Architecture / History / Latvia / Travel

Riga’s Beautiful Art Nouveau: The Icing On the Cake

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Naked maidens, snarling gargoyles, screaming faces, writhing snakes, flying dragons, prancing peacocks, and heroic gods and goddesses … does this sound like a night at a WWF match? No, well throw in a few intricate vines, flowers, trees, futuristic geometric designs, and the odd robot head. Now what you have is an introduction to the amazing Art Nouveau architecture of Riga, Latvia.

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The Art Nouveau artistic movement began in France in the late 1800s, and spread like wildfire throughout Europe. And thanks to a period of exceptional economic prosperity, nowhere did the seed germinate and flourish more than in Riga. With over 750 buildings, it has earned the title of “European Capital of Art Nouveau.”

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Artists, designers, and architects threw out the previous rules of formal, classical design, and adopted a radical new philosophy. No longer was beauty found in symmetry and regularity, but in nature, natural materials and the human imagination.

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The building facades were characterized by non-geometric plant and floral-inspired motifs, as well as highly-stylized, sinuous lines. Window size and placement was irregular, copper was frequently used as roofing material, and many designs featured intricate wrought-iron balconies.

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Each country adopted its own version of Art Nouveau design, with slight differences. In Riga the style is called “jungenstil”, from the German word “young style”, because most Latvian architects studied in Germany. The French had their unique style, and of course, Gaudi was creating Art Nouveau masterpieces in Spain.

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In the center of Riga, essentially every street is home to a few jungenstile beauties. Not all have been restored, but enough detail is left to imagine what they were like in their heyday. Initially, we visited Riga for its Old Town, but the Art Nouveau buildings have made wonderful icing on the cake … and everyone loves extra frosting.

Happy Trails,
James and Terri

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