Architecture in Latvia
Let’s recall history – architecture since Christianity was the primary form of art, and this was the case also in Latvia. As Christianity spread, all styles of architecture were seen here. But we have our own national characteristics and features honed by the often harsh and traumatic ages.
The first Romanesque style church was built in 1186 near the Daugava River in the town of Ikšķile. St. George’s Church and Dome Cathedral’s eastern section are also examples of the Romanesque style.
In 300 years, when Rīga became a full-fledged member of the Hanseatic League, construction intensified widely. This was the Gothic period where churches were constructed not just as bastions to ward off revolting pagans, but also to rise nearer to God. From the 13th to the 16th century, the impressive Gothic churches were built – Dome and St. Jacob’s Cathedral in Rīga and St. John’s in Cēsis.
Renaissance in world views, Rationalism in daily life and Reformation in religion were responsible for architectural styles to change in Latvia as well. It was during the Renaissance that we came to understand that a person exists not only for spiritual experiences, but to live in peace as a good citizen. That is why since the Renaissance, we see many secular edifices, opulent mansions and town halls with harmony and balance. Examples of sacral buildings – St. John’s Church in Rīga and St. Catherine’s Church in Kuldīga.
Baroque in Latvia is dynamic and ornate. From the 17th to the end of the 18th century, we constructed manor houses, castles and dwellings with an abundance of striking decorative elements, outlandish forms and extravagance. Such architects as Rupert Bindenschu designed St. Peter’s Church and Reutern House in Riga, and Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli designed Rundāle and Jelgava palaces. In 2007, Rundāle was included on the European Heritage List. Churches built in Kurzeme Province during the Baroque era contain sterling examples of sculptural design using wood and pipe organ design and construction, as seen in Ugāle, Apriķi and Liepāja Trinity Church.
When all of Europe had calmed down from the pompous period, came the even-keeled period of Classicism. Riga’s most significant builder – Christof Haberland, was champion of rational simplicity, subtle decor and clear form. The Classic style castles at Mežotne, Durbe and Kazdanga, designed by the famous architect Johann Georg Adam Berlitz, were restored, and in the 21st century, we brought back to life the war-destroyed Riga Town Hall, designed by Johann Daniel Felsko, also in the Classic style.
We add Eclectism (Historism) to our list of architectural styles. and name the University of Latvia, the Academy of Music, Riga First School of Commerce (now Academy of Art), National Museum of Art and the National Theater. Here we have romantic longing and a farewell to the styles where a person “feels at ease.” At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries came the most manneristic of styles in architecture history – Art Nouveau. Rīga is one of the few European capitals where this worldly, newborn style was most widely favored – convincing and striking. The imaginations of construction engineer Mikhail Eisenstein and the outstanding Latvian architects Konstantins Pēkšēns and Vilhelms Ludvigs Nikolajs Bokslafs had no boundaries – facades were chock-full of decorative detail, obelisks placed atop cornices, sculpted vases, lions, sphinxes, flowers and much more. Architecture aficionados flock to Rīga as on a pilgrimage to Mecca – to the Art Nouveau capital of capitals. The vast majority of buildings in downtown Rīga were designed and built in the National-Romantic style, and its masters were Eižens Laube and Jānis Fridrihs Baumanis.
Pre-WWI bank buildings in Riga were dominated by Neoclassicism, counterbalancing the gaudiness of Art Nouveau. In the post-war period, influenced by the German Bauhaus school, Functionalism was the prevalent style in Latvia.
Following the renewal of independence, we began to fully realize the architectural and artistic value of the buildings, bridges and monuments that went up post-WWII. Only in comparison with other European countries do we see their importance in history. Key examples – the Academy of Sciences high-rise (architect Osvalds Tīlmanis) and the new Daile Theater (architect Marta Staņa) in Rīga.
Key is a building’s typological character. The Soviet regime paid particular attention to administration and propaganda, so we have a multitude of Communist party committee and administrative buildings and many movie theaters, as this art form was considered especially important. Many cinder-block apartment developments went up, but they are noted for their poor constructional quality.
Despite political censorship and limited technical possibilities, Soviet Latvian architects and designers, thanks to the tradition of high educational and professional standards, were able to produce structures of lasting value, like the Red Riflemen’s Memorial, the now-named Occupation Museum, the Salaspils Memorial, Riga Congress Center and the Hotel „Rīdzene”.
Construction boomed in the early 1990s, and among the architectural achievements are the Riga Airport’s Arrivals Terminal, the Bank of Latvia’s new building, the ferry terminal and library in Ventspils, Hotel „Promenāde” in Liepāja, printing press company „Britania” in Rīga District and others. Many future projects remain in the planning stages – new concert halls in Rīga and Liepāja and the Modern Art Museum. The National Library or „Palace of Light” is currently under construction in Rīga’s Pardaugava.
Latvia, compared to Western Europe, is sparsely populated, cities are smaller and a considerable distance from one another. Historical research shows that farmers, craftsmen and merchants founded villages near castles, primarily near waterways and key roads. Up until the 16th century, Latvia had 11 cities or towns, 10 more were added by the 17th century, 5 more up to the 19th century. Right now, Latvia has 77 cities, with Riga the largest, founded in 1201. The capital has 717,371 inhabitants. The smallest town is Durbe (founded 1893) with 424 residents.
Old Town Riga became a state-protected zone by decree in 1967, but UNESCO included Riga’s historic center on the World Heritage List in 1997. Kurzeme Province’s Kuldīga was awarded the European Heritage honors in 2008.
Goal-oriented city planning and construction in Rīga began after its fortification wall was torn down in 1856. Another boom – industrial in nature – was seen after World War II. Large factories and suburban housing communities sprung up. It must be noted that the latter was of poor architectural quality – five-story or taller cinder-block edifices with small, low-ceiling apartments. The positive aspect of these developments – large areas of greenery.
HISTORIC CENTRE OF RIGA (HCR) is a World Heritage Site 852, inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List on 4 December 1997. World Culture and Nature Heritage Commission has recognised the unique universal value of Riga Historic Centre, its medieval and later urban fabric, which consists of numerous high quality medieval and Art Nouveau architecture, unparalleled 19th century wooden buildings. HCR occupies an area of 435 hectares or 1.4% of urban territory, encompassing the total of 4,000 buildings.
The main elements of cultural heritage include:
Urban fabric, consisting mainly of buildings, streets, squares, parks and water reservoirs. HCR incorporates three different urban landscapes: Old Riga, Boulevard Circle and Art Nouveau buildings in the centre, each having different open space and building block ratios.
Old Rīga has evolved from ancient Liivian settlements and German port facilities around the River Rīdzene. Fragments of ancient fortification walls and street networks in Old Riga were defined by the location of the river. Later developments were driven by three rivalling forces: clergy, Knights of Livonian Order and Riga citizens, namely merchants and craftsmen.
Church towers are the main features of urban landscape. Layout of fortification walls, spiritual, political and economic development traits encouraged formation of medieval urban fabric – narrow and winding streets, low and closely-attached buildings, miniature squares with volatile view points and accents.
Boulevard Circle and its key element, channel, embrace the Old Riga from three sides, enclosed by the Daugava River from the remaining side. Ensemble of parks, created after 1856, became the first stage of fortification system reconstruction commenced in the 17th century by Swedish military engineers. Extensive parks with few loosely scattered buildings and residential blocks have become a wonderful counterpoint to the Old Riga. Boulevard Circle separates the Old Riga from Art Nouveau blocks in the centre.
Art Nouveau/Jugendstil centre with its perimetral blocks was created during renovation after 1812 fire that fully destroyed the suburbs of the city, restoring former streets and roads. This is why right angle street network is at times having an irregular shape. Majority or 40% of these buildings refer to Art Nouveau, Eclecticism and number of other 20th century architecture schools. As a rule, these are five storey tenements limited in height by Riga Construction Regulation in force before WW2, restricting the height of eave to 21.3m. 19th century wooden architecture has managed to squeeze in between of tenements in some places.
Perimetral wall of multi-storey buildings often hides a different world - second and third line of buildings. One can also find old factories, workshops and warehouses behind these walls, sometimes discovering nice green yards, passages or partially public space.
Archaeological discoveries on the territory of the Old Riga have revealed 12th century settlements, villages built by merchants, warriors and priests as seasonal dwelling. When German merchants tried to settle in the Baltics, their efforts were supported by crusaders. Extensive archaeological explorations in the Old Riga began in 1938 due to intense reconstruction of the Old Town and building of new city blocks.
Riga architectural heritage combines a variety of styles. Romanesque includes outstanding constructions like old churches of Riga Dome and St. Jacob altar. Gothic style includes characteristic arches of St. Peter’s Church and St. John’s first three travees. The gothic step-shaped gable may be seen in the Northern facade of St. John’s Church and oldest residential house of the Three Brothers. Riga Castle, built between the 12th and the 14th century, is a merger of almost all architectural styles, hosting the top public administration staff for ages, thus accumulating significant cultural values. Enlightenment has not left a ‘burning mark’ in the history of buildings in Riga, because it saw its rise only in the 16th century. Livonian life feebly encouraged construction developments. Blackhead’s house gables are made in the style of 16th century Mannerism. Baroque came to Latvia in the 17th century and left its mark with towers of St. Peter’s Church and Riga Dome, as well as Western portal of St. Peter's Church. The largest residential houses in the Old Riga, the merchant Reitern’s House and Dannerstein’s House built in Baroque style by Strasbourg architect Rupert Bindenshu. Roccoco style portal graces the residential house (now a museum) on 13 R. Wagner Street. Arsenal building in the Old Riga, Alexander Nevsky Church on 56 Brīvības Street and Christ’s Church on 18 Elijas Street are typical examples of Classicism. Classicism guidelines approved by the Russian Empire in the 19th century and providing for posh decorations on facades have not been at the focus of Riga Chief Architect Christopher Haberland, who constructed buildings on 17 and 19 Šķūņu Street and 6 Theatre Street in civil classicism style. Eclecticism developed in Riga along with industrial revolution and rapid urban development. Boulevard Circle structure is an exceptional ensemble, consisting mainly of buildings designed by the first professional Latvian architect Jānis Fridrihs Baumanis. Architects unique style is best reflected in Neo-Gothic building of Latvian Arts Museum and its Neo-Baroque building, as well as National Opera and University of Latvia. 19th and 20th century brink made change to Art Noveau with all its multitude of expressive means. Vivid example of eclectic decorativism of Art Nouveau is available in Alberta Street buildings designed by M. Eisenstein. Neo-Classicism is a predominant style in banks constructed after WW1, creating the balance with untamed Art Nouveau decorativism. End of WW2 marked the spread of Bauhaus style and Functionalism with its ascetic art of linearism.
Age of modern architecture set in with the help of a pioneer in the field T. Hermanovskis, who constructed the first building in 1926 on 8 Marijas Street. However, the most visible examples of the style are A. Kara and K. Begte designed buildings: Latvian Joint-Stock Bank on 13 Kaļķu Street, House of Nation on 29/31 and others. Some buildings of that period are influenced by Art Deco, especially blockhouse on 3 Ausekļa Street constructed by P. Dreijmanis. In late 30-ies, during the reign of Soviet dictatorship, architects returned to monumental and classic means of expression, particularly when construction public buildings. Palace of Justice, now the Cabinet of Ministers, was built by architect F. Skujiņš and Ministry of Finance by A. Klinklāvs was designed in Neo-Eclectic style. After WW2 Neo-Eclecticism transformed into social realism - typical Soviet architecture, best characterised by the high-rise designed by O. Tīlmanis, Ministry of Agriculture and other buildings. In 1960-ies, during political ‘thaw’, architects returned to functionalism and some outstanding international style buildings, e.g. Daile Theatre, were constructed by an architect M. Stanis and others. Occupation Museum was work of Dz. Driba, G. Lūsis-Grīnbergs. In 1980-ies Riga started to follow international trends by pursuing Postmodernism path, artistic expression that is balanced and having regional identity. Architects like M. Ģelzis landmarked this period with, for example, an office building on 54 Brīvības Street.