METRO HAS NO FUTURE, BUT METRO IS THE ANSWER. An essay on a never built undeground.

Riga Photomonth 2019 is at its full bloom. There are 15(!) venues full with exhibitions by international artists, and one of the venues filled with content created by Eva Saukāne (LV) is also supported by CAPITAL R. It's a solo exhibition at the humble Latvian Museum of Architecture, and it plays upon the relics of history and creations of today related only to one subject - the never build Riga Metro.

Before you visit the exhibition as well as other venues the next following month - have a read of this another special contribution CAPITAL R has provided to Riga Photomonth's yearbook. From the biggest geeks of Metro history in Riga - here is an essay on why metro sucks, but the concept of metro vanquishes!
rīgas metro, capital r, riga, 2019, drawing
25 years had passed since the negative decision about the Riga Metro was made (and the city completely handed over to motorists), when in 2014 — ​in the context of the 14th Venice Biennial of Architecture — ​intense discussions about Soviet modernism resumed in Latvia. In the same year and in the same context, in cooperation with Rīgas pilsētas arhitekta birojs (Riga City Architect’s Office), I presented my first lecture on the history, development and decline of the Riga Metro. The subject was uncomfortable enough to assume - the presentation might most likely be the last one, too.

However, I am not afraid of inconvenience, and plan to carry out this study more scrupulously, even to overturn my initial assumptions, in order for the outcome to result in a book. Nothing really suggested that the Riga Metro phantom would stop boiling for the next five years, and the interest of society, media, and even city planners and politicians only increased.

At first, I created a Riga Metro atlas, or an expedition cycle, involving tourism and urbanism. Then in 2017, a variety of TV programmes showed a great interest in the metro story. Last year, perhaps in the context of elections, the ghost of the metro was revived individually again by politicians, few video artists and city planners. This year, Riga Photomonth is featuring Eva Saukāne’s full solo exhibition "Mets".

At the "Mets" exhibition (Eva Saukāne; 2019).

Although many people regard the idea of a metro in Riga to be utopian, this will end when the number of Riga’s inhabitants rises to one million again (if it happens at all); certainly, we can be sure that the idea of the metro as an abstract city network in Riga will never be dead. Acting very rationally and impartially, we can ‘re-map’ the usefulness of a once so grandiose architectural object by closing the doors to the underground and post-Soviet feeling, and by opening the doors to tourism, urban planning, urban exploring and art disciplines, as well as other innovative concepts.

Perhaps this is the reason for people’s interest in the concept of the metro system—history is one factor, but the immaterial usefulness of this system in urban life per se is something else. Riga is territorially big enough for a man to crave some practical cobweb, not necessarily aimed at the needs of transportation.
District regionalism appears to be a term for everything that is currently happening not only in Riga, but in many other cities, especially in Europe. It is the tendency to move away from the centre, but to maintain high standards of access, as well as living and household conditions.
A couple of years ago, this is what I meant when I proposed a refreshing and sustainable method of developing factors such as tourism, culture, urban planning, etc. — ​a definition1 derived from a poorly used economic term that, like classical regionalism at the state level, motivates cities to change the areas that they have declared as disadvantaged. To develop the economic, political, social and cultural processes and guidelines of each neighbourhood in order to position the neighbourhood as independent, valuable and high-quality in the market, deforming the centres of power and wealth (Old Riga and the city centre) and balancing the importance of the city as a whole.

It is surprising, but the term is rarely used in urban processes, although its constellation would positively contribute to the development of cultural, business, household and tourism flows. There are already many examples of it, for example, in Avotu Street as the most vivid example of central regionalism, as well as in Āgenskalns, Sarkandaugava, Lucavsala, Grīziņkalns and the VEF area.

rīgas metro ekspedīcija, rīga, mārtiņš eņģelis, capital r
"Riga Metro Expeditions". 3 routes, each 23 - 30 km walk (2016).

The metro could be reborn in a variety of ways to promote the regional policy of neighbourhoods in Riga and the development, visibility, and popularity of urban neighbourhoods. It can be implemented as a platform for various ideas, such as artwork (urban installation, field art examples), physical activities, city tours or urban research routes, since elsewhere in the world the metro often serves as an excellent tool to explore a city. It’s quick, understandable, concrete and spacious.

Unfortunately, several opinion leaders of Soviet times, such as Voldemārs Šusts, evaluated the interiors of the stations in the 1983 metro stop contest and particularly highlighted the fact that the metro in its essence must be nothing more than a pass-through ‘non-place’ without added value, as described by the anthropologist Marc Augé, a place that cannot be defined as rational or historical or associated with identity2:
“Saturation with works of art at metro stations can’t become a typical phenomenon, they’re not the places where a person needs to be invited to stop and spend some time”.3 
It is only logical nowadays that the metro, like any large public structure, has the right to become an object of exploration and sight-viewing. It has long been known that underground stations are often perceived as independent, diverse cross-cultural ‘real-time museums’ as demonstrated by, for example, Stockholm or Moscow. Consequently, the value factor is intrinsic to the metro.

Officially accepted metro station sketches as "inhabited" by Eva Saukāne (scan 1983; lightbox 2019).

However, this might explain why the older generation associates any idea related to the metro with something ugly, brutal, political and Soviet. In the meantime, the younger generation, which uses cities intensively, is interested in the revaluing and regeneration of such forgotten, historically, politically, stereotypically or socially unacceptable urban spaces.

A supermodern reincarnation of such an example of industrial heritage in Riga (looking for the positive within the negative) would be a similar step as in Berlin (Mauerweg), Paris (Le Petite Ceinture), New York (The High Line) and elsewhere, where abandoned or unpleasant ideas and places successfully get a second chance, thereby also affecting the psyche of city dwellers and their guests.

metro mītiņš, arkādija parks, 1988, rīga
Anti-metro demonstration. Riga (Ints kalniņš; 1988).

At the moment, the metro in any culturally artistic urban form is one of the most progressive and practical projects for the revitalization of Riga’s neighbourhoods and marketing the city’s unity and brand, and its revitalisation seems vital. Most importantly, nothing needs to be built; instead just raise the level of consciousness and imagination.

The metro transformations would fundamentally support the ideas of district regionalism and incorporate both the desire to explore the city and assess its history, as well as the opportunity to meet people and to express oneself creatively, and to give/recover added value to forgotten projects in order to finally change perceptions and policies about Riga and its neighbourhoods in general.

As it turns out, in the 1980s work at the gathering epicentres of the future population was started very productively. Now at least one third of the sites of the once planned stations and already half of the first planned Riga Metro line Imanta–Jugla are occupied by Rimi supermarkets.

Text by Mārtiņš Eņģelis.
Composed exclusively for Riga Photomonth 2019.
Translation by Laine Kristberga.


Find: all info about the event can be found on Riga Photomonth web page.
When: most exhibitions are open until mid-June with few exceptions being closed earlier and later.
Where: the venues are relatively central and easily accessible by bike or public transport. Take a train to visit Dubulti Art Station.
How much: the admission in all exhibitions is free of charge.

1 District Regionalism
2Marc Augé. Non-Places: Introduction to an An-thropology of Supermodernity. London & New York: Verso, 1995. P. 77.
3Voldemārs Šusts. Ieceres par nākotni. Māksla (Nr. 3.) 1. jūl. 1983. 18. lpp.