After moments of great political and economic change, drastic transformations to the built environment can happen in a brief period of time. Cities like Detroit are left largely to disrepair, and urban designers, city officials, developers, architects, and citizens are tasked with the challenge of how to pull life from the ashes.

Buildner Architecture Competition Organisers long with city officials and local artists, has launched a competition series focused on eliciting the ideas of designers worldwide to transform the former naval base Karosta into a healthy continuation of Liepaja, Latvia's urban fabric.

In 1890-1906, Karosta was constructed as a naval base for the Russian Tsar Alexander III. It remained an active military base for 100 years until Latvia's independence from the USSR in 1994. During this military period it was a microcosmic community, independent from its surrounding region and closed off even from the residents of neighboring Liepaja. The result of this isolationism is that upon the decommissioning of Karosta, it changed from a community of 25,000 residents to 6,000 residents nearly overnight.

In the period since the USSR evacuation of Karosta, the community has largely sat dormant as a monument to dark histories past. Today it stands filled with brutalist structures in partial or complete disrepair. Since the withdrawal of USSR, the neighborhood has also been host to high unemployment, drug use and street crime. In the documentary Karosta: Life After the USSR, local citizens of Liepaja recall that "Now it is ruined, nobody cares for it and at the same time there are still people living there. That is the saddest thing."

While Karosta stands neglected, Liepaja and Latvia have inversely started to flourish. Historically, the city of Liepaja was a European tourist destination, featuring a thermal bathhouse and a long coastline along the Baltic Sea that welcomed beach visitors. Liepaja is now encouraging growth, and in 1997 established a low tax environment in order to attract foreign investments and facilitate economic development. In recent years Latvian growth has also transformed, shifting from the European Union's worst economic disaster zone to an example of the healing properties of deep budget cuts. Latvia's economy, after shriveling by more than 20 percent from its peak, grew by about 5 percent last year, making it the best performer in the European Union. With Latvia and Liepaja economically on the rise, the stage is set for a rebirth of neighboring Karosta to engage and reinforce Latvian growth.

Buildner Architecture Competition Organisers, in collaboration with Liepaja City Council and a number of local artists, has seized the opportunity to focus the interest of international designers on Karosta. Throughout three competitions focused on three different scales of intervention, the proposals as a body of work offer a provocative case study on how to reanimate deserted urban fabric. In an effort to bring sustainable growth to the Baltic region, the competitions exhibit a particular sensitivity toward economic, ecological, and socially beneficial proposals. The competition program and regulations also assist to this end, and are framed in a way that encourages healthy long-lasting growth for a stagnant community.

The first competition in the series is the Ghost Town Challenge, which tasks teams of designers to propose a cultural center for the center of Karosta. The cultural center is imagined as a seed of growth for the neighborhood, including a tourist information center, library, exhibition hall, conference hall, conference rooms, and restaurant, and would bring both the local community as well as foreign investors and tourists to the site. This is assisted by the presence and proximity of the orthodox St. Nicholas cathedral, replete with golden domes, which establishes a strong connection to Latvia's past and pairs nicely with a contemporary cultural center as centers of activity in the area. The site is located on a plot of land in the center of Karosta surrounded by existing soviet brutalist style apartment blocks, and the challenge here is to respond to this existing built context while also making a departure from its abandoned past to set a new standard as the focal point of Karosta.

Ghost Town Challange architecture competition winning entry - context

The winning entry succeeds at this goal by establishing a center that directly addresses its historical context while also providing a series of flexible cultural and civic spaces within. The physical form of the proposal is driven by a large void carved from a solid block that orients the center's entrance and views toward the adjacent historical cathedral site, thus establishing an urban relationship between the two landmarks that aims to reinforce the importance of both. Additionally, the project contains a large outdoor space seated at the entrance that helps to maintain a lowered site density while also providing a much-needed public space for local musical and cultural events. Upon entering the building, visitors are once again greeted with a large flexible public space. This space is not only functional but establishes a strong concept for the scheme as a clearly executed solid/void diagram, where solid masses of program are grouped and moved toward the exterior of the building to make way for both the focal central space as well as a series of Corbusien voids that introduce a provocative play of light within the space. The ceiling then finishes the composition by continuing the Ronchamp-like pattern featured on each wall surface. The result is a facility that could truly spark public and civic life in Karosta, as well as a rebirth for its forgotten identity.

Ghost Town Challange architecture competition winning entry

Ghost Town Challange architecture competition winning entry - plans (from left) - ground floor; 1st floor; 2nd floor; 3rd floor

The second competition broadens its scope to focus on the surrounding abandoned apartment buildings in Karosta. Brutalist Facelift asks designers to propose alternative facades for the existing brutalist architecture by means of clever and inexpensive solutions. The fundamental scope of the competition carries poetry in that Karosta is guarding its history. It is not ashamed of its past, and is rather integrating elements that celebrate its unique and singular character, rather than bulldozing and washing away the complex history carried in its uninhabited and neglected walls. Here, the commitment to reusing existing structures is fundamental to the revitalization of Karosta.

Brutalist Facelift architecture competition winning entry - make buildings to be a canvas for their inhabitants

The winning proposal is an interesting critique of the current site context, and proposes that individual expression is the key to the future of Karosta. Instead of relying on the mastery of the architect or urban designer to revive the facades of this community, the proposal instead looks to the citizens, and seeks to establish a framework on which the residents of the buildings can personalize their facade via the addition of paint, furniture, curtains/sun shades, plants, and other creative additions. The goal is that as time passes, the buildings will continue to be a canvas for their inhabitants, and as such will continue to carry both the storied past of Karosta as well as a visceral hope for a more luminant future.

The third and final competition in the series asks for proposals for site furniture and small-scale urban interventions to establish a coherent built landscape. War Port Microtecture calls for a vision for Karosta's playgrounds, bus stops, benches, and information signs in order to unify the neighborhood's microtecture. While these structures are initially conceived as functional components of Karosta's urban infrastructure, their secondary importance of establishing public space for the community to interact is equally critical. They also address the economic reality of the region, and are intended to be low-cost interventions that make a large impact on the identity of Karosta.

War Port Microtecture architecture competition winning entry

The winning proposal provides a flexible and inexpensive solution with the introduction of a simple and affordable block unit. This carries the potential to unite the neighborhood and larger Liepaja since its simplicity allows for aggregation in numerous ways beyond the bus stop, playgrounds, information signs, and benches outlined in the brief. This scheme, in that sense, rises above the challenge outlined in the brief by proposing both a unit and a series of kit designs that could be changed or improved upon in the future while still honoring the simplicity and coherency of the original block unit. Although the proposal is quite simple, it remains potent in its potential to unite the Karosta community.

At its core, sustainable growth seeks to establish regulations that enable a community to grow in a continuous and healthy way over a long period of time. Unlike the evacuation of Karosta, this does not happen overnight. This series of competitions is thus aware of the sensitivity of urban growth and reacts accordingly by approaching Karosta's growth from a variety of angles at a variety of different scales. As such, the three competitions approach tripartite sustainable development from all three sides - seeking to improve the environmental, social, and economical performance of Karosta. The first competition, Ghost Town Challenge, focuses on social and community growth among residents of the region. The second, Brutalist Facelift, emphasizes ecological sensitivity by reusing the underperforming soviet blocks. The third and final in the series, War Port Microtecture, remains sensitive to economic reality by seeking low-cost solutions that make a large impact on Karosta's identity, which in turn preserves capital for further growth.

Other priorities exhibited in the design briefs continue this focus on healthy development, such as remaining sensitive to the ratio of built environment to landscape, a focus on local trades and materials, an emphasis on clever low-cost high-impact solutions, and an underlying desire for constructive public space that brings the community together. The fundamental premise of these competitions thus seeks sustainable growth for its community. This goal is achieved by fostering social and community relationships via a series of clever, economical solutions with low ecological impact.

Additionally, the desire to execute this vision in a series of three competitions instead of one all-encompassing competition is a powerful choice, as urban growth benefits from a heterogeneous environment that contains as a vibrant mix of forms and functions, public and private, hardscape and landscape. Following one totalitarian design idea is, after all, what created a horizon full of soviet apartment blocks in the first place.

The competition proposals thus react to Karosta’s difficult past without hiding it. The growth that is enabled from these ideas has its source in a desire to celebrate the city’s unique identity, rather than stamping on a new and unfamiliar identity in its place; by mixing existing elements from Karosta's rich history with new interventions that encourage life in the community. The scope of these competitions thus extends far beyond the bounds of Liepaja and Latvia. It instead carries through to many other deflated urban contexts around the world that call on the minds of inspired, clever designers to assist in the transformation of an urban context living below its potential.

Audrey McKee, architectural designer at Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Buildner house jury

see all Ghost Town Challange results here

see all Brutalist Facelift results here

see all War Port Microtecture results here

more on Karosta competition series on Dezeen read here

more on Karosta competition series on Archinect read here

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