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A century ago, Riga, just as other European cities, was swept away by a style of architecture and living inspired by longing for creative freedom and daring opulence: art nouveau.
By learning from nature, delighting in bunches of flowers, ornamentation, sinuous and undulating lines, relishing in antique beauty, fantasising about sphinxes, gryphons and Cerberuses, art nouveau rendered Riga more lavish, mysterious and seductive. Raise your eyes upwards and discover Europe’s most beautiful art nouveau buildings for yourself!
Forty per cent of buildings in the centre of Riga belong to art nouveau, which is more than in other European cities. Moreover, art and architecture connoisseurs believe that it is in Riga that art nouveau found especially powerful and sweeping expression.
In order to preserve Old Riga, Riga’s wooden buildings and the art nouveau architecture, the historical centre of Riga has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Art nouveau (also known as Jugendstil in Germany, art nouveau in France, modernismo in Spain, Sezessionsstil in Austria, Stile Liberty or Stile Floreale in Italy) emerged in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century and continued its march of victory up until World War I.
It is an ornamental style based on curved lines, asymmetrical composition and rhythms of irregular contours. Its main motifs are nature, references to antiquity and mythology. Architecturally, art nouveau is characterised by the functional structure and a richly decorated façade, achieved by deploying all the possible means of expression in building, from the shape of window and door openings, bay windows, to reliefs, sculptures, ornamental lines or areas and stained glass. However, the main building facade is not the only essential element in Art Nouveau, but rather its overall image, therefore, “art nouveau architecture” also refers to interior design, the shape of tableware and even the inhabitants’ wardrobe.
Latvia has a special relationship to art nouveau – just as the art nouveau worldview is closely linked with the rise of national consciousness in Scandinavia, and especially Finland. It was in the spirit of art nouveau that the first professional Latvian artists were first recognised and appreciated. The art nouveau gems of Riga were created at a time when Riga, as the western “periphery” of the Russian Empire, enjoyed an economic upswing: Riga was home to entrepreneurs and engineers, educated in St. Petersburg, Moscow and the European metropolises, who succeeded at attracting German, Russian and Jewish capital; also, hope- and ambition-filled artists had returned here from their studies. This enabled the boundless imagination of the architects Konstantīns Pēkšens and Wilhelm Bockslaff and the building engineer Mikhail Eisenstein (the father of the legendary film director Sergei Eisenstein): the facades of the buildings are overflowing with decorative elements; above the cornices one finds obelisks, sphinxes, lions, vases, flowers and everything else that characterises abundance and celebration of life.
Art nouveau in Latvia is closely connected to national romanticism, which is why some buildings feature not just the decorativism so typical for Europe, but also refer to Latvian spiritual values. Designers of the typically national romanticist buildings –Eižens Laube and Jānis Frīdrihs Baumanis – are still viewed as trailblazers of national culture.
The areas where art nouveau features most lavishly are Alberta Street and the so-called embassy district nearby. Yet outstanding treasures of art nouveau can be found elsewhere, too: in Old Riga, on Brīvības Street and even in Āgenskalns (in Pārdaugava). And Riga has managed to overshadow gems of art nouveau in other Latvian cities: for example, in Liepāja, art nouveau extends beyond residential buildings to industrial structures as well.
Aficionados of art nouveau must definitely visit the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, housed in the apartment of the architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns, in a building of his own design at 12 Alberta Street. The apartment – from the staircase landing all the way to the crockery in the drawing room – epitomises art nouveau. The museum allows visitors to become immersed into the expressions of the Riga art nouveau and learn a great deal of surprising facts. It is also worth noting that Jānis Krastiņš, an architect and a world-renowned art nouveau expert, lives and works in Latvia
Riga has around 800 art nouveau buildings, the majority of which are concentrated in the central part of Riga, especially in Alberta Street and the so-called Quiet Centre or embassy district, where every building deserves a look. Therefore, while on your way around Riga, don’t just gaze at the cobblestones and shop windows but lift your eyes – there is some truly astonishing architecture out there! Here is a listing of the most interesting of the art nouveau buildings:
- 7 Audēju Street, Old Riga (A. Aschenkampf, M. Scherwinsky, 1899). The first art nouveau building in Riga featuring typical stylised floral (irises, blossoming trees, cattails) motifs and masks.
- 9 Audēju Street, Old Riga (K. Pēkšēns, 1900). The building features an interesting sun motif, typical for art nouveau, which symbolises the flourishing of new life.
- 9 Teātra Street, Old Riga (H. Scheel, F. Scheffel, 1903). This building is adorned with mythological characters, Athena and Hermes. The building is crowned with figures of Atlases supporting a globe fashioned out of glass and zinc and illuminated at night.
- 2 Vaļņu Street, Old Riga (E. Friesendorff, 1911). Attracts attention with its entrance portal with expressive sculptural mouldings. Copper forgings of figures from the ancient Greek mythology, Asclepius (god of healing) and the Moira Atropos (goddess of fate) symbolise the course of human life, well-being and labour.
- 2 Smilšu Street, Old Riga (1902). The building is one of the best examples of the Riga art nouveau architecture: the façade is adorned with an image of a peacock, one of the symbols of beauty and self-confidence in art nouveau. The Herma underneath the bow window is considered the most beautiful female image in the art nouveau architecture of Riga.
- 8 Smilšu Street, Old Riga (H. Scheel, F. Scheffel, 1902). A building abundantly decorated with masks, hybrid creatures, plant elements. Both portals are adorned with the typically art nouveau image of a melancholy woman with her eyes shut. The ornament in the entrance hallway is considered by experts to be a classic example of art nouveau ornamental forms.
- 15/17 Tērbatas Street, Centre (K. Pēkšēns, 1905). The building is one of the first examples of national romanticism in Riga, featuring an expressive silhouette and an architectural finish consisting of varied construction materials. According to the customer’s idea, the travertine used to finish the façade was gathered from the debris of the Staburags rock.
- 47 Brīvības Street, Centre (E. Laube, 1909). An outstanding monument of national romanticism, featuring a dynamic composition of mass, bow windows arranged at different heights, steep and stressed roof planes, tall gables and cone-shaped upper cornices on the corners.
- 10a and 10b Elizabetes Street, Centre (M. Eisenstein, 1903). The buildings are “clothed” in unusually abundant and lavish art nouveau ornaments. The leaf spring motif woven into several decorative elements of the building at 10a recalls M. Eisenstein’s place of employment: he was the head of the Traffic Department of the Livonian Governorate. Especially noticeable at 10b are the composition of masks, peacocks, sculptural heads and geometrical figures on the upper cornices of the façade and the blue tiled façade areas at the top-storey level. There is also a sumptuously ornate stairwell.
- 4 Alberta Street(M. Eisenstein 1904). The most elegant and artistically most original eclectically decorative art nouveau building. The eye is drawn to the three Medusa heads placed above the cornice with their mouths agape in the middle of a scream (a similar motif was used in the Secession Building in Vienna). The façade is scattered with figures of eagles and lions and reliefs of winged lions. The winged relief of a woman’s head at the centre of the building symbolises the sun and protection.
- 4a Strēlnieku Street, embassy district (M. Eisenstein, 1905). This building is an example of the eclectic and extremely decorative direction in art nouveau and close up it dazzles with an abundance of ornaments in which the arrangement of shapes in historic styles are interspersed with various combinations of art nouveau motifs.
- 10 Vīlandes Street, embassy district (K. Pēkšēns, 1908). A national romantic building with an asymmetrical façade combination, finished in variously coloured and textured plaster. Pay attention to the reliefs with classical storylines: dancing maidens with garlands and grapes. The building entrance is shaped like a keyhole.