by Jerry ElengicalFeb 28, 2023
As one of Latvia’s most prominent cultural events, the Latvian Song and Dance Festival, held quinquennially since its inception in the mid-19th century, is among the largest choral festivals in the world, featuring tens of thousands of amateur choirs who engage in a spirited celebration of the region’s culture. Included in UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the event is said to be a pivotal component in the development of Latvia’s national identity, having even inspired the creation of a unique building typology expressly for the purpose of hosting it. In Mežaparks, a large urban park and neighbourhood in the nation’s capital Riga, the Mežaparks Open air stage, alternatively known as the Mežaparks Great Bandstand, has been one of the festival’s homes since its construction during the Soviet era. However, the years since have seen the structure fall below contemporary design precedents for safety and acoustics, to a point where local authorities sought to replace it, conducting an architectural competition to award a commission for its reconstruction.
In contrast to traditional choral performances which feature far smaller numbers, the Latvian Song and Dance Festival consists of a cappella showcases that rely on the talent of vocalists numbering in the thousands, dwarfing their conventional counterparts by some margin. Hence, the prospect of designing a venue for such displays involves significant considerations when it comes to matters of acoustic and sound design, as the downright gargantuan scale and logistics of regulating sound in such environments can be overwhelmingly complicated, to say the least. This is especially pertinent since the focus of the show needs to be audible to both audiences and performers - particularly when the latter category boasts such massive numbers.
As the winners of the competition, Latvian architecture practices Mailitis Architects and J. Pogas Birojs had devised an idea centred on the acoustics of natural forests, drawing from elements of Baltic and Slavic Mythology to address the complex acoustic conundrum they faced. With the structure’s enormous scale in mind - capable of hosting upto 90,000 in total, the architects came up with a design for a monumental piece of architecture capped by a soaring roof assembly, which collectively serves to disperse sound evenly throughout the space’s extent. Surrounded by dense thickets of forest vegetation on the outskirts of the city, the stage draws from the acoustic properties of such environments, mirroring their features to deal with the core challenges of the design problem at hand.
Laid out in a manner that is reminiscent of the shape of a clam, the venue comprises a tiered choral tribune shaded by the roof structure, overlooking a massive clearing with patches of landscaping arranged in a regular grid. These bursts of green are some of the few interjections in the very restrained material palette used to craft the structure. Access to the venue can be availed through surrounding forest roads, which wind around the perimeter of the stage and lead towards a car parking space provided behind the shell of the roof structure.
Propped up on slender individual columns that run along the curved edge of one side of the structure, the roof assembly of the Mežaparks Open-Air Stage has been described by the architects as its main acoustic feature. With a latticed steel frame above it supporting parametrically designed panels of varying size - as a reference to the leaves of surrounding trees - this section of the structure gently swerves up to shade the tiered seating beneath it. Diamond shaped, adjustable, and spaced in a manner that leaves generous gaps between them, the panels have been developed after considering the vast distances between groups of performers, conductors, and audiences. The exterior surface of the roof is dressed in a tensile membrane, which imparts a lightness to its façade design.
Moreover, the layout seems to turn the typology of an amphitheatre on its head, where the stepped choral stand is the main focus, with a lawn beneath it for the audience to watch performances. The more contemporary aesthetic palette of concrete and steel, in conjunction with the structure’s openness also serves to fuel this divergence even further. The venue’s capacity ranges from 20,000 on the choir stand to 30,000 seats in the audience, attesting to the sheer scale of this monumental spectacle. Alternatively, the seats can themselves be moved to expand the structure’s capacity further to approximately 70,000. Aside from its primary intended usage, the stage can also host other types of events including music concerts, sports, and other types of cultural events at immense scales.
Supporting these functions, the venue’s program also contains facilities for concerts, exhibitions, conferences, as well as office spaces. These areas have all been accommodated beneath the choir tribune. While designing the structure, the architects involved also envisioned a purpose for it that would stretch beyond seasonal or annual usage, and hence, the stage is open daily as a public space for culture and leisure. Through this multifaceted identity, the Mežaparks Open-Air Stage aims to become a centre for local communities to gather, fostering a sense of community and belonging, which in turn, advocates for the preservation and promotion of local culture and heritage.
Name: Mežaparks Open-Air Stage
Location: Riga, Latvia
Area: 146,430 sqm
Year of Completion: 2021
Client: Riga City Council Department of City Development, Riga City Council Department of Property
Architecta: Mailitis Architects, Arhitekta J. Pogas Birojs
General Contractors: LNK Industries RERE buve, LNK Industries
Concept: Austris Mailitis, Ivars Mailitis, Matiss Mailitis
Design Team: Austris Mailitis, Reiji Kobayashi, Andra Odumane, Janis Lielmanis, Deniss Maruhlenko, Zanete Berzina, Darja Melnikova (Mailitis Arhitekti); Juris Poga, Astra Poga, Ilva Asmusa, Zanna Turova, Janis Melders, Reinis Vilnitis (Arhitekta J. Pogas Birojs)
Structural Engineers: LVCT, Buvinzenieru konstruktoru birojs, Strandeck,
Roof Membrane: Michael Kiefer (Kiefer. Textile Architectur)
Acoustics: Andris Zabrauskis (RTU), Prof. Karlheinz Müller (Müller-BBM GmbH), Michael Wahl, Harald Frisch, Juris Saprovskis (RD akustika)