To see the city as a story

Sergej Timofejev


Conversation with architect Andis Sīlis in a 27th-floor flat

Andis Sīlis, one the best-known and recognised Latvian architects, believes that an environment that has taken decades or even centuries to form can never be surpassed by the genius of a starchitect. ‘There has not been a successful attempt anywhere in the world to create a pleasant environment in an area that has been developed all at the same time and in the same style. It is not a coincidence that we feel comfortable in the old town of any megapolis ‒ the architecture is packed with human events,’ he says.

My acquaintance with Andis Sīlis’ way of transforming space started at the Pulkvedim Neviens Neraksta (No One Writes to the Colonel) club that was, indeed, located in the Old Town of Riga, in Peldu Street ending right at the Daugava embankment. Commissioned by the owner of the club, businessman and DJ Miks Pētersons, the design of Pulkvedis (which is how the club was usually casually referred to) was created by Andis with Reinis Liepiņš in 1995. The club went on to operate without any radical transformations and under the same name until 2015. As strikingly described by Ilze Martinsone, ‘Pulkvedis was the first to dismantle a tough paradigm. No public space before it had dared to rummage in your soul, rattle against the cortex with deliberate well-aimed impulses ‒ old things and dilapidated walls, rhythmically dripping faucet, the shaky shadows of lampshades swaying in the draught ‒ and accept an individual’s right to loneliness, doom and sadness.’

Club 'No One Writes to the Colonel'. Entrance view. Photo:

I cannot say that for me personally it was a sorrowful space exactly, but, yes, it simply gave you the freedom to be whatever you felt like at the moment ‒ recklessly cheerful or stoically sad, welcoming you and catering to your emotional state of the day. Pulkvedis was followed by numerous various projects, from car dealers’ shops to private mansions; 2006 saw the name Andis Sīlis reach a new level of popularity, when the Sīlis, Zābers and

Kļava bureau headed by him won the draft design competition for an acoustic concert hall that was supposed to be constructed on the AB Dambis mole. The project was never realised, and the search for the perfect spot for said concert hall is still going on. Meanwhile another project was completed nearby, close to the bank of Daugava River: the Z-Towers, twin cylindric high-rises the countless cells of their windows futuristically reflecting sunlight in the skyline of the city. This ambitious complex, designed by the German-American architect Helmut Jahn, sparked a lot of debate; however, it seems that residents of Riga are gradually starting to get used to its presence. Andis Sīlis undertook the task of developing the interior solutions of the Z-Towers and the surrounding area. He designed and decorated a demo flat on the 27th floor of one of the twin towers, which is where he lives now; the windows of its living room open to a cityscape starting from the Swedbank building and including the Old Town of Riga and the port, as well as a string of other districts of Riga.  

This is where we spoke, attempting to take a bird’s-eye view of the problems and narratives of the architecture around us, in other words ‒ look at them from a distance that takes into consideration more than just today’s conventions and fads.

Photo: Reinis Blūms

During the last year, all of us, ‘locked down’ in our cities, wandered a lot around them; we did a lot of walking. Even familiar routes revealed themselves in a somewhat different light. I had this acute sense of the architecture of the city talking to me, telling me something, conveying something... You must be perceiving and sensing this narrative in a particularly intense way. Have you had this ability since childhood or is it the result of learning and practice?

I must say that I was generally a somewhat uneducated blockhead as a child, and even at school I did not give much thought to choosing a profession or anything along these lines. The only thing was that my mum noticed me taking an interest in drawing at quite an early age; I really loved it. Also, I have been told that I was asked at the kindergarten what I wanted to be when I grew up; allegedly, I said ‒ a builder. Although it is not quite the same thing.

Even at the institute I did not have a particularly good understanding of what architecture really was about. Although I was a student at the corresponding faculty of Riga Polytechnic Institute. It is only as you start doing things yourself, with your own hands or imagination, that you start more or less understanding what is it that you are trying to achieve and how your efforts will then be interpreted by the people using the urban environment. At that, the older you become, the more you notice ‒ not just in architecture but also in any other creative areas ‒ a certain gap between the author’s idea and the way the viewer or user ‒ in our case, the city-dweller ‒ perceives it. Someone who does not spend much time contemplating architecture but is nevertheless influenced by it unconsciously.

These days there is a lot of talk in architecture about this thing. Some 50‒70 years ago, the dominant view was quite a modernist one: the architect had a better understanding of what was better for you, ordinary residents, and in what kind of environment you should spend your time. Which forms you would view as good or bad. Whereas today this approach has shifted toward a completely different concept, namely, that the architect should listen to the people living in the suburbs or a particular neighbourhood and try to understand their sense of their surroundings ‒ so as not to disrupt this sense, this genius loci, with his or her formal intervention.

Architects Andis Sīlis, Pēteris Kļava, Guntis Ziņģis. Extension of the Art Academy of Latvia. 2012. Photo:

But genius loci is also a story, a certain narrative... Moreover, if we look at the history of Riga ‒ let’s take, for example, the famous Art Nouveau buildings: I would say that they are an intersection of two stories, one of which is told by the architect, the other ‒ by his client, the owner. All these monograms with their initials, the masonic symbols, mottos...

That depends on the level of perception of each individual person. The architect, of course, is only a part of the process; he or she cannot control everything. Right now, we are sitting here inside these high-rise twin towers that can also be viewed as a manifestation of the investor’s ambitions. Just like any building erected back in the times when commercial development was not as popular as today... There is a famous house in Čaka Street bearing the legend ‘My house is my castle”. Surely it was not the architect that came up with it. It was the client or the investor, or the developer who wanted to leave behind something of value. I also have some clients who are aware of their responsibility: they will be gone at some point, but the house will still be standing. However, it is by far not the most popular view these days.

The largest investors in Riga today are Lithuanians, and their approach is purely commercial; they are interested in ‘square dollars’, not in what will remain when they are gone. Under these hard conditions, it is very difficult for the architect to leave his mark on the result. Few people think about the quality of the environment they are creating. But the ones that do – they are the winners in a long-term context, and the city benefits alongside them.

House on 26 Čaka Street bearing the legend ‘My house is my castle” was built in 1905 (architects Konstantīns Pēkšēns and Eižens Laube)

If the message a hundred years ago was ‘My house is my castle’, perhaps there is a contemporary one today, one that fits the Zeitgeist of this era?

The question is ‒ what is contemporary? As recently as 20‒10 years ago, the so-called starchitects ruled supreme. Everybody did their best to come up with the most innovative and fancy forms to stand out among the rest. Today we view these things in a somewhat different light. And if there really is a message, it is something completely opposite to the modernist mindset. It could rather be defined as ‘I fit in’, ‘I am not sticking out’. A certain Scandi-Nordic approach is emerging as the dominant one. Being bizarre, standing out against the general background ‒ it is perceived as somewhat improper. And most architectural awards of the last decade or so clearly indicate this shift of paradigms; the emphasis is on sustainability, on ‘green thinking’. It is the future, and architects are the people who cotton on to these things faster than anybody else.

We are all using second-hand resources more actively. And today, when I am thinking about a specific project, I must consider the possibility that the function of the building can change; perhaps a new pandemic will make it necessary to use it in a different way ‒ will it be possible? It used to be the other way round: a concert hall must look like a concert hall... insert any other typology. Today, the emphasis is on reusing, on using locally sourced materials and green technologies. So the message has indeed changed.

It seems then that the more potential ‘stories’ or ‘narratives’ can be packed into a new building, the better it is?

Stories and narratives ‒ these things have more to do with the modernist mindset. I used to like making buildings with their own stories as well ‒ with metaphors, formal associations of their own. After all, the more associations are evoked by art and architecture, the better ‒ or so it would seem. However, ‘green thinking’ relies on very practical and rational solutions. As for me personally, this approach is not very close to my heart; it seems to me that architecture today is losing its poetic element. Because all this rationality leads us back to equidistantly spaced columns that must not be either too large or too small. Boxes, boxes, boxes. It is, after all, a very practical approach to using materials and space. Once again, we are dealing with the extreme sameness of all new architecture.

However, the investors that approach me are the ones that want something more than mere rationality. A psychopathic desire to save on something while simultaneously also being super green has led to a situation where ‘ideological square metres’ are being constructed once again. What I would like to do is, ideally, making something that is, of course, rational but also a bit weird in the nicest possible way ‒ that would make people wonder: ‘But why is this building like this?’ And that would start a whole chain of thoughts.

Architects Andis Sīlis, Pēteris Kļava, Ivars Briedis. Building complex / Ikšķiles street, Jūrmala. 2014. Photo:

The way it is with a painting perhaps...

Yes, there should be a subtext of sorts. Otherwise, you would simply pass by... On the whole, if a building is not getting on your nerves to such an extent that you start noticing it, things are not so bad. And yet it is better if you walk by, see it and start thinking. You read the formal solution, start reflecting on it and then suddenly it dawns on you: ‘Yes!’ It is a very positive emotion.

So it is the form of the building that should motivate you to embark on these reflections... Or perhaps the ‘legend’ is also important? Let’s take the Tal Residence that was built in Riga not so long ago, linking the building to the name of the great chess player Mikhail Tal, who was from Riga.

Yes, we do have a number of investors here in Riga who always make an effort to create an additional verbal legend as well. Personally, I do not believe in these things, because a normal person does not take it in. Anyway, it is debatable: how much does a text or explanation help a picture? I still think that a picture should leave an emotional and intellectual impact without additional explanations. Loading architecture with all sorts of stories about philosophers or chess players ‒ that is not my way.

Perhaps it is intended to appeal to clients from Russia, where verbal stories are traditionally important?

I think that it has nothing to do with Russia; it is simply a PR strategy. Because everybody is basically saying the same thing over and over again: the perfect materials, perfect planning, perfect solutions, everything is perfect, perfect... ‘We only use the best!’ And in this relentless advertising diarrhoea, those who have come up with this additional story seem to have an advantage, a selling point.

About this desire to tell your story through form ‒ is it born of you wanting to create, build something (remember, you mentioned your childhood dream of becoming a builder) or of some kind of particular feel for spatiality? Because, when you enter a space of some sort, you do perceive it in a totally different way than the rest of us, right?

One hundred percent. But then again, it is the same in every profession: you simply develop your kind of professional cretinism over the years… I did not even know the word ‘architecture’; my mum is a physicist and my dad ‒ an engineer. And there was no conscious opportunity for this way of thinking. But today, 25 years later, I am able to calculate how you will see the space that I am creating. If a space is correctly designed, you won’t even consider any kind of functional questions like where the staircase is, where the bathroom is and so on. And you don’t feel ‘small’ within this space, and you are not confused by a cacophony of forms. The rules of harmony are quite ancient. Although there is the question as to the degree to which these things can be objectively calculated. After these 25 years of my career, I know of at least ten different parameters that must be taken into account for the space to be perceived as harmonious.

The visualization/sketch of the concert hall project on the AB dam by Andis Sīlis was recognized as the best in the international competition in 2006.

Have you ever visited a space that was absolutely perfect for you?

You know what, the things that work for many people does not work for me. Neither fjords nor waterfalls (i.e., absolutely natural environment) make me happy. Due to the fact that I have studied form on a somewhat advanced level, what I see in them is fractal geometry, which is quite universal. If there is no human presence, no artefact which would add something to that, I really am not moved by it.

What I love is to see is how, for instance, French architecture or something like that is interpreted somewhere in the outback of China or in Luang Phabang. I am no longer interested in classical European architecture; I have seen my fill of it. But the ways in which it is transformed in this local context ‒ now, that I find very intriguing.  

But the first time ever I was literally gobsmacked by a completely unreal experience of space was quite a long time ago, in Japan, in several buildings designed by Tadao Ando. I realised that what I had seen in the photos and construction plans did not in any way convey the reality of these buildings. Because space has been manipulated in such an exciting way in these structures that it is impossible to show in a photograph. This is the kind of space I would call ‘perfect’.

How do you experience Riga in this respect ‒ with its layers of eras and styles? What is the space of Riga like for you?

Objectively speaking, Riga cannot boast buildings that would belong in the Top100 of world architecture. On the other hand, I cannot imagine living in any other city, because I am so used to the compactness of Riga. The medieval core of the city with the addition of the boulevard ring ‒ it is all very close and easy to reach; there is a lot of greenery; the scale is very good. I definitely would not want to live in another city. I have travelled a lot, but it is only when I come back to Riga that I feel I am somewhere I really want to be.

Did the city grow this way naturally or following a premeditated plan?

It was a genius solution ‒ creating a green ring with a canal around the Old Town. And during the Art Nouveau era Riga was undergoing a natural, very fast, almost aggressive development. And that is how the so-called ‘quiet centre’ came to be.

But it was nevertheless a controlled process. There was this wonderful law that a cornice of a building must not be taller than 21.3 metres. For this reason, the city centre of Riga is not taller than said mark. It is quite a unique law of urban planning. It is still effective today with a single amendment that says that if a building has a roof superstructure, a mansard or something like that, its highest point should still not be taller than 24 metres. The law was not very much observed during the Soviet years, which is why we have the Latvija Hotel (now ‒ Radisson Blu Latvija) and Rīgas Modes buildings that do not fit into the general panorama of the city.

Andis Sīlis, Linda Leitāne. Forum in Nur-Sultan/Astana. 2017. Sketch:

Would you personally find it interesting to move on from individual project to designing a whole neighbourhood?

I have recently designed about 6 million square metres in Kazakhstan, in Nur-Sultan/Astana. I am working on a completely different scale there. If we wanted to compare, it would be similar to the area of the whole UNESCO-protected city centre of Riga ‒ that kind of ‘neighbourhood’. The city is surrounded by a steppe; there is a lot of space, and during these last four years we have been commissioned to design architectural conceptions along these lines from time to time. But the whole this approach, this ‘Oriental mentality’, is, of course, somewhat specific. We tell them that pedestrians matter and that bike paths are important, to which their answer is: ‘The temperature here is ‒25° C in winter ‒ what bike paths? Stop talking nonsense.’ So there is a certain battle going on, but on the whole they do take heed of what we are saying. We have this great opportunity to propose a Western know-how for Eastern conditions.

Have you worked on any projects abroad that are important for you?

I designed a couple of projects in Moscow, but I did not enjoy working there: you have to spend 3‒4 hours in a traffic jam to get from place to place. The workers take a look at your designs and proceed to do everything the other way round. You spend a lot of energy and time, but result... In this respect, certain craft traditions have somehow been preserved in Riga. Hence a different quality of construction work.

Because craftsmen played an enormous role in the fantastically rapid growth of Riga a hundred years ago. The architect made a watercolour of the façade, a sectional watercolour, a floor plan watercolour, and all the actual Art Nouveau or Eclecticist façades were the handiwork of the local craftsmen who knew exactly how to make them.

Why was it that Modernism met with such a strong opposition in its time all over the world? Because the hands of the craftsman lost their significance in Modernism. As soon as this element is lost, you also lose the soul in architecture.

The painting of Ģirts Muižnieks in the interior of Andis Sīlis apartment. Photo: Reinis Blūms

You said that you were inspired not by natural objects but by various man-made artefacts. That probably includes art? How important is art in your life?

Simply saying that it is very important means saying nothing. Why, if you do the kind of things that I do, you actually try to squeeze something creative out of yourself ‒ which is quite hard, because in your normal state you simply produce something of good quality, something professional. But people often come to me and ask me to ‘come up with something that does not exist anywhere in the world’. And that’s a horrible job, right? Considering how jaded, how over-satiated we already are with all kinds of ‘creative stuff’. On the whole, I have noticed that you really have to take yourself to this particular state where this spark is born in you and you can think of something worthwhile. You must somehow incite your imagination. There are several ways of achieving that, and one of the most reliable methods is viewing art or listening to the kind of music that knocks you out of your state of normality. Therefore ‒ yes, art can be a powerful source of inspiration.

On the other hand, I am generally a very urban kind of person. I can view everything the locals have come up with over the course of a couple of centuries from this 27th-floor room. And it is interesting... from this long-term perspective. Living in the city in a flat with tiny windows does not appeal to me: all you see is the adjacent façade or a tree, or a street. Whereas, if you have this opportunity to see what ships are currently moored at the anchorage, how the sunset changes with the weather, the course of the four seasons within the urban context... I find it very inspiring as well ‒ seeing that it is raining in Ķengarags while the sun is already shining in Bolderāja; seeing the actual scale of the Old Town. Each place I have ever lived in was better than the previous one. And I have lived in a panel building and in a flat in a National Romantic style house in Brīvības Street. And now I finally feel good: the space I live in was created by me and I have made it just the way I wanted it. And a significant part of this environment is art. Because the paintings on my walls are the kind that do not become boring; they are so ambiguous that I can look at them for 25 years and still see something new in them in the light of a particularly unique sunset. They have become part of my environment. I have moved a number of times in my life, and I cannot imagine moving to a new place without taking several key paintings with me. They create the unique ambience of my home, my personal space.

So the two halves of your world here are the city as a picture and pictures as a sign of your personal space. What are these paintings ‒ are they by Latvian artists?

Yes, they are all by our local geniuses. (Laughs)

The work of Kristaps Ģelzis in Andis Sīlis' apartment. Photo: Reinis Blūms

Are you personally acquainted with the authors?

Yes, of course. And not a single picture has appeared here by accident. Sometimes, when I design a private house or a flat for a client, I ask them: ‘Do you have any books?’ No. ‘And where do you want to hang your pictures?’ Pictures ‒ what pictures?! We’ll buy something.

Which one of the pictures have been with you the longest?

Rūdolfs Pinnis... I studied architecture with his grandson, and when I was getting married, he asked me to choose our wedding present, one of three paintings by his granddad. I picked this one and I still feel really happy about it, because it is not a classic landscapey Rūdolfs Pinnis; the picture is very abstract, and it is such a complex combination of colours and shapes that I still look at it and wonder what was happening to him at the time. I know for a fact that he did not use any hallucinogenic substances. How on earth did he manage to create this?

The painting of Rūdolfs Pinnis in the interior of Andis Sīlis' apartment. Photo: Reinis Blūms

You find non-figurative painting more interesting?

I do not have these preferences. The main thing for me is that a picture is a specific object that is cut out of the reality and contains within itself so many different meanings that, whenever you view it from a new angle or in a new mood, you read something different in it: ‘Gosh, I never knew there was this in it as well!’ And it is exactly this aspect that I find so pleasing ‒ that this piece is ambiguous and, combined with my perception that changes all the time, it is capable of generating new meanings.

Returning to the city you are viewing now from the heights of the 27th floor... It seems to me that all kinds of half-erased ‒ or the exact opposite, incomplete ‒ stories are still a characteristic feature of Riga. Something is going away for good ‒ or, in some cases, becoming invisible ‒ all the time, leaving behind some gaping holes. For some time now, a debate has been raging over the fate of the mid-1970s building at 2 Elizabetes Street, formerly ‒ the headquarters of the Central Committee of LKP that became the Riga World Trading Centre in the 1990s. We are being gradually prepared for the fact that the building might at some point disappear and be replaced by a national acoustic concert hall.  To what extent are we being subjective in the way we evaluate architecture today? To what extent are we viewing it from the perspective of today and to what extent ‒ from the perspective of a more extensive time span?

There was a time when I was involved in the work on the development plan of Riga, and we were looking at as much as three neighbourhoods which would feature twenty-, thirty and forty-storey buildings. We still believed back then that Riga was definitely on its way to become the Baltic metropolis, that there would be some wild development going on here and we would be needing a couple of million additional square metres. But everything changed: the population of Riga is decreasing instead of increasing to date; perhaps things will be different at some point in the future... On the whole, I look at these things from the perspective of urban development: a mistake has been made here; we have done something right there; we should make some changes over there. It is an outlook informed by my profession.

Regarding the way we currently look at the building at 2 Elizabetes Street ‒ obviously, it has not yet reached an age old enough for everybody to realise that it is valuable. A little more time is required for that. However, I think that we will still manage to save it: I don’t believe anyone will really feel like tearing it down after all these protests.

And yet the building is officially out of operation as of 1 April 2021...

Never mind. I believe it is just politics. I really don’t believe that our decision makers would be arrogant enough to stupidly demolish the building without actually replacing it by a concert hall. The thing is, there is not enough space for a concert hall there. It would mean compromise upon compromise. And that is why I think that ultimately common sense will prevail. A month ago, this year’s winner of the world’s most prestigious prize for architecture, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, was announced. It went to Lacaton & Vassal, a duo of architects known for their unpretentious low-key designs. Their key concept is reuse, preserving yet transforming and renovating the technical parameters and functions. And if this harsh decision is nevertheless made in Riga, contrary to all the current international trends, it will definitely spark outrage.

A couple of years ago in Catalonia I happened to perform at a cultural centre housed in a building that was a converted former slaughterhouse. They even had this giant mural dedicated to all the animals who had lost their lives there. And I must say the architects had managed to transform the nature of the building, its general feel radically, while still preserving its backbone.

I am usually very impressed when I see (as often as not ‒ in Europe) that there is a façade... That there is a building that was erected some 400 years ago with an appearance typical of the age; then the owners have changed, its functions have changed ‒ an arch has been walled up, a window has been installed. As a result, the building looks so ‘delicious’, despite the fact that formally there is really nothing special about it. It’s just that over the 400 years of its existence the building has changed ten owners and the façade has also been changed five times, and the resulting feeling is that ‒ yes, it is very beautiful. Because here they have not demolished the old building and built a new one; it is the very structure that has transformed with each new generation. And due to these changes and the time that has passed, the architecture accidently, on its own, has grown into something so individual that you could not come up with it if you were high as a kite on mushrooms.

Do you believe that the same could be done with modernist buildings, which are visually quite severe-looking?

Yes, there are some good examples. To be honest, there is just a single problem with the building at 2 Elizabetes Street ‒ there is simply not enough money. Because, by and large, everybody understands in this country that Modernism was a huge era and there is very little left that was created by the local architects of the time. And that, if not today, in 30‒50 years it is going to be a thing of great value. But it will cost fucking 30 million to knock this building into shape, and nobody has these 30 million right now. And that’s the only problem.

Has there been a building in Riga which is no longer here and which you miss?

What was the name of that café… Flora, I think. Near the corner of Brīvības and Dzirnavu streets there used to be a beautiful wooden building that was demolished. And now there is a simple hole. It was beautiful in its own right. Incidentally, many people protested against the demolition back then. It’s a shame.

Because here’s the thing. For instance, in Berlin there is Potsdamer Platz. It is a huge space, a giant area of urban environment, but it is... flavourless. Why? Because that is what happens if you try to build a lot of buildings at the same time, in the same style, with the same materials and ‒ more or less ‒ the same formal solutions, although seven or eight famous architects were actually involved in the process: it is impossible to create a ‘delicious’ environment artificially. And it is precisely for this reason that everything we manage to preserve will sooner or later become a special morsel of flavour. Because thinking up a good environment from scratch ‒ people have been trying to do that all over the world. The number of successful examples is zero point one percent.

Café "Flora" (on the left side) on the Brīvības street

What kind of project would you find interesting to design in the foreseeable future?

A church!

Right, I was going to ask you about that… 

The problem is that our government and our capital are unable to invest purposefully in the construction of cultural buildings. Because a cultural building usually becomes the quintessence of all the architectural ideas of the moment. Fine, so we have the National Library and there are a couple of similar structures elsewhere in the country. In normal countries these things are done methodically, systematically, because there is a budget allocated for that. And there is a long-term benefit in that ‒ because it is not just for show; it is also both the infrastructure and the ideological manifesto of the city and the country. Of course I would find it very interesting to design something like that.

But since I understand that miracles do not exist in the realm of budgets, it would seem much more realistic to hope to design a small church or a chapel. And the approach could be quite conservative at that, because I don’t like it when churches have this ultra-modern look. Because we are dealing with something much more long-term than that, and conceptually it is at another level altogether. How do you solve this problem – how do you make it obvious both that the building was constructed in the 21st century and that it speaks about the eternal:  now that’s an exciting problem.

Photo: Reinis Blūms

I live in Ģertrūdes Street with the St Gertrude Church as its point of departure. And the presence of this vertical it is very important for me, although I do not necessarily attend the services there.

I have seen a number of recently built churches in Riga, and every time my reaction was: ‘Why, oh why?’ They are not even clumsy; as an architect, I find it unpleasant to look at them. They do not add anything to the environment; they do not express the spiritual essence of their denomination.

What kind of church would you build? A small one?

On the whole, yes ‒ I would rather choose a smaller than a larger one. A small one that would speak about the eternal in an intense way. Something that would serve as a uniting element both for the churchgoers and those who… do give a damn.