Architecture of Latvia

Extensive Guide to Architecture in Latvia

Architecture

For centuries Latvia was a land of forests, and traditional Latvian architecture was wooden. Peasant homes were all built with architectural details that existed often meant to serve practical purpose. Some of such homes still exist in villages and museums.

An old farmstead of Courland fishermen moved into Riga skansen
Wooden building of Latvian vernacular architecture now located in Riga open-air museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

German knights who came to Christianize Latvia built the first cities, bringing with them brick buildings, Western European styles. Throughout the next centuries, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles influenced the key buildings of Latvia: castles, churches and townhouses. Baroque was especially influential in Eastern Latvia where Catholic faith prevailed as well as for palaces. Some of Latvia’s best known buildings are built in these styles.

Jelgava palace
Austere yet massive St. Peter gothic church in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The face of Latvia was changed by the 19th century urbanization. In building the new cities, larger than ever before, architects borrowed ideas from previous styles, firstly creating a Neo-Classical stule (imitating Antiquity) and then other Historicist styles (imitating every previous period). Cities have also received wooden buildings, ranging from simple apartment blocks of the workers to elaborate seaside villas for the rich.

Historicist buildings in Liepāja
Historicist buildings in Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

By ~1900 the use of former architectural styles was replaced by an invented new one: the Art Nouveau. Riga is considered one of the most excellent repositories of Art Nouveau buildings, the Riga Art Nouveau falling into multiple substyles, one of them National Romantic which epitomized the Latvian national revival.

A former spa in Jūrmala beach
Art nouveau spa in Jūrmala beach. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the interwar independence Latvia lost population, limiting the architecture of the period to just a few districts in Riga. The few key projects of the era that were constructed were designed to epitomized the newly-born Latvia, showing that it is no more merely a province of some large empires. They borrowed on Art Deco and other then-popular styles.

Soldiers memorial in Riga
A fragment of independence war soldiers memorial – one of the key interwar projects when city asserted its Latvian identity. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The independence was cut short by a bloody Soviet occupation. In architecture, it started with rather impressive Soviet historicism (a.k.a. Stalinism, Socialist realism) as the only legal style. The style gave controversial buildings of grey/brown grandeur to Latvian downtowns.

Academy of Sciences in Riga
Academy of Sciences in Riga (1951-1961), the most famous Soviet historicist building in Latvia and for long the tallest. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

It was however later (~1955) replaced by massive districts of cheap and nearly identical Soviet modernist apartment blocks. While often despised, the Soviet modernism still forms the essence of many city districts.

Skrunda-2 main street
Soviet apartment blocks of 1960s at Skrunda-2. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After independence, Latvia constructed the buildings of once-neglected uses (e.g. Office blocks, shopping malls) using modern Western styles and materials, such as steel and glass.

Post-independence concert hall in Liepāja built in a form and color of a piece of amber
Post-independence concert hall in Liepāja built in a form and color of a piece of amber. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Vernacular architecture

Latvian vernacular (folk) architecture is wooden and limited to villages.

For centuries, Latvian villagers would build their own homes by their own hands out of timber they would collect in nearby forests (and cover the roof with thatch). The homes and other farmstead buildings were relatively simple and families often lived in cramped conditions. However, they still had some unique architectural details, especially the iconic forms of the gabled roofs.

Large home with iconic roof in Riga Skansen
Large vernacular home with iconic roof in Riga Skansen. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Because Latvia was conquered by German knights as early as 13th century, architectural styles imported from Germany displaced the Latvian vernacular architecture from towns and cities. Therefore you would see few churches or other larger buildings built in the vernacular style, although some exist in villages.

Typically a Latvian farmstead consists of many buildings, of which the house is the most important
Typically a Latvian farmstead consists of many buildings, of which the house is the most important. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Even Latvian vernacular wooden homes are relatively rare, as they were prone to fires as well as demolition when they would become dated. For the past century, they also been associated with a poor life as they typically lacked amenities. Many of the vernacular homes that survived were moved relocated into folk museums (the largest one is near Riga, but there are also ones in Jūrmala, Ventspils). Also, the later vernacular homes (beginning in 19th century) also often included details of the “urban” styles, such as neo-classical or historicist.

A 19th century building that combines vernacular and other style details
A 19th century building that combines vernacular and other style details. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

That said, Latvian vernacular architecture with its gabled roofs did influence the Art Nouveau architecture of Latvian national awakening era (19th century).

In addition to Latvian vernacular architecture, there are some Russian vernacular architecture buildings constructed in Latgale (Eastern Latvia) by Old Believer migrants of 18th century. While also wooden, they have a somewhat different style.

A Russian farmstead moved to Riga Skansen from Latgale, with iconic red window decorations
A Russian farmstead moved to Riga Skansen from Latgale, with iconic red window decorations. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Gothic

Gothic is one of the most iconic styles of Latvian old towns, especially visible in Riga. Characterized by tall roof gables, small and often tall arched windows, red brick facades it was the style of Medieval traders and crusaders.

Gothic was brought to Latvia by Christian Germans in the 12th century who have conquered the country. Many of the best surviving Gothic buildings are churches (although their interiors are often more modern). Not all gothic-looking churches are Medieval however as it became popular to imitate the gothic style in the 19th century.

Gothic churches in Riga
Gothic churches in Riga of St. John (left, 1491) and St. Peter (right, 1409) in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While in Medieval era nearly every townhouse must have been Gothic, few of them remained as they were replaced by new buildings as the centuries passed. What exists now are often some Gothic details together with those of later styles, or Gothic facades restored in the 20th century. Gothic forms may still however be visible in numerous townhouses of Riga Old Town. Such buildings are usually narrow and long, with just a small facade facing the nearby street.

A gothic former warehouse in Riga
A gothic former warehouse in Riga (reconstructed afterwards). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Additionally, many of the ruins of the crusader castles are Gothic. Unlike other buildings, the castles were typically abandoned, offering a glimpse into authentic (though ruined) buildings of a gothic Medieval Latvia.

Central fortification of Medieval Cēsis castle
Central fortification of Medieval Cēsis castle (13th century). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some of the oldest gothic buildings of Latvia also have Romanesque influences. That was an older style of Christian Europe that was already a passing trend by the time Christian knights have conquered Latvia. Romanesque buildings look less graceful and more massive as they do not use Medieval building technologies that allowed Gothic buildings to have more slender walls.

Renaissance architecture

Renaissance architecture was a more elaborate and colorful replacement for the austere Gothic, with more small details on facades.

Three Brothers
Three Brothers, likely the most famous old residentials in Latvia. The middle one is Renaissance in style (1646) and the right one is Gothic with some early Renaissance details (15th century). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While elsewhere in Europe Renaissance was also a period of “rebirth of sciences after the religious centuries”, for Latvia this meant a period of destruction. The religious states that dominated Latvia collapsed, and centuries of alternating foreign regimes and warfare inbetween them came in.

As such, relatively few Renaissance buildings exist in Latvia.

The most famous Renaissance building in Latvia is likely the Blackheads house. It is actually a reconstruction however, as the original one was destroyed by Soviets.

Blackheads house in Riga
Blackheads house in Riga. Like many Latvian Renaissance buildings, it was actually constructed in Gothic style, but updated to Renaissance. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There are also several Renaissance churches and a castle in Bauska, but, all in all, Gothic continued to dominate the Latvian cityscapes throughout the Renaissance period as there was both little need and possibility to construct something new.

Baroque

Baroque, popular in the 18th century, is one of the most elaborate architectural styles in Latvia and some of Latvia’s favorite buildings are built following it. Baroque facades are especially rich in details, while the interiors are filled (some would say overfilled) by shards of riches and prestige.

Jelgava palace
Baroque palace at Jelgava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Baroque was never universal, reserved mostly for the buildings paid by the richest.

One of the two key powers behind the Latvia’s Baroque was the Roman Catholic church which has commissioned numerous white churches in the Latgale area where it was dominant. All these construction were funded by the local Polish-Lithuanian nobility who hoped this would help reach a better afterlife in a very troubled era where danger of Russia and state Russian Orthodoxy already loomed. They often followed a sub-style known as Vilnius baroque which is characterized by twin slim church towers. Other churches were towerless.

Baroque Aglona Basilica
Aglona Basilica (1780), a Vilnius Baroque style church in Latgale that is also the holiest place for Latvian Catholics. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After all, Baroque style was closely intertwinned with Catholicism, as it was Catholic church that has commissioned first Baroque buildings in the world.

Another power behind the Latvia’s Baroque were the dukes of Courland-Semigallia. Their statelet (a fief of Poland-Lithuania) was sent into decline by numerous wars, but their archietctural projects were partly funded by Russians who sought to court them. They included massive palaces at Jelgava and Rundale was well an academy in Jelgava.

Baroque Grand entrance to Rundale Palace
Grand entrance to Rundale Palace (1768), the summer residence of Courland-Semigallia dukes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Baroque was also used by some nobles for their countryside manors and townhouses. Additionally, some older urban churches were “updated” by Baroque towers that still survive, including the Riga’s Lutheran Cathedral and St. Peter’s church.

Baroque spires of older Riga churches
Baroque spires attached on older Riga churches (Cathedral and St. Peter church). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Baroque facades often survived, interiors and surrounding formal gardens were typically less lucky (both have been destroyed in Jelgava palace, for example). Still, some of them were restored after the independence of Latvia.

Baroque Academia Petrina of Jelgava
Academia Petrina institution of science built by dukes of Courland-Semigallia in Jelgava (right), 1795. Tower is Baroque, the lower part also has Neo-Classical forms. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Neo-Classical architecture

Neo-Classical architecture imitates the architecture of ancient Rome and ancient Greece. The style was popular in Latvia ~1750-1850 and the streets still have more Neo-Classical buildings than buildings constructed according to any earlier style. Neo-classical was even adopted for wooden buildings.

Neo-Classical Jesus Heart octagonal church
Neo-Classical Jesus Heart octagonal church is the largest wooden building in Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Classical temples of Roman and Greek gods were among the main inspirations, and many buildings thus had Classical columns, pediments, and Ancient symmetry.

A rich Neo-Classical family grave in Riga constructed as a small Ancient temple
A rich family grave in Riga constructed as a small Ancient temple. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Even though it is an imitation of ancient Rome and Greece, Neo-Classical has more elaborate facades than were possible during Classical Antiquity; the most elaborate Neo-Classical buildings are known as Empire style, which have added sculptures.

It should be noted that back in real Antiquity only the major public buildings and those of the rich had any decorations at all, while such buildings as apartment blocks were very simple. In Latvia of the 1750s and 1850s however, every urban building was expected to be built to the levels of ancient temples rather than ancient buildings of the same purpose.

A Neo-Classical military warehouse in Daugavpils fortress
A Neo-Classical military warehouse in Daugavpils fortress. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Neo-Classical interiors were, however, more austere than most earlier interiors. Even palaces and churches often had all-white interiors with relatively few decorations, just as the Ancient Roman buildings that inspired them (this was a misconception, however, as in reality, Ancient buildings had colorful interiors, just that the colors were destroyed by time).

The most visible legacy of Neo-Classicism in Latvia is however not the buildings themselves but the changes in urban planning. The cities and districts built before 19th century typically consist of many labyrinthine narrow streets that lead to some larger squares. Neo-Classical cities (e.g. Daugavpils and Riga Centrs), on the other hand, are based on straight rather wide streets, forming rectangular blocks filled with buildings. This was the same urban planning as in the Roman Empire, and even where the Neo-classical buildings themselves have been destroyed by subsequent wars and occupations (e.g. Daugavpils), the Neo-classical street grid remained intact.

Riga pedestrian street in Daugavpils
Long straight street at Daugavpils downtown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

As the time progressed, people of Latvia started to grow fond of all the previous styles rather than just Neo-classical. As such, Neo-classical was reduced from the majority style to an exception for new buildings by the mid-19th century.

Historicism (Revival architecture)

Historicism architecture was an emulation of various past architectural styles. It was popular in Latvia ~1800s-1910s under the Russian rule.

A surviving 19th century building in Jelgava
A residential building built ~1900 in Jelgava in the historicist style. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

At the time it was believed that different architectural styles of the past are appropriate for buildings of different functions.

Lutheran and Catholic churches were typically constructed following Gothic Revival style, imitating the architecture of Medieval great cathedrals. These red brick elaborate buildings with tall spired towers that were constructed in the 19th century were especially complex, but the style became somewhat simpler late.

Bulduri Lutheran church, surrounded by a forest park
Gothic revival Bulduri Lutheran church in Jūrmala (1888). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In any case, these churches are not very numerous, as Lutheran and Catholic faiths lacked official status back then. Russian Orthodoxy was the state religion and Russian Orthodox churches were constructed in most towns and city districts. Their architects followed a mandatory Neo-Byzanthine style instead, emulating the Medieval Orthodox churches of Byzantine Empire. These churches all have domes. Typically, one dome is large and the other ones are smaller. Facade decorations consist of geometric lines and stylized columns.

Neo-Byzanthine Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral in Riga
Neo-Byzanthine Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

19th century was a somewhat more secular era than those before it, and cities were transformed from merely outposts for military, religion and trade into places where hundreds of thousands people lived and worked. As such, a wide array of massive secular buildings became needed, such as government offices, post offices, train stations and banks. Some of these buildings were built according to a continuing Neo-Classical style.

Neo-Baroque became popular for theaters and museums, its opulent forms probably the best embodiment of art possible in building material.

Neo-Baroque National Theater of Riga
Neo-Baroque National Theater of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Neo-Renaissance was common for educational institutions, as Renaissance was associated with the revival of science and knowledge.

Neo-Renaissance Riga Market in Riga Old Town
Neo-Renaissance Riga Market in Riga Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another popular style in Latvia and all the areas where Germans were influential was Rundbogenstil (round arch style), effectively a German form of Neo-Romanesque characterized by round window arches.

Later in the 19th century, Eclectic historicism became common, freely combining details of various pasts styles, especially those of Gothic, Classical, Baroque and Renaissance. It became very popular for apartment buildings and other secular structures. Often these buildings were especially elaborate: even simple apartment buildings or wooden single-family homes now had towers, domes and facade sculptures, once reserved to churches and major public edifices.

Main Jomas street out of season
Towered wooden buildings in Jūrmala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A simpler version of eclectic historicism buildings are purposefully left unplastered, their facade decorations formed out of the same bricks that are their construction material. This became known as the Brick style, especially prevalent in Daugavpils. Brick style was also used for factories as well as Russian military barracks in places such as Karosta. In such cases, saving on plastering was understandable but the zeitgeist still did not allow construction of non-elaborate facades, creating brick ornamentation instead.

Elaborate red brick building in Daugavpils downtown
A brick style building in Daugavpils downtown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another new trend of late 19th century were the Residential castles: countryside manor palaces that looked like Medieval castles. They were built according to whatever past styles their rich mostly German owners wished, ranging from the most common Neo-Gothic to British Neo-Tudor. Compared to the real Medieval castles they had larger windows and way more opulent interiors as the ability to defend them were not really needed in what was an unprecedented century of peace in Latvia (1812-1914), while growing economy and technological advances allowed for comforts not known before. Towers were popular, but they were meant to provide their owners a nice lookout into their own lands and pretty nature rather than to provide a ground for defenders to shoot at approaching enemies.

Cesvaine Palace
Cesvaine Palace (1896), Tudor Neo-Renaissance. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In its latest eras, Historicism and its Revival styles faced competition against the new style of Art Nouveau and gradually lost that battle.

One of the rooms of Cesvaine Palace
One of the rooms of Cesvaine Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Art Nouveau (Jugend style)

Art Nouveau (a.k.a. Jugend style) architecture prevailed in Europe of 1880s-1910s. It was an antithesis to other styles that merely copied the past. Instead of re-using old columns and Antiquity-inspired sculptures, art nouveau used elements such as curved lines, geometric patterns, images of plants and images from local mythology to create extremely elaborate yet still modern (for the time) facades.

Latvia saw its most rapid urbanization in the same era of art nouveau. Therefore Latvian cities became a great repository of art nouveau architecture while Riga is usually considered an unparalleled gem of art nouveau. The elaborate facades of these buildings are favorites for tourists to snap images of and there is even an Art Nouveau museum.

Art Nouveau buildings in Riga
Art Nouveau buildings in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Interiors of art nouveau buildings are no less elaborate than their exteriors. Even apartment ceilings may be painted rather than white, while entrance halls and staircases are considered the pride of the building and therefore are often especially opulent.

Art nouveau staircase interior leading to Riga art nouveau museum
Art nouveau staircase interior in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Most art nouveau buildings of Latvia are quite large, 4 to 6 floors tall. Most of them are apartment blocks ordered by rich owners to house all the people that were flocking into cities.

In Riga, art nouveau buildings are so numerous that they are divided into four sub-styles.

Eclectic decorative art nouveau still use the Historicist proportions with building facades divided by lines into floors. However, elements “loaned” from history are partly replaced by new art nouveau elements (plants, patterns, curved lines).

Part of art noveau facade near Albert street
A facade of eclectic decorative art nouveau building in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Perpendicular art nouveau have their facades divided by vertical rather than horizontal lines. Such aesthetics were new at the time and somewhat similar to American skyscrapers. While Latvian art nouveau buildings were much smaller in size, they were still larger than anything secular built in Latvia before. ~1/3rd of Riga’s art nouveau buildings belong this substyle.

Perpendicular art nouveau building in Riga
Perpendicular art nouveau building in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Romanticized Renaissance Art Nouveau was somewhere in between the above two styles, with more vertical orientation but still looking into history for inspirations and general ideas for forms.

Romanticed Renaissance Art Nouveau sub-style
Romanticized Renaissance Art Nouveau sub-style. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

National romantic art nouveau (1905-1915) is the ultimately Latvian art-nouveau sub-style. It incorporated Latvian ethnic patterns and mythological figures into building designs and used tall gabled roofs akin to vernacular Latvian architecture. This was the time of Latvian national revival whereby Latvians were collecting and reinventing their songs, literature and other arts. National romantic art nouveau is thus a modern form of ethnic Latvian architecture. Giving large numbers of such buildings in Riga, it is not only unique but also prominent, making Latvians one of the few nations to have had its own widespread “ethnic architectural style” as late as 20th century. Unlike the other forms of Art Nouveau, the facades of national romantic style have neither horizontal nor vertical lines.

A national romantic art nouveau building, adorned by ethnic patterns and a tall gabled roof
A national romantic art nouveau building, adorned by ethnic patterns and a tall gabled roof. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some National Romantic Art Nouveau buildings were, however, more German in nature. They used details taken out of Medieval German architecture, such as a stylized wooden frame. Even though Latvians became the most numerous ethnic group in cities ~1900 and increasing numbers of key architects were Latvians, Latvia’s Germans still wielded a considerable influence and many of the buildings of the era were funded by Germans.

German national romantic top of a Dubulti church spire in Jūrmala
German national romantic top of a Dubulti church spire in Jūrmala, imitating ‘traditional german’ wooden frame buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While most Art Nouveau buildings were built of brick and rather large, a unique sub-style of them were wooden summer homes that became common in seaside resorts and seaside districts of large cities. Often constructed as second homes of rich families, they used wood to form elaborate external decorations as well as romanticized towers.

Art nouveau summerhome (now hotel) in downtown Jūrmala
Art nouveau summer home (now hotel) in downtown Jūrmala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Art Nouveau came to abrupt end with World War 1 and for a long time afterward suffered negative opinions about it as many people associated it with the “decadence of the imperialism era”. Such attitudes continued under the Soviet occupation, when the buildings were nationalized and the larger apartments made communal (with each family being allocated a room), leading to severe damage to many interiors. Today, however, Art Nouveau considered a gem of Latvia.

Art nouveau interior in a Riga apartment
Art nouveau ceiling in a Riga apartment. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Interwar architecture

Interwar architecture in Latvia is relatively scarce, as Latvian urban population declined heavily during World War 1, reducing the need for new construction. That said, Latvia just became independent and thus launched some massive projects to assert the Latvianess of its cities.

Latvian soldiers memorial in Riga
Latvian independence wars soldiers memorial in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, the post-WW1 shortages and destruction meant that there was less finances and materials available to fund opulent buildings. As such, while new buildings became even larger than before, their external decorations were simplified.

Ķemeri spa
Ķemeri spa (1938) in Jūrmala, one of the largest projects of interwar Latvia. It still has decorations, but they are fewer and less varying than in buildings built before World War 1. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Original Historicist and Art Nouveau styles effectively came to an end. New buildings had relatively simple facades, the only decorations being various lines on the facade, window forms and the form of the building itself (often curved or made of various rectangles). The simplest forms of the style became known as early functionalism as the buildings increasingly were built as cheaply as possible in order for them to still achieve a particular function. Roofs became flat and interiors became plain.

Liv community house in Mazribe, one of historic Liv villages, opened in 1938, is one of the few remaining Liv institutions
Liv community house in Mazribe (1938) is among the plainest interwar buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

That said, some other buildings, especially the more important ones, still included details of previous styles, such as columns or gabled roofs. Such details were often however limited to some particular facades while the other facades were much simpler and decoration-free. Nevertheless, such buildings are often refered to as neo-eclectic style.

Unity House
Unity House (1937), still housing all the main cultural institutions of Daugavpils: theater, concert hall, library. While it has columns on the facade, it otherwise follows a very simple style. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A more modern way to decorate buildings were various repeating (and often towering) rectangular forms, associated with Art Deco style.

Freedom monument between Center and Old Town of Riga
Freedom monument (1935) between Center and Old Town of Riga, an art deco-styled epitomy of Latvia and still a national symbol. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some of the most ambitious interwar projects were never built, as the Soviet occupation cut short the Latvian independence.

Riga city hall project, 1939
Riga city hall Project of 1939 (never built due to Soviet occupation).

While the interwar period was rather devoid of new construction in the cities, a real construction craze swept through the countryside as ethnic Latvians were given their own land for the first time through land reform and also received generous loans from the state. Homes of the era are wooden but looking more urban, abandoning the vernacular architecture. Just like their urban counterparts, the village homes of the era include some more elaborate details (e.g. porticoes) attached to otherwise rather plain facades.

Interwar village home
Interwar village home. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Socialist realist (Stalinist) architecture

Socialist Realism was the only official architectural style during the Stalinist regime after Soviet Union had occupied Latvia. It was obligatory to all architects between 1944 (Soviet re-occupation of Latvia) and 1955.

Stalin sought to make Soviet cities look grander than those of the empires gone-by and perhaps comparable to the US cities. The details inspired by previous styles (columns, towers, etc.) returned even on simple buildings such as apartment blocks. On the other hand, the sizes of such buildings were larger than before. Stalinist Palace of Sciences became the tallest building in Latvia and held that title until after independence.

Stalinist Palace of Science in Riga
Stalinist Palace of Science in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

That said, Stalinist buildings looked more dull than the opulent edifices of centuries gone-by. Most Socialist realist buildings were colored grey or brown. They had massive decor elements (e.g. Greek-temple-styled columns several floors high) to draw attention from far away yet behind these elements often had quite simple lines of simple windows.

Daugavpils train station
Daugavpils train station (1951). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The biggest difference between the previous centuries and the Stalinist era were however the functions of the buildings. Apartment sizes were strictly controlled under Soviet occupation and the large buildings were thus subdivided into many small flats. Exceptions were made to the Soviet elite (e.g. communist party officials) who were allowed larger flats.

Stalinist apartment block in Daugavpils
Stalinist apartment block in Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Public buildings had different functions as well. Soviet atheist policies meant that no new churches were constructed. Instead, buildings that could be used (among other purposes) to disseminate Soviet propaganda were built. The most prominent were Socialist realist cinemas (cinema according to Lenin was “Art above all arts” and every Soviet town and district had to have a cinema where propaganda movies would be shown to the general public). Additionally, educational institutions (where communism became an obligatory subject), “houses of culture” and Soviet government buildings were constructed in the style, dominating over their surroundings.

Spilve Airport where Stalinist times seemingly stands still
Spilve Airport in Riga. Closed long before independence and serving as an aviation museum, it is surprisingly well preserved (even the hammer and sickle is stil intact). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While interiors of the flats were rather shabby (although the high ceilings remind of more opulent times), interiors of public buildings were often seemingly opulent, with columns, murals and bas-reliefs. Invariably, Soviet symbolic was used heavily, e.g. hammer and sickle symbol, images of kolkhoz workers.

The lobby of the socialist realist Riga Palace of science
The lobby of the socialist realist Riga Palace of science. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While the Socialist Architecture may seem expensive, it was actually not very much so as slave-like labor could be mobilized to build it (including prisoners of war). Additionally, the same projects were used in many cities (e.g. same-looking cinemas were built in Jelgava and Daugavpils).

A grand Stalinist Soviet cinema, now a nightclub
A grand Stalinist Soviet cinema in Daugavpils (now a nightclub) that has its ‘twin brother’ in Jelgava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Old architecture was not valued, and entire blocks of old buildings and cemeteries were destroyed to make place for massive Socialist Realist edifices or open fields (“plazas”), thought to be a necessity for a socialist city. Most of these transformations were done by architects sent in from Russia, as most local architects were either murdered, expelled or arrested in the Soviet Genocide.

Socialist Realism was abruptly cancelled soon after Stalin’s death in 1955; the Soviet institutions decided that the style was just a part of Stalinist grandeur. While the period of Socialist Realism was short, it made a lasting influence on Latvian cities (especially Riga) due to massive resources spent in building new buildings and destroying old ones in the era, disregarding the economic needs. Additionally, it was the period when World War 2 devastation had to be repaired, and with Stalinist fervor such “repairs” typically meant outright destruction of damaged buildings, to be replaced by Socialist Realist ones.

Soviet modernist architecture

Soviet modernism (functionalism) is the dullest style of Latvia’s architecture and also one of the more visible ones.

These buildings were constructed between 1955 and 1990 when the Soviet Union effectively banned all significant architectural decor for ordinary buildings such as apartment blocks and shops. They were constructed according to the same used-and-reused designs, often built of prefab materials.

A Soviet apartment block in Riga
A Soviet apartment block in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Entire city districts (called “micro-districts”) were designed at once with similar-looking apartment blocks (typically of 5 or 9 stories) built around similar-looking shops, kindergartens, and schools. Typically, people would only come home to sleep to such districts, working in the center or (increasingly likely) Soviet factories. The sizes of Soviet apartments were tightly limited, the possible variations for furnishing also few.

An abandoned sanitarium in Jūrmala
An abandoned sanitarium in Jūrmala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some Soviet modernist apartment blocks were constructed in city centers as well, however, the Stalinist idea of transforming the city centers was slowly scrapped, effectively saving the downtowns from further mass demolitions.

Soviet sanitarium Belarus, one of the renovated ones
Soviet sanitarium Belarus in Jūrmala. Now renovated, it still dissonates greatly with the surrounding forested resort of small homes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

That said, key public buildings (e.g. theaters) were still constructed in city centers as the Soviet micro-districts were strictly residential. These buildings of the late Soviet occupation era, however, followed somewhat more interesting architectural styles of the era. Brutalism (with its open concrete) dominated in the 1970s together with so-called regional architecture (which in reality looked like dull functionalist buildings with seemingly arbitrary gabled roofs or irregular shaped blank brick walls). Postmodernism (incorporating more meticulous reinterpreted decorations) became popular in 1980s.

HQ for Radiotehnika factory in Riga with a more unique style than simple apartment blocks
HQ for Radiotehnika factory in Riga with a more unique style than simple apartment blocks. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.
Late Soviet modernism building in Riga, among the more unique ones (currently abandoned)
Late Soviet modernism building in Riga, among the more unique ones (currently abandoned). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rather simple and abstract sculptures were built to “beautify” facades as well as rather direct propaganda slogans (the latter were mostly removed in the main cities). Among the otherwise nondescript buildings, massive-yet-simple memorials were erected for various Soviet concepts such as “liberation of Latvia” (actually, the occupation of Latvia). Many of these were removed after independence, but some remain.

A slogan on building wall in Latgale town declares 'Glory to the workers!'
A slogan on a Soviet apartment block wall declares (in Russian) ‘Glory to the workers!’. While slogans glorifying communism or totalitarianism directly were removed, such indirect ideological slogans may still remain, especially outside of city downtowns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Because Latvian cities were larger before World War 2 than cities in many other places ruled by the Soviet Union, less expansion was needed in the 1955-1990 era. This made Soviet modernism less visible in Latvia than elsewhere in the Soviet Union, although one has just to move to the outskirts of a city to see entire districts built according to the style.

Soviet Victory monument in Riga is a focal point for Russian celebrations.
Soviet Victory (occupation of Latvia) monument in Riga, arguably the most controversial one of those still standing. It is 79 m tall, but very simple in design. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Today the Soviet modernist buildings have a very bad image in Latvia. Low building quality, bad insulation, and other drawbacks mean that these buildings are not good to live at. Massive renovation or entire replacement is needed. After independence, the Soviet modernist micro-districts also received a subtle market-led change. Small courtyards became overfilled with cars (no longer a luxury) and empty places were built over with shops, services (there were too little in the USSR) and some churches (all such districts were originally churchless in accordance with atheist Soviet policies). People also attempted to patch up their bad apartments by, for example adding antennae and transforming balconies into small rooms, which made the crumbling Soviet modernism even more chaotic in appearance.

Soviet modernist interior of a KGB prison in Riga
Interior of a KGB prison in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Post-1990 architecture of free Latvia

1990 independence opened Latvia up for foreign ideas and materials as well as allowed a massive economic growth. This had a tremendous impact on Latvian cities.

In 1990s, Latvia was still poor, but with newly found freedom it sought to quickly built what the Soviets neglected. Therefore, the dull Soviet micro-districts received new churches and shops. The designs were often simple: the goal was to build quickly and cheaply. The materials were also often of low Soviet quality.

Unable to find quality materials, people who had money often resorted to massive size instead, building great personal homes in the suburbs and starting a trend of suburbanization. Likewise, church buildings were crowned by towers similar in size (but not in opulence) to those of ages gone-by. Size, after all, was cheap, as the workers salaries were still especially low.

A post-independence church in a Soviet district of southern Riga
A post-independence church in a Soviet district of southern Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

By ~2000 however Western ideas and materials have firmly reached Latvia. Concrete was replaced by glass in facade decor and new office blocks were built in Riga to house the newly-rich local companies and the Baltic branches of multinationals. These buildings would occupy lots near city downtowns skipped by Soviet development or would replace now-abandoned Soviet factories and military zones in a post-industrial Latvia.

Latvia's tallest skyscrapers Z-Towers under construction
Latvia’s tallest skyscrapers Z-Towers under construction in modern Riga (2016). Initially planned for ~2010 the project was put on hold but then reinitiated after the economic troubles were tackled. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While such growth was severely disrupted by the economic crisis of 2008 when barely anything was built for a few years, the architecture of key public buildings continued to become more unique, drawing on various Western postmodern styles such as deconstructivism and minimalism. Both public and private buildings sought to stand out of surroundings.

National library of Latvia in Riga
National library of Latvia in Riga, resembling a pyramid. One of the largest public projects of post-independence Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

As the Soviet goods shortages disappeared and Latvians earned higher average wagers, shopping malls became the new hubs of public life, somewhat replacing downtowns.

Riga Plaza mall
Riga Plaza mall. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the suburbs Latvians would typically build smaller but more sophisticated homes. Population declined, but nevertheless new apartment blocks were constructed as even those who did not want to move to suburbs where eager to leave their outdated Soviet flats (often shared among several generations) once income allowed that.

While apartment block living had its image somewhat tarnished by the inefficient buildings of Soviet occupation era, new apartment blocks have been constructed as well for young families.

New residential buildings around Riga Arena
Post-independence apartment buildings in Riga Skanste district. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.