Building the Baltic Identity

Building the Baltic Identity

By Michael Taylor

One by one, the Baltic states declared their independence from Moscow on August 21, 1991. It took less than a week for the European Community to support sovereignty for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and only one more for Mikhail Gorbachev’s Politburo to recognize their independence. Ten of the remaining republics, including Russia, seceded by the end of the year, cementing the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Twenty-five years later, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania each continue to wrestle with their national identity. Their very recent history as part of the Soviet Socialist Republic means that relics of the Soviet agenda remain ever-present in the region’s landscape, affecting the collective self-perception of its people. The occupation and annexation of the Baltic states began after WWII and in its 47 years ruling the region, the Soviet Union made considerable efforts to dilute Baltic identity and integrate the three countries into a larger, Soviet economic sphere. In addition to demographic changes brought about by large-scale immigration of workers from elsewhere in the Soviet Union, significant capital investments in energy and manufacturing were made to build nuclear reactors, power plants, military bases, etc. These facilities were used to demonstrate the regime’s rise to modernity and came at the cost of development in other sectors, particularly agriculture and housing. The conventional models of Baltic living were disrupted through the collectivization of farming and mass-produced housing, leading to a dramatic decrease in standards of living. (1)

Last year, the three countries presented as one region at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, La Biennale di Venezia. The Baltic Pavilion’s curation focused on the region’s shared political, economic, cultural, and infrastructural transformations that began with the central planning of the Soviet Union and that have continued through EU membership. The pavilion attempted to reconcile the idea of the Baltic by confronting external perceptions of a singular region while addressing three very separate quests for identity. (2) Located in the Palasport Arsenale, the pavilion used the massive gymnasium space to exhibit dozens of projects completed by international designers that interrogated the relationship between the built history of each country and the entire region on a geologic scale.

The Baltic countries have been politically active in a concerted effort to be identified as anything other than post-Soviet—which comes with connotations of corruption, poverty, and the danger of a Russian invasion—but in the months that have followed the Biennale, leaders from all three countries have made assertions that speak directly to the population’s interest in repositioning the countries as Northern and, above all else, European. In January this year, all three Baltic ambassadors in Germany signed a letter to the editor of the Die Zeit asking him to exclude their countries from a series on the Soviet Union’s successor states. (3) Later that month, Latvia’s former foreign minister, now a European Parliament member, tweeted a link to the United Nations Statistics Division, reminding the world that the three countries were classified as Northern, not Eastern, European. (4) And when Brexit secretary David Davis toured the Baltics in February, each country’s leader insisted that they would negotiate with the U.K. as a unified bloc, with the goal of maintaining “unity of the 27.” (5)

While the countries’ leadership makes declarative statements regarding geo-politics and allegiance to the European Union, these affiliations do not constitute national identity, which makes the Baltic Pavilion such an exceptional moment for a group of young, international designers to bring questions of collective narrative into the wheelhouse of the architect. Through their history of annexation, more recent than most colonial pasts, and their perseverance through shifting economic ideologies and crises, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are well positioned to lead current lines of inquiry regarding the role of the built environment in the production of a national identity, one where progress looks quite different from the artefacts of the past. Their modern history cannot be immediately leveraged to support contemporary ways of life, obliging each generation of architects to participate in the ongoing interrogation of possible futures and surviving legacies.

Presented here are three projects by an emerging generation of designers that speak to the Baltic quest for identity through the built environment: David Grandorge’s survey of Soviet infrastructure in the region reminds us of architecture’s ability to imbue a landscape with ideology; Paul Kuimet’s photo essay of Tallinn suburbs exposes how individual agency, expressed in the act of building, contributes to overarching value systems; Edijs Vucēns and Žanete Skarule’s storefront, Pērle, evidences the ability of space to empower informal communities and subcultures and drive changes within the mainstream. These projects do not represent a resolution of Baltic identity; rather, they speak to the agency and resilience of the individual in response to the failures of dominant ideologies. The ability to design, build, and create enables the individual to reinforce their value systems and further those that they believe should be cultivated at a national scale.

David Grandorge // Soviet Infrastructure

In his essay Make it Real: Architecture as Enactment, Sam Jacob describes cities, buildings, and objects as performances of ideology. He argues that only architecture, unlike any other discipline, has the ability to represent and enforce the ideological conditions it springs from. By making these conditions real in space, architecture exerts a power over territory and enable an ideology’s artificial conventions to appear as though they are a natural and necessary part of the world. (6) The architectural photography of David Grandorge highlights the built relics of the Soviet Empire throughout the entire Baltic region. By focusing on industrial landscapes, social housing, and energy infrastructures, the photographer illustrates architecture’s potency, as it creates a landscape that convinces us of an inevitable and natural reality, rather than a fictional and ideological entity. (7) These infrastructural artefacts and industrial landscapes appear bleak yet alluring, futuristic yet of the past. Within them the communist agenda is manifest, arguably the last true ideology, prompting a question faced by many nations across the globe: can a national narrative ever be reconstructed with a contradicting built reality intact?

The Soviet Union enforce the collectivization of its agricultural sector between 1928 and 1940 to boost production. Stalin’s plan resulted in significantly reduced output and widespread famine. Augstkalni Collective Farm I, David Grandorge, 2016

The Elektrenai power plant was built between 1960 and 1972, 50 km outside of Vilnius. It is the primary source of electrical power in Lithuania, only recently updated to meet EU guidelines. Elektrenai Power Plant I, David Grandorge, 2015

Construction on the Ignalina nuclear reactor began in 1977 and was meant to demonstrate the rise of the modern Soviet Union. The EU requested its decommissioning for safety reasons in 2009 at a cost of EUR 2.3 billion. Ignalina I, David Grandorge, 2015

The Narva Reservoir was constructed in 1955. It provides water to the Narva hydroelectric station in Russia and cooling water the the Estonian Narva power plants. Narva II, David Grandorge, 2016

Half of all Estonia’s housing was nationalized after WWII. Before the war, Estonia’s standard of living and economy was similar to Finland’s. Tallinn V, David Grandorge, 2016

Paul Kuimet // Tallinn Suburbs

Since 1991, suburban sprawl has proliferated in the otherwise uninhabited areas around the major Baltic cities. As Dagnija Smilga, curator of the Baltic Pavilion, explained, “After independence, the first thing everyone wanted to do was build their own house.” In his series “In Vicinity” Paul Kuimet captures this social phenomenon by photographing the new residential areas of Peetri, Rae, and J.rveküla near Tallinn. His pictures document the changes in ideology, ownership relations, and housing construction and a way of life that has emerged in the Baltics since their independence. (8) Again, as Jacob suggests, “it is the quotidian banality of architecture that, through repetition, asserts reality. Non-stop re-enactment legitimises the conditions and ideologies that architecture embodies.” (9) In this sense, suburbs are the perfect setting for reinforcing the individualist, conservative, middle-class value system that emerged in the Baltics after communism. Building a home outside of the city allowed one family after the next to live on their own terms, outside of mass-produced Soviet housing blocks, incrementally altering the landscape to reflect a new Baltic culture and lifestyle. The Baltic suburb propagated segregation and homogeneity like any other, but by enabling like to find like, the single family home made individual values scalable and capable of infiltrating the Baltic’s burgeoning national identities.

Untitled 2, In Vicinity, Paul Kuimet, 2009

Untitled 3, In Vicinity, Paul Kuimet, 2008

Untitled 4, In Vicinity, Paul Kuimet, 2009

Untitled 17, In Vicinity, Pigment Print Copy, 70x70com, 2009

Edijs Vucēns and Žanete Skarule // Pērle, Riga

Edijs Vucēns and Žanete Skarule opened the infamous storefront Pērle in 2009, after the global financial crisis, in a conscious effort to create an alternative Riga at a time when employment opportunities were scarce but physical space and creative freedom was readily available to young entrepreneurs. Routinely, Pērle was a retail outlet for local design, a co-working space, and a bar/café. With all of the clothing displays suspended from the ceiling on a pulley system, in a moment, it could become an unobstructed, alternative event space. In its 3.5 years of operation, Pērle became an international venue in Riga, hosting workshops, press conferences, product launches, film premieres, concerts, and parties. As one of the first venues of its kind, it provided a precedent for the current generation of Latvians to return to the city, disrupt existing structures, and develop new urban models. Similar to the proliferation of suburban enclaves after communism, alternative spaces throughout the city gained popular followings during a period of capitalist collapse. Jacob writes: “Architecture as social fiction offers the ability to create realities that are far more powerful. It writes into reality the world that we wish to inhabit rather than the world we were born into.” (10) For the creatives behind Pērle and their many successors currently operating around the city, the ability to create new spaces with alternative programs in Riga has, as Vucēns explains, “given young people with the desire to change the city an opportunity to try.”

The official opening of Pērle, August 20, 2009

The new year’s eve carnival was hosted by the DJ duo Miks and Viesturs, who by day work as a visual artist and social anthropologist involved in city planning, respectively. Pērle, Riga, 2016

Another in the regular Thursday night jazz shows. Pērle, Riga, 2016

The author would like to thank the support of Baltic Air for their generous provision of flights to and accommodation in Riga in order to complete the research for this piece. The author would also like to thank the Baltic Pavilion for its inclusion of The Site Magazine on their press tour, an invaluable source of insight and information on the Baltic condition.


(1) Johan Hiden and Patrick Salmon, The Baltic Nations and Europe: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the 20th Century, Revised ed. (London & New York: Longman, 1994), 130.

(2) “The Baltic Pavilion, Exhibition: Region.” The Baltic Pavilion, accessed July 3, 2017.

(3) Leonid Bershidsky, ”Why the Baltics want to move to another part of Europe,” Bloomberg, January 10, 2017, accessed July 2, 2017,

(4) Ibid

(5) Daniel Boffey, “Baltic politicians lobbied by David Davis: we will only negotiate as one,” The Guardian, February 21, 2017, accessed July 3, 2017,

(6) Sam Jacob, Make it Real, Architecture as Enactment (Moscow: Strelka Press, 2012), 37.

(7) Ibid, 48.

(8) Mari Laanimets, “Homes for Estonia,” In Vicinity (Tallin: Lugemik, 2011), 36.

(9) Sam Jacob, Make it Real, 42.

(10) Ibid, 52.

Michael Taylor is an editor of The Site Magazine and Design and Communications lead at a tech start-up in Zurich. He has studied at The Architectural Association, UBC, and The Queen's School of Business. His work focuses on strategy in business and design.