Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Art Nouveau in Rīga - Alberta Street

Rīga is well known for its Art Nouveau architecture, which was especially popular in Europe between 1890 and 1910. The Latvian word for Art Nouveau is Jūgendstils, from the German word Jugendstil. Inspired by natural forms and structures such as the curved lines of plants and flowers, architects were freely creating without the constraints of the established standards. Since medieval times Rīga had enjoyed the prestige of a rich and influential Baltic city, but at the turn of the century it faced unprecedented economic development; along with an increase in the quality of life came the trends that were sweeping the rest of Europe, such as Jūgendstils.

In Spain the movement was known as Modernisme, and its most famous architect is considered to be Antoni Gaudí. His work includes the Sagrada Família basilica, Park Güell, Casa Milà and Casa Batlló; for more on Gaudí please read my post A Gaudí Day.

Although prime examples of Art Nouveau can be found all over Rīga (and even farther afield, such as in Liepāja, Daugavpils and Jūrmala), one neighborhood has an especially high concentration of Jūgendstils earning it the title of Riga’s Art Nouveau district. This area is mainly concentrated around two streets: quiet Alberta iela and the busier Elizabetes iela. Several self-guided walking tours can be found online, such as this one, which I found conveniently easy to download and glance at while out with the boys. We cut over on Antonijas iela, and before turning on Alberta iela we admired the dragons guarding the door at Antonijas 8 (Peksens, 1903).

Alberta iela 2, Eisenstein, 1906. The Art Nouveau of Alberta street is mainly the legacy of one architect, Mikhail Einstein. Of Swedish and German-Jewish descent, Eisenstein was first an engineer, but through fatefully was awarded a contract to build multiple apartment buildings, many of which are on Alberta iela. Eisenstein brought human, mythical and even zoological elements into his designs. Sometimes considered “Romantic” Art Nouveau, the femme fatale theme often found in his décor is thought to be a reflection of his marriage.

Alberta iela 2a (Eisenstein, 1906) is lavishly decorated, including an additional story that is purely decorative with large windows showing only sky…

Alberta iela 4, Eisenstein 1904, renovated in 1998.

Alberta iela 8, 1903, also Eisenstein. Eclectic decorative Art Nouveau, the plan resembles layouts published in German architecture journals at the turn of the century.

Alberta iela 13 (1904) was a collaboration between Eisenstein and Lebedinskis. In 1999/2000 the façade as well as the ornate interior of the building were renovated, and today it houses the Rīga Graduate School of Law and the Rīga Art Nouveau Center.

After turning the corner, Eisenstein’s Strēlnieku iela 4a is visible. This 1905 building was rebuilt in 1994 and today houses the Riga School of Economics.

Eisenstein designed a total of 19 buildings between 1897 and 1911. A more subtle “Vertical” Art Nouveau with an emphasis on vertical lines emerged after 1907 when Eisenstein’s elaborate creations drew some criticism from the architectural community. Both colleagues and the press distanced themselves from the eccentric architect, and after divorcing his wife he eventually left the city, never to return. The dominant European architectural and decorative style of Art Nouveau was eventually replaced by Art Deco (and later Modernism), and Eisenstein passed away in Berlin in 1921.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Where Lielupe flows into the Baltic Sea

The designation of “Jūrmala” applies to the beach resort towns that stretch 20 miles along the Baltic Sea from Lielupe River to Ķemeri National Park to the west. Only 16 miles west of Rīga, it is a popular summer destination for the city-dwellers and contains many summer homes for those escaping the city heat. Jūrmala is famous for beautiful old Art Nouveau houses, and beaches of fine, white sand with rather safe swimming conditions.

For more on this fantastic day trip destination, please see my post Tu esi mana Jūrmala. I have also previously written about the Ķemeri National Park (here) and the fishing village of Ragaciems just northeast of Jūrmala (here).

The eastern border of Jūrmala is Lielupe, the 74-mile long river that begins at the confluence of the Mēmele and Mūsa rivers near Bauska. Lielupe translates literally to “big river,” the name referring to its wide and deep channel that courses from Mežotne over the flood plains of Zemgale. Having passed between Babītes ezers and Ķemeri National Park the river turns east, paralleling the Gulf of Rīga for the length of Jūrmala. Eventually it turns back north and flows into the Baltic Sea, while another channel continues east to empty into the Daugava; this stretch of river is known as the Buļļupe branch, and was the Lielupe’s main channel until 1755 when the river took a shortcut on one of its meanders.

This eastern-most portion of Jūrmala is also known as Lielupe. It is home to Līvu akvaparks, the easily recognizable water park visible from the main drag, as well as multiple tourist attractions: Jūrmalas brīvdabas muzejs and Bulduri Nature Park among others. A swath of wooded dunes runs through the middle of the peninsula, another forested stretch buffering the beach as along most of Jūrmala. This sandy forest floor is covered with blueberry bushes, which makes getting anywhere in a timely manner difficult (not to mention the suddenly appearing blueberry-stained hands and mouths!).

The pine and birch forest is quiet save for the chatter of birds and the wind in the canopy, until you climb the last dune and the sound of the waves greets you on your arrival at the Gulf of Rīga. 

The white sand and the countless shades of blue; the heat of the sun and the refreshing salty sea; beach and forest and sky stretching as far as the eye can see…

Between swimming, strolling and sandcastle building on the water, gorging on blueberries in the forest, and boat-watching on the river, time in Lielupe passes quickly. If it’s an option, stay to watch the sunset from the beach before heading back to the train station/Rīgas šosejs. But if you don’t get the chance then be content to realize that you’ll just have to come back again – and this time hopefully you’ll stay longer. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Gaismas Pils - the National Library of Latvia

In memory of Latvian-American architect Gunārs Birkerts (January 17, 1925 - August 15, 2017), please join me for a virtual tour of the “Castle of Light”!

Gunārs Birkerts (also known as Gunnar Birkerts) is known for designs such as the Corning Museum of Glass and the Corning Fire Station (Corning, NY), Marquette Plaza (Minneapolis, MN), the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (Kansas City, MO) and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. Visitors to the Latvian Center Gaŗezers will have visited Brīvdabas baznīca, Kronvalda zāle and Klētnieki (or ZKs), all of which are his work. However, the architect might be best known for his recent design for the National Library of Latvia in Rīga, Gaismas Pils. (A more complete tally of his designs can be found here.)

For insight into the inspiration behind the project and its creation, Birkerts wrote this article, The Idea of the Project. The architectural form references and draws inspiration from Latvian folklore; the legend tells of a Castle of Light that sank into an ancient lake and would only arise from the depths when Latvians were once again masters of their own land.

While those members with library cards can freely access floors 1-8, a tour can be arranged for visitors that wish to get a behind-the-scenes look all the way up to the pinnacle. These one-hour excursions can be arranged by e-mailing; for more information visit the LNB website. Our knowledgeable guide met us on the ground floor to give an overview of the history of the building and the scope of the library’s collection; there are 4.5 million items including 2 million books in 62 languages contained in Gaismas pils.

The first floor features various exhibits that reflect on the history of the library and literature in Latvia, including the temporary exhibit by artist Rita Grendze, Simts raksti tiem, kas meklē gaismu. The site-specific installation reflects the cultural heritage that the artist experienced growing up in the US through 50 two-sided pieces; 100 Latvian books were used, one book from each year of the Latvian state's existence. While this exhibit recently closed, the permanent exhibit “Castle of Light and Glass Mountain – The Story of the National Library of Latvia Project” and up to 5 other exhibits are open to the public on a daily basis.

The first floor also includes the Imanta Ziedoņa zāle, a theater hall with 462 purple chairs made in Rīga chair factory. The light-colored wood (Latvian birch and Canadian maple) that features so prominently in this space as well as throughout the library was carefully selected by Birkerts, and mostly was grown in Latvia for the project.

Note that the design of the ground floor resembles Latvian linen textiles

While there are actually 13 floors to the library, the next floor has been termed a mezzanine to avoid an unlucky number. The M level encompasses the Reference and Information Centre, the Baltic Research Centre for East Asian Studies Library Reading Room and an atrium. Playing on one wall is a video of the 2014 transfer of books from the old National Library to their new home – via a chain of 14,000 volunteers forming a human chain. 

For more on this event please see my post Rīga: European Capital of Culture 2014 

The bookcase that houses the 2,000 volumes that traveled hand-to-hand to the library have been placed in a specially designed bookcase that rises up 5 stories in the center of the library. Every Latvian is invited to donate a book to this bookcase (one that has special meaning to the donor), and it is the architect’s hope that the shelves will one day be filled with tens of thousands of books that are really a tautas grāmatu plaukts – a bookcase of the people. Utilizing mirrors for visual effects, the shelves appear never-ending when viewed from certain angles for yet another layer of multi-faceted symbolism.

We continued to floor “2” and the Humanities & Social Sciences and the Economy and Rights Reading Rooms. This floor is also home to one of 10 1st edition facsimiles of the Album Terra Mariana 1186–1888 which tells us about the spread of Christianity in Latvia and Estonia, the lands once known as Livonia (Terra Mariana or Land of Mary was the official name for Medieval Livonia). The original album was printed in 1888 in Rīga and presented to Pope Leo XIII; this copy is preserved in the Vatican Apostolic Library. The 70 parchment pages contain a wealth of information about Livonian castles, castle ruins, churches, the coats of arms used by ancient families, seals, historical persons, and impressions of ancient silver and gold coins of the time.

From Vecrīga, Gaismas pils appears a glittering patchwork of glass and metal. However, the library was designed not only to create an unforgettable profile to join the city’s skyline, but also with the visitor to the library in mind. The public spaces all face the river Daugava, offering spectacular views of Vecrīga, Daugava and its various bridges from the collections and reading rooms throughout the library; the scenic vistas visible from the third floor Technology & Science and the Periodicals Reading Rooms are no different.

The 4th floor is devoted to the arts, the Art Reading Room, Music Reading Room, Audiovisual Reading Room and Sound Recording Studio all located around the atrium. The 5th floor focuses more on the cultural, with Archives of Latvian Folklore and the Lettonica and Baltic Reading Room complimenting several exhibition halls. The “Cimelia” hall currently contains the “Times Reflected in Ancient Manuscripts Exhibit” that enables visitors to view the most unique examples of the manuscript collection of the National Library of Latvia. The highlight of this floor is the 130 year-old dainu skapis (cabinet of folksongs), where Krišjānis Barons (the "father of the dainas") stored the tautas dziesmas he collected as part of his systematization of the texts of the Latvian folk songs. In 2001 Dainu skapis was recognized as a cultural heritage item with its addition to the UNESCO "Memory of the World" register. 

We continued on, passing the 6th floor which contains the Maps and Small Prints Reading Rooms. Our favorite collection within the library is housed on floor 7 – the Children’s Literature Center. With comfortable seating areas we could have spent hours browsing the extensive selection, and the librarians were invaluable in providing information on the newest Latvian literature for kids of all ages. We found the 24-book bērnu žūrija selection especially interesting; the reading program, which is now entering its 6th year, includes books read and rated by children. In 2016, there were already 20,000 readers from 712 Latvian libraries and schools, as well as 54 weekend schools in 22 countries – including the Krišjāņa Barona Latvian School of Chicago.

The 8th floor is home to the Library and Information Science Reading Room, as well as Competence Development Center classrooms. Technical operations are housed on the 9th and 10th floors, so our next stop was the 11th floor; together with the 12th floor it forms the spire of Gaismas pils, the glass crow’s nest that offers breathtaking views from above. The space serves not only as an observation deck but also an event space (complete with piano) and exhibit; it is here at the very top that various drafts and notes that Gunārs Birkerts made while working on the library project are displayed.

A visit to the National Library should be finalized with a stop at the restaurant “Klīversala.” The cafeteria-style dining room dishes up a wide array of food that is reasonably priced and fills those growling stomachs, while the dining environs mimic the light-colored wood/glass/metal interior from the rest of the library.

The webpage of the National Library of Latvia can be found here, with a 360° digital tour offered here. Follow LNB on facebook, twitter and Instagram!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Your Femme au Foyer Great American Eclipse 2017 guide!

We’ve established that the Upstate is THE place to be for the total solar eclipse on August 21st, with 2 minutes and 40 seconds of darkness as the moon blocks out the sun at 2:38pm. We will not experience another total eclipse until 2078 (although in April of 2024 South Carolinians will only have to travel as far north as Indianapolis to experience a total eclipse in the United States)! Hotels in the area have pretty much been sold out for the last couple of months, so if you’ve not already made plans you might be left behind in the… light?

However, for those of you headed to experience the eclipse anywhere between Newport, Oregon to Charleston, SC, here are the top solar eclipse necessities, courtesy of Femme au Foyer.

1. Eclipse glasses. This one is non-negotiable; the danger to your retinas is so real that Greenville County schools have pushed back the first day of school so that the eclipse doesn’t coincide with school pick-up. We ordered ours online, where they can be had for a very reasonable price. Be aware that although adjustable (can be folded smaller or larger to fit various heads), regular glasses might be too big for kids. I found this family pack that has smaller sizes for the boys… (Note, your camera and telescope also need a special filter if you’re planning on looking at or photographing the eclipse with them.)

2. When sending out your party invites or ‘wish you were here’ cards, you’ll want to pick up Total Eclipse of the Sun postmarks. Be ready to splurge an additional 25 cents for the fancy envelope, which blocks the sun from hitting the stamps; you need it because the stamps are heat sensitive. The first U.S. stamp to use thermochromic ink, placing your finger over the black disc on the stamp causes the ink to change from black to clear to reveal an underlying image of the moon (it reverts back once it cools). The photograph that appears on the stamp is from an actual total solar eclipse that was seen over Jalu, Libya in 2006, taken by astrophysicist Fred Espenak who also photographed the full moon visible underneath.

3. Soundtrack. Bonnie Tyler makes the cut with Total Eclipse of the Heart.
Blinded by the Light and Eclipse by Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon) are also on the playlist. However for the 2 minutes and 40 seconds of darkness we’ll be listening to Bruce and Dancing in the Dark. Maybe afterwards we’ll put on Carly Simon’s You’re so Vain; “…you flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia to see a total eclipse of the sun.”

4. Refreshments. For your afternoon coffee break, pick up a bag of Total Eclipse from Leopard Forest, coffee roasters located in Travelers Rest. The dark roasted coffee blend of ½ Organically Grown Sumatra, ¼ Rainforest Alliance Certified Brazil & Colombia, and ¼ Farmer-Direct Zimbabwe is an earthy, smoky, wake-up type of coffee according to the Leopard Forest website. Order online or pick up a package at the Forest Coffeehouse, Swamp Rabbit Café & Grocery or one of the dozens of other retailers in SC, NC, TN, VA and KY that carry Leopard Forest. Guaranteed to keep you awake until 2:38pm!

Looking for something other than coffee? Heron Hill has an “Eclipse” red wine out, and FiftyFifty Brewing Company out of CA has an Imperial Eclipse Stout. Or, being as we're in The South, Casey Jones Distillery is offering a Total Eclipse Moonshine….
5. Snacks. Astrobake these eclipse cookies for the perfect eclipse treat, although if you’re looking for the easier route there are plenty of store-bought options: Eclipse gum, Sun chips, Moon Pies… 

There are plenty of great articles on finding an Eclipse Party in the Upstate, so if you’re still looking for the perfect place to experience totality, you might want to check out the links I’ve added below. Happy eclipsing!!!

* NASA has partnered with video platform Stream to pull off an unprecedented livestream of the eclipse using a network of 50 high-altitude weather balloons equipped with cameras. Drifting at an average altitude of 100,000 feet, these balloons will offer a view of the August eclipse unlike any other. According to Stream, this livestream event is expected to be viewed by more than 100 million people. Find it here!

* Roper Mountain Science Center’s Eclipse Extravaganza is sold out, however there are still tickets available for the Friday night Eclipse: The Sun Revealed Starry Nights program, and RMSC is selling eclipse glasses in the lobby. The Children’s Museum of the Upstate also has eclipse programming, as does Lake Conestee Nature Park. For a great roundup of the events happening in Greenville and vicinity, check out GVL Today's list of Where to go for the Total Solar Eclipse in the Upstate!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Restoration of the Freedom Monument/Brīvības piemineklis

Visitors to Latvia’s capital might be surprised to find the Brīvības piemineklis behind scaffolding as Rīga continues its preparations for the Latvian Centennial celebrations.

The view of the Freedom Monument will be obstructed for at least a couple of months, depending on the scale of renovations that the monument might require pending a complete inspection. The last restoration was completed between 1998 and 2001 in preparation for Rīga’s 800th anniversary, and since then the piemineklis has seen only minor upkeep.

194,000 Euro in funds have been allocated for the restoration, which will include cleaning the stars and stone surfaces, replacing damaged seams, and repairing the monument’s indoor staircase and basement room. The stars were last gilded 2006 and therefore will hopefully only require polishing, and barring unforeseen issues with the foundation (which was previously strengthened to guard against sinking) only cosmetic work will be completed on the base.

Is it only me that’s envious of the crew that will come face to face with Milda in the coming months? If only I could don a hardhat and present my Femme au Foyer credentials to gain access to the upper levels of scaffolding, some 130 feet in the air overlooking Vecrīga and Brīvības iela! One can dream...  

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