The Castle of Light

How the building of a new national library in Latvia helps integration
Since Latvia regained her independence in 1991, the tense relationship between Latvians and ethnic Russian inhabitants has been the most important issue in the process of building a new nation. Integration has gone slowly, but the building of a new national library – the Castle of Light it is called – might speed up the process.

Illustrations by Gunars Birkert

“The new library as it is planned would give our society more balance”, says Martins Vanags, a brilliant young academic from Riga. He is referring to the biggest construction project within the public sector in modern Latvian history. The project has been surrounded by accusations of corruption, but public opinion is in favour of a new library – despite the threat of higher electricity taxes.

A bleak morning in Riga, the cloakroom is crowded with students in the old Latvian national library in Krisjana Barona street. Christmas rush at Marks & Spencer is nothing compared to the chaos here, on the eroded staircase leading to catalogue rooms and reference halls. The clientele is young. 83 per cent of the users are matriculated at Riga’s universities and colleges. Once in the 1930’s – during Latvia’s first republican era as Riga turned into an economical and cultural boom town – this was an excellent library. Now, the library building kneels under its overload of books. The collections are scattered on various addresses on both sides of the Daugava, the river that flows through the Latvian capital.Wandering through the library’s back office area, right angles between floor and ceiling are uneasy to detect. Generally, door sills are displaced and doors impossible to close. In one office the ceiling is on its way down, in the next-door room the janitor is painting a skirting board, a logic ranking in order of priority if you have run out of mortar but still possess some paint.

The planning of a modern national library has reached an advanced stage. The Latvian parliament – the Saeima – has approved the project. A site measuring nine acres on the western riverbank has been parcelled out for the purpose. Architect Gunars Birkerts’ drawings and models lead one to expect a monumental modernistic building, a 196 metre long body on which the rocky roof reaches its highest point at 66 metres. An indoor space of 210,000 cubic metres will house some 1,000 readers and 6.5 mil. volumes of books. Birkerts has named the project Gaismaspils – The Castle of Light. The name originates from the legend where a Castle of Light sank to the bottom of a lake. A prophecy tells that one day a great son of Latvia will rebuild this castle symbolising freedom, culture and education.

All Latvian governments since 1991 have been enthusiastic about the project. However, little was done before Andris Skele (who then led The Peoples Party) became prime minister. Skele suggested financing through an increase in electricity taxes, only to trigger a storm of popular protest that lulled after unexpected support from Kirovs Lipmans, the MD of Lieapjas Metalurgs – the country’s most energyconsuming industry. This and earnings from selling off the state’s shipping company will cover about 70 per cent of the estimated costs. The remaining 30 per cent is left to international contributors to cover. To some extent costs will hopefully be reduced through favourable contracts concerning technology.

The accusations of corruption come as no surpise. It is generally presumed that Latvian contractors have paid MPs to vote against giving the main contract to the company Hill International, this out of fear that Hill will outsource to foreign companies only.

Today Riga’s economy is booming again. Yet many Latvians are quite poor and quite a few doubt this is the right time for major investments. A majority of the population, though, is in favour of building the Castle of Light. Talking to library people in Riga I learn that this positive mood is very much due to former director of the support committee Martin Vanags’ work. Over a cup of espresso at the Riga Café D’artagnan Martins Vanags proves to be a young and eloquent musketeer of the library cause. He was twenty-four when he took charge of the library campaign. Not only did he convince the political establishment, Vanags also won young people’s hearts through a carefully planned war of aggression via networking, chats, SMS and student’s nights. The finest moment of the campaign was a torchlight procession through the streets of Riga, streaming like glowing lava over the October bridge onward to the library site.

And what is your driving force? I ask Vanags.

“The enjoyment of new creation is one factor.My project is part of the building of a new Latvia, and one important goal is to achieve fraternisation between different groups in our country.”

And what is your message to people, living somewhere on the Latgalian plain. How will they benefit from the Castle of Light?

“Evidently, a new national library will connect Riga and the districts. Boundaries between rich and poor become irrelevant for the access of information when this is secured on a national level.”

But do your parliamentarians listen to social arguments?

“Well, honestly, to our MPs the crucial matter is whether an updated national library can strengthen our country’s competitiveness or contribute to making our economy more dynamic, and they believe Latvia needs to build a new pumping-station in the flow of information.”

Have you booked the opening day?

“Not really, but I believe the opening will take place in 2006 – at the earliest. But nothing is finished before it all is finished. It all remains to be built.”