Riga, A City of Architecture — Both Outstandingly Beautiful and Profoundly Ugly
By Steve Bergsman
Photos by the author
Riga, the capital of Latvia, is all about the architecture. They say there is no place you can stand in Riga Central without seeing at least three art nouveau buildings. And this impressive notation excludes all the city’s medieval structures, historic churches and post-Renaissance buildings.
With its cobblestone streets and historical prominence, the center of Riga remains a time capsule of lofty delights … or delights of loft living, ancient and modern. As majestic as this may seem, during my visit my mind would not stay focused on Riga’s architectural beauty, but would wander instead to the city’s most architecturally ugly erections – those structures built during the decades when Latvia was part of the Soviet empire.
Most foreign visitors fly into Latvia, so after arrival they take the 20-minute drive into the center of town from the east, passing interesting neighborhoods dotted with older wooden structures of early 20th century vintage. Some restoration has gone on, but there is also a considerable amount of dereliction. None of it was fascinating to me.
The first structure that really challenges the imagination in a perverse way is Vansu Tilts, a bridge over the Daugava River built by the ruling Soviets in the waning decade of their empire. As a guide told me, this was a conciliatory sop to city after 40 years of really not doing much to modernized Riga’s infrastructure. The shape is not unique – it’s a singlr, stylized arch of considerable height with cable supports running at 45 degrees down to the bridge itself. You can find something similar in Boston.
Still, it has a monolithic, grandioise, Soviet style that is little appreciated by the citizens of Riga, who take note of the sets of five cable lines and derogatorily call it the (expletive-deleted) guitar.
I left Riga via Vansu Tilts, but I arrived from the north after a long drive from Estonia. As I entered the main roadway that fed into the center of the city, I was absolutely enchanted by the Soviet-era apartment complexes that lined the traffic corridor. Now, I’ve been to other Eastern European cities once part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence – and Cuba as well – and the mendacity of form if not clunkiness of function is often as mesmerizing in a polar-opposite way as something designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Riga might be able to boast the penultimate in proletarian, post-war barrack housing – as well as great art nouveau.
On the outskirts of Riga, there is complexity to the endless stretches of mid-rise mediocrity. Usually in Soviet block housing, a drab sameness prevails, but in Riga one can actually see the devolution of a necessity ideal – housing for the working class.
Since I had never seen in one place the shifting pattern of declination in Soviet apartment architecture before, I never realized there were patterns defined by eras.
First in the timeline are the nine-story buildings of the Leonid Brezhnev era, circa 1970s-early 1980s. These buildings utilized the latest in Soviet engineering, pre-formed concrete panels, which meant structures could be erected with considerable speed. As could be expected, these buildings are the most grim.
The next highlight in apartment living are the five-story buildings of the Nikita Khrushchev era, circa 1950s to 1960s. While older, these structures are much more substantial than the newer apartment blocks.
It’s only as you get closer to the city that you see the apex of Soviet state construction, the Josef Stalin-era buildings of the late 1940s-early 1950s, built of brick with plaster facades in a kind pseudo-baroque style. A guide assured me these building were of good quality.
What you get here in Riga is a reverse paradigm. Stalin did it best and then each succeeding head of the Soviet Union managed to screw it up just a little more than the guy who preceded him at the center of the podium when the Red Army marched by.
There is a certain irony in all this, because under the Communist system, Riga suffered architecturally, but when Riga was part of Tsarist Russia before Word War I, the city blossomed with art nouveau.
The difference had to do with the effects of capitalist expansion.
At the turn of the 20th century Riga was an important port, and international goods flowed through the city on the way to St. Petersburg and Russia or from the interior of Russia to Europe and the rest of the world. The population boomed from 250,000 in 1895 to 600,000 in 1914, the middle class expanded, and the mercantile strata became wealthier. The bourgeoisie wanted to live in housing commensurate with their improved standard of living. New apartment blocks were erected, designed by important architects who were infused with spirit of the reigning design concept of the era, art nouveau, incorporating more natural lines and stylized ornamental facades.
The first great art nouveau buildings in Riga were built around the year 1900, reaching a zenith of form in those first decades due to the unique efforts of one of the more creative families in Russia, the Eisensteins.
Film aficionados would probably rank The Battleship Potemkin as one of the great movies of all time. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, it was intended to be a Communist Revolution propaganda film, but it transcended the genre because of Eisenstein’s advanced editing techniques — particularly in the celebrated scene in Odessa where a baby carriage bounces down the steps after the mother is shot dead.
Eisenstein inherited his creative genius from his father, Mikhail Eisenstein, who, as the most famous architect in Riga’s history, designed a series of apartment blocks in exorbitant art nouveau styles that are captivatingly beautiful to this day. Many of his finest buildings can be seen on the street called Alberta Iela (Alberta Street), which is literally a street of nothing else but art nouveau architecture.
Son Sergei might have toiled for the Communists, but father Mikhail was employed by successful burghers and profiteers seeking to flaunt style along with substance.
My personal favorite art nouveau structure is the residential building at Alberta Iela 13. Ornate to the extreme, the building features balustrades, balconies, classical motifs, horizontal line concepts, and columns, and is topped and flanked by statues of two women with their hands clasped behind their heads, seemingly screaming in either fright or excitement.
In 2009, the city opened an Art Nouveau Museum at Alberta Street 12 that exhibits an art nouveau-styled apartment, and shows a short movie documenting the history of art nouveau in Riga. The circa-1903 building was designed by a Latvian architect, Konstantins Peksens, and showcases the most gorgeous, if not ornately decorated, stairwell I’ve ever seen. Just peer upwards from the bottom of the stairwell and you can get lost in the sightlines.
The brave of heart might want to compare this stairwell to any in a state-built, Soviet-era buildings, where the only ornamentation is badly drawn graffiti and scattered trash. The stairwell designed by Peksens is uplifting, while those in Soviet block housing says, abandon hope.
If you only get to study one art nouveau building in Riga, make it the Eisenstein-designed school building at Strelnieku Iela 4, which was completed in 1904. It is richly ornamented with menacing helmeted heads looking vaguely Darth Vaderish and stylized Greek warriors, called maskeroni, on the mezzanine floors.
Riga has sometimes been called a party town. Ryan Air, Europe’s discount airline, flies into the city, and young people take the cheap flights then carouse in the city’s cafés and bars.
Party-down appears to be a recent phenomenon, but my guess is that this type of behavior has historical precedents, as so many buildings are adorned with bare-breasted women looking vaguely classical in their poses. Eisenstein’s school building boasts a formidable army of topless babes, who are perfect in physical attributes. Or, as one Eisenstein interpreter wrote, the statues are the “messengers of creative thought and beauty.”
Looking up are the building’s statuesque beauties, I had a few creative thoughts of my own.
If YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: I flew Finnair from New York to Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia. Then, after traveling through the Baltic countries, left Europe from Riga, Latvia, to Helsinki and back to New York. www.finnair.com
ACCOMMODATIONS: My accommodations in Riga were in Old Town’s Hotel Gutenbergs. The building was centuries old, but my room was pleasant and modern. Watch out for those old beams, though. Great restaurant on the roof. www.gutenbergs.eu/en
DINING: Besides a very good lunch and dinner at the roof top restaurant at the Hotel Gutenbergs, I recommend of couple of other Riga hotspots. For more traditional Latvian fare, try Zila Bovs (Blue Cow) on the Old Town section. www.zila-govs.lv. However if you find yourself on the opposite side of the Daugava River, try Ostas Skati, it has a great river view on the restaurant is right on the shore. www.restoransostasskati.lv.