RIGA - It’s a dead-eyed building the colour of a paving slab, set back from the street outside at the end of a pockmarked driveway. Looming behind the roof like a figment of a bad dream is a colossal edifice, copper-coloured, precision-cut and cartoonish, a child’s conception of a skyscraper, chiselled out of the twilight sky. This is Riga, capital of Latvia, and here, we’re on the other side of the tracks — literally: the railway lines leading into the city centre cordon off the Old Town from Maskavas Forstate (the Moscow Suburb), usually referred to as Maskacka, the sprawling, chaotic and large ethnic Russian district associated locally with crime and unemployment. The hulking skyscraper beyond is Riga’s most visually inescapable legacy of the 50-year Soviet occupation — constructed in 1956 in the Stalinist classical model, a scaled-down colonial cousin of similar edifices in Moscow and Warsaw.
But today, though the building may look like the same drab grounded rectangle as ever, internally, it’s bursting with energy. Clusters of people hover around eating, talking, or playing undirected music, some line the walls, looking at pictures and felt-tipped imperatives on drawing boards. The little rooms upstairs host workshops on a number of practical and impractical subjects, from improvisation to soap-making. Cakes and vegetarian food emanate endlessly from somewhere. A Latvian-language poster stuck on the inside of the door urges (or promises) “Latvian-Russian friendship.” At one point everyone squashes themselves into the truncated hall to listen to a speech.
Despite being in an area that’s partly residential, it’s far from homely: distances between things are just a bit too much of a stretch, the ghosts of informative tags linger on doors, and the floors are cold, clearly not designed with carpeting in mind and only patchily covered. A few rooms have seen attempts to domesticate them, with varying levels of success — some have gained curtains, others simply have mattresses and sheets bunched up in a corner.
This building, 11 Puskina iela, used to be an administrative office for Rigas Dzirnavnieks, producer of breads and cereals, but it’s been abandoned since 2010, bar a couple of temporary tenants who rent rooms. Until now, that is. The former office has become the newest project of Free Riga, a non-profit organisation dedicated to turning the city’s surfeit of abandoned buildings — Riga has more empty spaces than any EU capital apart from Madrid — into a positive, a resource. Their website declares: “We open empty spaces for creative work!”
These abandoned buildings are the consequence of a population decline as shattering as any major city in Europe — since the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1991, Riga has shrunk by more than 25 per cent. A graph tracking its population over the last 50 years would be rather reminiscent of a firework — a speedy ascent, a brief lull then a seemingly unstoppable collapse. Riga, a port city roughly halfway down the Baltic coast, has been the crucial city of the region since its founding in the 13th century, grander, more bustling, more of a metropolis than Tallinn or Vilnius. In the early 20th century it was the fourth city of the Russian Empire, topped only by Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Warsaw. But its current extents were set out during the 50-year Soviet occupation (1944 – 1990), during which the country, previously a principally agrarian economy, was rapidly industrialised.
The city’s population surged during this period, as immigrants from all over the Soviet Union arrived to work in all those newly opened factories, some relocated forcibly, others attracted by the comparatively high standard of living available in Latvia. By 1990, when Latvia declared the restoration of its indepedence, its capital was majority-Russian and the population was pushing a million. It’s dropped by a third since then, and now Riga stands at a risk of losing its eternal title as the city of the Baltic States to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, whose population has also fallen, but has not collapsed in quite the same way.
The decline has happened in waves, and not all of it was avoidable. First of all were the large numbers of non-Latvians, many connected with the military, who left the country shortly after its split from the Soviet Union. Latvia’s accession to the EU in 2004 also led to a huge outflow, as hundreds of thousands left for Western Europe, lured by wages several times higher; this leakage was only accelerated by the financial crisis in 2008, by which Latvia was, in immediate proportional terms, worse affected than any country on earth — aloft at the time on a housing bubble, it lost 18 per cent of its GDP in a single year.
At the same time, the city has not, of course, retreated from the boundaries it pushed out to under the Soviet Union; it remains a big place. Visit at the right time and it will seem lively, creative, ragged, even stressed; visit at the wrong time and you might even end up in a hellish traffic jam. It does remain the largest city in the Baltic States, a target for outward investment, the most favoured destination for inward migration and the most natural base for businesses and organisation wishing to cover the whole region. But … a film set in Riga and released in 1961 that I watched while writing this article hammers home the change that has taken place. Called “Baltie Zvani” (The White Bells), it’s a 20-minute voiceless short, the slightly twee but endearing tale of a little girl’s adventures through central Riga on a busy working day.
Despite its sweetness, it’s extremely alien. Not because of changes to the city’s layout or buildings (I could pinpoint every location shown on a map); not because of the sheer number of army lorries rumbling through the Riga streets (this was one of the most heavily militarised republics); not because of the Cyrillic signage, or the old-fashioned clothing. It was different from the Riga I know because of what was happening between those buildings — because of people, because of the sheer number of them. An aerial shot of workers fanning out from the central train station, in such density that the ground is reduced to tiny flickers; young people hanging off the back of a sardine-packed trolley-bus; pavements so crowded with pedestrians they seem insufficient thin strips. Anything that could be of interest seems to have coils of people wrapped round it. When the little girl is arrested by some street-side curiosity, so many smudged, out-of-focus people-shaped shadows pass that they seem like the reel end zipping by on old slowed-down films.
In the early sixties, when Baltie Zvani was made, Riga’s population was actually lower than it is now — around half a million — although without the sprawling tower-block suburbs constructed under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, it was a lot denser. Bustling as it can feel at certain times and places, it no longer seems recognisable as the brisk, urgent place shown in the film; what it feels now, more than anything, is sparse — like its attendant country, a place with lots of room and not many people. Like a big old house, there’s a lot of space to rattle around in.
The project to renovate and redefine the building on Puskina iela seems an attempt to recognise Riga’s current reality and move forward. Free Riga’s bid to find tenants and purposes for the abandoned buildings of the capital is winning a lot of attention. Marcis Rubenis, one of the organisation’s founders, tells me that the seed of the project dates back to 2013, when Riga was gearing itself up to assume the title of European Capital of Culture. After attending seminars on the use of space in the city, he had a thought: “Riga is not the cultural capital, but actually the capital of empty spaces.” Along with another Free Riga founder, Janina Gutermann, he began to highlight these undervalued and underused spaces: first with a campaign involving bright toxic-yellow stickers imploring “Occupy Me,” which they urged people to stick on visibly unused buildings throughout the city; then, as an extension of this an interactive map of Riga, to which visitors could add abandoned buildings as and when they discovered them. This project still continues, and Gutermann and Rubenis tell me that, to date, over 350 empty spaces have been listed on the website in the city centre alone.
The move into a more active involvement with the city’s problems dates from late 2014. Although Free Riga have been involved with a number of properties so far, this is only the second full building to be repurposed — the other, also in Maskacka, became a creative point. Free Riga is an attempt to find a correlation between the interests of prospective tenants and the owners of temporarily desolate spaces. The thinking is that, although the tenants generally don’t pay any rent, they are able to improve the value of the property through the work that they do to make the space suitable for their purposes — and they also save the owner money on taxes, since the band for abandoned properties is higher. It’s a step further towards legality from squatting — not something that would be a serious option anyway, as long, freezing winters aside, Latvia has no laws relating to squatting at all, and accordingly nothing to prevent security companies coming and kicking occupiers out.
Rubenis and Gutermann stress that there are potential benefits to the severe population decline the city has experienced — not least in the drastic expansion of the amount of space available. “It’s an active decision for many young Latvians to stay in Latvia, because foreign countries are obviously offering better job opportunities … for us it’s a luxury because we have these spaces and we can use them for our creative expression or as artists’ space. This is a huge chance for the remaining people.” Although some people are living in Free Riga’s properties, some of the rooms are being used as artists’ studios, for those unable to rent a permanent space.
There are high hopes for what these non-defined, non-privatised spaces might be able to do — including to facilitate communication between different elements of a city which is highly divided by ethnicity, language, and economic status. Rubenis gives as an example the mix of people involved or attending the recent residency of the Swiss art collective Atopie, who stayed for a week and a half shortly before the official opening, mentioning Swiss artists, German tourists, and Erasmus students, Russian-speaking creatives from Purvciems (a large Soviet-era district of Riga), Latvians from Free Riga, local Russian residents. But facilitating the meeting of people from different backgrounds and different outlooks has come with occasional problems. Case in point, a rainbow flag flown from the window of the building during Atopie’s residence caused tension with the Russian-speaking, working-class neighbours, who were eventually convinced that it was intended to advocate peace, not homosexuality. At an event I attended, a neighbour was outraged to discover a defaced icon above a sink in the toilet area and loudly demanded an explanation. This, Gutermann and Rubenis assure me, was dealt with, and the woman was pacified. In fact, by the end of the week, she told them she would be sorry to see the Swiss leave — even though she didn’t understand anything they were saying.
Not everyone connected with Riga’s development shares the organisation’s optimism, however. Urbanist Janis Kinasts describes himself a placemaker and has been involved in a number of projects in Riga over the last few years, including the co-working space DarbaVieta and Nebetja, who are, in their own words, consultants for urban planning and creative design. But he’s recently moved from the capital to Cesis, a pretty country town about two hours’ journey north. About his former home, he says, in a slightly wounded tone: “there’s something very broken about this city.” Over the next hour he tells me about his frustrations, which seem to largely stem from a belief on the part of those in power in Riga, in the return of the vertiginous growth of the early years of the previous decade, which was fuelled by a housing boom, at points during which the average value of property doubled year-on-year. And it’s not only the boom years that exert a hold over Riga’s planners, according to Kinasts; he maintains that, despite Latvia’s fierce opposition to Communism and their forced Soviet heritage, the box-ticking, quantity-over-quality mentality encouraged by the previous regime remains prevalent: “We still use Soviet-era planning methods: simplifying stuff; thinking spatially, not socially; thinking functionally, not in time; thinking in the short term.”
His ire is particularly drawn by the government’s focus on building vast new structures as an apparent spur for development, singling out the Southern Bridge, a wildly over-budget project that took 10 years to complete, and the new National Library of Latvia building over the river as examples, as well as the continuing construction of areas of housing. “All the things that we are willing to have here — bigger malls, bigger skyscrapers, bigger developments. For whom?” Kinasts says that the city is very unlikely to recover its former population, but that this is not necessarily a problem — it is the use made of it that is important. Speaking of temporary use, he says that people like Free Riga are up against an inflexible way of thinking about space: “What you do with abandoned property — you don’t do anything, you wait for investment.”
There have been previous high-profile occasions of temporary use in Riga, however — and one particularly key example took place in a building that did more than perhaps any other to fire Riga’s growth, to make it the preoccupied, bustling city seen in Baltie Zvani. VEF (Valsts Elektrotehnika Fabrika — roughly, State Electrical Factory), was founded in 1919 at the very start of Latvia’s first period of independence, but was expanded massively by the Soviets, when Latvia and Riga became synonymous in a certain area with high-quality electrical products, development, dynamism. The first Soviet mass-produced transistor radio, the Spidola, was a VEF product; and by the 1960s, two out of every three phones produced in the Soviet Union came from VEF. But released onto the world market after the restoration of independence, VEF found it hard to compete, and in 1999 it was split into a number of smaller companies, only three of which still exist. The cluster of buildings at the scrappier end of Riga’s central thoroughfare, Brivibas iela, were left derelict, including its bizarre calling card — a sandpaper-coloured, Roman-arch-crammed structure adorned with a statue of Prometheus.
But in 2005, Kaspars Lielgalvis, a Riga-based artist, began to use one of the former VEF buildings as a workshop for a decoration business he was running at the time. When the building was sold, he relocated to the abandoned second floor of a larger warehouse building, part of the same complex; after renovation of the windows and flooring had been completed, artists began to move in — and within two years there were 15 studios. In 2008, Lielgalvis started to organise exhibitions and workshops for artists in different buildings of the factory, and in 2011, the art centre took the name Totaldobze.
Totaldobze became known throughout the country for the exhibitions, concerts, and poetry readings held periodically in the vast former VEF hall — although there was a cut-off point just before the winter, due to the impossibility of heating the space adequately. The art centre left the factory at the end of 2013; as an explanation, Lielgalvis mentions his desire at the time for a location closer to the centre, but also says that the landlord’s decision to increase the — initially very low — rent, apparently in response to the project’s success, made it very hard to continue, especially given the great expense of heating the space. Totaldobze has recently run projects in Estonia and Spain, and in the coastal Latvian city of Liepaja, but as of the moment of writing, is still looking for a new home in Riga. The Preses Nams (Press House), a huge upright grey slab across the river was considered, but the cost of renovation was found to be prohibitive. The VEF complex is now largely empty, although many of the artists who moved in during the Totaldobze days retain their studios; Lielgalvis tells me of vague plans afoot to turn the area into a cultural quarter along the line of Spikeri, a recently renovated, pedestrianised and scrubbed-up warehouse district poking into Maskacka, hosting a blend of museums, art spaces, and shiny restaurants.
Lielgalvis says that the centre attempted to support itself by running a bar during events, and received periodic funding from the Latvian Cultural Capital fund — and once annually from the city council, when Totaldobze took place at Balta Nakts (White Night) festival. He placed some hope on Riga’s stint as European Cultural Capital: “They were always mentioning this as a cultural spot important for the city — blah, blah — but in the end there was no practical support.”
He says that, at the moment, the potential of the city is “absolutely not being used.” He says that although he’s involved in it, the temporary use movement is hamstrung by a lack of preparedness to attract a broad cross-section of society: mentioning not only of the houses on Puskina iela and Liksnes iela, but also Bruninieku 2, an underground club in a former abandoned space in the city centre, and Zunda Darzs, an outdoor space across the river also run by Free Riga, he says that these are “too underground and anarchistic” to make significant inroads with the city’s population, catering to an audience mostly of young people and students.
The city’s annual Survival Kit, Homo Novus, and Skanu Mezs festivals, promoting art, theatre, and music respectively, also make use of abandoned buildings for their activities, he mentions, but these are only very temporary, using for up to a month every year and then leaving them again. Like Kinasts, he feels that there is little chance of the city returning to its peak population or even regaining much of the ground lost over the last quarter-century, but says this is not necessarily a problem; he says: “I like this quiet city where you have a lot of space around you. I don’t think a city has to grow in population; it has to grow in quality.”
Another project which resulted in the removal of most of its original users took place in Andrejsala. This is a mostly industrial spit of land sticking out into the River Daugava alongside Riga’s ferry terminal, disused in feeling if not always in practice. It was also the scene for a while during the last decade of a concerted attempt to regenerate a district by encouraging creative activities. Many artists and start-ups moved there from around 2004 onwards, encouraged by cheap rents — in some cases only utility bills were required. A regeneration-leading contemporary art museum was slated on the peninsula, intended to be constructed by world-famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, and ambitious plans from roped-in foreign architects and urban planners saw Riga redefined as a narrow, etiolated city, squashed along the artistic riverfront, ignoring the unsightly suburbs.
A 2007 article from The Baltic Times referred to it as “a shining example” of gentrification, describing Andrejsala in familiar terms: “A few spontaneously thrown together bars and clubs, decorated mostly with creative graffiti and comfortable old couches.” But it was hit hard by the crisis, and most of the cultural aspirations seem to have been dropped — the contemporary art museum was never built; the railway tracks that cut off the head of the peninsula from easy access to the city beyond have not been removed; the “culture and living” section of the Andrejsala website hasn’t been updated since 2009. There have been a second wave of tenants — offices, shops, the fancily decadent nightclub First Dacha, and there are plans for further residential and commercial development — but, for whatever reason, the peninsula certainly doesn’t seem to have become the dynamic alternate centre that some hoped for a decade ago. Today, much of it still appears semi-derelict: under-stretched former factories, lost-looking boats, everything chipped and stained.
Marcis Rubenis from Free Riga says that the lessons to be taken from the Andrejsala experience are that there is a scene and that enough interesting people and projects to do things, but that costs need to be covered so that owners who are willing to cooperate are not disencouraged to adopt temporary use. He tells me that he’s aware that temporary use will end at some point in most cases and owners will want to earn money.
The terrible struggle that Riga has undergone to find a direction post-Communism seems to a large extent to be linked to the fact that it’s a very unusual city, with no obvious models to look to — significantly larger than Tallinn or Vilnius and with significantly larger pretensions and handicaps, incomparable to Scandinavia opposite by its poverty and social problems, and differentiated from the cities of Russia and Poland by its vexed ethnic politics, it is in many ways too big for the country it finds itself in, a great trading city hemmed in by a peripheral, overwhelmingly rural country. One often gets the sense that Latvia doesn’t quite know what to do with Riga, a city which historically, has been in the midst of Latvia but not truly Latvian — built by Germans, latterly Russified, Latvians had very little say in the development or running of the city, or the country, until the late 19th century.
If there is something to be taken from this, it seems likely to come from post-Communist, rather than Western, Europe. Rubenis and Gutermann mention a conference they attended at Riga’s branch of the Goethe Institut, where a visitor from Munich told of the project she had created in an empty factory building; the Rigans were enthused, but when they asked how it was possibly afforded, the answer was that funding was provided by the council. Rubenis puffs out a sound meant to convey collective deflation. Much more useful were projects in Leipzig, the second-largest city in the former East Germany — also a post-Communist, formerly industrialised metropolis, with a population that has declined almost as much as Riga’s.
Leipzig’s recent path, however, has differed from Riga’s in a number of significant ways. Most obviously, it’s been radically affected by being the nearest cheapest alternative to those priced or pushed out by the hipster capital of the world. A recent budding of overpriced cafes aside, similar developments in Riga still seem some distance away — although there are some signs of a small trickle of Western Europeans being drawn by the low cost of living and perceived greater possibilities, especially those able to work remotely. Janina Gutermann from Free Riga, a German who moved to the city three years ago, mentions Riga’s comparative inexpensiveness as a liberating factor: “I am used to a no-budget life, so to me it doesn’t make a difference if I live in Switzerland or in Germany or here. Actually here I can live with less money, whereas somewhere else I have much more pressure to earn money and don’t have time for the things that I like to do — for example, working for Free Riga.”
Jonas Buchel, head of the Riga-based Urban Institute, is also a German, although he’s been resident in Latvia for over 10 years. When he first visited in 2002, he says that he “fell in love with the city — totally,” and by the end of his two-week stay had decided to wind up his job in Germany and move to Riga. A social scientist by training, at Urban Institute he promotes social projects throughout Latvia and elsewhere. He also mentions Leipzig as a place to be learnt from, although for him, its gentrification over the last 15 years stands as a warning to Riga — its suddenly increased attractiveness to the creative class leading to “real estate increases beyond anything in Germany” and an unbalanced infrastructure. Asked whether there’s any prospect of projects like Free Riga leading to a similar process of artification taking place in Riga, he says it’s possible, although not especially likely — a few people in the city are very keen on the idea, he says, and “since Riga always has been slightly anarchic, you actually have the possibility to change the city, even from the side.”
Despite his love for the charming, gritty capital, which he describes as “the most beautiful bitch in the world,” Buchel expresses frustration with many aspects of organising cooperative projects in Latvia, complaining of a combination of a lack of empathy and a lack of interest in learning that congeals into a prevalent sense that people “simply don’t care.” Like Kinasts, he puts this down to a large extent to the mentality imprinted by the Soviet system. There are reminders, though, that this crude individualism does not seem to be inherent in the Latvian character: as Marcis Rubenis points out, before the Soviet occupation around a quarter of Latvians were members of collectives.
But Buchel does give examples of collective, bottom-up successes achieved in recent years that suggest that this suspicion of cooperative action may be diminishing, if not disappearing entirely. Neighbourhood initiatives have sprung up all over the city — in districts as different as the prestigious semi-forest suburb of Mezaparks and the ragged, remote former naval town of Bolderaja, as well as a more conventional pressure group pushing for the preservation of Old Riga. An attempt to redevelop Sarkandaugava, an old-style heavy industry district alongside the river, and make it conform to a street-centred plan that Buchel says would have “killed the area” was overcome by locals. In Lucavsala, a semi-rural island in the river, caught between Riga on either side, an attempt to privatise the swathe of allotments, dirt-cheap to rent and used for decades by city residents, was defeated and its status preserved. In the working-class inner-city district of Grizinkalns, the Koka Riga initiative is making an expert attempt to preserve the stock of wooden houses interspersed throughout the city, unique in extent in Europe.
Like the other interviewees, Buchel strongly doubts that Riga could ever return to a million, for the main reason that it will never again be a big industrial city. But, he claims, there is not necessarily a need to “prop the population up”: by turning the usual valuation of empty spaces inside-out, they could be seen as a positive — a way to ensure the smaller number of residents are better-served — he mentions business start-ups, community centres, and kindergartens as places that could make use of these many empty spaces. The great city of the eastern Baltic coast has survived war and occupation, capitalism and communism, German rulers and Swedish rulers and Russian rulers and Latvian rulers; what remains to be seen is how it will survive emptying out.
Will Mawhood is editor at Deep Baltic