In very few, if any other, countries around the world is the national library the most impressive building in the capital. But in Riga, a majestic, mountain-shaped building nicknamed the Castle of Light dominates the skyline along the river Daugava: it is the National Library of Latvia. This impressive building signals just how important books are to the Latvian national identity.
The building was designed by the late, much-lauded Latvian architect Gunārs Birkerts (father of the American literary critic Sven Birkerts). The inspiration for the structure comes from one of the most-beloved children’s stories in the annals of Latvian literature, “The Golden Horse,” a folktale adapted by Rainis, the pseudonym of Jānis Pliekšāns, a major author of the Latvian National Awakening, in the early 20th century. In the story, a young peasant is sent to rescue a princess atop a giant glass mountain, called the castle of light, where she has been trapped for seven years. The castle of light is a metaphor for the lost wisdom that would rise again from the depths of the Daugava, once the Latvian people came to rule their own lands after years of occupation and rule by other nations.
The total cost for the building, which opened in 2014, was €163 million. “Perhaps even more amazing is the story of how the books got into the new library,” says Anna Muhka, the library’s head of communications. “On a very cold day in January 2014—it was –15 °C [5 °F]—we had more than 14,000 people form a two-kilometer-long chain and transfer the books by hand from the old library to the new one.” It was a symbolic gesture, as just a fraction of the library’s collection of six million items (of which nearly two million are in languages other than Latvian) was transferred in this way.
At the center of the building is an impressive bookshelf called the People’s Library, which holds books donated by guests, the result of a program initiated in 2014, which was also the year Riga was named the European Capital of Culture. An architectural illusion using mirrors, inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’s infinite Library of Babel, makes it appear that the shelf, containing with some 5,000 items, stretches endlessly up the eight-story atrium. Vast expanses of wood paneling and accents, much of it Latvian birch, give the space a hushed, relaxed atmosphere, itself both an acknowledgment of the contemplative character of the Latvian people and a nod to the nation’s vast forests.
“The library is, quite simply, our national pride and joy,” Muhka says. “It is a true reflection of who we are.”