If you’ve ever lived in a big city, you know that your chances of seeing wild animals are pretty slim … unless you go to the zoo.
Evidently, European architects at the beginning of the 20th century felt the same way, so they started incorporating wildlife into the newest architectural trend - Art Nouveau.
When we started our Baltic journey in Helsinki, Finland, we soon realized that everywhere we looked there were animals adorning the buildings. Some were embedded in balconies and doorways; others sat proudly atop pedestals and rooflines. Most were surprisingly realistic, but a few took a fanciful twist.
Our curiosity was aroused so we did some research, looking for explanations. The answers were fascinating.
Animals Were a Way to Bring Nature into the City
Art Nouveau was an urban style created specifically to decorate the streets of the large cities that had grown so dramatically at the end of the 19th Century, displacing resident wildlife. One of Art Nouveau’s major design goals was to bring nature into an urban environment. That’s why we saw realistic squirrels, swans, ferrets and foxes.
Our next question was, “Why are there so many bears in Finnish architecture?”
Animals Celebrate a National Mythology
In Finnish folklore the bear was the most sacred of animals, embodying the spirits of their forefathers. Today the bear is revered as the country’s national animal. While strolling through town, whether we looked up … or down, the bears were everywhere!
Artists Explored the New Scientific Concepts of the 19th Century
When we spied a “trail of snails” across the front of this building, we scratched our heads in wonder. It turns out that 19th century improvements to the microscope, and renewed interest in biology, encouraged artists to turn their attention to the smallest of creatures.
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution spawned a new interest in the origins of life and how species evolve. Artists were particularly fascinated with monkeys and other primates.
But the concept of evolution proved to be artistically confusing. The scene above this Gothic doorway depicts an unusual evolutionary sequence, with animals morphing into humans … or is it vice versa?
When we moved on to Riga, Latvia we noticed the architectural animals shifted from realistic …
… to whimsical.
And we did spy a lovely sphinx (with a Jimmy Durante nose). Fortunately she wasn’t asking any riddles that day so we were safe!
Terri and James