societies. Also Redbergs gives a smooth, notably well-organized, overview of the early reshaping of Riga as a part normal development and its traces as new and valuable layers of heritage.
The significant borderline in the progress of conservation and restoration is the WWII as the destruction of cities as well as the humanistic values forced to take positions in what and how to preserve. Participation in the decision making process marks also the start of criticism towards the judgements made by heritage experts. In the Baltic states this criticism is very much influenced by the fact that all decisions were made under the occupation regime. The recent decades have witnessed the recognition of the architecture of the second half of the 20th century as valuable heritage, and the planning decisions as natural development. The same acceptance should be granted also to the decisions made by heritage experts.
Oskars Redbergs thesis was an interesting reading as it provided a lot of information that can be compared to what happened simultaneously in Tallinn and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In the Baltic states the attempts to preserve heritage started already in 1940s, however due to Soviet occupation they remained only attempts. Only in very late 1950s, actually really in 1960s the heritage protection became an effective ideology. Everywhere, especially in the occupied territories where heritage protection had both official and hidden political meanings, the influence of protective measures depends on the interrelation of local political structures and regulations, but most of all the people. The influence of even highly professional experts often depends on seemingly irrelevant factors, especially in small countries. Although the Soviet occupation regime forced the Baltic states by the same ideology, the practice and outcome of heritage protection in the countries was different. Based on the opinion of the Estonian heritage experts of the time, out of the Baltic states, the influence of heritage protection ideology in planning and development issues was considered the weakest in Latvia during the Soviet occupation. In Estonia the protection of built heritage was coordinated by wealthy Committee of Constructions, while as in Latvia all monuments were under the control of Ministry of Culture. But the administrative issues were of less importance than the fact that Riga as the biggest of three capital cities witnessed also bigger pressure for developments in infrastructure and new residential and industrial areas for new immigrants from all parts of the Soviet Union. The number of immigrants was also highest in Latvia.
The Soviet era steps to protect Riga as an urban settlement started later than in Tallinn and in Vilnius. However, Riga Old town in general was a well-kept and well-known historical site, a significant attraction for tourist and object of pride for Latvians.
The urban development in the Soviet Union was driven by the state ownership, lack of private and commercial initiative and competition. A key issue was also the poor and low quality assortment of building materials that mitigated the building quality as well as the creativity of the architects. These aspects have to be remembered to understand the sudden openness and trust in new developments in 1990s.
Oskars Redbergs has chosen for the primary source of his study the protocols of various meetings, the consents and other relevant documents of the approval process of the planning and architectural designs. In a way these are verifiable documents and extremely interesting reading material. However, as noted before, even in these bureaucratic documents, there is a strong human factor in the decision making background. It is weird to acknowledge that both, the very short and laconic as well as long and sophisticated arguments arise the same suspicion of the objectivity of the decisions made. However, as a part of the process these documents record only the summary of the debates. It is quite obvious that when many of them are made in good will and follow the understanding of needs and trends of the time, also many may have been made under direct or hidden pressure or as a result of lobbying. Some “reading between the lines” is thus often needed. One of the advantages in studying recent decades is the possibility to interview the people involved. I highly recommend to do it in the next phases of the study.
Redbergs points out that in the debates the opinions were rarely based on the law and regulations and that in many cases the proper definitions and regulations are lacking or need revision. The analyze, regulations and principles are absolutely essential in heritage protection. However, one has to remember that this is a constant and never ending process as the values and also the objects that we worship as heritage are in a constant change. The regulations should better be loose and instead of restrictions enable constructive debate. Redbergs dissertation opens a good ground for debate, I look forward to learn about the reactions to the proposals to revise the boundaries of protected areas. I consider Oskars Redbergs study an important contribution to the better protection of Historic Centre of Riga’s values and to the understanding of the wider importance of heritage protection principles.
Riin Alatalu, PhD
(Associate Professor at Estonian Academy of Fine Arts, Member of the Board ICOMOS)