Riga is all about Art Nouveau architecture, a style that gave the city its trademark look. Intricate floral designs, expressive masks and elaborate geometric forms still decorate the building façades all over the city. They say you can’t stand anywhere in Riga Centre without seeing at least three art nouveau buildings.
The city’s architecture is highly diverse, however. What most surprises you when walking around the Latvian capital is that it can be both exceptionally beautiful and extremely ugly at the same time. There is always a medieval highlight, or an attractive art nouveau building next to one of those Stalinist ugly-looking structures, built during the decades when Latvia was part of the Soviet Empire.
Riga was founded as a port in 1201 by German crusaders and over the next 700 years it came successively under German, Polish, Swedish and Russian rule. By the end of the 15th century the town was already a major center of the Hanseatic League, deriving its prosperity from the trade with Central and Eastern Europe. After the Russian Revolution, Latvia was ceded to Germany, but Germany’s defeat a year later allowed Latvia to regain its independence. However, its independence was short lived. Just a few years later, with the beginning of the Second World War, Latvia saw its first Soviet invasion, then the German occupation in 1941. In 1944 when the Red Army drove out the Germans, the second Soviet rule was established. The crumbling of the Soviet Empire in 1991 allowed Latvia to finally regain its independence.
Latvia’s turbulent history is very much reflected in Riga’s diverse architectural styles. Up until the end of World War I, Riga was a German city, no matter whether it belonged to the Polish, Swedish, or Russian empire. Consequently, there are a lot of German influences in the city’s Old Town architecture for instance. The buildings that have been erected over several hundred years and at different times in history, vary a lot in style from medieval, to Gothic, to Baroque.
During the 18th century industrial revolution, Riga went through a rapid urban development. Eclecticism began to expand in the city’s architecture. Several beautiful Neo-Gothic and Neo-Baroque buildings have been erected at this time, like that of the Latvian Arts Museum, as well as National Opera and University of Latvia.
Towards the end of the 19th century Riga went through a major transformation when many of the old fortifications have been torn down and a canal and a ring of boulevards have been build. Most of the Art Nouveau buildings have been erected at about the same time, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. That was Riga’s most prosperous period which also coincided with the height of the Art Nouveau Movement in Europe. Today, Riga has one of the best-preserved and most charming historic centres in Europe, with over 800 majestic Art Nouveau buildings.
In the aftermath of World War II, during the Soviet occupation, Riga’s economy dried up. The Soviet architects returned to functionalism, designing high-rise apartment complexes and utilitarian Soviet style buildings. The so-called Stalinist architecture was meant to inspire awe and admiration and at the same time embody the idea that the Soviet Union would exist forever.
Today Latvian’s architecture is trying to embrace a post-modernist style. One of the most remarkable projects is the notable Castle of Light – the new National Library of Latvia, designed by the Latvian-American architect Gunars Birkerts. who tried to redesign the obsolete red brick warehouse across the Old Town Riga, on the other side of the Daugava River.