Troy Hightower

Richly Wrought Riga  [A Tale of Two Architectures]

Riga, Latvia has a rich and reasonably well-preserved architectural heritage to offer the visitor. Sitting on the broad Daugava river an hour from the Baltic Sea, the old center developed in oval shape defended by the river on the west, and a circle of fortifications including three-meter thick city wall, earthen ramparts, and a broad moat. Within that protected space the city, officially founded in 1201 when Albert the Bishop of Bremen established his first German fortress, developed over the next centuries in styles of Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque architecture, as well as an early endemic wooden “warehouse” style still extant in a few places. Our local guide Vesma said "for the houses in the Vecriga, as the old city is called, (pronounced Vetzriga) no two are alike. If a merchant or trader was going to build a new house, it was not fashionable to imitate neighbors." Hence there remains a maze-like warren of curving, meandering streets lined with a plethora of architectural styles, shapes, heights, colors, and building materials of such grace and beauty that Unesco declared Riga a World Heritage Site in 1997.

On our meanderings through Vecriga we experienced St Peter's Church (the top of whose spire is reached via an elevator and offers superb 360 views of the city), the Dom Cathedral where one of the worlds largest organs played a mini-concert at noon, and the ornate medieval guildhall known as the House of Blackheads. Vesma explained "in those times, only married nobles, merchants and guild masters were allowed to own houses in the old city. So a group of young and upcoming merchants and guildsmen banded together to build Blackheads, as a social center for themselves". The Swedish Gate is the last in-tact portal through the perimeter wall, and a block away down an ancient boulder (not even cobble) paved street is the powder tower, a turret once filled with cannon powder for defense. There are three parks in the central city, and hundreds of pleasant shaded outdoor cafes to sip a coffee or beer or partake of a light lunch. After our initial tour we took a table at one such in the lee of St Peter's spire. Latvian cuisine runs heavily to pork and many types of seafood. We sampled local specialties including fried tiger prawns, Latvian style meat salad, fried cheese balls with sauce (did the Wisconsinites learn that here?), and what Vesma had said might be the national dish - black peas with smoked bacon and fried onions. Pretty tasty, even if the peas were a bit under cooked.

The other architectural style that makes Riga unique (and which also weighed heavily in Unesco's decision) is Art Nouveau. With some 800 such styled buildings in the historic center, this district represents the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe--over 40% of the central city. This came about as an indirect result of defensive measures of the old town. In the 16th - 18th centuries, the suburbs outside the moat were built of wood. (Forests even today cover some 44% of Latvia—wood is cheap and plentiful). Vesma told us "In 1812 a huge cloud of dust in the distance convinced city leaders that Napolean, on the March that year, was about to attack. They torched those wooden suburbs to the ground to create a protective zone about the city center. Some while later a scout reported a large herd of cattle on the move, and Napoleon nowhere to be seen." There was considerable suburban expansion from 1815 in that area. In the second half of the 19th century, the ramparts and moat were removed and a new plan for the reconstruction of the city was implemented; the whole layout and urban design of the city changed. The space occupied by the walls was replaced by a green belt of gardens with an encircling canal, and outside these a new semi-circular sweep of broad boulevards was laid out. It was in these boulevards that Art Nouveau was born in Riga.

Also known as Jugendstil, Art Nouveau reached Riga at the very end of the 19th century, and became the rage. Most of the Art Nouveau buildings in Riga were designed by Latvian trained architects, the most notable of which were Mikhail Eisenstein, Eižens Laube and Aleksandrs Vanags. We set out with Vesma around 10 Saturday morning, heading up Elisabetes street, whose northern blocks contain much of the best Art Nouveau, together with Albert Street and Terbatas Street. The Art Nouveau style stressed a complete creative freedom, mixing fantastic elements with a tendency to show off construction elements. Without getting overly technical, Vesma explained some of the fundamentals of art nouveau: "the buildings show romanticism, with ornate decoration, often with verticality. Asymmetry is a key elements, and there are often dynamic, undulating, and flowing lines and fantastic geometrical ornaments".

She pointed out bees, apple trees, checkerboards, dragons, cats, gods and humans in various poses. She led us to Albert Street which has a fabulous row of  Mikhail Eisenstein creations, some perfectly restored, some awaiting salvation. As we got to the corner, the street was taped off, and looking down we could see men and women in WWII period costumes, Nazi soldiers in open Mercedes and motorbikes, and a small tank all milling around between takes of a movie. Vesma asked the fellow holding the tape, and was haughtily told that the street was closed for filming until at least twelve. But Albert-street residents were walking out, and a few gawkers were mixing with the actors, so she said, pushing under the tape- 'let's go - what are they going to do put us in jail?"  And a good decision, as Albert is one of the best Art Nouveau streets--packed with not only the wedding-cake visions of Eisenstein, but examples of the simpler and more somber Romantic-nationalist style developed somewhat later by Laube and Vanags.

"These apartments were also beautifully decorated and ornamented in the interiors" Vesma said. "When the Soviets 'liberated' and then occupied Latvia after 1945, thousands and thousands of people were evicted--forced out in the middle of the night, and put on trains to Siberia--to die. Before Russian bureaucrats and families - sometimes four to an apartment moved in, railcar after railcar of tile fireplaces, moldings, forged metal stair-railings, hand made glass windows and all manner of decoration went back to Russia."

Since the Nazi occupation in the war was pretty brutal, and the Soviet occupation for 45 years after were hellish, I asked her which they hated more, the Germans or the Russians. Without hesitation she answered "We hate the Germans - they were our oppressive overlords for centuries, and they murdered 100,000 Rigans at the beginning of the war".   

By noon we'd wandered the district, seeing a representative selection of styles and architects and the concentration of Art Nouveau which was so intriguing to Unesco, and which, together with medieval Vecriga makes Riga a fascinating place to visit.