Riga’s Architecture – a Testament to its Fascinating History

 

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.

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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.

Opera House

Riga Opera House

Muzeul de Arta

The Latvian National Museum of Art

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Art Museum Riga Bourse

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.

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Red Riflemen’s Memorial, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia built in 1970

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.

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The new National Library of Latvia, also known as the Castle of Light

 

 

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37 Comments on “Riga’s Architecture – a Testament to its Fascinating History

  1. I think it’s really interesting how the architecture of a city reflects its history! I’m no architecture expert but the art noveau buildings look utterly charming to me. I’m not really into the post-modernist style though – we have a lot of that here in Singapore and they just remind me of weird spaceships. That’s probably why I love visiting older buildings whenever I travel!

    • I love old architecture too, Michelle. It’s so much more elaborate and more beautiful than these modern, straight lines that we use today.

    • Truth is that it’s very beautiful inside, Rhonda. Very modern and spacious, well lit and kind of grandiose. The outside is kind of ugly though.

  2. Hello Anda, I have enjoyed reading about the Riga’s turbulent history (but I guess it is similar to other states in Europe). Seems like some periods were more successful than other in terms of architectural achievements. Art Nouveau is one of my favorite architectural styles. It would be great to visit this city and admire all the beautiful buildings (and pay attention to the details). Did you visit with a local tour guide?
    Ruth – Tanama Tales recently posted…The Gaviota Coast: Much to AdmireMy Profile

    • I’m planning to return too, Suze. Four days didn’t prove to be enough for seeing the city like I would have liked to.

  3. Lovely post and photos. We missed a lot of this on our brief stop in Riga. We concentrated on the Art Nouveau streets, which are remarkable.

    • I prefer the old architecture, or the art nouveau. The straight lines of the modern architecture look quite unappealing to me.

  4. It’s always great learning about history and architecture from you, Anda. Reading through it, I wondered how you would write about Manila, the Philippines’ capital. It has all the marks of our colonial history – from the Spanish era, to the Japanese invasion, to America’s enduring neocolonialism.
    Liz recently posted…Summer in Visayas, PhilippinesMy Profile

  5. How beautiful!This city looks amazing. Every single building you feature here is so detailed and full of character. Thanks so much for letting us in on a bit of your adventure!

  6. When I was going to Riga this May I had no idea how much I would love the city and the architecture there. We had one day devoted just to our Art Nouveau walk and it was a lovely day!
    Monika recently posted…Art Nouveau in PoznanMy Profile

  7. What an amazing history for a beautiful city. It is interesting to see and read about how the city has evolved over time. Very cool!

  8. I have never been to Riga but would love to. I love those small old and colorful houses – perfect for taking pictures 🙂

  9. I’ve been to Riga a couple of years ago and really loved it. It’s architecture reminded me a lot of other east european cities such as Krakow and Prague and those are among my favorites!

  10. My favorite part of visiting a new destination is scoping out the beautiful art and architecture I love the contrast of modern and traditional that you have discovered in Rigas!

  11. This city has such impressive architecture! Every building has so much character. All of these photos are beautiful. The National Library of Latvia is so neat.

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