Ķeniņš' School Building, 1905, at Tērbatas iela 15/17, Rīga, by Architects Konstantīns Pēkšēns (1859–1928) and Eižens Laube (1880–1967)
In the early 20th century, Latvia’s capital enjoyed a remarkable cultural, structural and economic transformation which was dubbed “the miracle of Rīga”. Few places in the city capture that exuberant era more than a unique city centre five-story building at Tērbatas iela 15/17 by Latvian architects Konstantīns Pēkšēns and Eižens Laube.
In 1857, after much procrastination, the Czarist authorities finally permitted the dismantling of Rīga’s medieval fortifications and the creation of a modern boulevard district. This landmark decision, followed by the opening of the first rail line out of the city in 1861 and rapid industrialisation, saw the population explode from around 60,000 in the mid-19th century to 300,000 in 1900. Naturally, all of these people needed housing, resulting in an epic building boom.
This radically altered Rīga’s character. Emerging from centuries of domination by a German-speaking upper class, by 1900 Latvians comprised 40 percent of the city’s population, the biggest ethnic group. A confident new middle class of entrepreneurs, artists and professionals wasted no time in making their mark.
One of the outstanding personalities of the age was architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns. Educated at the Rīga Polytechnic (the city’s first university, founded in 1862), he designed over 250 masonry buildings and 200 wooden houses, established the first enterprise in Rīga making central heating equipment and was a prominent social activist.
Pēkšēns’ architectural firm nurtured a generation of Latvian architects, including the prodigiously talented Eižens Laube. Inspired by Finnish National Romanticism, Laube and other young Latvian colleagues designed buildings in the new Rīga which reflected traditional Latvian culture. The subdued ornamentation and function-reflecting form of these structures was a clear break from conservative 19th century Historicism and Mikhail Eisenstein’s florid “Decorative Eclecticism” which had earlier graced Rīga’s streetscape.
Built in 1905 as a collaboration between Pēkšēns and Laube, Tērbatas iela 15/17 is one of the most striking National Romantic buildings in Rīga. The structure was commissioned by pioneering educators Atis and Anna Ķeniņš to house a college for girls, with a boys’ secondary school also moving in a few years later. Reflecting the clients’ nation-building aspirations, the facade of the schoolhouse includes numerous references to Latvia’s traditional architecture and nature. The rough-hewn stones are broken-off fragments of Staburags, a cliff by the Daugava River much celebrated in legends and literature, which was tragically submerged by a Soviet hydroelectric project in the 1950s.
Some striking interior details have survived, including the tiled vestibule and the timber-vaulted assembly hall. In the years before the First World War, the school attracted many prominent artists as teachers, including painter Jūlijs Madernieks, writer Kārlis Skalbe and composer Emīls Dārziņš. Today the building is home to the Rīga Secondary School No. 40.
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