Clashes over rebuilding key Old Riga museum

Take note – story published 8 years and 11 months ago

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, built in 1971 to mark the 100th birthday of Lenin, is one of the most memorable historical buildings in Riga. The black monolith structure discourages taking it lightly, as does the past it represents. The museum has seen 25 years of independent Latvia, but renovation efforts have been limited. Some prefer the museum to remain as it is, while plans are in motion to add a white 'Future home' to the building. In the recent months, clashes between supporters of the two options have escalated and even gained some international recognition.

In a nutshell:

  • The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is a historic building with an ambiguous cultural heritage status;
  • Rebuilding plans have been in motion at least since 2001, but only recently have they become available to the general public;
  • During the last few months architects and other notables have called both for moving forward with the rebuilding and for keeping it 'as is' but with interior renovation;
  • The project has the blessing of the state and the staff and associates of the museum;
  • The Riga City Construction Board has postponed reviewing the technical specifications of the project until September;
  • The only consensus seems to be that "something ought to be done".

Built during the Soviet times, the museum started out as a building to commemorate red Latvian riflemen - Latvian soldiers who fought on the side of revolution during the communists' ascent to power in Tsarist Russia during WWI.

The extension, a bright rectangular building with a glass wall closing one end, would juxtapose Latvia's bright future with the occupation under the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. 

After the USSR collapsed, the museum started introducing locals and visitors alike to the heritage of Latvia's occupation from 1940 to 1991 by Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and then Soviet Russia again. In 1999 it was almost razed to the asphalt after its ownership was transferred to Riga municipality.

Amid the long discussions about what to do with the museum, in 2001 architect Gunārs Birkerts, the author of the Latvian National Library project, came up with the current idea of extending the museum with a white rectangular building. The project experienced a string of delays, and was revived in 2008 when Birkerts' sketch project was confirmed with the Riga City Construction Board. In a typically late fashion, the technical part of the project was handed to the board in May 2015.

The premises of the extension are to be used mainly for the needs of museum staff, while the architects that objected to the rebuilding said that the staff could use the "Corner house" premises for that. 

When the plans for rebuilding the museum became available to the public at large, many architects were horrified about the idea. In early March 20 well-known architects, lead by Zaiga Gaile, sent a letter to the Ministry of Culture among other institutions, urging to reconsider the current plans.

"As of now, a decision has been made by the Cabinet of Ministers. [...] I am not the politician to stop the project," the Minister of Culture Dace Melbārde (National Alliance) told Latvian Television.

The architects also sent a petition to the documentation and conservation modern movement website A Word document with the petition is available here

The authors of the petition call the current reconstruction plans "A populist solution that would sacrifice the architectural qualities of World Heritage Site – historical centre of Riga (listed in 1997) and realise only a short-term political ambition."

Architects have stressed that within the last few years the heritage of modernist architecture has once again become the topic of the day. Zaiga Gaile was also perplexed as to why premises for the purpose of bureaucracy should be built on the most expensive land in Riga. 

The staff and people associated with the museum are equally perplexed about the architects' objections to the project.

Chairman of the Occupation Museum Association of Latvia Valters Nollendorfs, in a press conference, went as far as to say that the museum could "die away" within five years if the rebuilding project was halted.

Amid widespread dissent and confusion about the future of the building, the Riga City Construction Board postponed the project in a June 4 meeting, citing a number of legal obstacles to the project, including that the heritage status of the current building has not been determined by the State Inspection for Heritage Protection. The board has sent the project back for review and will return to it in September.

On June 30 the Latvian Association of Architects had arranged a discussion, which was as heated as the previous utterances of the involved parties.

Jānis Skrastiņš, a professor at the Rīga Technical University, said that the project "emotionally murders" the very idea of the museum. Zaiga Gaile said that the extension seems placed irrationally and said that the money should be better spent on building a kindergarten.

She left after her opinion came under scrutiny, while other architects came to a conclusion that the very surroundings of the museum - the Strēlnieku square in Old Riga - are ill-fated and should come under review. Meanwhile, state officials including PM Laimdota Straujuma re-confirmed support for rebuilding the museum. 

The museum is funded mostly from private pockets - about one fourth of its funding comes from the state, while the rest is received in donations. About 1.5 million euros have been donated with the explicit goal of building the 'Future home'. 

The state has already invested some 400,000 euros in the rebuilding. The total state investment was predicted to be EUR 7.4 mln.

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