What An Impressive Erection

Does this make you think of forests and streams - or big buildings?

“As that building gets bigger, yours gets smaller.” Uncle Ivars was talking about the new national library being constructed across the road from my office and, as usual, he was right.

May 3rd brought the “ridgepole” ceremony at the library construction site, which according to Latvian tradition takes place when a newly-constructed building reaches its highest point. A wreath is placed on top and if you’re really lucky a stork will start building a nest – hampering further construction work but apparently an omen of good luck.

Storks were notable by their absence today but the snow that was falling as the ceremony began also felt like an omen – though of the good or bad sort it is hard to say.

The crisis of the last couple of years seems to have been quite good for the library project. What threatened to become another example of a hugely over-priced white elephant project (cf. the Southern Bridge, known locally as the “Golden” bridge thanks to its ridiculous billion-euro price tag) has at least come under intense scrutiny and looks likely to be built for much less than originally planned while being much more suited to its purpose: at one point the library’s function housing books seemed very low down on the list of priorities after its ability to host conferences, beauty salons and retail outlets.

Elerte, Zatlers and Dombrovskis enjoy the view

Personally I am not a fan of Gunars Birkerts’ architectural design, much as I applaud the nation for taking libraries seriously.

According to the plans, the building, a.k.a the “castle of light” takes its form from various Latvian legends, but the first sketches appeared more than 20 years ago and the hulking geometry of the thing still seems like something from the 1980s. The architectural renderings make it seem like an attempt to build the Pompidou Centre using offcuts from La Grande Arche De La Defense.

But according to Birkerts:

  • It tells of green fields and meadows, of many-coloured flowers;
  • It tells of dark pine forests and white birch groves;
  • It tells of slowly flowing, dark, dreamy rivers, their streams are so slow, that at times it seems that they are flowing backwards;
  • The landscape is flat and slightly sloping, its highest mountain – Gaiziņš, is only 12 metres higher than the Eiffel Tower;
  • It tells of the ever present folklore, of the human emotions expressed in the folk songs and legends. Legends of the determination that will make a brilliant castle rise up from the dark waters. It tells of the courageous riders riding up the mountain of ice to save the princess. It takes a strong will and persistence to accomplish it.

It also tells of a whacking great slab of breeze block. The most common thing people have said to me when I point it out to them for the first time is: “Who will be the first person to skateboard down the front?”

Now imagine lots of books...

From the other side of the river it looks more like an economist’s graph plotting Latvia’s wage growth in the boom years.

From another angle it bears a passing and hopefully coincidental resemblance to the Skrunda radar station which was dynamited exactly 16 years ago on 4 May 1995, as a final farewell to Soviet power.

Maybe it will be great once it is finished in late 2012. At the moment it is impossible to get any real feel of how the final building will look. The interior currently resembles nothing so much as a multistorey car park.

But the view from the top is impressive (though I couldn’t help thinking of Maupassant’s quip about the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower being magnificent because it is the only place in Paris you can’t see the Eiffel Tower) and the choir cleverly dispersed among the guests at the ceremony showed off the nice acoustics shared by huge concrete shells everywhere.

Take a bow, boys

Hopefully the Latvian National Library it’s a “grower” just like the Swedbank tower a little further downstream which has seemed to get more elegant and satisfying with the years. By the time the ceremony was over (including a birch juice toast) the snow had stopped and the sun was struggling through the clouds. A good omen, perhaps.

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