Soviet modernist architecture

Soviet modernism (functionalism) is the dullest style of Latvia’s architecture and also one of the more visible ones.

These buildings were constructed between 1955 and 1990 when the Soviet Union effectively banned all significant architectural decor for ordinary buildings such as apartment blocks and shops. They were constructed according to the same used-and-reused designs, often built of prefab materials.

A Soviet apartment block in Riga
A Soviet apartment block in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Entire city districts (called “micro-districts”) were designed at once with similar-looking apartment blocks (typically of 5 or 9 stories) built around similar-looking shops, kindergartens, and schools. Typically, people would only come home to sleep to such districts, working in the center or (increasingly likely) Soviet factories. The sizes of Soviet apartments were tightly limited, the possible variations for furnishing also were few.

An abandoned sanitarium in Jūrmala
An abandoned sanitarium in Jūrmala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some Soviet modernist apartment blocks were constructed in the city centers as well, however, the Stalinist idea of transforming the city centers was slowly scrapped, effectively saving the downtowns from further mass demolitions.

Soviet sanitarium Belarus, one of the renovated ones
Soviet sanitarium Belarus in Jūrmala. Now renovated, it still dissonates greatly with the surrounding forested resort of small homes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

That said, key public buildings (e.g. theaters) were still constructed in city centers as the Soviet micro-districts were strictly residential. These buildings of the late Soviet occupation era, however, followed somewhat more interesting architectural styles. Brutalism (with its concrete mass in the open) dominated the 1970s together with so-called regional architecture (which in reality looked like dull functionalist buildings with seemingly arbitrary gabled roofs or irregular shaped blank brick walls). Postmodernism (incorporating more meticulous reinterpreted decorations) became popular in 1980s.

HQ for Radiotehnika factory in Riga with a more unique style than simple apartment blocks
HQ for Radiotehnika factory in Riga with a more unique style than simple apartment blocks. Demolished in 2010s. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.
Late Soviet modernism building in Riga, among the more unique ones (currently abandoned)
Late Soviet modernism building in Riga, among the more unique ones (currently abandoned). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rather simple and abstract sculptures were built to “beautify” the facades, as well as rather direct propaganda slogans (the latter were mostly removed in the main cities). Among the otherwise nondescript buildings, massive-yet-simple memorials were erected for various Soviet concepts such as “liberation of Latvia” (actually, the occupation of Latvia). Many of these were removed after independence, but some remain.

A slogan on building wall in Latgale town declares 'Glory to the workers!'
A slogan on a Soviet apartment block wall declares (in Russian) ‘Glory to the workers!’. While slogans glorifying communism or totalitarianism directly were removed in the early 1990s, such indirect ideological slogans may still remain, especially outside of city downtowns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Because Latvian cities were larger before World War 2 than cities in many other places ruled by the Soviet Union, less expansion was needed in the 1955-1990 era. This made Soviet modernism less visible in Latvia than elsewhere in the Soviet Union, although one just has to move to the outskirts of a city to see entire districts built according to the style.

Soviet Victory monument in Riga is a focal point for Russian celebrations.
Soviet Victory (occupation of Latvia) monument in Riga, arguably the most controversial one among those that withstood the 1990s anti-propaganda-sculptures campaign. The controversy caught up with it in 2022 when the Russian invasion of Ukraine reinvigorated the drive to remove Soviet monuments, leading to its demolition. It was 79 m tall, but very simple in design. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Today the Soviet modernist buildings have a very bad image in Latvia. Low building quality, bad insulation, and other drawbacks mean that these buildings are not good to live at. Massive renovation or entire replacement is needed. Soon ater independence, the Soviet modernist micro-districts also received a subtle market-led change. Small courtyards became overfilled with cars (no longer a luxury) and empty places between buildings were built over with shops, services (there were few and far between in the USSR) and some churches (all such districts were originally churchless in accordance with atheist Soviet policies). People also attempted to patch up their bad apartments by, for example adding antennae and transforming balconies into small rooms, which made the crumbling Soviet modernism even more chaotic in appearance.

Soviet modernist interior of a KGB prison in Riga
Interior of a KGB prison in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

5 thoughts on “Soviet modernist architecture”

  1. Thanks for the tips and explanations! I’m planning on checking out the Radiotehnika hq, the kgb prison and the abandoned Sanotorium. Do you know the address of the sanatorium and how to get there?

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