National library finally looks set to go ahead

  • 2005-11-16
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The Castle of Light sank and vanished from the landscape in a celebrated poem of the same name by Auskelis. The disappearance would not be permanent, the poem promised, as the castle would rise again when the people began to call for it. The 19th century poem, which was later put to music and became a Song Festival favorite, is a thinly veiled allusion to the Crusades and an oppressed nationhood.

So perhaps it is not surprising that when the idea of a national library building came up in the heady and idealistic days of the independence movement in the late 1980s, the Castle of Light emerged once again, this time thanks to the country's most celebrated architect, Gunnar Birkerts.

However, since the project was first proposed more than 16 years have passed. The high cost of the project and controversy over its design has led to serious criticism in some quarters, while the political will for building such a cost intensive library has often faltered. But with the country slowly rising out of poverty the project has recently gained new impetus and political support and may soon become a reality.

This year's budget is the first to include funding for preliminary design work on the library, and if all goes according to plan, a difficult thing to predict in Latvia, the building is expected to be completed in time for Independence Day on Nov. 18, 2008.

Auseklis' poem is not the only literary reference for the design of the Castle of Light. Janis Rainis' fairy tale "The Golden Horse" also informed the drawing.

In "The Golden Horse" the protagonist Antins rides his golden steed to successfully scale the Glass Mountain on his third attempt to awaken the sleeping princess Saulcerite, something that Birkerts says was meant as a political metaphor for the awakening of the country.

"I didn't have to wait in any way, because there was so much in me," Birkerts says, referring to his inspiration for the design. It was "a synthesis I carried in me," he adds, and one that "cannot be pulled apart." The design was drawn from literature, architecture, the Daugava River, various architectural structures, such as wooden barns and castles, and a number of other areas and elements from around the country.

For Birkerts, who turned 80 in January, the national library is a long awaited project, and one of the most talked about in his long career in architecture. The advanced time table for completion has "been a very difficult process," he says listing off the number of prime ministers and culture ministers he has had to work with over the years since the design was first put forward.

After its completion, the Castle of Light should spectacularly live up to its name, like a white mountain radiating light from across the Duaugava River. Birkerts, a well known architect in America where he has designed a number of libraries and museums, is an expert at using light and glass. The Castle of Light won't be his last project though, as he is continuing to design libraries in the U.S.A.

Political will for the project, which may run to an estimated 105 million lats (151 mln euros), has been schizophrenic, with the Repse-led government seemingly bent on thwarting its completion when it was in power. The cost of the project has been one of the biggest areas of criticism, but Birkerts maintains that the cost of the library would be comparable in another country. Latvia will have to import skilled labor and some other resources it lacks at a national level to complete its construction.

"It was a lack of political will," Culture Minister Helena Demakova explains as the reason behind the 16-year delay in the construction of the national library, adding that initially "the project was really too expensive for the new state in the beginning." The library had to be scaled down from the original version to get the go-ahead.

"This project has developed together with our newly regained statehood, which means that it is filled with our aspirations, hopes and full of our metaphors," Demakova says. She believes that there is strong public support for the project, with one recent poll showing nearly two thirds of the country in favor of it.

Unlike much of the new architecture located in Riga's Old Town, which has vexed many in the country, the national library will be built across the Daugava River, facing the Old Town. The area chosen will be the center of a number of new development projects, including office buildings and possibly a concert hall.

"It's definitely in the right place," Ieva Zibarte, an architecture critic from the daily Diena said. Zibarte called the design "very interesting, brave, and unusual" when it was first submitted. She added, however, that although she was a supporter of the project, fatigue had set in due to the long process in getting the whole project underway.

Latvia remains the only EU member state without a specifically designed building to house a national library. The idea for constructing a national library has been around since shortly after independent Latvia was first created. There was talk of building one in the late 1920s and it is certainly possible that one may have been built long ago had history turned out differently.

At present the nation's books are housed in a sprawling and complicated maze of small libraries that are poorly funded and difficult to use for those used to the standards of Western European and North American libraries.

The current Riga library system is housed in eight different building spread across town. Andris Vilks head of the library system points out that the cumbersome system is one reason why a new library is necessary.

"Its very typical to be working for a couple of hours at one building and then running to another to get to the other books," Vilks said. "The most circulated material will now be under one roof," he added.

The project's supporters say the new library building will be needed for a fast-expanding collection of national literature, as well as for providing a single, conveniently located research center for the numerous people who would want to use its resources.

An ambitious plan called Light Net is being planned to accompany the construction of the new national library, which will connect libraries across the country and provide Internet access to small regional areas. Funding for the Castle of Light and for Light Net is expected to come from a range of sources. The state is expected to pick up the construction costs, while other countries may help furbish the interior. The Gates Foundation is currently reviewing a grant for Light Net.

Naturally, not everyone is happy with the project. The Constitutional Court heard a case Nov. 15, by owners of property that the library will be built on.

The Castle of Light may have been a long time in the making, but it will surely be a welcome sight when it finally sees the light of day.