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The shape of society: Coexisting in Latvia's Soviet apartment blocks

Curators of Latvian Pavilion, (from the left) Anda Skrejane, Matiss Groskaufmanis, Gundega Laiviņa, Evelina Ozola, 2017 /photo: Lauris Aizupietis

Matiss Groskaufmanis, one of the architects behind Latvia’s entry at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, discusses the architectural and political relevance of housing in modern times, and why we need to ensure that construction is evolving.

Latvia is a century old this year. The anniversary coincides with the republic’s eighth crack at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The Latvian Pavilion’s entry ‘Together and Apart’ opens May 25 in the Arsenale and will examine how apartment buildings have shaped society in light of ideological turning points over the last 100 years. One of the topics to be addressed is the issue of coexisting in an increasingly complex world. Architects Matiss Groskaufmanis and Evelina Ozola, set designer Anda Skrejane, and New Theatre Institute of Latvia director Gundega Laivina are curating the exhibition, which is divided into four parts. “‘Distance’ portrays proximities between individual spheres that emerge as a consequence of demographic shifts; ‘Promise’ looks at the apartment building as a political project; ‘Warmth’ explores the relationship between energy and consumption, geopolitics, and collective decision making; ‘Self’ deals with the individual apartment as a subject of private property, and the limitations of it,’” reads the pavilion’s statement.
Groskaufmanis, a 2012 Strelka alumnus, spoke to Strelka Magazine about the project, the future of Latvian housing, and why political discourse is vital for successful social architecture.

APARTMENT BUILDINGS IN THE MIDDLE OF EMPTY FIELDS

Some of the topics I was looking at when I was studying the economic and political history of housing at the Strelka Institute back in 2011-2012 remained at the back of my mind. When the opportunity to work with the Venice Biennale came up, it was basically something we applied to the Latvian context, which shared some part of its history during the 20th century with the Russian context in a way, especially when it comes to housing.
Two-thirds of Latvians live in apartment buildings, which is interesting given the country is a quite sparsely populated part of Europe. In a way, you have this dense type of lifestyle for most people, but then it’s very empty from place to place. We thought we should investigate this – not just how the whole situation emerged, but also what it means for the future.

Apartment buildings of Valmiera municipality, 2018 / photo: Reinis Hofmanis

Municipality apartment housing construction in Jāņa Asara street, Riga, architect – O. Tīlmanis, 1929 / photo: unknown author, State Archives of Latvia

Residents living in apartments in EU, Eurostat, 2016 / graphic: Matiss Groskaufmanis

One of the main reasons for this is the industrialization policy of the Soviet Union, which was the time when most housing was built. And not just in the cities – in the countryside the authorities were trying to collectivize agriculture and they put up quite a few apartment buildings in the middle of empty fields. Apartment living doesn’t just end in the city, but also extends to the countryside, which is something we will try to show in Venice.
The interest in terms of architectural discourse since the 1990s has shifted towards public buildings, villas, and other types of relatively exclusive projects, but the theme of affordable housing has basically disappeared from the horizons of Latvia's architecture. Yet, the 20th century was a century for the apartment building when you think about housing. There were many experiments as well as political ambitions to find new typologies on both sides of the Iron Curtain – but it seems that nowadays these efforts have been withdrawn from the political discourse.
One of the main things we found is that since the 1990s, only about 10 percent of housing stock has been built, so most people still live in buildings from either the Soviet or pre-Soviet era – there is no longer much investment or interest in architectural experiments, which is something to address.
This is something we have been looking into. I think there are two parts to this: on the one hand, there is a sorrow, as many people view the Soviet period negatively because of the repressions by the state as well as many freedoms being taken away, so many of these buildings act as a reminder of this. But at the same time, on a practical level, most of it is still quite decent housing. Of course it’s in need of repair and maintenance but in realistic terms it’s not possible to raze it to the ground and build something new, so I think it’s a question of accepting that the buildings are there, are still useful, and we need to look at ways of extending their lifespan – not just for Latvia but the whole Baltic region.

TOGETHER AND APART

The main angle of our project is to look at these buildings as a general category of architecture that is always subject to political, economic, and ecological matters, so we want to show the background of these things, how they came about, who paid for them, were they a form of propaganda, etc. So we are not proposing, it’s more about an explication of how apartment buildings organize life.

Series apartment buildings in Riga, 2018 / photo: Reinis Hofmanis

The construction of Jugla district in Riga beginning of 1970’s /photo: author unknown, State Archives of Latvia, foundation 478.

When you live in an apartment building, you are subject to some type of relationships with the other. If you own a detached house you are alone, not just on a practical or metaphorical level, but also on an organizational level. However, if you live in some sort of compact setting, there’s always something unknown, something on the other side of the wall, and in fact you are sharing that space with others. So the apartment building is an interesting architectural setting because it accumulates lots of different people living side by side.
Clearly, the housing question cannot just be left to the market, it cannot be ejected from political discourse, you have to actively evolve it. What happened in the 1990s – not just in Latvia but also in Russia and elsewhere – is that nearly everything was sold off, the housing stock was privatized, so it disappeared from the political agenda. Now it's clear that this was not an optimal solution and that you need to have some involvement and incentives to regulate and stimulate housing supply for different parts of society. The architectural and political relevance of housing these days has been watered down, but the question of how to live together with someone in something remains.

TRANSFORMING SOVIET-ERA HOUSING

This is what we are trying to show, that there are many socio-economic transformations going on right now, and apartment buildings are key to them in many ways. If you look at rural areas where demographic shifts are happening, where many people of retirement age are living, all these things are affecting the general population patterns, and also the different requirements for spaces people need. If you look at buildings in the countryside that have been converted into retirement houses, you can see that it’s possible to use the normal typology of an apartment building and transform it to accommodate more facilities to take care of people who are unable to do so themselves.
There are other issues such as energy consumption and geopolitics, but what’s happening now is that there are many programs and incentives to reduce energy dependency, and apartment buildings play a key role because many people live in Soviet-era buildings and their aggregate energy consumption is huge. If you look at the EU’s energy consumption, you’ll see that the heating and cooling of buildings is a big part, so what we are documenting are the efforts for these bulk insulation programs to reduce energy consumption, etc. Soviet housing blocks were built when you didn’t have to pay globally adjusted energy prices, so in the 1990s different realities and political undercurrents were in play. Since we are looking at instances from the last 100 years of history (the Latvian state was established in 1918), it is important to acknowledge that there were ambitious and interesting housing projects both before and after the Soviet era.