Day centre, Riga
RIGA (LV) - The architects of Lejnieku projektēšanas birojs and 8 a.m. have created a centre of optimism for Riga's homeless.
A day centre for homeless and low-income people springs an architectural and functional surprise in financial crisis-stricken Riga. While its function may seem straightforward, the people it serves have complicated lives and histories; the box is in fact simple, but looks as complicated as the needs it is called upon to meet.
During the last few years, homelessness in Riga has been growing, and now affects several hundred people. With it has grown the need for a place where these people can spend the daylight hours instead of just walking the streets. There were already several municipal night centres for the homeless, mostly in converted buildings. But because of the specific programme, a new building had to be constructed for the day centre. A small plot near the city centre and just behind the railway line (in a quiet, but developing part of one of the most depressed areas of the city) was chosen. The idea was to provide basic services and cultural activities for some 100 homeless and low-income people a day, and to help them to integrate back into society. The municipal project was driven by dedicated social workers that were more than happy when a young architectural practice applied for the job, and proceeded put all their heart into the design proposal. One has to remember that the construction boom was still going in 2008 and most architects were too busy with commercial clients to bother lining up for low-budget municipal projects.
The low budget and the narrow site called for a correspondingly low-cost and compact solution. However, the architects also wanted to find a shape that would convey a sense of hope and a better future. As Mikus Lejnieks, the chief architect, pointed out, even if most of the people visiting the building do not currently have a home of their own, in this building they might at least have a window of their own. This initial inspiring idea led the young architects to design dynamic elevations with a random distribution of windows in three different sizes.
The compact, three-storey building combines basic services with cultural activities. The ground floor houses the most basic functions – showers, toilets, doctor's room, canteen and storage/issuing of donated clothes. The first floor is designated for individual activities like Internet access, rooms for meetings with social workers, and a TV-room. A library and a large room for group activities together with two smaller (handicraft and needlework) rooms are on the top floor of the building. All floors are accessible for disabled people, and there is a small garden with benches in the courtyard behind the building, too.
The building simply follows the contours of the plot. The artistic expression of the reinforced concrete structure is achieved through the playful arrangement of the windows and the finishing of facades. All of these – four elevations and the roof – are clad in tin sheeting, which was chosen for its durability and easy maintenance; the tight budget did not allow for steel sheeting which might have been smoother and easier to install. The sheets are applied in two directions – vertical and oblique – creating a diagonal line across the facades where the two directions meet. This simple, but powerful solution creates an unexpectedly dynamic and sculptural feeling, generating endless colour variations on the mirror-like facades in changing light conditions, and making the structure appear more sophisticated and expensive than it really is. A warm orange-red colour is used as an accent both inside and outside, be it on the emergency stairs on the railway-facing north elevation, or on some of the interior walls.
Built to quite a tight schedule, the centre opened at the end of May. The expressive and innovative shape of the building puts it in the same category of quality and style as the most recent apartment and commercial buildings, while the result achieved with limited resources, and the spiritual effect created, pushes the boundaries of design and construction possibilities in financially challenging times. Nevertheless, the building has raised some controversy, too: some love it, while others question the choice of location (the area has already attracted several commercial housing projects) and the appropriateness of its expressive shape to its function. However, the message from the architects and social workers is clear: a homeless person is a member of the same 21st-century world as the rest of society, and the building – both in its content and in its shape – is intended to remind the centre's clients of all the options and possibilities they might find in the world as soon as they choose to try and look for change.
September | 2009 | Latvia | Anita Antenišķe