LEARN TO FLY. Riga in the news then and now. Pt.1 - The Spilve airport

We begin this year by introducing another article series - comparing places and elements in Riga to what media were reflecting on them long time ago. Here is the first article of the series - dedicated to a long forgotten, but once the most important international airport in the Baltic states - Spilve.

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"Only a few years ago, when the first air traffic line was open through Riga, our air port in Spilve meadows was in a very poor condition. The aerodrome was not only small for larger planes, but also unfit in other ways - uneven and undrained. Beginning with 1928, there are great endeavour and resources put into our air port that have left a positive effect. The aerodrome is now diked, widened by two thirds and is now considered to be the best in the Baltic states. The wide hangars, oil and gasoline stations, goniometric station, convenient access roads and other amenities testifies that our air port advances toward the example of West Europe. Before long, a new modern building for the air port is scheduled. From 1924 to 1930 the number of passengers was very slight, but after 1930 it keeps on growing. In 1930 from Riga there were 662 passengers travelling, but in 1936 (not counting in December) there were 5608. The air planes are used by foreign diplomats the most, then higher country officials, merchants and manufacturers."
- "Jaunākās Ziņas" No.3, 5 January, 1937.
During the next year, after this article met its readers, the new airport headquarters (picture above) were erected, designed by Dāvids Zariņš, operating air-routes Riga - Vilnius - Warsaw, Riga - Tallinn - Helsinki, Riga - Kaunas - Moscow, and Riga - Kaunas - Berlin. The numbers of passengers vary from sources, but, before the territory was bombed in 1941 and again in 1944, statistics showed there could be more than 8000 people travelling from, to or through the Spilve airport in Central Northern Riga. Who would know then that today the new national airport, located West of Riga, would operate with around 7'000'000 passengers annually these days!

The old Spilve airport, on the other hand, has its own story that begins with its present looks acquired in 1954 until loosing international status in 1975 to the currently used Riga International Airport.

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Spilve (Riga) Airport in 1955 and in 2019.

In 1954, one year after the USSR leader Joseph Stalin's death, a new building for the airport was finished, still emphasizing policies and ideas the passing Soviet leader embodied during his leadership. Similar to the Latvian Academy of Sciences or VEF Culture Palace, the Spilve Airport was built, furnished and decorated in the style of social realism or the so-called Stalin's baroque - emphasizing the monumental and glorious classical architecture and including Soviet socialist ideals of that day tied together with local cultural and ethnic phenomena. In short - art should be national in its form and socialistic in its content.

Only some pictures portray the airport through the history. In fact, almost none were publicly depicting its interior; all this because of security reasons - strategic military objects, including bridges, any terminals and airports, and their details were strictly limited to photography.

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Spilve (Riga) Airport in 2019 and by the end of the 1950s.

Several elements stand out. At first, there were carpets in the airport designed and produced by multiple groups of enterprises, including the once famous and historical Obukhovo carpet complex just outside of Moscow. Its fame was underlined when weaving the carpet Yuri Gagarin walked on in Moscow two days after the first global manned flight into outer space in 1961.

At second, the wall murals in the airport are still the most mentionable masterpieces and at their best condition. The central fresco depicts cheering people in Latvian national costumes during the main procession of the nation-wide Song and Dance celebration, standing around a stairs by the waterfront of river Daugava. Its authors Elerts Treilons, Egons Cēsnieks and Mirdza Golde asked their friends and relatives to pose for the painting. They borrowed the Latvian national costumes from the Dailes theatre and padded them from the inside in order to make people look healthy, eaten and happy. The young child in the national costume as seen in the painting is Egons Cēsnieks’ daugther Nora Cēsneice.

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Although the central fresco was created in 1954, its Old Riga background panorama shows, among other spires, the St. Peter's church with a tower that was only rebuilt in 1973 after being bombed during the WWII. The painting also already showcases the Academy of Sciences to the right that, changing its purpose from collective farming to science after Stalin's death, will only be erected and finished in 5-years time.

After all, the airport might be blamed a bit for Jūrmala seaside resort town and the valley of the river Gauja in Sigulda town being extremely popular during the Soviet time and still today; especially if you represent visitors from post Soviet countries. If you fly in on an exclusive vacation or work trip from a mid-continent town or city, and the only "destination advertisement" you see are two side hall frescos with the beautiful, yellow-sanded beach and the lush Gauja valley - would you even resist going there?

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Fresco with a beach in Jūrmala (2011).

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Fresco with a bridge over river Gauja in Sigulda (2011).

After being closed to the public for decades, in the beginning of 2010s, and especially during the European Capital of Culture events in Riga in 2014, Spilve Airport seemingly gained its second breath. The media got flooded with pictures with the airport's magnificent blue ceiling and chandeliers, and it was announced the building will be turned into an Aviation museum. Large parts of interior were really renovated and filled with exhibits (including little planes) and historic equipment and design elements.

For a couple of years (since 2011/12) it would be announced that the airport will be open on weekends. A handful of aviation festivals would later take place (now annually), the space would be also open for free during the Museum night in May, several Soviet retro car parades would be organized, as well as a classical concert in 2014 related to the building's 60th birthday.

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In 2016, the airport, managed by a municipal agency "Rīgas Nami", was leased to a Russian company "Aerobig Plus" for 12 years. Since then the space has been closed to the public, unfairly leased to local entrepreneurs, while the renovation moves on slowly, sometimes its methods are questioned by designers, architects and inspecting officers. The field itself is also not yet certified, therefore it is more risky to take flights, activities are not covered by insurance, it is impossible dealing with requests from flight training, etc.
In 2018, a municipality created foundation named "Lidosta Spilve" was eliminated by the municipality itself for negligence only to be resurrected into another, similarly named, foundation in 20191.
Long story short - promises are not yet fulfilled. Although kept in quite passable conditions, the building and its complex sinks in oblivion while the surroundings, once supervised by a well known local gardener Kārlis Barons, grows into weed and hemp, and experiences old tire burnings. For now it seems that, if the "Lidosta Spilve" foundation is developed rightly, the airport will turn to full service of operating small air planes. Some are still dreaming of renovating the main part of landing-strip and then giving the other part of the 1000+ ha space to the community like it happened in Tempelhof, Berlin. This way or the other - the space will live on, but for what cost?

This article was born in collaboration with Ieva Laube.

1 Spilves lidosta: Skrejceļš būs, bet nav pārliecības par lidotājiem. lsm.