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Between capital city and resort

speech: regions, No 18, pages 112-121

The total area of the new town is around 450 hectares, making this the largest new urban formation in the Baltic states. Saliena is also a project with an emphatically international character. For the moment, only the first stage is being realized. This comprises various residential street blocks, large park zones, and infrastructure – including a first-class 27-hole golf course, a covered ice-hokey stadium, and three international schools. Planned for the near future are an equestrian complex, a tennis centre, and small office buildings along the main road. Saliena is situated 4 km from the beaches at Jurmala and 8 km from Riga International Airport, making it attractive to people from both the capital and Latvia's principal resort.

In the future Saliena will spread along both sides of the Jurmala highway. On one side of the highway housing will mainly be combined with infrastructure and micro-office; on the other there will be in time a retail park and a cluster of office buildings. But Saliena Group, the developer for the project, is in no hurry and is investing only gradually in construction of new buildings. For instance, creation of the residential street blocks has been broken up into six phases – an approach which allows the company to be more flexible in the changeable economic situation and to alter its plans depending on the response of the market and specific users of the already completed buildings. At the same time, the niche which this project is trying to fill is not entirely: on the one hand, the project offers high-quality housing and the kind of infrastructure you would expect from a club; on the other, the apartments and houses in Saliena manage to be entirely affordable.

The project came into existence at the turn of the century, but active development of the site commenced only after a change of ownership in 2005. And even the financial crisis of 2008 which was a serious blow to Latvia's construction sector, could not prevent the project from moving forward. The master plan for the new town was drawn up by AUD Architects: “Given the open character of the landscape, we based our plans on the kind of town which has small private gardens and territories attached to houses,” recalls architect Niko Tiula, head of AUD Architects. “We put low and mid-rise houses together into something like clusters and placed extensive park zones between them. And then we tried to get away from a rigid regular grid and to give the layout a freer, more natural shape. The clusters are of no great size, for 10-15 families, which makes for closer relations between neighbours. What's more, for me it was important from the very start that there should be different architects designing the buildings for Saliena; this is the way to create the kind of natural, multilayered, environment you find in historical cities.”

Altogether, there are to be almost 2000 residential units built in Saliena. To date, 310 have been erected – and almost all of them have already been sold. They comprise private houses, so called 'row houses', townhouses, and apartments. The floor areas of the housing offered here vary enormously – from 50-sq.m. two-room apartments to 400-sq.m. private houses. It is also possible to acquire land to build upon, but in this case the purchaser will have to comply with specified standards. “At the very beginning of our project's existence the owners made a serious mistake in selling several plots of land without imposing any restrictions,” says Ruslan Mironenko, Business Development Director of Saliena Group. “The result was chaotic, utterly motley development, so we even almost decided to stop selling individual plots of land altogether. In the end we settled on an approach whereby we can firmly control the situation and specify in the contract that individual house designs must conform to the overall architectural approach and urban plan; there is even provision for us to buy back from their purchasers.”

The principal construction material chosen for Saliena was wooden panels by Ostby (the factory which makes these structures is situated in Saliena itself). This technology makes it possible to produce prefabricated modules, complete with finishes, which can then be used to assemble a house on site as easily as from children's building bricks. “The local market did not want to accept the new technology, so introducing it here was not easy,” continues Ruslan Mironenko. “We tried to explain that the technology is well established in Scandinavian countries, but the clients still preferred either concrete or brick. And if they wanted wood, then it had to be proper logs. Nevertheless, panels and modules make it possible to significantly reduce construction time and expenditure while ending up with a high-tech, energy-efficient house.” Interestingly, each residential unit in Saliena has its own gas boiler – a system which is not cheap, but makes it possible to save energy and to respond flexibly to the particular lifestyle of a particular family. In other words, all the expensive solutions here have a pragmatic justification; this is one of the fundamental reasons for the project's success.

Specific buildings are worked upon by different architecture firms, as Niko Tiula intended; thus the universal, standardized environment is given the individualized colouring which it needs. For instance, for particular residential buildings on Martina iela the Latvian firm MARK Arhitekti has created  several modern variants of traditional double-pitched houses, using large areas of glazing and fashionable wooden latticing as a finishing material. Moreover, instead of cheap pine, they used expensive, but more visually impressive larch. And this investment has again paid off: many houses were bought when they were still on the drawing board. An important decision made by the architects was to create a wide band of vegetation along the road. The fences are set back, level with the houses, while part of the private territory in front of the latter is planted with grass and low bushes. “Practice shows that people won't usually cross the plot boundaries or walk onto the open part of the plot, but at the same time we've managed to avoid the impression of a tunnel enclosed by high fences and to create a feeling of hospitality and openness,” explains Martinš Ošāns, leading architect and partner at MARK arhitekti. A great deal of trouble has in general been spent on designing the roads network in Saliena – as much as on the landscape and park design: all the streets leading directly to the residential clusters are dead ends and have been designed in such a way that drivers find themselves naturally slowing down to a safe speed. Special green car parks keep surfaces which are asphalted or paved to a minimum.

Another notable and interesting architectural structure in Saliena is the recently opened Exupery International School. 8 A.M., the architects of this building, likewise used glass and Siberian larch on the facades, fitting their project harmoniously into the overall style of the town. The structure containing the kindergarten and some of the classrooms has a circular shape with an open central courtyard in the middle. This is linked to a second building, which contains the school's social life, by a covered pedestrian bridge. And all these independent and fairly impressive structures form a coherent whole in accordance with the plan drawn up by Niko Tiula, who continues to consult the developers of the project. “This kind of project needs the hand of an architect who is an urban planner”, says  Martinš Ošāns. “It's like the rigid grid used by a designer magazines: it allows all kinds of very different ideas to co-exist in harmony”.

In addition to their obvious duties with regard to new construction and supporting the overall development concept, the developers have also taken it upon themselves to look after Saliena's social life. There are town festivities and small markets; a newspaper is published; separate barbecue areas are provided so that people should not use their own balconies or gardens for this purpose: and in winter there's an ice-skating rink. Many new practices are initiated by the residents themselves; constant feedback from residents is encouraged. As a result, well thought-out and socially responsible development is creating not just an environment, but an atmosphere as well; and this is almost the most important thing when it comes to ensuring the town's successful long-term development.

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