From Art Nouveau to contemporary architecture

While visiting or living in Rīga, you’re bound to lift your head skywards to admire the architectural masterpieces that dot the central skyline: the Old Town church spires, the Freedom Monument, the television tower or maybe the Soviet-style Academy of Sciences.

But the architecture that usually makes tourists’ jaws drop is Jugendstils or Art Nouveau, a style from the turn of the previous century (1880-1910) characterised by free-flowing forms and use of organic shapes in facades, such as human figures and animals. Art Nouveau is not only visible in whole buildings and their sculpted reliefs but also in stained glass windows, wrought iron gates and doorknobs, interior stencils and other ornamental design features.

Rīga is said to have the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. Forty percent of the buildings in central Rīga are Art Nouveau structures, with Alberta iela being the grand dame of this particular style.

Where on the Web can you glean more information about this historical architectural style? A good place to start is Photo Collection Art Nouveau Lettonie, a great gallery showing the various ways this style has been incorporated into the facades of Rīga’s buildings.

For guides to the must-see streets for Art Nouveau architecture have a look at Riga municipality portal. Another brief description is available at the Latvian Culture Vortal. It’s also worth reading a Wikipedia entry about the leading architect of this era in Latvia, Mikhail Eisenstein, and a Rīgas Balss article about the leading street, Alberta iela, republished on the Web site of the Rīga Graduate School of Law.

After 50 years of neglect under Soviet occupation, the restoration of Rīga’s architecture from the previous centuries is well underway. Simultaneously a new Riga is being shaped. Many old buildings are simply torn down and replaced by new mirrored glass structures.

In the planning stages are three new controversial projects estimated to cost in the millions of lats to build. These will change the skyline of downtown Rīga forever. The responsibility for the planning and construction of these new structures lies with a state agency, Jaunie trīs brāļi (The New Three Brothers), led by construction engineer Zigurds Magone. Gaismas pils (Castle of Light), the new home of the Latvian National Library is to be located on the left bank of the River Daugava based on a project designed by U.S.-based Latvian architect Gunārs Birkerts. The Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is envisaged to be built by literally encapsulating the existing TEC (thermoelectric central) building on Andrejsala, located to the north of central Rīga on the right bank of the River Daugava. The third project, the new acoustic Concert Hall, is to be constructed on AB dam, directly opposite the Old Town.

If all of these new mega-projects come to fruition, then Rīga will be able to take pride in not only the architectural achievements of the previous centuries but of this century as well.


Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.

5 thoughts on “From Art Nouveau to contemporary architecture

  1. Very helpful. Info on what is there now and how to access more detail as well as an update on what is coming. How wonderful for Riga!

    Thanks, Daina

  2. I was in Latvia this past summer and saw some of the new structures built in Riga. Yes, they are beautiful but I can’t understand where all the money is coming from for all these projects and how they are going to maintain themselves. I was also on a Baltic Air plane back to England filled with ordinary Latvians going back to work in the British Isles. They do not earn enough to support themselves in Latvia.I live in the wealthiest city in Canada, Calgary ,and we do not have a specific Opera building, or a Museum of Modern Art. I am not saying those types of establishments are not wonderful to have but here in Alberta, if they can’t afford to build without going into debt, they don’t. How can Latvia afford all this?

  3. Anitra: Maybe you just don’t live in the wealthiest cities in Canada. There is a city that’s about twice as big as Calgary with an opera house and several fine arts museums.

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