Finding architectural harmony in fast-paced development

  • 2005-04-06
  • By Stephanie Milbergs
RIGA - Now that spring is finally making its appearance, you may have noticed on your strolls around Riga and day trips to Jurmala that there is a burgeoning amount of new real estate and renovation underway. While much of this development is occurring in Riga's outskirts, extensive renovation and construction projects are, in particular, changing the face of Jurmala.

Dace Kalvane, managerial director of A Plus Architects, and Mara Kalvane, chief urban planner for Jurmala, say the string of seaside villages that make up the city are not considered a suburb of Riga, a tag that has become increasingly loud in recent years. "Jurmala is a completely independent structure and it has fame, like any city," says Kalvane.

In addition, the city is treasured for its historical architecture, something officials are struggling to preserve.

"Jurmala pretended some years ago to be a world heritage site as well," says Janis Lejnieks, editor in chief of Latvijas architektura magazine.

"There are huge areas of Jurmala under state and local protection 's about 100 buildings under state, and 400 under local protection," adds Kalvane.

However, the city lacks the concentration of historical houses required for UNESCO world heritage status, as "old houses are mixed with new houses," explains Mara Kalvane, who works on the Jurmala City Council.

Riga's Old Town, on the other hand, succeeded to earn a spot on UNESCO's list, as it still maintains the ambiance of a medieval city. However, this historic atmosphere is under threat. New investors, says Lejnieks, are feeling the pressure to build larger buildings. The Stockmann and Centrs shopping malls have already earned a spout of negative criticism. With the privatization of public spaces and the development of shopping centers, giant "shopping lands" could soon overrun the Old Town's quaint stores, Lejnieks emphasizes.

Perhaps this is why city dwellers are investing more in Jurmala property, especially in smaller towns of Bulluciems, Lielupe and Bulduri. Currently, half of Jurmala's population lives in Sloka and Kauguri, thanks to the multi-story apartment buildings located there.

"The part of Jurmala closest to Riga is being converted into permanent living places," says Lejnieks.

By contrast, towns in the center of Jurmala, such as Majori and Dabulti, have kept their name as tourist resorts, as well as historic and administrative centers. Yet tourists are sure to notice changes, as more and more of the area's public buildings are privatized and shops, bars and cafes are replaced with private homes.

Mara Kalvane emphasizes that it is "a city of big contrasts and these contrasts will remain in the future." She adds that the town is "definitely changing with the times" and that the City Council was excited about a slew of new hotels, guesthouses and homes.

Currently urban planners are working on Jurmala's infrastructure and development as a whole, with the goal of maintaining its historic value. Experts are planning new bicycle roads, water-supply systems, central heating systems and gas systems. But what they have envisioned is no easy feat.

Originally, Jurmala consisted of three cities: Kermeri, Sloka (the ancient city) and Riga's Jurmala (or seaside), which served as a resort town for the capital's inhabitants. Approximately 100 years ago, it was fashionable for some people residing in St. Petersburg to take a direct train line to Kermeri for a vacation. Today, it is still common for Latvians and foreigners to invest in summerhouses. However, as Mara Kalvane explains, there aren't so many summerhouses now 's rather, people want to live in Jurmala. As a result, summerhouses are being transformed into year-round houses.

The city is focusing on specific plans to attract investors. "Jurmala is mostly used as a sleeping bag or sleeping car," says Dace Kalvane, explaining that the majority of Jurmala's population works in Riga and that this population is increasing. The industrial center in Sloka has basically ceased running, so has the fishing industry in Lielupe.

A Plus Architects, as well as many other Latvian and foreign architecture offices, are not only renovating old houses and buildings, but also building new, more expensive ones. In the hectic, high-demand environment, developers are striving to achieve a harmony of architectural style in proportion to nature.

With the influx of new structures and private dwellings, Lejnieks believes that Jurmala will become an exclusive place for wealthy businessmen, thus losing its resort characteristics. Currently, Jurmala is targeting two clientele groups, says Lejnieks'sthe upper and middle-class populations. Wealthy homebuyers tend to lean toward more classical styles, while the middle-class is seeking more minimalist homes. Lejnieks calls this "the revivalism of glass boxes," adding that some even find wood as a "trendy, pure material."

A Plus Architects is working to adapt to Jurmala's environment and natural surroundings, but "know they cannot exclude contemporary architecture," says Dace Kalvane.

"Jurmala is a place where highrise buildings, as well as contemporary architecture, should be kept within a certain scale. Therefore architects and urban planners must find a compromise between the past and the future, seasonal character and year-long," she adds.

"Infrastructure must be adapted to the fact that Jurmala is a 'sleeping bag town,'" Dace Kalvane says, adding that architects and particularly urban planners should strive to "make the city living, into a living organism."

There have been many architectural competitions in order to find the best ways to utilize public space. For instance, in the center of Dubulti where a statue of Lenin stood during Soviet times, there was a recent workshop. Competition and proposals were received on "how to change the central square for public use," says Dace Kalvane. The purpose of this contest was to preserve an important, historic public space in Jurmala and essentially to answer the question: "How to transform and use the morally and functionally inadequate, outworn architectural example of Soviet times'sDubulti Station?"

Similar architectural and cultural visions for public space are underway in Riga. Such examples include a new contemporary art museum on Andrejs Island, the National Library Project and an architectural design competition for the new concert hall, which will be located on the plot of land between the Radisson Hotel and the Daugava River.

Architects and urban planners are fully aware that Riga, and especially Jurmala, need to be recognized and preserved as cultural centers. But how to properly balance private and public space, as well as contemporary and historical architecture, remains their struggle.