Facades along the Baltic
There are no high points to Riga. That is true literally, but also in terms of its architecture. There are a few mediocre office and hotel towers, both from the Soviet era and of more recent vintage, that rise above the city, and the spires of the St. Peter’s and St. John’s churches gesture to the faithful, but almost all the buildings remain within an 8-story limit. The uniformity has made the small capital of Latvia a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it also makes it difficult to grasp the city’s contours. Not framed by mountains or hills, turned away from the broad Daugava inlet, it gains its character from its facades, and those are eclectic, to say the least. No place I know displays more variety of materials, compositions and styles in repetitive blocks and stretches of streets than Riga.
This is no doubt the result of the Hanseatic city’s eclectic past: it has been part of Russia, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark—and only twice, including most recently since the fall of the Soviet empire, independent. At times, the mauve and yellow-hued neoclassical facade make you think you are in Stockholm, then you turn the corner to find wood structures reminiscent of Finland or Norway, then the animated brick of the Art Academy reminds you of the expressive excesses of German and Danish neo-Gothic. It is a great place to study the architectural history of the last few centuries.
The greatest contribution the city made to that history is to be found in the Art Nouveau district, and especially in the work of Mikhail Eisenstein, the father of the famous film director Sergei. Built mainly for Jewish clients, the blocks of the few streets that make up this area around Alberta Street drip with ornament, their windows sagging into fat eyebrows, the pilasters disappearing behind layers of geometric and floriated patterns. The most remarkable aspect of these facades are the women: staring out into space, their mouths open, their hair merging into cornices and capitals, they sing out some lament that we can only imagine concerns their confinement to this thin myth draped over otherwise rather dark apartments.
Mikhail Eisenstein, Elizabeth Street 10, 1906
Since this final melting into animate unity of the block’s facades, not much has happened, it appears, in Riga, beyond some decent streamlined facades. The city is being renovated and looks quite smart—at least in the center—but only one structure is challenging the variegated monotony of the city’s blocks: a new national library, designed by the expatriate octogenarian Gunnar Birkerts to look like the crystal mountain of Latvian myth. After many delays and cost cuts, it is currently under construction across the river, and we will see what effect it has on the city’s architectural future. For now it seems like an alien beast landed out of time and place.
What surprised me most about this collection of decorated boxes was how much people enjoyed living there. I gave a lecture at the local architecture school and asked the students if any of them wanted to study or live and work abroad. Almost none did: “You should work in the place you were born, that is the only one you can understand," one of them said, to general agreement. After so many influences, they want to make their own place. But what is the future of a facade in front of interchangeable blocks? I am not sure, and neither were the Latvians I asked. I think there is a possibility to think about pure eclecticism and facadism as a way to create a coherent character for a place trying to define itself. Certainly the notion that one should build of the place, not just on it, is laudable, but what is one to make of a place that gains its character from elsewhere? Perhaps that is the model for what all our cities are becoming, and we should look towards such an architecture of cladding for answers. But what would a truly global skin around a local form look like? I saw no answers yet along the Dauguva. Like all cities released from the ice world of the Soviet interregnum, it is looking for its prince, but it is, for now, happy with its frog’s skin.