Johann Christoph Brotze, eminent early Baltic local historian, writes of 88 islands in the lower reaches of the Daugava, near Riga. Over the centuries, the Daugava riverbed has changed significantly, carving out new bank outlines and creating new islands and islets.
For the most part, these islands did not last long; they melted into bogs, watered by the tributaries separating them, or were washed away by the high waters of spring—thus lending credence to the old Rigan saying, "fickle as the Daugava islands." In more recent times, the Daugava’s island topography was considerably altered by the building of dams and the filling in of numerous tributaries and inlets, which significantly reduced the number of islands.
Kipsala acquired its present configuration in the early 20th century, when the remains of the nearby tributaries were filled in. As a result, Kipsala, formerly Zagarsala—an elderly fisherman named Zagars allegedly lived here in the 18th century—was joined with Peldu Island (now the upper end of Kipsala, near Agenskalns Bay), and Lesser Kliversala (now between Kipsala’s Azenes and Kaiju Streets). Earlier still, Kipsala assimilated Darvas Island, which had housed the city’s tar storehouses and included a plot of land belonging to a family of fishermen named Kipis.
There are numerous theories regarding the origin of the names of some of the Daugava islands. The name Kipsala (“Kiepenholm,” in German), for example, has been attributed both to the previously mentioned Kipis family, as well as to the Middle Low German word “kip” (“bale," "truss of hides or flax"), in connection with a supposed former use of the island.
Despite earlier plans for radical changes to the Kipsala microhabitat, the island retains a unique character that is somewhat unusual in the modern-day Riga. Had 1970s development plans been carried out, the island would have become a monolithic student village. And still earlier plans in the 1920s—developed by a design team led by architect A. Lamze—had envisaged the construction of government and civic buildings.
Today, the past efforts of city planners can be seen in the Press House (“Preses nams”); the "student village" of Riga Technical University; the Kipsala Exhibition Center; and a score of utilitarian structures on the lower end of the island. In contrast, the middle section of the island remains a pleasant promenade for those seeking a timeless atmosphere.
The romantic ambiance of Kipsala Island has been a source of inspiration for artists and poets since the beginning of the 20th century. Aleksandrs Caks lauded it in rhyme, Hilda Vika painted it and made it home for a time, and Pavils Rozitis dedicated an eighty-line poem to Balasta Dam.