Faded grandeur


They used to call Riga "Little Paris", or so I'm told.  Apparently this is because in the early 20th century, Riga was following on the heels of Paris in terms of its art nouveau architecture (called Jugendstil in these parts).  The Jugendstil was something that I found spellbinding when I first lived in Riga for an extended period in the 1990s.  It's the fact that you can live in Riga for years, but still you can walk through the centre of town, look up at the buildings around you, and find some Jugendstil detail you've never seen before - some gargoyle or cherub or pattern or floral arrangement tucked in under a windowsill or next to a door frame.

When we were here in the 1990s all of the buildings were in dire need of repair.  50 years of communal property ownership meant that the facades were all crumbling, dusty and neglected.  Back then you really felt like an adventurer discovering buried treasure as you picked out some fabulous scene on a building you passed.  Most of the stairwells to apartment buildings were unlocked and you could sneak inside them to marvel at the depth and colour of the tiling and the graceful sweep of the stair bannisters, as long as you didn't mind the broken panes of door glass and the smell of piss wafting from under the staircase.

One gutsy Englishman, Arnold, had managed to secure for himself a massive apartment on the most famous Jugendstil street for $10 000 - by buying the privatization rights from the four Russian families that lived there communally.  I don't know what drugs those architects were on in the early 1900s, but Arnold had a curved balcony surrounded by demons, fantastical beasts, and screaming, eyeless faces.  I was jealous as hell.
A friend I made later on had lived in the same building, and was mildly bemused by my wish to own a Jugendstil apartment of my own.  Life on the inside of the building had not been as glamorous as the outside, apparently, and the impossibly long and dark corridor that comprised the core of her apartment was evidence of the fact that the architects of those times had invested a lot more time in designing ghoulish exteriors than labouring over "livability" for the inhabitants.

Today Riga has been cleaned up.  Slowly tour operators have realised the value of Jugenstil, there is an art nouveau souvenir shop on one of the most famous Jugendstil streets, many of the buildings have been bought up and the stonework on the facades has been restored - made smooth and white and neat.  Of course it is impressive.  But there's something in me that liked the crumbly treasure aspect of it before it was all so polished and expensive.  So on my walks around the city, I take delight in some of my favourite buildings which have not yet had the full restoration treatment - and marvel at their splendour visible under the humble surface of years of dust and neglect.

See the curvy window on the top floor with the little iron balcony?  That's the one I want...

One Response so far.

  1. Fifee says:

    I also loved this area of Riga when I visited you in 2004/5?. If you ever buy an apartment I will come and stay with you indefinitely....

Leave a Reply


  • (20)
  • (67)
  • (9)
  • (1)
  • (13)
  • (11)
  • (45)
  • (19)


Follow by Email