Architecture in Latvia 's a colorful mix of ideas

  • 2009-10-29
  • By Layla Banks

MIXING OLD AND NEW: Riga's architecture stretches from 100 year old wooden houses, to the beautiful Jugendstil masterpieces, to new-comer glass, steel and concrete high-rises.

RIGA - As award-winning British architect Ian Ritchie noted in his research paper "Tendencies: Image, Architecture and Innovation," the history of architecture is the history of the way in which light enters the building - through small openings in masonry walls and roofs, to infilling them with small pieces of glass, to total glass enclosures. From this point of view, architectural development could be described as the desire to master light, and the means to achieving this being the application of continual industrial innovation.

It is a phenomenon of the 21st century architecture field in the Baltic states (and especially in Latvia) that the borders between architecture and interior design have been blurred. The architects no longer follow strict 'canons' or imitate creative 'icons.' It's really impossible to say what is or is not 'in vogue' in modern Latvia. Local architects and designers have no problems using the eclectic mix of styles, designs and approaches 's from stylized,  flowing forms of Jugendstil so popular in the capital city of Riga, to opulent, 'in your face' Art Deco shapes to the monumental Baroque structures. Renaissance, Classicism and Modernism are also being successfully applied and mix-matched in the creative projects of Latvian authors.

It is fair to say that those are direct reflections of not only Latvian, but also global lifestyle tendencies. Consumers all over the world are influenced by globalization processes when cultures, societies and economies become integrated through international communication and exchange. Barriers between the markets in all fields, including design and architecture, have moved and merged to create larger unified market entities.

The common trait of modern consumers all over the world is a greater willingness to embrace various trends and directions rather than sticking to one particular style. They are exposed to a lot of influences as the borders from country to country become ever more transparent. Since architecture itself is a synthesis of ideas, social events and nature, understanding the context is the first step towards the successful architectural project. Ever since Latvia's accession to the European Union in 2004, Latvian customers have acquired greater global awareness as they travel further for studies, work or pleasure. The result is that their demands are changing faster than ever, becoming more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. There is also a growing trend towards the sustainability of design, where area proportions are based on standard material proportions, thus saving both resources and money.

Baltic architectural projects are becoming increasingly marked by the systematic incorporation of environmental aspects into project design, development and maintenance. The architects pay more attention towards nature and are striving to minimize the environmental impact across the entire life cycle of the product.

Execution of architectural and design projects is not possible without considerable investments, and that's why there have been visible changes in the architectural projects in Latvia over the past decade. A few years ago the Latvian economy was one of the most robust developing economies in the European Union.  Exports were growing, domestic consumption was on the rise and consumers were optimistic about the upcoming years. Those sentiments found reflection in the considerable growth of the construction market as numerous high-priced, upscale architectural projects were springing to life in Riga as well as in the rural regions of Latvia. The clients were keen on impressing the neighbors and tried to 'keep up with the Jones',' even if this meant stretching the buildings' budget. Italian tile and mirrors, German plumbing and exclusive wallpaper from the UK were in high demand. Residential houses would often feature a two-car garage, at least two bathrooms and a sauna.

The global economic crisis has changed the situation dramatically. There is no doubt that international financial hardships have had a negative impact on spending patterns  in the Baltic states. Nowadays, most of the Baltic customers are looking for simple, pragmatic constructions built from eco-friendly and energy-efficient materials. There are creative techniques that combine traditional wood and brick elements of Latvian homes with cement blocks and steel frames, thus achieving successful translation of regional architecture of the Baltic states into modern housing design.

 This is against the backdrop of environmental concerns and rising energy costs, where 73 percent of homeowners in Latvia list 'cost-effective solutions and operational reliability' as the two most important aspects of an architectural project (up 11 percent from 2006 data).  Moreover, only 7 percent of the surveyed clients valued 'aesthetical qualities' over 'practical qualities' (down 14 percent).

Still, there is plenty of room for creativity despite the economically challenging times - even if the execution of some projects has to be postponed. There is no lack of good projects and good architects in the country. As one of the leading Latvian architects, Janis Dripe, explains in the magazine New Projects, excellent examples of high-class architectural work in the high-rise construction sector are Z Towers, by Uldis Luksevics, the technically complicated Symbiotic Tower by Gunters Salers, the Mountain House by Andris Kronbergs and the group of Round Towers by Vents Didrihsons. Maris Gailis has designed a very interesting and different collection of wooden buildings, while Astra Lux architects have been focusing on construction of laconic high-rises using  high-quality materials and expert apartment planning. According to Dripe, the examples of good and bad architecture are abundant and can be found on the both shores of the Daugava.

Prior to 2007, when the global liquidity crisis had a sudden and negative effect on the economic life of Latvia, one of the biggest problems in the Latvian architecture sector was the lack of professional and experienced architects. A rapidly developing real estate sector and the ever-increasing demand for residential apartments and office space had stimulated a burst of activity on the construction market - in Riga alone each month about 300 new projects were being confirmed as ready for implementation. Also conducive to creativity and innovation, this fast-paced environment gave rise to a number of projects that industry experts later characterized as 'strange,' or weird. Apparently, the creative quality of some projects suffered. Not only young architects, but even some large reputable designer bureaus could not resist the temptation of easy money and produced one standard house after another.

Now, with the decline of housing markets and numerous projects on hold, the situation has changed dramatically. Less work has resulted in fiercer competition among architecture, engineering and construction firms to attract clients. Tougher conditions created by the crisis necessitate innovation in the face of the adversity, and even those who did not have to innovate over the past decade are adopting a different mentality in the changed market climate.

On the other hand, as the prices for architectural and design services are declining and clients are becoming more and more price-conscious, younger or less-known architects might find themselves reaping the unexpected benefits of the economic downturn. In the past, most of all in 2007, prices for architectural activities in the Baltic states almost reached the pan-European level, bringing international architectural bureaus to the Latvian market. Aspiring young architects were faced with intense competition not only on the domestic, but also on the international level, and market entry was very difficult for those with a less extensive portfolio. Currently customers are more willing to employ local talent, with no international expertise, provided ideas are creative and price levels are adequate. As the world's economies teetered, the downturn created business opportunities for those nimble enough to keep up with the ongoing events.