Art Nouveau in Riga

12 Jun 2018

Art nouveau architecture is one of Riga’s claims to fame, and rightly so. Not to be confused, as it often is, with 1930s art deco that is so famously illustrated in the Chrysler and Empire State buildings of New York, the ‘new art’ or ‘new style’ often referred to as Jugendstil is a slightly older form of expression that gained popularity at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Confused? A general rule of thumb is that if something looks sleek, angular and shiny it’s probably art deco, but if you’re faced with elaborate, flamboyant naked maidens, floral motifs and funky gargoyles, it’s most likely art nouveau.

Over a third of all buildings in Riga are examples of this unique school of design which begs the question: why are there so many in the Latvian capital? The answer is actually quite simple. When art nouveau was at the height of its popularity, Riga just happened to be at the zenith of an unprecedented financial boom. This incredible wealth also coincided with an earlier lifting of a ban against erecting masonry buildings outside the city walls. In medieval times, all of the wooden buildings outside the ramparts would be razed to prevent an invading army from using them for shelter.

By the mid-19th century it finally dawned on the Russian authorities that ‘modern’ warfare had rendered the city’s ancient walls and fortifications obsolete. The result was an incredible era of construction that lasted much longer than the city’s most recent boom that ended in disaster both aesthetically and financially speaking. If only someone could have built an art nouveau shopping centre after independence instead of the boring, functional metal and glass monstrosities that now litter the city!

One of the city’s most prolific art nouveau architects was Mikhail Eisenstein (1867 - 1921), father of the legendary Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein who gave the world such cinematic treasures as Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the Terrible. He is best known for his collection of buildings on Alberta iela that is famous for its unusual sculpture, coloured bricks and tiles, geometric ornaments and uniquely shaped windows.

Latvians would also leave their mark on Riga and Konstantīns Pēkšēns (1859 - 1928) designed no less than 250 buildings including the iconic edifice at Alberta 12, which the architect once called home and that now houses the Riga Art Nouveau Museum. A founder of the Riga Architects Union and a Riga councilman, he embraced all of the styles of the times and moved on from the eclecticism so popular in mid to late-1800s Riga to art nouveau and its later offshoot, national romanticism. The latter was an attempt by Latvian architects to incorporate elements of ethnic mythology and folklore into their designs.


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