In the centre of Riga is an imposing house, which has come to symbolise the city. What would in any case be a grand Art Nouveau structure is made special by the presence of two large cats on the turrets at either end.
Cats are the unofficial symbol of Riga, scattered across numerous tourist souvenirs; and this building, the House of Cats, is the reason why. And there is a story attached to it, or rather several competing stories. The most commonly told is this:
A wealthy Latvian tradesman wanted to join the prestigious Riga Tradesman Guild, the so-called Great Guild, but was refused membership as the guild was restricted to German merchants. To show the guild what he thought about them he commissioned two cat sculptures to be placed on the roof of his nearby house with their backsides towards the guild house. He thought this would show the guild just what he thought of them and invoke misfortune to those who had refused him entry. A lengthy legal battle ensued. It ended with him eventually being granted membership, at which point he relented and turned the cats around.
One version of the story adds a twist. In this version, the sculptor fell while erecting his work, and died; the bad luck had befallen him. It was in response to this mishap that the man turned the cats around, and the guild accepted him. It seems to me that the moral of this version is a little dodgy; since the man got his own way while inflicting death on another. But whatever the truth of these stories, the cats are so cute that the building just has to be seen!
[Other stories say simply that the owner loved cats so much he/she wanted them on the roof, or that the owner of this house fought with his neighbour “like cats and dogs”, so one put cats on his roof and the other (long-gone) dogs on theirs.]
With the Cat House such a prominent and popular landmark in the city, perhaps it is not surprising that cats have become something of an emblem for Riga. You see them everywhere, and especially on souvenirs! Tea towels with cats, fridge magnets, sweets – I even spotted a giant cat outside one souvenir shop. It’s fun to look out for these as you walk around and I’m sharing them for this week’s Photographing Public Art challenge.
I also came across another ‘cat house’ in the Art Nouveau district, number 8 in Antonijas iela. You can see more photos of this building in my Art Nouveau gems of Riga post.
And of course, there are even some real cats, which I couldn’t resist including even though they don’t qualify as ‘public art’!
So if like me you are a cat lover, you will be very happy in Riga.
I visited Riga in 2014 and 2015; most of these photos are from my first visit