Ernests Štālbergs (1883–1958) experienced two world wars and six different political regimes one after the other. His biography is an obvious example of how fundamental socio-political shifts can affect not only the architect’s private life but also his professional output and even the work on particular objects.
The Russian Empire period (1883–1917)
Štālbergs was born in Liepāja in 1883. In the conditions of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation since the 1870s, his native town, then part of the Province of Courland in the Russian Empire, had become an important industrial centre with a large commercial port. As the future architect’s father was a carpenter, Štālbergs became involved with this craft during the construction boom in late 19th century Liepāja, thus taking a deeper interest in architecture.
After completing the Liepāja City Realschule in 1902, Štālbergs began his two-year studies of architecture at Kazan Art School’s Department of Architecture. When he graduated from the school with a first-degree diploma in 1904, he was enrolled in the Department of Architecture of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts without entrance exams.
Štālbergs studied at the academy for a long period, from 1904 to 1914. This was partly related to financial problems as well as to political events, such as the Revolution of 1905.
The budding architect’s studies dragged on also due to his first major designing and construction experience. Together with the architect Vladimir Shchuko, he designed and supervised construction of the Russian Empire’s pavilion at the International Exhibition of Art in Rome (1911). In comparison with the Russian Empire’s exhibition structures of previous years, the Rome pavilion was the first to show the regional character of Russian Classicism instead of the Russian Revival architecture as an embodiment of the national specificity.
After graduating from the academy, Štālbergs stayed on in St. Petersburg and began to teach at Yelena Bagayeva’s private Women’s Higher Courses of Architecture.
The Collapse of the Empire and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (1917–1922)
The academy was closed down after the Bolshevik coup of 1918; The Petrograd State Free Art Studios were opened in its place and Štālbergs began to head the master studio of architecture there. For a short period, the architect was the rector and the dean of the architecture department at the new institution. He also became actively involved in the art scene and the Russian avant-garde movement. As a result, he was the editorial board member of the radical newspaper Art of the Commune and created festive decorations for Petrograd in the first anniversary of the October coup.
Period of the Republic of Latvia (1922–1940)
The new order in Soviet Russia was grotesque, so the architect returned to Latvia in 1922, taking an instructor’s job at the recently opened University of Latvia, Faculty of Architecture, where he headed his master studio of architecture for almost 30 years.
In Latvia he could freely realise his ideas and designed various objects for both the university and the political elite but as a modernist, he saw architecture as a potential solution to social problems. The period of social democratic governments typifies Štālbergs’ work on the Riga municipality’s apartment house on Lomonosova Street and the ambitious people’s house project.
Two monuments designed by Štālbergs, created together with the sculptor Kārlis Zāle, are recognised as outstanding examples of the synthesis between architecture and sculpture and are significant in the political context. The Freedom Monument became the inter-war period’s main public art object and a national symbol. Štālbergs’ major contribution to the monument project is its successful location on Brīvības Boulevard, Riga’s main urban axis. The other object is the monument to the Riga 6th Infantry Regiment. Clear means of spatial organisation derived from Constructivism created the necessary preconditions for remembrance of the soldiers in a limited space.
Second World War (1940–1945)
The years of the Second World War were a tragic period in the architect’s life, especially the Nazi occupation from June 1941, as his wife was Jewish. The ban on construction in the Nazi period along with Štālbergs’ emotional experiences and passive resistance to the occupational regimes were not favourable to new projects. During this period, his only work was teaching at the University of Latvia. When three quarters of Latvia’s architects fled westwards at the end of the war, Štālbergs, however, decided to stay in his homeland.
Life in Soviet Latvia (1945–1958)
The restored Soviet occupational regime held Štālbergs in high esteem at first, heaping him with prestigious posts and various honorary titles. The regime’s recognition followed in the practical field too, as the government assigned the architect to work on a new, ambitious hotel in Riga and he also designed the architectural part of the Lenin Monument. However, as an ever more conservative version of Socialist Realism was on the rise, the architect’s modern, West-inspired ideas appeared unacceptable to Soviet ideology. They were harshly condemned in the press, coinciding with the repressions against old teaching staff. Štālbergs was forced to quit his work at the university and all other posts. Until the end of his life, no new buildings were constructed to his designs in Soviet Latvia.
Ernests Štālbergs’ life and professional career were closely intertwined with Latvia’s dramatic history in the 20th century. Regardless of the general recognition in all periods, political history hindered the architect’s self-realisation. Štālbergs’ progressive ideas largely remained misunderstood because he strongly adhered to rational architectural solutions. Only their forms changed with the development of his work, initially based on classical architecture and later oriented towards modernism. Due to the political and economic situation and commissioners’ changing interpretations of architecture, Štālbergs’ realised works reveal a much more conservative and modest side of his creativity.