From the crumbling facades of the old town to the distinctive Soviet-era Academy of Sciences, Riga is a city with a rich architectural heritage.
What is not immediately obvious in Riga, though the nets that cover many of the city’s buildings and prevent rubble from falling on passers-by offer a clue, is that so many of the city’s buildings are abandoned and have fallen into disrepair.
As a once important site of manufacturing in the USSR, Riga was left with plenty of empty industrial spaces after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union. The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated this problem, preventing many building projects from being completed.
But disused and large-scale industrial architecture is now being celebrated as one of Riga’s best resources, as local artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and skateboarders all find ingenious ways to repurpose it. And whilst visitors to Riga will likely find themselves dancing or looking at art in one of these defunct spaces at some point during their stay, they may not be fully aware of the building’s former use.
Here are some of the most exciting buildings to have been repurposed in Riga, along with an insight into the industries that once thrived here on the Baltic coast.
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Reportedly housing the largest collection of Latvian art in the world, Zuzeum exists on the foundation of the A. Kriegsmann cork factory, built 1910 by engineer Edmund von Trompowsky. The art center already holds exhibitions, film screenings, and events for the Latvian literary magazine, Benji Knewman. But as of June this year, Latvian architect Zaiga Gaile will begin redeveloping the site so that there is a dedicated space for the Zuzāns collection of Latvian art, which amounts to over 6,000 pieces. The 13,000-square-meter site is set to be the country’s preeminent private art center and will include a facade inspired by the distinctive panels of the former American Folk Art Museum in New York.
Housed in what was originally designed as Zeppelin hangars, Riga’s central market is close to the main bus station and Moscow District. The site was redeveloped for the purpose of storing food, and was, in the 1930s, Europe’s largest market. Today, you can get everything from Uzbek plov to Russian Olympic tracksuits, and in the summer, strawberries are on sale until late into night. A new street food section opened in January with stalls dedicated to Latvian traditional dishes such as grey peas, Russian pelmeni dumplings, Caucasian khachapuri and dolma, and soups made with cannabis oil. In 1997, the wider area around the hangars was listed by UNESCO and it remains a vibrant marketplace at the heart of the city’s social life.
Bolshevik Textile Factory
The factory was first opened in 1913 and served to manufacture high-quality footwear made from (imported) American leather. It was later renamed “Bolshevichka” and fell abandoned in the ‘90s. However, for last year’s Homo Novus, an international festival of contemporary theater, the Factory—located in the Sarkandaugava district on the outskirts of the city—was transformed by Italian artist Gian Maria Tosatti. During the immersive installation, one or two people at a time were allowed into the abandoned factory and were encouraged to explore wherever they like. Visitors found themselves entering an empty bedroom with the radio left on, and creeping downstairs into an operating theater where a cadaver lay covered in sheets. The installation has since wrapped up and so we wait to hear whether the space will be used again this year. Brick Bar, which was built outside from the factory’s leftover debris, will be open for special events during the summer.
Located in an old metal tool factory, The Spot might be best thought of as an urban activity center, for want of a less cringe-worthy label. Visitors to the repurposed factory are greeted by a menu, from which they may select a combination of activities for any number of hours. These include bouldering, skateboarding, trampolining, and working out in the gym. The bicycle foam pit is a unique feature and allows visitors to launch themselves off of a large jump, only to land safely in a tub of foam pieces.
INSIDER TIPThe Number 1 tram stops just outside at VEF, an important electronics factory during the Soviet era. Along with radios, the factory developed the Minox Riga spy camera.
One of the oldest of its kind in Europe, Riga Circus was closed for public events from 2016 to 2018 when the building’s facade was declared unsafe. But after repair works were carried out, the circus reopened in September 2018 to host Survival Kit, the annual contemporary art festival. Highlights of the night included exploring the passageways backstage and discovering graffiti in the old-school toilets. The closure of the space, along with a recent law that prohibits wild animals from being used in the circus, has prompted the owners to transform the space into a multifunctional arts center, though circus performances will continue here.
Sporta 2 took the place of the old Laima factory, Latvia’s beloved confectioner, and has been rebranded somewhat awkwardly as the “sweet spot of Riga.” While the redevelopment has been slow to get off the ground as the art lofts and slow food market aren’t quite reaching the audience they deserve, Riga Biennial made good use of the area as one of its venues in 2018. Kim?, the contemporary art center located on the corner of the district, hosts regular exhibitions and has a great selection of Latvian zines. If you’re wondering, the name of the gallery is an abbreviation of the Latvian “kas ir māksla?” which asks, “What is art?”
Tallinn Street Quarter
The Tallinn street quarter takes the place of a former ambulance hub, complete with many garages and repair stations. When the city sold the space to a private owner, they suggested that Free Riga, an NGO that makes use of the city’s disused spaces, might be a great partner to work with. Since then, Free Riga has transformed the 16 buildings and 4,000 square miles of space that sits just off of Tallinas iela into a vibrant cultural center. Currently, there are bars, a sound studio, co-working spaces, and a street food hall will be opening this spring. A temporary use agreement has been made until January 2021, so now is a good time to visit.
Some Latvians will tell you that Andrejsala has had its day or that the upmarket restaurants and clubs have ruined this once alternative district. Located on what was once the city’s industrial docklands (from where the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic distributed its goods), the port area is full of disused factories and melancholy-looking cranes. Nevertheless, the hosts of the Riga Biennial chose Andrejsala as one of their venues in 2018. If you take a walk away from crowds in the summertime, there are plenty of great street spots to drink wine as the sun sets over the river Daugava, where fishermen cast their nets against the backdrop of the city’s industrial monoliths.