The Latvian capital Riga has a long and turbulent history, one that is, in a popular saying, as complicated as the Latvian language, and constructed out of as many influences. There existed a settlement on the site as far back as the second century CE. Its modern history begins in the thirteenth century with the arrival of German mercenaries and missionaries. German merchants had established an outpost from around 1158. Then, in 1201, the newly-proclaimed Bishop of Livonia, Albert, landed with 23 ships, and 1500 Teutonic Knights, as part of the papally-sanctioned Livonian Crusade, to conquer the region for the Holy Roman Empire, and forcibly to convert local pagans, many of whom were shackled into serfdom.
Over the next 700 years Riga came successively under German, Polish, Swedish and Russian rule. The Reformation law mass conversion to Protestantism, and the establishment of Lutheranism as the state religion. After the Russian Revolution, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ceded Latvia to Germany, but Germany’s defeat a year later allowed Latvia to declare independence. But not for long. The coming of the Second World War saw first Soviet invasion (Stalin annexed Latvia as part of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact), then German occupation in 1941, after the Hitler launched his war in the East, and finally the restoration of Soviet rule when the Red Army drove out the Germans in 1944.
Latvia lost a third of its population to war, exile and deportation. Ninety per cent of Latvian Jews perished in the Holocaust. After the war Stalin, through Operation Priboi, deported tens of thousands of Latvians, deemed ‘enemies of the people’, to Siberia and other remote parts of the Soviet Union, to crush resistance to Soviet rule. Hundreds of thousands of Russians, in turn, emigrated to Latvia, creating, to this day, tensions between the Latvian and Russian-speaking populations. The crumbling of the Soviet Empire, saw the declaration of Latvian independence on 21 August 1991.
Much of that 800 years of tumultuous history are marked in the stones of Riga’s buildings, from the Gothic Old Town, to the Art Nouveau streets of the Klusais Centrs, to Stalinist statues and housing projects, to postmodern nationalist style. Here are photos from three points in that architectural history – the Gothic cathedrals of the Old Town, the Stalinist style and Gunnar Birkerts’s Latvian National Library, opened in 2014.
The Gothic cathedrals are beautifully poised and wonderfully graceful. The ribbed High Gothic ceiling of St John’s Church, the oldest of Riga’s churches, is gloriously dazzling.
On the other bank of the Daugava river, and at the other end of the historical journey, stands the Latvian National Library, designed by the Latvian-American architect, Gunnar Birkerts.Its shape draws upon two old Latvian fables about the Glass Mountain and the Castle of Light. The first tells of a sleeping princess on top of a mountain of glass, whose smooth surface defeats would-be suitors attempting to reach her, the second of the Castle of Light that sinks into an ancient lake and rises again from the depths only when Latvians were masters of their own land.
From a distance, the Library can look monumental and forbidding. Close up, the glass and the steel, the reflections and the slopes, draw you in. And inside, there is a wonderful feel of openness and light. The view of the central stack of bookshelves, that run across a series of floors but are unified by the atrium’s glass wall, is quite stunning.
And in between the cathedrals of grace and the castle of light, are the echoes of Stalinism, in war memorials and public housing, in bridges and grand buildings. Some of it is awful, some quite striking. But all of it an intimate part of Riga’s architectural mosaic.
Cathedrals of grace
The first three photos are of the ceiling of St John’s Church; the next two of St Jacob’s Cathedral; the final two of the clusters of Riga Cathedral.
From top down: the wall of the Museum of Occupation; the Academy of Sciences (nicknamed ‘Stalin’s birthday Cake’); the statue to the Latvian Red Riflemen; the statue commemorating the 1905 Revolution; Vansu Bridge; TV tower and railway bridge; and Soviet-era housing in Ziepniekkalns.
Castle of light