Latvian architecture has been developing slowly and carefully with respect towards the diverse architectural heritage of cities and towns – whether it was medieval grandeur, Art nouveau intricacy or soviet functionalism, when it comes to rural territories, customary building traditions and landscape are taken into account. Contemporary Latvian architecture has often been one of reconstruction and preservation, adaptation of buildings that represent times gone by or used to serve entirely different functions. Banks, car distributors, offices have been commissioners to some of the most talented Latvian architects,1 resulting in new features in the architectural landscape of Latvia. Lately also a number of public building projects have been on the rise – for the Treasury of the Bank of Latvia2 and the Latvian national Library3 have both gained new homes, so has a concert hall in Rēzekne,4 a music school in Saldus,5 a Pārventa Library in Ventspils.6 Wooden architecture in Rīga, on the other hand, has a patroness,7 who has not only led a highly regarded restoration process, but also raised awareness of and initiated a movement around wooden architecture as one of Rīga’s treasures.
With the young generation of architects entering the scene recently, architecture seems to have become more daring and emotionally expressive. Indeed, this is not limited to buildings. Latvians have their own shoe architect now – an architect turned shoe designer who has created her own brand of footwear,8 combining craftsmanship of previous generations with her own feel of form. When it comes to Latvian design, be it fashion, furniture, commodities – it often stands out with clean lines, and use of natural materials.
Zeimuļs – a building complex for creative activities of young people is one of the most surprising architectural projects of the last decade in Latvia, created by Rasa Kalniņa and Māris Krūmiņš (both under 30). Inspired by the dynamic landscape of the town of Rēzekne with its ruins of a medieval castle on the backdrop of hilly scenery, architects have created form using imagination and a sense of humor. They even created a legend of a wizard who came and lifted a piece of earth and stuck some pencils in the ground to hold it up, so that children have space to play and learn after work is done. Zeimuļs (pencil in the Latgalian dialect) is an example of contemporary design emerging from physical and emotional surroundings, from a local spirit and traditional archetypes, providing a warm and friendly new environment for children.
Birkerts and the Castle of Light
Gunārs Birkerts (1925) is the most famous architect of Latvian origin in the world. He has worked mainly in the united States and is internationally known for projects such as the Law Library building at the university of Michigan, the Corning Museum of Glass, and lately – the Castle of Light, the new building for the Latvian national Library in Rīga. The architectural form of the Castle of the Light draws inspiration from the metaphors and images of Latvian folk legends – the hill of glass, the symbolic Castle of Light which, according to legend, sank into the depths during the blood period of oppression in Latvia. The legend tells that when brave men and women summon it, the castle will rise from the dark- ness, and the people will once again be free. not only expressive in form, the library building is designed with the needs of readers, books and librarians in mind. The first sketch of the library building was created in 1989 and it opens to the public in 2014.
Andris Kronbergs (1951) is one of the most notable contemporary architects in Latvia. Since the restoration of independence his work has not only been prolific but also creative conceptually, offering innovative solutions with regard to scale, form, and materials appropriate to the regional environment. Kronbergs’s accomplishments often reflect a talent for working with Latvian landscapes, but he has also been drawn to the scope of projects involving city planning and infrastructure as well as the latest in construction technologies. One of his best known projects is the renovation and expansion of the Rīga International Airport, and the elegant new treasury of the Bank of Latvia. Both the airport and the treasury are among the first structures visitors to Latvia see, acting as gates to the capital.
Mareunrol’s is a designer duo of Mārīte Mastiņa-Pēterkopa and Rolands Pēterkops, working on concept based collections. Their clothes are specially designed sets, scenography, video projections and installations, photography, most often their works tell a story. They mix avant-garde forms with wearable qualities. They have repeatedly gained international acclaim, among other things – the winning awards in fashion and photography at the Hyeres festival. Their clothes can be considered avant-garde, but in reality it is wearable fashion, made for the public and made to generate emotions.
The archetype of the ancient Latvian farmstead can still be found in most contemporary architects’ works. Despite the trend toward uniformity, the Latvian country landscape is still characterized by the historical model of the Latvian household - the individual farmstead. usually it is a group of buildings with the characteristic double pitch roofs and laconic form encircling a tree in the middle of a field. A valuable collection with samples from all four ethnographic areas of Latvia can be found at the Open Air Museum. The individual farmstead and its elements serve as the archetype for simple and clear architecture, which is quoted and interpreted by contemporary architects.
Art Nouveau in Rīga
The time of Art nouveau, late 19th, early 20th century, coincided with an unprecedented period of prosperity in Rīga. Over several years more than 100 multistory buildings were erected and many of them are still here to see. The world famous architect Mikhail Eisenstein resided and worked in Rīga, numerous local architects – K. Pēkšēns, E. Laube, J. Alksnis and others – were also actively working in Rīga, developing their own style, later called ‘national romantism’ – a rougher form of Art nouveau with use of natural, indigenous building materials.