There are many reasons to travel to another country: to taste the local wines and liquers,1 to visit its renowned galleries and museums, to become acquainted with its local ladies, to talk with its taxi drivers and doormen, to lay quietly on its serene beaches, to expand one’s culinary horizons, or to read a city’s history through its architecture.
Ideally, all of these ingredients would be mixed to some degree, but today let’s focus on this last one: architecture.
Architecture is one of the most enduring symbols of human culture. The political, financial, and imaginative resources required to see one’s idea come to fruition, much less to see your design survive the world’s endless streams of natural and political upheavals, is an undertaking requiring both skill and luck. It’s no wonder so many people want to be architects. It’s a badass discipline. You get to build shit!2
The only thing that lasts longer than architecture is the land itself, and it can hardly be said that man had a hand in that, now can it? That leaves the Pyramids, the Wailing Wall, the Coliseum, the Parthenon, the Great Wall of China, and the like3 as the primary symbols of civilizations gone by. The other fragments of history (the bowls, statues, scrolls, etc.) only help us to decipher these larger-than-life structures. It is architecture, more than anything else, that calls to mind the titans of history. Architecture is how individuals leave their mark.4
So while my recent visit to the lower 2/3rds of the Baltics5 included all of the aforementioned ingredients,6 let’s focus on the building stock, particularly Latvia’s. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union and exactly 23 years after Russia officially recognized its independence, Latvia’s emerging from two generations of central planning with zest and zeal. Let’s take a closer look:
Just on the edge of the Old Town lay the National Opera House, completed in 1863 and refurbished several times since then, it’s a well maintained example of neo-classical architecture, complete with ionic columns supporting a frieze-bearing entablature and a triangular pediment, not unlike what you find on the First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. I was fortunate enough to catch the opening night of the 2014/15 Opera season featuring La Traviata. The excellent performance wasn’t tarnished in the slightest by the contemporary set design and costumes. The lead female, Sonora Vaice, shone ever so brightly in her role as Violetta.
In the heart of the Old Town is the Dome Cathedral, originally constructed from 1211-12707 as a place of worship for Riga’s Order of Monks until the Lutherans decided that they could make better use of it. Inside, the mix of iconography is very unusual for a Lutheran Church. Outside, three distinct wings of the building represent three distinct eras of architecture: the central chamber with bell tower is Gothic, the rear atrium (seen partially at left) is Baroque, and the front entrance (obscured on right) is in the Art Nouveau8 style. This picture also shows a University celebration for the new school year. The professors assembled on stage and sang folk songs,9 the various fraternities donned their traditional garb and waved their coats of arms, a traditional Latvian dance was professionally performed, and torches were lit by the assembled crowd as dusk descended.
Also in the Old Town, we’re starting to see a mix of old and new. Curtain wall – the hallmark of modern, post-modern, and contemporary design language – is seen here growing like an all-glass tumour out of the brick and plaster building on the left.
Outside the Old Town are situated additionally interesting architectural specimens. Take these former Zeppelin10 hangers turned food markets just to the south. Clearly now brought up to EU health inspection standards, the fish market hanger wasn’t the least bit stanky, the meat market hanger was similarly clean, and the bread/cake/nuts/spices hanger was an aromatic delight. On the perimeter of the hangers were the fresh fruit stands, which featured many a varietal of in-season mushroom! The shoppers were almost entirely >60 years old and the prices were, as such, very reasonable.11 A 200g piece of peanut butter halva was only €1.30.
To the northeast of the Old Town lay the heart of the city’s famous Art Nouveau district, centred abound Elizabeth and Alberta streets.12 Known as “the city of a thousand faces,” the density of early 20th century architecture is quite special, even warranting UNESCO recognition.13 The over-the-top ornateness and craftsmanship make these buildings a cinch to spot. Riga’s supply of these buildings, impeccably preserved for the past century, provides a solid foundation for the fledgling EU-fringe state to build upon.
Quite the level of detail, eh? Though while the level of detail, certainly compared to the more austere aesthetics of Soviet/modern design, was undoubtedly impressive, the quality of the materials wasn’t on par with that of other centres of Art Nouveau architecture, such as Bruxelles. While the woodworking and metalworking in Riga was top notch, largely on account of the clear history of both in the area, the façade details on the Art Nouveau buildings was largely plaster on brick rather than carved stone. This was surely due to the availability of materials and appropriately skilled labour, but the district did feel a bit cheaper for it.14
Inside, the ironworking and painted surfaces were of a kind that we just don’t see anymore. Then again, most buildings built in North America today have an expected lifespan of 30-40 years, so why bother painting the ceiling of your trailer home?15
Unexpectedly, right next to the Art Nouveau district, and I do mean right across the street, were blocks and blocks of multi-story wood buildings with tin roofs. These were designed in the Russian school of architecture available to the lower- and middle-classes at the turn of the 20th century. While they haven’t aged as well as their posh neighbours, at least they’re still standing.
Fast-forwarding to Soviet times and we find buildings with nicknames! Pictured here is the Vanšu bridge, known locally as “Brezhnev’s Guitar,” alongside a noticeably less jewfro-ey author.16 Completed in 1981, the steel and concrete construction seen here represents some of the most sophisticated infrastructure engineering the USSR had to offer, which, as usual, was 30 behind the American schools of design. Walking under the bridge, the steel was rusting and the concrete was crumbling.
Riga also boasts a building with the nickname “Stalin’s Birthday Cake,” where, at 17th floors up, some of the best views of the city are available. Riga is relatively free of the rationalist monstrosities known as “skyscrapers,” though, as you can see on the other side of the river, the Scandanavian tentacles of Swedbank17 and Danske Bank seem rather intent on changing that. It’s not hard to see that fiat banks ruin everything they touch. Good riddance to ‘em!
And as you could see from Stalin’s Birthday Cake, just over the train bridge with the four steel arches, we find the most contemporary, as well as the most controversial, building in Riga. Say sveiki to the Gunārs Birkerts designed €166 mn Latvia National Library. This grotesque expenditure of public resources18 is reminiscent of the Rogers Arena in downtown Edmonton and its shit-for-brains funding scheme that puts the entire bezzle on the taxpayer.19 But hey, at least the Canadian powers-that-pretend-to-be understand the panem et circenses routine. Who the fuck ever went with their friends to a library on a Friday night?
And thus concludes our architectural tour of Riga.
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Bonus Picture Time!
Jurmala20 is an upscale bedroom community/beach resort 20km west of Riga. Being completely residential, the town’s architecture had an entirely different feel. The single-house lots were all over 1/2 acre and in general there seemed to be land to spare. There were quite a few Art Nouveau gems, but it was the contemporary multi-family units, designed very explicitly with Russian clientele in mind, that was most impressive. I’d never seen that much new residential development of that high of a calibre. These new multi-family developments were quite outstanding in terms of design, material, and level of finish. Florida and the Okanagan wish they had resort towns anything like Jurmala.
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- Latvia’s Black Balzam is a pleasant herbal liquer, the local equivalent of Jägermeister or Wurzelpeter, and it comes in a variety of flavours, as every alcohol seems to nowadays. The Black Currant variety is sweet enough to enjoy as a dessert unto itself while the Original variety makes a lovely apéritif. Inexplicably, there’s also an “Element” variety that’s aimed at the “modern consumer.” Don’t ask me WTF that means. [↩]
- Architecture is also thoroughly gruelling discipline. To become a registered architect takes a Masters degree and 5-6 years of “internship.” No less than a medical specialist, really, except the pay is 1/6 of their surgically-scrubbed counterparts. Yet it’s still highly competitive! Architecture being far more likely to bring international acclaim and ever-lasting glory. [↩]
- Nota bene that these are all solid stone structures. Wood rots, metal corrodes, brick crumbles, glass breaks, and solid stone… lasts. [↩]
- It turns out that people don’t make leave mark by derping on social media. Who knew? [↩]
- I didn’t make it to Estonia on this trip. [↩]
- Including, oh so very importantly, modest cost! I don’t know about you, but I feel 1,000,000x better about a fantastic meal and a charming hotel when they’re also inexpensive. That is, not Switzerland/New York/Moscow prices. I derive zero pleasure from “ballin'” like some fucking arriviste. Maybe that makes me a joo, I dunno. [↩]
- Can you imagine construction taking multiple generations? And this still ain’t no Sagrada Familia. [↩]
- Also known as Jugendstil [↩]
- Latvians are known for their singing. [↩]
- In the 1930’s, you could take a 20-passenger, 40-crew, hydrogen-filled Zeppelin from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro for USD$590, about 1/2 a teacher’s annual salary. At an average speed of no more than 100kph, these multi-day journeys pre-dated trans-Atlantic air travel by a good decade or two. The contemporary equivalent would have to be the Emirates A380 First Class Private Suite, which fetch ~$40-70k per flight, depending on route. [↩]
- This, despite everything being priced in Euros. Estonia and Latvia are already in the Eurozone. Lithuania joins January 1, 2015. [↩]
- The Canadian province of Alberta does not at this time recognize any influence from this latter street in Riga. [↩]
- UNESCO recognizes historically important landmarks. Along with this recognition, sought after by all the types of people who usually yearn for external praise, comes a number of variously ridiculous restrictions, including the immutability of any and all structures visible from the designated site. And to think that this is perhaps one of the few arenas in which people strictly adhere to what the UN has to say. Bizarre, neh? [↩]
- Surprise: Riga ain’t Rome. [↩]
- Whether you live in a $2 mn “house with a pool” in the suburbs or in a pre-fab trailer in the park, your place of habitation was built to last the same 30-40 years. Basically, it’s designed to last as long as you owe money on it. After that, it’ll be little more than a pile of worthless sticks that you may or may not be lucky enough to sell for the value of the land. Yup, North America is one giant trailer park. [↩]
- Don’t worry, I didn’t get a haircut. But the fro has definitely gained enough mass that I can experiment with it. [↩]
- Formerly known as Hansabank. [↩]
- To say nothing of the building itself, which, really, I find quite visually interesting. [↩]
- But don’t worry, Edmonton! The Rogers Arena will “revitalize” downtown, as if 1) The dusty excuse of a downtown was ever vital in the first place, and 2) This weren’t yet another privatizing of profits and socializing of losses à la TARP. [↩]
- The “J” in Jurmala is soft, so I was pronouncing it like I’d say “your MOmma” with the emphasis on the second syllable. The emphasis is, it turns out, on the first. “YOUR momma,” then. [↩]