The architecture office NRJA (No Rules Just Architecture) has completed the first phase of Rīgas Cirks (Riga Circus) reconstruction at the end of 2022. In architectural and design solutions, NRJA has followed the principle of «adding by removing» — by revealing hidden historical layers, a sense of newness is created, while simultaneously embodying the 135 years of existence of the Rīgas Cirks building.
The Rīgas Cirks building, which was designed in 1888 after the project of architect Johann Friedrich Baumann, is one of the oldest in Europe, the only permanent circus building in the Baltic states, as well as an architectural monument of national significance. It is built as a brick building with an arena, especially suited to circus numbers with horses, covered by an unheated dome 24 metres in diameter. The historic dome structure consists of sixteen columns constructed from railway tracks. The only reconstruction works of the circus building took place in 1953. During the 21st century the activities in the circus were repeatedly suspended due to the poor technical state of the building.
Along with a change in the management of Rīgas Cirks in 2017, a change in the attitude towards the content of the circus also takes place — animals are no longer used for the shows. To reflect the substantive changes and prevent the critical technical condition of the building, an architectural competition for the restoration of the historic building and a vision for the development of the site was launched in 2018. The winning proposal by NRJA, developed in collaboration with the architect Ilze Mekša, envisages converting the circus into a multifunctional cultural site.
During the first phase of reconstruction, energy efficiency improvement measures have been carried out. The project’s main aim was to insulate the building, while preserving the historical architecture of Rīgas Cirks, and to carry out fundamental foundational works to ensure the functioning of the arena.
The reconstructed arena is an example of radical conservation — the architects have only peeled off the layers that were ready to detach themselves due to decay, not hiding any presumably unaesthetic elements behind cladding and not correcting apparently non–architectural details. The hidden dimension of the building — time — is revealed in a seemingly random way, relinquishing direct authorship over what to reveal and what to keep hidden. The accumulated historical cultural layers are the main source of the sensory experience in the rebuilt circus building.
Alberts Salamonskis, the original owner and founder of Rīgas Cirks, was a horse trainer and circus artist whose profession influenced his attitude towards the construction process. Analysis of the historic building has revealed baseless walls, uninsulated roofs, and other unusual building techniques. For example, the 130 year–old arena stands proved to be a temporary construction built using repurposed timber. Continuing the tradition of unusual building techniques, NRJA has implemented a unique CLT panel dome that is capable of bearing both the constructive and workloads that are required from different performance scenarios.
As the historic dome metal structure has lost its bearing capacity, a parallel construction of a new column network and CLT panel dome was built, keeping the historic structure unloaded and exposed. The new dome is a particularly complex structure. The panels are interconnected with individually designed elements and form a spherical, self–supporting shape. The CLT panels not only provide the structural stability of the dome, but also create a smooth, solid internal plane that does not require further finishing and improves energy efficiency.
In addition, a new secure suspension system has been implemented with 76 fastening points, each of which withstands a load of six tonnes. The dome is topped off by a steel ring structure and the restored historic lantern. It has been completely reconstructed and gained remotely operated blinds and windows.
The various historical layers have been preserved and exhibited in the interior, and historic materials have been repurposed as much as possible. The logs from the arena stands were sawn into boards and used in the finishing of the arena’s walls. To preserve the brick facade, the perimeter walls were insulated on the inside, and finished using repurposed cladding.
Only the necessary measures for ensuring energy efficiency have been taken for the main facade of the circus building, providing for full restoration of the facade in the next phase. The silhouette of the historic facade has been restored, eliminating side parapets built in 1953 that partially obscured the dome in view from the street. The facade is covered with lime plaster, which will revive the historic brick wall and prepare the facade for full restoration.
In subsequent phases of construction, a new black box hall, a circus school, artist residences, administration and infrastructure spaces, as well as pedestrian walkways are expected to be built, connecting the streets on both sides of the block through courtyards. By bringing visitors into the circus yard, the place will slowly transform from a cultural space within the building into an open public outdoor space, which creates an experience similar to a circus show in the urban environment.
All phases of the reconstruction are intended to be realised with respect to historical heritage, by building modern structures, not replicas. Rīgas Cirks redesign is true to the original unique function, filling it with a new, modern substance. The new circus arena is already the framework for a rich cultural programme that has replaced circus animals with party animals and supplanted the niche cultural product with a more diverse and contemporary content.