Historic Centre of Riga
Historic Centre Of Riga
Cultural Latvia Europe And North America City Of Riga

The Historic Centre of Riga, while retaining its medieval and later urban fabric relatively intact, is of outstanding universal value by virtue of the quality and the quantity of its Art Nouveau/Jugendstil architecture, unparalleled anywhere in the world, and its 19th-century architecture in wood. It has exerted a considerable influence within the Baltic cultural area on subsequent developments in architecture.

Archaeological excavations in the Old Town have shown that there were settlements of the local tribes, the Livs and the Cours, along with some foreign trading posts, on the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Ridzene and Daugava rivers by the late 11th century, and the place became a crossroads for trade between east and west. Livonia was Christianized in 1184 by the German monk Meinhard, but early chronicles attribute the establishment of the city to Bishop Albert in 1201. In 1221 the inhabitants successfully rebelled against German domination. A town council was elected by the body of the citizenry to become its legislative and executive body. The independent city prospered, becoming the third-largest mercantile centre on the Baltic (after Lübeck and Gdansk), and in 1282 it formed an alliance with Lübeck and Visby to become a member of the Hanseatic League.

By the 15th century Riga was a typical large Hanseatic town, with winding streets and densely packed dwelling houses, a large market square in the centre on which the town hall was situated and strong fortifications. The mid-16th century saw two strong forces acting on Riga. It embraced the Reformation and the teachings of Martin Luther and successfully resisted the Counter-Reformation in the 1530s and 1540s. However, it was unable to stand up to the forces of Ivan the Terrible in 1559. Russian occupation was followed by Polish domination, and Riga stood between Poland and the ambitions of Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden. In 1621 Riga became part of the enlarged Swedish Kingdom, and experienced many years of war during the struggles between Sweden and Russia. In 1710, following the defeat of Charles XII of Sweden at the battle of Poltava, Riga fell to the Russian army after a siege of nine months, to remain part of the Tsarist Russian Empire until the creation of the first Republic of Latvia in 1918.

The area of the Historic Centre of Riga consists of three elements: the medieval Old City, the 19th century semi-circle of boulevards, and the 18th and 19th century former suburban quarters lying outside the boulevards, with a chequerboard layout.

Few medieval houses are still intact;of these one of the most interesting is the House of the Three Brothers, an impeccably restored group from the 15th century. The late 17th-century Reutem's House and Dammnstem's House are more monumental buildings, notable for their interior decorations and fittings as well as their impressive facades. The town walls were demolished in the mid-19th century, but one section has been reconstructed, complete with bastion.

The boulevards have many important 19th- and early 20th-century public buildings fronting on to them, including the National Theatre and the Museum of Latvian Art. The creation of the boulevards coincided with the reign of eclecticism in Europe, and this movement is abundantly represented. The suburbs that expanded and developed so rapidly from the mid-19th century onwards are notable for both the surviving wooden buildings in the classical Russian style and the extraordinary wealth of buildings that arose after the removal of the fortifications and the implementation of the new city plan, and in particular in the closing decade of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century. Eclecticism allowed architects to produce many fights of fancy, well illustrated by the 'House of the Cat' on Meistaru Street.

However, it was Art Nouveau (Jugendstil), which reached Riga via Finland at the very end of the 19th century, that provided the suburban area with its most noteworthy feature. There are countless examples, perhaps the most outstanding of which are the works of Mikhail Eisenstein in Alberta Street and Elizabeth Street. National Romanticism evolved into Jugendstil in Latvia, again on the Finnish model. This movement is represented by the work of architects such as E. Laube and A. Vanags, with some striking examples of their work in Alberta Street and Brivibas Street.