When you think of the cities with the greatest collections of Art Nouveau architecture, what comes to mind? Probably Paris or Brussels, Prague or Budapest. But not Riga, right? Well, then you’re in for quite a surprise.
I first heard of Riga’s collection of Art Nouveau architecture just a few months ago, through the Latvia’s EU-council commercial that Linda co-wrote. I love the style (more on that later), so seeing it in Riga became a must for me as soon as I decided to go on this trip.
Riga’s collection is incredibly impressive, in terms of the sheer number of examples, the diversity of substyles (Historicism, National Romanticism), and the ornateness and beauty of the buildings themselves. Plus the facades are impressively well-maintained, especially compared to how I’ve seen many other European cities treat their historical buildings (in one word: neglected). Latvians are clearly proud of this part of their cultural heritage, and make an effort to preserve it.
Almost a third of buildings in central Riga is done in some sort of Art Nouveau style, or uses its elements. It is one of the main reasons that this part of Latvia’s capital is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In fact, the organization suggests that Riga houses “the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe.” Even more interestingly — practically all of these buildings are residential! As I learned on the walking tour, the reason it is so is because several large residential neighborhoods in central Riga burned down in a massive fire (shockingly not attributed to the Evil Russians) in the early 1900’s, which is when Art Nouveau ruled architecture and design, so the replacement buildings all went up in that style.
My favorite examples from Riga are a little further down; I’d like to say a few words about Art Nouveau itself first .
I always liked the Art Nouveau aesthetic. It is rich, nature-inspired and whimsical, which are all the things I love in just about everything. Elven towns in Lord of the Rings movies are done in a kind of exaggerated Art Nouveau style; if it’s good enough for a magical world, it’s good enough for me. It is also very distinct, with highly pronounced botanical, other naturalistic and fantastical elements, and highly stylized human forms and faces. A lot of imagery recurs in the works of different artists and architects, due to the deep symbolism that was an essential part of the Art Nouveau philosophy: sun means a new life, peacock stands for beauty and confidence, and a winged woman’s head is a symbol of protection. This style is definitely not for everyone, but I can’t get enough.
My personal preference aside, what is particularly remarkable about Art Nouveau is that the movement sprung up, peaked, and faded away within just a couple of decades, from the 1890’s to the beginning of World War I. Yet in this short time it managed to change the faces of dozens of European cities, as well as leave an indelible mark on furniture design, poster art and jewelry-making, among other art and craft forms. Literally thousands of Art Nouveau buildings sprung up throughout Europe in that short period, from Barcelona to Bristol, from Prague to Saint Petersburg. This style even crossed oceans, popping up in grand buildings in Argentina and Australia.
This year I have inadvertently – and delightedly – made a mini-Art Nouveau pilgrimage, and it all started with Riga.
By the way, Riga was dubbed “Paris of the North” in the 1930’s, partly for vibrant economy and its position as a major trade hub, but particularly for its impressive and elegant urban aesthetic, complete with grand boulevards, well-appointed public spaces and aristocratic architecture that went beyond Art Nouveau and included great Gothic, neo-Classical, Art Deco, Romanesque Revival, Eclecticist and other examples. A lot of that architectural legacy survived, well-preserved, to this day. Here is but a small sample of what I managed to snap during my short Riga visit… I know I barely scratched the surface.