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Riga's World of Art Nouveau


I've long been fascinated with Art Nouveau, that collection of artistic and architectural styles that cropped up in Europe at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, taking on different national and cultural characteristics in each country.


With all the variations, there's a common affinity for unusual shapes, curves and sensual, stylized ornaments, often based on nature, and a sense of breaking with old ways, old forms and creating something new, at a time when much was changing in people's lives.

P1340745This fantasy castle was the work of Konstantīns Pēkšēns, whose private apartment and studio in the building are now Riga's Art Nouveau Museum

As I've traveled, I've been paying more attention to it: the differing versions of Gaudi and Montaner i Domenech in Spain, Guimard in France, Horta in Belgium, Otto Wagner and others in Vienna. In Riga, there's plenty of room for a full dose, and plenty of variations to see.

P134059420230917_114808P1340621P1340702Three variations of Art Nouveau in doors, and a modern shop that recreates the style in a wooden storefront

There's a reason why Riga has so many Art Nouveau buildings—several reasons, actually. In the 1890s, Riga was an important port and outpost of the Russian empire on the Baltic Sea, and was growing rapidly. Between 1897 and 1913, it grew by 88%, bursting out of the smaller medieval core, whose walls had recently been removed.

20230917_114615P1340735P1340787P1340786P1340710Colors that had previously not been used for exteriors are prominent in quite a few buildings. The golden toned-building above and in title image is the work of Mikhail Eisenstein, an Art Nouveau pioneer and father of Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein

And, it was a period in which Latvia, like many other parts of Eastern Europe, was developing a national consciousness, trending toward independence and developing new institutions, including, in 1869, the first architecture school in Latvia and the training of a new generation of local architects.


Riga was something of a polyglot city: ruled by Russia and with a significant Russian population, with most of its merchant and artisan class Baltic Germans, and with a growing population of Latvian speakers, migrating from rural areas as the city grew. All three groups are represented among Riga's pioneering Art Nouveau architects.


As you'll notice, looking at the pictures here (unbelievably hard to select from a few hundred!), the styles in Riga are not uniform, and show changes over time as well. In the beginning, it was largely a matter of adding new styles of ornamentation to buildings whose style is familiar, from a sort of medievalist National Romanticism to echoes of Haussmann Paris and more.


Over time, building and ornaments became more integrated, and many of the buildings took on a more vertical look; others took on more fanciful shapes or refined elements of older styles in new forms.


In some of the later buildings you can even begin to discern changes that seem to be leading the way toward later Art Deco styles: More angular and stylized aspects to the decoration, and 'cleaner' lines. But that's a topic for more study and another time.

P1340610P1340676P1340757The building at the top, originally a bank, is now the home of Radio Latvia

The work of selecting images for this piece led me to break off a chunk of the story for later; I'll soon be offering another post that is basically a gallery of some of the wonderful ornaments and sculptures in more detail. But here are a number of examples in a less-detailed view.


One interesting note: I signed up for an Art Nouveau walking tour of the city, which turned out to be just me and my guide, a woman originally from Riga, but who had, when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union, worked as a guide for Intourist, the official Soviet tour agency—in Siberia!


The "Attachments" section below has even more images, and a chance to click on them for an enlarged view.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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