From picturesque estates to pastry-looking Art-Noveau, from palatial Baroque to post-modern glass – you name it, Latvia got it!
Traditional values of Latvian architecture
Up to eight centuries of architectural variety adorn the Latvia we see today. It has evolved from the wooden dwelling of the traditional extended family to the hill of glass of the new National Library of Latvia. Albeit silent, the Latvian architecture keeps telling the story of times long gone.Self-reliance and respect for personal space are the traditional values evident in the design of a Latvian homestead. Latvians preferred wooden architecture owing to the rich forests. Buildings from farms to fortresses (such as the Āraiši castle) were all wooden until foreigners introduced masonry.
Historical Centre of Riga
German crusaders built castles and towering Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, which still symbolize the trademark silhouettes of Rīga and Cēsis ever since the 13th century. The well-preserved Historical Centre of Riga is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.The three R’s – Renaissance, Rationalism and Reformation – influenced the development of architecture between the Medieval and the Early Modern ages. The territory of Latvia changed hands among the rule of Germans, Poles, Swedes and Russians who all brought their architectural influences still visible today.
The post-card town of Kuldīga
The post-card town of Kuldīga in the West of Latvia is the best preserved example of the 16th and 17th centuries. Many film makers favour the former capital of Courland on the Venta river rapids as an authentic set for a variety of productions.Baroque is a feature of many national landmarks from the 18th century. Palaces of Rundāle and Jelgava remind us of rulers of the Duchy of Kurland. The Basilica of Aglona, the bastion of Catholicism in the East of Latvia, is still a popular pilgrim destination.
Away with excess and back to classics came the 19th century. Neo-classical townhouses lined the streets of the new-born industrial centres.Meanwhile, neo-classical palaces in the province like Mežotne and Durbe provided a fresh breath outside the smoky cities for the German aristocracy. The clear classical form instilled authority – in houses and palaces, public edifices and fortifications such as the Daugavpils Fortress (today housing the Mark Rothko Centre).
Pre-war Art Noveau
Impressive pre-war prosperity at the turn of the 20th century is what Art-Noveau stands for. When dismantling the old fortifications, new buildings outside the Old Rīga were created in the Art-Noveau or Jugendstil style as the first choice.
The wealthy industrialists competed not only in business, but in showing off, too. It is still visible in Alberta Street, where many of them lived next to each other. The ornate façades of flowers and fancy figures made every next building more flamboyant.World War I did away with the Art-Noveau craze and dictated a much more utilitarian approach. This was required to efficiently build the new Latvian state and do it quickly. Hence the graceful lines and unadorned simple elegance of Functionalism made its way in several schools, stations, bank building on Vaļņu Street and the neighbourhoods of Mežaparks and Teika in Rīga.
However, the 1930’s saw as well some edifices designed in the grand scale of Monumentalism popular in Europe. The most illustrative examples are the Cabinet of Ministers and the Ministry of Finance in Rīga.
Soviet box-type modernism
World War II blew the wind of change, after what the Soviet box-type modernism flooded Latvian cities with waves of drab high-rises. Designed to accommodate heavy industrialization and mass immigration, districts of these uniform buildings dominate most suburbs of major towns. Most of urban population still inhabits them.
Latvian architecture today
Latvian architecture today looks forward to regenerating the traditional heritage and embracing post-modernism. Distinguished local architects are devoted to saving and reconstructing 19th century Latvian wooden architecture, such as private houses in Ķīpsala, Rīga, by Ms. Zaiga Gaile.Another success is the redevelopment of the Spīķeri district, bringing back to life each of the obsolete red brick warehouses by opening galleries, museums, shops and cafes. The district became a lively venue of the programme of Rīga – the European Capital of Culture 2014.
The highlight of Latvian state-of-the-art architecture is the eminent Castle of Light – the new National Library of Latvia building by the Latvian-American architect Mr. Gunārs Birkerts. The internationally renowned project additionally hosted the headquarters of the Latvian Presidency in the Council of the European Union in 2015.
© The Latvian Institute 2015; Photos © Ksenia Klimikina, Inga Berziņa, Aleksandrs Kendenkovs, Andris Sproģis, Stefan Wolf, Ainārs Gaidis, Jordan Sanchez, Ansis Starks, Valts Kleins, Indriķis Stūrmanis