The Unique Architecture of Riga, Latvia

As early as 1201, Riga is recorded in history. The German fortress of Albert, the Bishop of Bremen was established that year. Given its location on the Baltic Sea, Riga developed as a seaport and joined the Hanseatic League in 1282. It continued to prosper as a trading center during medieval times.

However, Riga’s history is checkered with conquests by various interests. The Germans, Swedes, and Russians all took over the city for prolonged periods and the religious divisions of Catholic and Protestant were also an influence. Riga’s position between Western Europe and Russia made it a linchpin in the struggles.

Finally, in 1918, following the First World War, Latvia gained its independence for the first time in 700 years. However, the advent of the Second World War saw Latvia once again a pawn in the power struggle for land and expansion by the Germans and Soviets. After the war, Latvia became one of the Communist controlled Soviet Republics.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Latvia once again gained independence with Riga as its capitol. A freedom monument, built in 1935 during the brief period of Latvia independence, commemorates the desire for freedom that has always lived in the hearts of the people. Large gatherings are held in the square surrounding the monument and citizens bring flowers to place at the base.

Early Architecture

Still visible today is a portion of the old 14th century city wall with the Powder Tower remaining from the defensive structure. Most of the wall was removed as the city expanded and a park has taken its place. Within the old city, cobbled streets, gabled houses, churches and guildhalls can be found.

Because of the many religious factions that came to Riga, there are Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The Jewish population of Riga suffered greatly during the Second World War and the Stalin years but there remains a small synagogue. Riga has always been a multi-national city with religious diversity, again due to its location at the crossroads on the Baltic.

At the Doms Cathedral (“doms” meaning cathedral not “dome”), one of the largest organs in the world can be found. The splendid brick structure with its towering spire is a landmark in the city. Riga architecture fascinates the eye with structural designs from the Middle Ages on. Scattered throughout the city are 19th century wooden buildings, many in need of renovation.

In the late 19th century, European traders settled in Riga and built in a style called Art Nouveau. This refers to the architecture that involves creative freedom, classic elements are intertwined with flowing lines and ornamental figures and objects. Riga now contains the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world.

Art Nouveau in Riga

Visiting Riga today, it is possible to see the influence of the Art Nouveau movement throughout the central district by especially on the main thoroughfare of Elizabetes Street or Elizabeth Street. There are over 800 Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, making it extremely interesting to walk around the streets searching for these marvels.

The most famous Art Nouveau architect in Riga was Mikhail Eisenstein whose whimsical buildings are found throughout the town. Eisenstein was born in Russia, educated in St. Petersburg and employed as a civil engineer. He came to Riga around the turn of the century as the city was expanding. Several streets outside of the city center are filled with his work.

The distinctive style of Art Nouveau developed in Riga became classified as National Romanticism. Steep roofs, abstract animal or human motifs carved in stone and solid structures filling large spaces were the hallmarks of Riga’s Art Nouveau.

Riga Town Hall Square

Diverse architectural styles can be found at the Riga Town Hall Square. The buildings here were mostly destroyed during the Second World War and have since been rebuilt.

Several unique buildings are found here. The House of Blackheads is a reconstruction of the 14th century building that served as a merchant’s guildhall. Next to the ornate House of Blackheads is the stark solid mass of the Museum of Occupations, built by the Soviets in 1971 but changed with independence in 1991 to the remember the sufferings of the Latvian people during Nazi and Soviet persecution. Across the square, the local Riga government operates from the rebuilt town hall.