Song Festival Stage in Riga, Mežaparks.
Architects’ homage to the Latvian Song Festival.

Municipal Agency “Riga City Architect’s Office” Concept author and editor: Zanda Redberga
Design: Ingūna Elere, Tatjana Raičiņeca
Executors: «H2E», «Jelgavas tipogrāfija»
Translation: Inta Liepiņa
Edition: 1000 coipies
Place: Riga, Latvia
Year: 2008

The edition Open-air Stage in Riga, Mežaparks presents all aforementioned designs of transformation of the open-air stage. The aim of this compilation is to revive some facts of construction history related to song festivals, to explain the processes of creation and transformation of the open-air stage in Mežaparks, to accumulate ideas generated by architects and other specialists as well as to facilitate decision-making based on ideas of heritability and succession and to maintain institutional memory. It is our – architects’ – homage to the Latvian Song Festival.

 

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«A spirit of the song! A joy of singing! Human life filled with elation for singing! It has been praised in dainas – folksongs composed by unknown Latvian poets, countless quatrains and folk melodies. Deriving from ancient verities preserved in songs, it is in a way a basis of aesthetics of world perception not only for Latvians but also for our neighbours – Lithuanians, Estonians. Thanks to this philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century the highest form of the art of singing – a miracle of a capella joint singing of combined choirs – was born in the Baltics. Being rooted in the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian folklore, orally handed down from generation to generation and preserved as a long-standing tradition through everyday singing and playing, enriched with a musical ritual of the Christian Church and influenced by the men’s choir festival Sing Fest in the 19th century Western Europe, it was called the Song Festival and it was widely celebrated in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Such joint singing of amateur choirs where thousands of singers are bringing together their voices in an hours-long concert cannot be heard anywhere else in the world… » (Oļģerts Grāvītis / www.songcelebration.lv) As an important value of the world cultural heritage in 2003 the Song Festival was recognised to be a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

First Song Festival stages
These festivals were mostly held on open stages, mostly – on spacious open-air squares. Depending on the scale of the celebration, temporary stages were built for each particular event, but with the song festivals Latvian architecture acquired a new type of building – a venue for gathering of thousands of singers and listeners. The construction history of song festival stages is closely related to nation’s development. The First Song Festival contributed to the formation of self-confidence of the Latvian people, then followed establishment of the state and its transformation, occupation and restoration of independence.

The first professional Latvian architect Jānis Frīdrihs Baumanis designed the venue for the first, second and third Latvian Nationwide Song Festivals – a closed building. According to his designs several stages were built in Riga: in Viestura Garden (1873), in old town (1880) and in Esplanade (1888). The only time when the Song and Music Festival was celebrated outside the capital was in 1895 when the Jelgava Latvian Society had provided a plot of land for this event in Jelgava. The established building traditions were upheld with the structure designed by architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns. The City of Riga allocated 3.5 ha of land on the former exhibition square for the celebrations of 1910 (the present-day area of Emiļa Melngaiļa and Hanzas Streets). For the first time in the Song Festival history a design competition was organised and the design by architect Ernests Pole was recognised to be the best among five submitted proposals.

The next – VI Latvian Nationwide Song Festival took place after a longer period of interruption of the cultural tradition. In 1926 the architect Pauls Kundziņš was entrusted with the elaboration of the design.
It is noteworthy that his designed stage in Esplanade was also an open-type structure. Starting from VII Song Festival the architect Aleksandrs Birzenieks set the trend: he designed three stages before the occupation of the Republic of Latvia (in 1931 and 1933 in Esplanade, in 1938 in Pārdaugava, Uzvaras Square) and for the first festival in Soviet Latvia.

Open-air stage in Mežaparks
Since 1955 song festivals have been held on the stationary Large or Song Festival Stage in Mežaparks – in people’s park the development of which coincided with the turn of the 20th century. In 1954 the design of the stage was elaborated in the Republican Project Institute: the name of the object: Stands with a Stage for Mass Events in Mežaparks Culture and Recreation Park, Construction programme – building volume 26 000 m3, users – 7000 choristers and 100 pairs of dancers, seats and standing rooms for 35 000 spectators, construction costs – 4.9 million roubles. Implementing ideas of the architect Vladimirs Šņitņikovs (born in Moscow), the stage was located orienting its longitudinal axis towards NW-SE. The oval shape of the audience area ensures optimal visibility and audibility. For easier access and evacuation it was divided into sectors with 1500-2000 spectators in each. The architect has chosen a trapezium-shape for the stage structure with side walls opening as a megaphone towards spectator area and shielded by a small roof. The choir stands on a slightly curved semicircle (97 meters) which makes conductor’s communication with singers easier. The carrying constructions of the structure – reinforced concrete and brick.

The completed project of the stage was criticised by the functionaries being in charge that time: it was time when Soviet architecture was facing changes that became effective in November 1955 when the decree On Liquidation of Excesses in Designing and Construction of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Council of Ministers of the USSR was published. During the preparation of the said decree the pompous and ostentatious architecture of Stalin’s baroque was severely criticised. Despite the critique the stage was built according to an unaltered design and it preserved its face of «parading architecture» typical of its time crowned by the sculptures of the sculptor Ļevs Bukovskis – they stood still in their places until the reconstruction of the stage in 1990.

In the 1970s the stage underwent capital repairs. The project was elaborated in 1972 in Latkomunprojekts by architect Ināra Caunīte. The upper level of the structure was re-planned for the needs of TV and radio, the facades got new windows, wooden covering in the left-wing tower was replaced with reinforced concrete. In 1990 the stage was reconstructed. The project was prepared in 1989 in Pilsētprojekts, authors – architects Andrejs Ģelzis and Juris Paegle, acoustics expert – Andris Zabrauskis. During the reconstruction side arches and the dance platform were demolished thus acquiring additional room and increasing the number of singers up to 15 000 participants. In order to compensate acoustically for the demolished side arches and the front of the stage, wooden shields were arranged at the sides. The requirement to expand the stage, which stemmed from the desire to gather in a single place Latvian choirs from all parts of the world, was met yet it caused problems. The concern of project developers about acoustic problems was justified and the Song Festival proved it.

In 2006 the Riga City Council made several attempts to obtain a good proposal for transformation of the Song Festival stage. The programme of the design competition, which was announced in spring, intended to pull down the side chorister stands built in 1990 and to construct new sound reflective walls on both sides of the stage. Only one proposal was submitted (design with the motto «db 208», authors – architects of the bureau «Brīnišķo projektu birojs») and it was decided to announce one more competition. It ended in December and only two proposals were submitted (the design with the motto «SK 777», authors – architects from the bureaux «8 a.m. » and «Lejnieku projektēšanas birojs»; and the design with the motto «DS 008», authors – architects of the bureau «Sarma&Norde»), which implied very drastic changes even demolition of the stage itself. The jury did not consider any of the proposals appropriate for further elaboration.

In the mid-2007 the Riga City Council announced a new – international – design competition. The competitors were expected to produce rational, structurally innovative and acoustically impeccable proposals for transformation of the stage what would include the roof with a system of acoustic elements, partial transformation of chorister stands, transformation of the spectator amphitheatre, construction of new stands at the rear part of the amphitheatre and installation of transformable spectator bench systems. Besides, one of the requirements specified that in the periods between song festivals, the complex should be used for various types of concerts and mass events with application of advanced audio and video technologies. From 17 submitted proposals with the mottoes «HH 424», «AO 888», «AT 231», «IV 108», «LV 440», «AY 117», «OA 021», «RA 235», «AK 789», «FK 144», «AA 000», «DZ 001», «MM 000», «DK 000», «CV 078», «AV 702», «LV 010» the jury selected the design developed under the guidance of Juris Poga as the best one. After the competition the architects from the bureau «Balta istaba» made their idea public.

Architects’ homage to the Latvian Song Festival
The edition Open-air Stage in Riga, Mežaparks presents all aforementioned designs of transformation of the open-air stage. The aim of this compilation is to revive some facts of construction history related to song festivals, to explain the processes of creation and transformation of the open-air stage in Mežaparks, to accumulate ideas generated by architects and other specialists as well as to facilitate decision-making based on ideas of heritability and succession and to maintain institutional memory. It is our – architects’ – homage to the Latvian Song Festival.

Zanda Redberga