Last Updated on 2021-01-02 by Birk Karsten Ecke
After the end of the Crimean War, which Russia lost in 1856, Rīga developed into one of the few industrial centers of the gigantic empire within a few years. With the economic development, the need for well-trained personnel for the construction industry, industrial companies, railway construction and the establishment of a telegraph network also grew. In addition to workers, engineers were needed everywhere. It became clear that the Baltic provinces were completely dependent on specialists from abroad. Up until then, Rīga was a town of merchants and craftsmen – and there was no technical university in the entire Baltic region. Those who wanted to study engineering, chemistry or architecture mostly went to universities in the German-speaking heartland or in Switzerland. There were no language barriers.
In 1858 the Rīga Stock Exchange Committee and City Council therefore made the decision to found a polytechnic school. The model in particular was the Polytechnic in Hanover, which enjoyed an excellent reputation. The Hanover Polytechnic supported the stock exchange committee and city council in implementing the plans. Since the self-government of the Baltic Sea Government was not subject to any restrictions at that time, the financing was divided between the knights of Livonia, Courland, Ösel and Estonia, the city council of Rīga, other free cities and the large and small guilds. This type of financing ensured the educational institution’s independence from the Russian state.
In 1861, the Russian Emperor Alexander II confirmed the founding of the Rīga Polytechnic and in 1862 teaching began, albeit not in the neo-Romanesque building on Raiņa bulvāris. This was not moved into until 1869. At the time of its founding, the educational institution was an institution under private law. The language of instruction was German – and that until 1892 – long after the Russification of the Baltic region was widely implemented. Both technical and commercial courses were offered. From the beginning there were lectures in mechanical engineering, engineering, architecture, chemistry, agriculture and trade. The conditions for the students must have been heavenly, because their number was very small in the first decades and was only a few dozen. It was not until just before the First World War that the number of those enrolled rose to just over 2000. The training was excellent and the Faculty of Architecture in particular made a name for itself. Hundreds of buildings by well-known architects who graduated from Rīga Polytechnic can still be found in the city today.
In order to create the prerequisites for studying, an elementary school was attached to the polytechnic. Both at the adult education center and at the polytechnic, teachers from Germany were almost exclusively employed in the first decades after it was founded. That changed essentially only after the nationalization of the Polytechnic in 1896 by Tsar Nicholas II. The Polytechnic was renamed the Polytechnic Institute and from now on was mainly financed by the Russian state. The language of instruction became Russian as early as 1892, which the German teachers naturally did not speak. Most of them left college. Their position was now partly taken by their former students from the Baltic States.
Regarding the architectural history of the building of the Rīga Polytechnic on Raiņa bulvāris, it must be noted that the building was built in several stages. The first section was the structure visible from the Raiņa bulvāris. It was built in 1869 according to plans by Gustav Hilbig, the dean of the Faculty of Architecture. This was followed by the wing in the wing in Merķeļa iela between 1876 and 1878. Then between 1883 and 1885 the wing of the building in Inženieru iela and finally in 1909 the wing in Arhitektu iela.
The Powder Tower in the old town should also be mentioned at this point, which owes its current shape to the “Rubonia” student union. The “Rubonia” leased the powder tower in 1992 in order to have a clubhouse. To do this, they committed themselves to financing extensive construction work. The conical roof of the powder tower is due to the “Rubonia”. It is based on historical illustrations of the tower. Incidentally, one of the members of this student union was Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946), who came from Reval (today: Tallinn) and was enrolled as an architecture student in Rīga and later became Reich Minister for the occupied eastern territories in the Nazi state.
With the first occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union in 1940, the university lost its independence. The constitution of the university was repealed. Many lecturers emigrated to Germany, others were deported or killed in 1941. During the Nazi occupation in 1942, the university was named the University of Riga. The teaching staff of Jewish origin were sent to the concentration camps. From 1958 to 1990 the university was called Pēteris Stučka Latvijas Valsts Universitāte (Russian: Латвийский государственный университет им. П. Стучки). In 1950, on the basis of the Medical Faculty of the University of Latvia, the Medical Institute was founded, which has now become Riga Stradins University. In 1958 the faculties of technical sciences were separated from the university.
On March 19, 1990, the university was renamed University of Latvia. On May 15, 1991, the Constitutional Assembly of the University of Latvia adopted the second constitution of the university and it was approved by the decision of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia on September 18, 1991. In 2014, the construction of a new LU student campus or “campus” began in Torņakalns and is expected to be completed by 2023. It will include the House of Nature, the House of Science, the House of Scriptures, service hotels, a sports infrastructure and a technology center.