I’m sitting in a small cafe in Riga, Latvia, on a cold and rainy fall day waiting for architect Evelina Ozola to arrive so I can learn about the latest projects she’s been developing. I first ran across Evelina’s work in 2014 after spotting a project she’d co-created with Tom Kokins of Fine Young Urbanists, where they took a small section of a roadway and constructed new facades, bike infrastructure, and cafe seating, then painted the entire scene a bold sky blue color. The project was called Mierīgi!
This was shortly after our original Better Block projects, so I was absorbing as many like-minded urban prototyping projects I could find from around the world. Many of the most inspiring ideas were coming from places in the former Soviet Union. The work from Raumlabor, an arts and architecture collective out of Berlin, laid the original foundation for many of the original interventions I’d later take on in my own neighborhood.
Once the Iron Wall came down, many of the cities had the opportunity to re-establish their identities and start reimaging their spaces with fresh eyes. Architects were creating temporary installations among the bland Soviet block buildings and incorporating art, color, and articulation in a way that turned the gray, lifeless structures into vibrant canvases and opening the eyes of residents who’d lived among the spaces for decades.
When Evelina arrived, we sat and talked about identity, and reclaiming the public realm to celebrate culture and community. The Baltics had struggled with maintaining an identity for most of the 20th century. Though the small republics had long storied histories, and traditions, occupation by the Nazi regime in the 1940s immediately killed and suppressed large portions of the populations. The Soviets would eventually drive out the Nazis, but go on to occupy the Baltics for nearly half a century and continue to supplant the populations. One problem the occupiers did address was the historic lack of housing. Unfortunately, the answer to this was to build rows of homogenous apartments, then ship out half of Riga’s native population to Siberia and import a large Russian community in its place. To this day, the country is split–nearly a third speaks Russian and two-thirds speaks Latvian, with little crossover between. Evelina noted that people under 40 were no longer learning Russian as a second language, often opting for English instead, which was creating greater tensions and divides among the people. It was notable on the streets. I didn’t have a problem at all getting around in younger enclaves, but as soon as I ran into an older community, I had to revert to hand signals and gestures. Adding to the nation’s worries, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent annexing of Crimea from Ukraine has re-awoken concerns that they may once again be occupied. Everything about it sounded like a perpetual battered-spouse syndrome, but for an entire country.
Later that evening, I strolled through the city’s public market and scoured through rows of flea market tables. On several of them, I saw surfaces filled with household items like spoons and batteries interspersed with Nazi and Soviet medals. It was sobering. This was not only their recent history, it was obvious in their existing city squares, monuments, and apartments.
But given all the obvious worries, Evelina was optimistic about recent changes and growth. She’s currently working on the Latvian pavilion for the Venice Biennale. This was something Evelina and I shared as Better Block’s work had been featured in the 2012 U.S. Pavilion. It’s a high honor in the world of architecture, and will open her work up to a much larger audience.
We talked about the interesting similarities in displacement and eradication of culture from the market-based process of gentrification versus the Soviet versions by way of dissolving class structures. Both understand that a current culture exists, but attempts to zero out a past based on a new and improved society. I told her how we wrestle with this on every project we undertake. There’s an implicit and obvious reality that things aren’t working well and could be made “better,” but what that better is and how it’s attained is open to argument. What makes a soul of a city? How is it preserved and upheld? And how does it not devolve into tribalism or nationalism? It’s a fragile ecosystem, and one that has to be taken on with a lot of careful understanding and collaboration. And it’s easily upended.
I once read a story by Richard Feynman who was told by a Buddhist monk that, “To every man is given the key to the gates to heaven. But the same key can open the gates to hell.” Feynam would know this well, he was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project which would ultimately lead to development of the first nuclear bomb. That same work would lead to innovations in energy that currently support millions of households around the world. It seems we can’t really get around Newton’s Third law.
As the morning faded, Evelina mentioned that she’d been to the U.S. and had a chance to visit New York City and Detroit, and we talked about our experiences in both. I mentioned being overwhelmed by riding tricked-out bicycles with thousands of people in one of Detroit’s epic Slow Roll’s and retrofitting an eight-lane roadway with safer, Dutch styled bike lanes, but also how the culture was being divided by its endless over-built roadways. Her interesting takeaway from visiting was an oppressive feeling that the regulations we had developed over time were far more restrictive than in her own former Soviet nation. She didn’t feel like she was allowed to do anything in these places. It was shocking and instructive.
If someone who comes from a place that was systemically made to remove culture feels overly restricted in my country, then what does that mean for our future? Is this the natural outcome for a society when its people feel they can no longer shape their built environments?