The Corner House: Wrap It Up, Create Space for Ideas, Plant an Oak

The Corner House: Wrap It Up, Create Space for Ideas, Plant an Oak
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The former KGB headquarters on the intersection of Brīvības Street and Stabu Street, also known as the Corner House, will open for the general public at the end of April 2014. Before World War II the building was known as the Teters’ House, housing shops, offices and apartments. But the building’s fate was to take a turn for much worse, and people still associate the now-uninhabited edifice with something frightening and full of painful memories. We decided to talk about the future of the Corner House with three prominent activists whose enthusiasm has already done very much for bettering the urban environment in Riga.

 

Toms Kokins, architect, urban planner

The Corner House must be treated with utmost respect, and its future has to be given much thought. My grandfather and his family were victims of KGB atrocities and were deported to Siberia. However, I believe that most young people today lack personal communication with the people who survived the persecutions. For the new generation, this is just a page in history. It would be good if the Corner House became something more than just a museum, so the presence and memories of those who were brought there could be made more palpable to the visitors.

It must not be simply a set of informative display stands about historical events.

Part of the building will house the Occupation Museum, but a large area on the upper floors will remain unused. These rooms should be meant for experiments. Young creative people, who are in dire need of space for their activities, could work there to create their vision of the Corner House. The young in one building with history will demonstrate, albeit in a direct way, that we live with memories yet look forward to the future. If one idea is to paint the façade black, the interior could be consistently white – bright future despite the dark past.

 

Diāna Popova, Miera Street Republic activist, works at the Centre for Contemporary Art, lives across the street from the Corner House

It is not a bad idea to make the Corner House a multifunctional museum about the KGB that would draw tourists, as well as an archive and an information centre, which could also include artistic workshops and apartments on the upper floors. That way, we could create something akin to a new culture quarter in the most deserted building in central Riga.

But maybe we should better wrap it up? Wrap it from top to bottom in a light cloth as Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag, the art museum in Switzerland and the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris. 

Wrap it up in a veil, not too tight, and keep it that way, making the building’s angular shapes disappear and giving it a chance to breathe, imagining how it inhales and exhales as the cloth moves in the wind.

And only after all of us will have drawn breath many times, deep and calm, only then could something be done in the building.
The house is restless, and it is actually society that is neither calm nor satisfied; hasn’t clarified itself yet, its past, present and future. We do not know what we want, and it is not the right time to rush and do something just for the sake of doing it. The good ideas of what should be done about the building will definitely come once the time is right.

 

Jānis Ķīnasts, placemaker, urban environment enthusiast

The story of the Corner House is highly complicated. As we well know, the building was originally called Teters’ House, and its historical colours were bright and lively. Architect Aleksandrs Vanags’ office was located in the building, there were shops on the first floor – florist’s, variety shops. The building had many different tenants. My vision of the Corner House, however, may be considered radical.

One of the ideas is to bring the Teters’ House back to its original state, cutting off completely the historical heritage, the horror and pain.

In this case, the building would be open to art and offices – it would become what it was originally. Let’s call it the first Riga design laboratory in a renewed contemporary context.

But, quite possibly, this would not stop the discussions about the building, nor take them anywhere, therefore I’d rather support the proposal to paint the building black. It takes courage to transform such painful and harsh historic memories in a hypersumbolic way. However, I believe that it would be very valuable for our society to learn that there are things that people can live without, including at the level of memories. We are used to dragging our historical heritage along, which is primarily, of course, due to the fact that we have to pass our experiences on to the next generations and educate them against the background of the past, but there may be a different way to do it, a better way.

The other version I have is quite controversial – yes, it has to be torn down. This building is unnecessary, what we need is a symbol to help us remember.

I realise that the status of a cultural monument precludes this possibility. And yet I believe that this should become an unoccupied area. It could be covered with boulders brought from all the regions of Latvia, with an oak tree planted in the middle. The heavy boulders would be the best symbol of “heaviness”, however, there is always grass growing beneath them, which overcomes the heaviness to push its way through to the surface. This metamorphosis is a natural phenomenon that runs incredibly deep and is very powerful. The oak is because we intuitively associate this tree with a combination of time, endurance and beauty, a value in itself.

We have to let new layers, interpretations and feelings overtake the place, thereby transforming the historically-heavy heritage. A free area in the centre of a city speaks volumes, and therefore the story of the Corner House would be retold to the future generations in a new way. I do not mean ignoring anything or denying the past, but such an approach may be a way to communicate this even deeper and in a more humane manner.

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