Latvia's got personality: Torch maker Jānis Ārgalis

From processions of medieval monks to Olympic opening ceremonies, torches have lit the way throughout history. A passionate Latvian wants the world to rediscover its soulful glow.

Thanks to long summer days, dark winters and lingering pagan traditions, fire is the warm part of Latvian life. Wood crackles on countless hillsides at solstice celebrations, and on foggy autumn evenings, people put candles on graves to cheer up the souls of their ancestors.

Prominent Riga architect Jānis Ārgalis  has taken this national pyromania to a new level. About ten years ago, he got fed up with the plastic lanterns folks were lugging around at midsummer. So he began researching the history of flaming torches and figured out how to make modern versions from natural, local materials.

“I thought it was weird that people were walking around with cheap Chinese stuff, it just didn’t fit in,” he explains.

Judging by the shopfront window decked with torches, the “Arhitekti Ārgaļi” office in central Riga might seem to be more about this fiery hobby than designing buildings. Soft-spoken Jānis is clearly enchanted by them. He describes experiments with tar and oil (too smelly) before settling on paraffin as the best fuel, and a constant quest to find beautifully straight hazel branches for the handles.

Jānis Ārgalis, architect and torch-maker

Claim to flame

He originally hawked his wares around Latvian fairs, then was surprised to discover the niche was vacant globally. Thanks to the crafts platform etsy.com, Latvian torches have travelled the world, gifting atmosphere to American Viking documentaries, British weddings and many other gatherings. He’s recently started making a handsome metal version too.

With just ten units shipped online per month, it’s not about the money. What really drives Jānis is helping people to make their own torches, to which end he holds workshops all over Latvia. He beams with satisfaction recounting the twilight boat rides and medieval festivals, sauna sessions and folklore concerts thus illuminated.  And to make it even easier, Jānis now sells a box set containing jute fabric and ropes, wooden splints, paraffin and nails. All you have to do is to find the right stick.

At a recent “night of fire” event at the Vienkoču parks landscape reserve near Līgatne, over 70 enthusiasts made their own torches. So, despite the cancellation due to Covid restrictions of Riga’s annual torchlight parade on Independence Day, November 18, there’s a lot of momentum.

“Nowadays, I meet a lot of people who have a ritual of going to the forest to saw branches for handles, and two-thirds of them are children and teenagers,” he says.

The architectural practice is a partnership between Jānis and his mother Anda. As with the torches, their emphasis is on quality, not quantity, doing just 20 projects a year. Being small allows flexibility and resilience in the present downturn.

And there is an overlap between Jānis’ twin passions.

“As an architect, I’ve always encouraged the use of natural materials, particularly wood,” he says. “I want my clients to share my vision, but it’s an uphill battle sometimes.”

The firm currently has a job where these aspirations can be realised, restoring Hāmaņa muiža, a 19th-century manor house in Riga’s Pārdaugava district scarred by years of neglect and fire in one of its wings.

It’s an opportunity for Jānis to reverse the combustion process.

This feature was originally published on the website of the Latvian Institute and is reproduced here with permission.

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