Architect cites ‘national honor’ in designing library

It has been a national honor to work on the creation of the Latvian National Library (LNB) building, architect Gunārs Birkerts told the media Thursday at a press conference marking his arrival at this week’s public celebrations to open the landmark object.

He said he feels extremely pleased that the library is finished, being the project on which he has worked the longest of all. Over the 20 years it took to see the project to completion, many serious changes had to be made in the design, including truncating the original length of the edifice by a third. However Birkerts insisted that all alterations were in line with the original design concept, although the LNB building is not as “flowing” as other buildings he has designed, rendering the necessary solutions more complicated for its author.

“The process took a long time and lots of dedicated work. Over the duration I have grown old,” the architect remarked.

Birkerts remarked further that the world has seen much symbolically-charged architecture, but his works are more metaphorically oriented. At first his design idea centered on the folk motif of the Glass Mountain from Rainis’ folk drama ‘The Golden Horse’, which later transformed into the Castle of Light. Based on a folk legend derived from Latvia’s founding national literary traditions, the Castle of Light symbolizes the rising up of Bearslayer, the folk hero who plunges into the Daugava River while locked in eternal mortal combat with the Black Knight, in the role symbolic of the Latvian people’s historic foreign oppressors.

Birkerts also commented that, in the face of controversies over the LNB building’s excessive costs and construction delays, he may have been alone in his conviction that the building would actually be erected to completion. He said he has all of the sketches at home and was already able ten years ago to walk through all of its interior spaces and know exactly what it would look like in his head.

The LNB will eventually come into custodianship of Birkerts’ extensive architectural library, including all of his sketches and designs. While he is visiting Latvia to take part in the launch of his building, Birkerts will also be consulting the Museum of the Occupation in its plans for a new building. He said he will refrain from designing any new buildings in Latvia, because there are plenty of local architects ready to work without having to invite in “someone from the outside.”

Approved for commission by Riga’s municipal authorities on June 6, the LNB building is the culmination of a decades-long vision to crystalize and carry forward Latvia’s national-cultural identity and development aspirations. The LNB celebrated its first opening to the public on June 16.

The adoption of Birkerts’ 25-year-old design sketch for the LNB building dates to the late 1990’s, when the National Library Support Foundation launched its Digital Library Project and the UNESCO General Assembly approved the grand construction proposal.  Political controversy over what were perceived to be incommensurate cost projections during times of economic crisis threatened the project during the following decade, and ground was not broken at the site until June of 2008 (though cleared for foundation-laying since 2004).  

The LNB Project has cost an estimated €268m, of which construction costs comprised €198m. It will cost approximately €3.9m annually to maintain the National Library building, including €142,287 for the cleaning of the roof, windows and facades.

Despite findings by the State Audit office that the Ministry of Culture overpaid for the project, experts overwhelmingly agree that the LNB building is perhaps the most significant architectural achievement in the region. Together with its accompanying digital infrastructure intended to link all of Latvia’s public and academic libraries in a unified network, the LNB project is expected to stand as the nation’s proudest symbol when it celebrates its centennial of independence in 2018.

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