Worldwide, the City of Riga is known as a city of Art Nouveau. Since 1997, this old Hanseatic city has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. However, despite this public image, the reality for most inhabitants of Riga is not the Art Nouveau city centre, but large mass housing estates from the Soviet era: 68 percent of the city´s population live in “Microrayons” ( russ.: микрорайoн , engl.: neighborhood unit) built between 1958 and 1990. These Microrayons cover approximately one third of the area of the Latvian capital (Valiulyte, 2013).
Andrusz (1985) defines the Microrayon (russ. микрорайoн) as:“ (…) neighborhood unit, essentially planned as a pedestrian precinct with only access roads, and which boundaries are normally drawn by main traffic thoroughfares. It should embrace within its boundaries crèches, kindergartens, and primary schools, shops to meet the residents‘ daily requirements, a public library and club facilities and space for garaging cars.”
As with many mass housing estates built in that era, most Microrayons face challenges to be updated to contemporary standards, into socially, economically and ecologically robust and liveable neighbourhoods. This pressure of transformation is fueled not so much by the conditions of their production under socialist circumstances – large housing estates are found worldwide – but rather by the ever-changing demands for an attractive, urban living environment. The Institute of Sustainable Urbanism (ISU) from TU Braunschweig in Germany put the task of developing a transformation strategy for one of these Microrayon districts, Mežciems, as the subject of the Master Thesis Project. The aim was to provide an approach that combines architectural and spatial interventions, while observing the built cultural heritage of the district, as well as to come up with an energy concept for the entire neighbourhood.
The approaches taken in student projects were as different as the demands for an attractive urban living environment. One goal many students seem to strive for was to better link Mežciems to its surroundings, through built as well as infrastructural means. The proximity and partially existing relationship to the nearby green areas, water, and the old village of Mežciems played into this. Another major issue tackled by many students was the lack of concentration within the Microrayon. So many projects propose densification and the establishment of a new centre, containing different kinds of neighbourhood- related programs. Having visited the site for some days in spring, it seemed obvious to most students that the general use of public space had to be reconceptualised. As a result, almost all projects show intentions of partial privatisation and strengthening of the public space by adding supporting programs.
However, most students had difficulties comprehending the strategic challenges of very fragmented ownership of land, apartments and buildings. Even though one student was successful in developing a toolkit for the upgrade of individual apartments, the big strategic question of which agency could lead or drive such a transformation was hardly addressed by the students. In our mind, this most crucial issue requires more thought and study.