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FROM THE TREES TO THE STREETS

By Philip Birzulis. 29.07.2008

Jelgava painting
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The wooden architectural heritage of Riga is one of the city’s charms and a living guide to it’s past.

All things considered, wood has a tremendously important role in the culture of Latvia. Many Latvian surnames come from words for tress, a reflection of the importance of the forest in folklore. Timber has been a lucrative trading item since the middle ages, and today it is still the country’s largest export item.

The natural material is an important element of urban Riga as well. The city has one of the finest collections of wooden buildings anywhere in Europe – a testament to the skills of craftsmen from earlier generations whose work has survived so many upheavals.

TINDERBOX

The story of what architectural materials have been used in Riga down the years tells a lot about the place.

Before the arrival of German crusaders in the 11th century, Riga was occupied by a Livonian fishing village, which was of course made of wood. However, the new arrivals built in stone, and this was used to cement class differences. There are reports from as early as the 15th century of town authorities demolishing “illegal” wooden structures put up outside the city walls by traders and artisans operating outside the strict medieval merchant codes.

Naturally, fires and wood go together, and between 1559 and 1772 Riga’s suburbs went up in smoke no less than ten times, due to both natural and man-made causes. But on every occasion the place was rebuilt in a new fashion. Following the devastation of the Great Northern War of the early 18th century, a large building boom entrenched wood as a perfectly respectable building material. This had more to do with economics than aesthetics. Whereas the old parts of Western European cities such as Edinburgh went up in the form of multi-storey houses to accommodate bulging populations, the unsure foundations in Old Riga meant that this was impossible. So instead the town expanded beyond its old boundaries. Elsewhere in Europe, wood was a luxury item – for example, it is estimated that in Spain around the time of the Napoleonic Wars a basketful of firewood cost almost as much as the food that went into cooking a meal on it. But the large quantities of timber available in Latvia meant that this was not a factor, and wooden buildings became characteristic not just of Riga, but in the other countries around the Baltic as well.

Then, the final great blaze in 1812 cleared the way for the pattern of the city’s development until today. Following Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the western parts of the Czarist Empire were in a state of panic. A mistaken sighting of approaching Prussian troops allied to the French conqueror led to the torching of wide sections of the right bank of the Daugava as a defensive measure.

As was typical of the political mindset of the time, the resulting vacuum was filled by instructions from the center. Classical-style building plans were mandated for all Russian cities, and the post-war building boom saw hundreds of wooden structures in this form springing up in Riga.

There are not many examples of these houses left, but as the 19th century progressed other wooden houses were built for both residential and commercial purposes. The most recent examples seen today are from the early 20th century, because modern building codes effectively banned wooden construction from the late 1930s. However, this gap of half a century is being filled today, as some wealthy residents are choosing to build their new residences from wood. And although some might find it tacky, the Lido entertainment complex on Krastu Street is one of the largest wooden structures in Europe, and could be considered as a continuation of an ancient tradition.

KNOCK ON WOOD

Obviously, wood is not as resistant as stone or brick to the ravages of time, so there has been a large turnover in the stock of wooden houses over the years. However, a considerable part of the heritage from both the 18th and 19th centuries has been preserved and is still there to enjoy. What is more, in spite of the costs, many wooden structures have been lovingly restored over the past few years and are colorful, gentle assets again after years of neglect.

There are numerous examples scattered throughout the city. The suburb of Āgenskalns, just over the Akmens (Stone) Bridge on the Pārdaugava side of the river, is a gallery of 19th century wooden summer houses converted to make them highly sought-after residences today. The leafy streets and parks of this area make for a great day trip.

Less well preserved, but interesting as a contrast, is the Maskavas Forštate (Moscow Suburb) to the east of the railway tracks. Take tram no. 7 for a whistle-stop tour that may not be pretty but gives a good insight into how this wooden, working class area has retained its character for a century or more.

There are plenty of examples in the center, too. One of the most amazing examples of wooden architecture (even though it may not look like wood at first glance), is the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Church on the corner of Brīvības and Lāčplēša streets. The only large structure in the city with vertically placed squared-timbers, it has been standing firm since 1820. Another impressive example is the imposing 17th century wooden neoclassical Lutheran Jesus Church (Jēzusbaznīca), at Elijas 18. It’s located in the aforementioned Moscow Suburb district, just south of the Old Town beyond the train station. Jēzusbaznīca and Elijas Streets contain several old wooden buildings; however the church dwarfs them all, being the largest wooden building in the Baltic States.

There are also impressive rows of wooden residential houses along Dzirnavu and Stabu streets. One of the finest restoration jobs on a wooden structure done in recent years is the house at Stabu 17, the home of the Latvian student fraternity Selonija.

There are plenty of other interesting examples scattered all over the place. Whether the material is wood, stone or brick, Riga's a city that rewards a slow stroll with your eyes open by revealing a cityscape of surprising diversity and beauty.




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