Letter from Riga: dispatches from Latvia’s intriguing architecture scene

An aerial view of the National Open Air Stage surrounded by forestry.
The architecture scene is thriving in the Latvian capital of Riga. Pictured here, is the upcoming National Open Air Stage. This summer, phase one of the new design hosted a 13,000-strong amateur choir in front of 70,000 people for the wildly popular Latvian Song and Dance Festival.
(Image credit: press)

The Latvian capital of Riga is a heady cocktail of period properties. The pedestrianised Old Town of is a manicured UNESCO heritage site with romanticism, gothic, baroque, classicism and modernism all jostling for position. Many of these buildings were restored after independence in 1991.

‘I think we are good at heritage and reconstruction,’ says architect Austris Mailītis, ‘and we still have a lot to reconstruct.’ His practice, Mailītis, is reworking the ruins of Cesis Brewery as an events and art space, while Sudraba Arhitektura is turning an old railway building into a big cultural centre. Likewise, architect Zaiga Gaile is enlarging Jaunais Rigas Theatre, which is housed in the 19th-century home of the carpenters’ guild.  

A birds-eye view of the National Open Air Stage with a forest surrounding it. The shape of the structure is similar to that of a horse-shoe.

The city's National Open Air Stage, created by Mailītis Architects, is set to completely replace a smaller 1950s structure

(Image credit: Mailītis Architects)

Riga’s USP is its 5000 timber buildings, some dating back to the end of the 18th century, while the newest were built just before the start of the First World War. Gaile is the queen of timber, having renovated and extended 17 such properties including a lavish home for the country’s biggest collector of 20th-century and contemporary Latvian art. Her practice is now turning an old cork factory made of brick into Zuzeum, an art museum to house his collection.

But it’s not all reimaginings of existing structures. One new-build that woke the rest of the world up to Riga was the 2014 National Library of Latvia, by one of America’s greatest late-modernists, the Latvian-born émigré Gunnar Birkerts – though it’s incited mixed feelings among the locals. Will Adjaye Associates’ new Museum of Contemporary Art follow suit? From the drawings, it looks like a better fit with the vernacular.

With few major projects at any one time in this small country, ‘to make your own office in Riga is difficult because there’s not much work,' admits Inese Baranovska, head of the Decorative Arts and Design Museum at Latvian National Museum of Art. ‘Many talented architects are working abroad because of better salaries.' The upshot of that is a diaspora amassing a wealth of ideas and approaches, which may serve them well back home one day.

A render at birds-eye view of a piazza space with timber-based buildings to its left and a park to the corner.

Museum of Contemporary Art
Adjaye Associates are borrowing from Latvia’s traditional timber houses by cladding their building in timber, while the steeply pitched roof is typical in the region known for heavy snow falls. It’s due to open in 2021. 

(Image credit: TBC)

A render of a railway platform area that is covered by glass and leads to a brick-constructed goods station.

Hanza Platform
Due to complete in 2019, this big, privately-funded arts centre by Reinis Liepins of Sudraba Arhitektura will be housed in an old warehouse in a former railway goods station.

(Image credit: Reinis Liepins)

A birds-eye view of a former industrial space with new scaffolding.

Cesis Old Brewery
Out of the ruins of industrial heritage, Mailītis Architects are creating an event and arts space using scaffolding. It’s due to complete in 2025.

(Image credit: Mailītis Architects)

Inside a co-working space with a wooden floor, a predominantly brown interior featuring two separate seating areas for three people and a table. Multi-bulb lamps overhanging the seating areas. In the rear of the room is an island area with stools.

People Work
A 1920s knitting factory building now houses People Work, the biggest coworking space in the Baltic states when it opened in 2017. The interiors, by in-house designers Baiba Giniborga-Asere and Ramona Cirule, feature lots of local furniture brands.

(Image credit: Baiba Giniborga-Asere and Ramona Cirule)

An aerial view of nine wooden beams laid out in a star shape with a person in the middle.

Fire pavilion
Numernes Valnis nature park has an art installation whose nine wooden beams are intended to represent flames. Didzis Jaunzems’ ‘fire pavilion’ is one of a handful of park installations gifted to Latvia on its centenary in 2018.

(Image credit: press)

A concepet photo of ten small holiday chalets on stilts in an area surrounded by nature.

‘Witch’ holiday houses
Why pitch a tent when you can stay in a ‘witch house’? Didzis Jaunzems’ 10 holiday chalets on stilts, are named after the nearby town of Ragana (meaning ‘witch’ in Latvian), and will be built next summer.

(Image credit: press)

Inside a distillery with stainless steel and copper materials.

Rizhkiy Samogon distillery
A super-stylish distillery designed detail-by-detail by Jurijs Gluhovskis of Nesens architects, and designer Arthur Analts of Variant Studio. The colour scheme is grey and orange, the materials are stainless steel, copper and concrete.

(Image credit: Arthur Analts)

A new office building with two floors predominantly yellow in colour and floor to upper level windows. A large balcony runs along the front of the building. In the foreground is a grass lawn area with wood log benches.

Latvian State Forest
The Latvian State Forest agency has set out to build eight brand new regional offices for itself. Like this one which opened recently in Dundaga, all will be made of timber. 

(Image credit: press)

Inside a building at the top of a first floor stairwell. The building's interior is made predominantly with wood.

Latvian State Forest
The aim is to inspire Latvians to once again build with wood, says architect Ija Rudzīte of the firm 5.iela.

(Image credit: Ija Rudzīte)

Clare Dowdy is a London-based freelance design and architecture journalist who has written for titles including Wallpaper*, BBC, Monocle and the Financial Times. She’s the author of ‘Made In London: From Workshops to Factories’ and co-author of ‘Made in Ibiza: A Journey into the Creative Heart of the White Island’.