Grounds for a Castle of Light

  • 2006-06-14
  • By Paul Morton

CASTLE OF LIGHT: a sleek, smart but odd building.

RIGA - Strip clubs continue to invade Riga's Old Town. And Forum Cinemas has driven some of the city's more kitschy theaters out of business. All of this serves to make the construction of the Castle of Light, legendary architect Gunars Birkerts' new design for the Latvian National Library, one of the happier cultural developments Riga has seen in the past few years.

From the model and video presentation now on display at Riga Gallery, it appears like a sleek, smart but odd building, imperfectly shaped like a mountain on the horizon. At night, light will issue forth from the many windows of the mostly glass walls. But there are trade-offs in every cultural change. Birkerts' new building, as wonderful as it is, is replacing a community, which was vital in its own way. For the last two-and-a-half years, since January 2004, Sandra Krastina, 49, has been documenting the urban space set aside for the project.

Now, as construction begins, Krastina's photographs are being displayed at the exhibition, "Waiting for the Castle of Light," held at Riga Gallery alongside a model of Birkerts' great building-to-be and a video presentation of what the new cultural center will look like. The project began as an assignment from "Forums" magazine, but it eventually took on a life of its own. "I did my work as an artist, not as a journalist," Krastina says.

Krastina's photographs capture subtle changes in the atmosphere of an urban space. There are no photos of people in any of her work. There are empty apartments in which a sink appears terribly lonely, against a blue wall. There's a torn glove on the ground covered in leaves. In another, the afternoon light spreads across a copy of 5min and an ashtray.
Krastina has a way of capturing the most subtle changes in weather and mood as greater events take place in the background. In her work, we see all the things that are being left behind.

Krastina got to know the people who lived on the Daugava River's left bank, but she didn't photograph any of them. In a sense, this urban space has been scrubbed of people. Why?
"It was just a choice."
Looking at the video presentation of Birkerts' new building, it's hard not to be a little awed. The narrator praises Latvians' literariness. According to the video, they buy more books per person here than anywhere else in Europe. And we see people moving into and out of a strange futuristic grand hall, where they seem to be worshipping a temple of culture. It looked like it could fit in the Cloud City in "The Empire Strikes Back."

Still, looking at Krastina's photographs, I wondered if something was lost. Did she feel that way?
"Maybe there is something that we lost in building this building," - she says, gesturing around at the Riga Gallery building. "We don't know what was once here or the people who once lived here. But now we have this." o

"Project of the Latvian National Library" and "Waiting for the Castle of Light"
Runs until July 7, Riga Gallery, Aspazijas Boulevard 20