Vecrīga Skyline, 13th–21st Centuries
The skyline of Riga’s Old Town (Vecrīga) is the city’s calling card. Its unique quality stems from the unchanged vertical accents formed by the medieval silhouette of the Riga Castle and church spires. The skyline that has been preserved almost intact for centuries has been deemed a treasure of UNESCO World Heritage and European Cultural Heritage.
The Old Town skyline is perceived on several levels. Viewed from the left bank, the skyline is introduced by the proscenium of the Daugava’s waters. The foreground is the row of buildings around the Old Town, which forms the base of the skyline. The middle ground are the rooftops, the higher buildings and turrets only slightly higher than the base. This plane also contains the St Mary-Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, the Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, the Reformed-Brethren Church, and Saint John’s. The turret of the City Council building is also part of the middle ground. The third level consists of the vertical accents of the silhouette – the church steeples of St Peter’s, Riga Dom cathedral, St Jacob’s, and the Anglican St Saviour’s.
Not all of the church steeples have always been a part of the skyline. St Peter’s was without one from 1666 to 1690, from 1721 to 1746, and from 1941 to 1973, whereas the Dom lacked its steeple from 1547 to 1596. The Three Stars Steeple appeared in the skyline only in 1938 when, on a state commission, the architect Eižens Laube (1880−1967) designed it for the castle as the President’s official residence. The 20th century is represented in the skyline by the Stalinist Academy of Sciences high-rise.
The skyline basically formed in the 13th century, but the Dom, St Peter’s and St Joseph’s were much lower then and their steeples were only slighter higher than the surrounding buildings. At the end of the 15th century, they reached their maximum height and determined the characteristic image of the skyline that has been preserved to this day, more or less unchanged. In the 18th century, the lower plane of the skyline was formed by the fortified walls of the city and the previously Gothic steeples acquired their present Baroque shape.
The first print of the Riga skyline was in Sebastian Münster’s 1547 work “Cosmography or the Description of All Lands”. Later in the 16th century many skylines were copied from Münster and included characteristics of foreign cities. As early as 1612, however, the graphic artist Heinrich Thum represented Old Riga slightly deformed but with precise details.
As a graphic sign, the skyline was first used on the label of Riga Black Balsam in the 19th century. Later, it was featured both in the Riga-800 logo in 2001 and the NATO summit logo in 2006, as well as on countless souvenirs.
In order to preserve the skyline, it is crucial not to create new competing verticals. In 2003, a law protecting the Riga Historic Centre was adopted, which particularly provides for the safeguarding the skyline, silhouette and viewing perspectives as authentic cultural and historical treasures.
Head of the State Inspection for Heritage Protection (SIHP) Juris Dambis and expert of SIHP and Culture Programme Council of Latvian National Commission for UNESCO Pēteris Blūms tells about the Historical Centre of Riga in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Part 1. Latvian National Commission for UNESCO, 2011.
Head of the State Inspection for Heritage Protection (SIHP) Juris Dambis and expert of SIHP and Culture Programme Council of Latvian National Commission for UNESCO Pēteris Blūms tells about the Historical Centre of Riga in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Part 2. Latvian National Commission for UNESCO, 2011.
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