Architecture / Latvia / Travel / Weird

A Face-Off on the Façade: Riga’s Art Nouveau Masterpiece

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it
and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
—Michelangelo

With architects, it’s just the opposite. They start with an empty space and fill it with the ultimate practicality: a building – four walls and a roof to protect its occupants. What could be more useful? But in the early 20th Century architects wanted to make the useful beautiful, so they threw out the established rules of formal, classical design, and adopted a radical new style – Art Nouveau.

2 Lions

No longer was beauty found in symmetry and regularity, but in nature and the human imagination. Fine pieces of art were integrated into building designs, and cityscapes were changed all across Europe; especially in Riga, Latvia. With over 800 buildings in this radical style, Riga is considered the world capital of Art Nouveau architecture.

Beautiful female motifs were common as well as exotic flowers, masks of smiling or menacing faces, reliefs of peacocks, swans, owls, reptiles, dogs, cats, wolves, bears and dragons; weird and wonderful all the way.

10b Elizabetes Stree

There are organized and self-guided walking tours of Riga’s Art Nouveau district, but of all the houses we saw on our walk, this is our favorite. The architect Mikhail Eisenstein designed 10a and 10b Elizabetes Street in 1903. This and his other lavishly adorned buildings were characterized by decorative, odd-shaped windows, often with large female head shapes, bright glazed brick, glass and metal tiles.

Facade

Facade CloseupThe building is amazing from top to bottom, but the most magnificent elements are the huge faces, peacocks and geometrical figures on the upper cornice on the top level. The sharp contrast between the striking white decorations and the blue-glazed brick is mesmerizing.

Stylized Head 2

Stylized Head 1

Stylized Head 3

Interestingly, in addition to being a master architect, Eisenstein was the head of the Traffic Department for the province. These futuristic robotic heads are an artistic nod to the nuts and bolts of his other job.

Riga, like most Eastern European capitals, has an attractive, restored old town that dates back to its early days, but for us, the fabulous collection of Art Nouveau architecture was what made it a worthwhile destination. And while you’re in the area, pop over to Helsinki for a look at some Bodacious Baltic Beasties.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

10a Elizabetes Stree

50 thoughts on “A Face-Off on the Façade: Riga’s Art Nouveau Masterpiece

    • Sue, this pair of buildings is absolutely outstanding, and they are right up there (or maybe at the top) on my list of favorite buildings. Art Nouveau was such a departure from the classical designs that came before them, and their sense of whimsy must have been a breath of fresh air. ~James

    • Yvonne, these two buildings are apartments buildings. Imagine living in an apartment building like this. Gaudi also designed Art Nouveau apartments in Barcelona, and when we were there we read that there was a 25 year waiting list for a rental! ~James

    • It’s interesting Andrew, that Northeastern Europe seems to have a greater concentration of Art Nouveau than other parts of Europe. I’m not sure why that was. Helsinki has a good collection as well, but not as large as Riga. ~James

      • Maybe it is because this was exactly the time that theses cities were coming into some sort of prominence. I read that this period coincided with a time of growth and prosperity in Riga, which by 1900 had become the third largest city in the Russian Empire after Moscow and St. Petersburg and it has over eight hundred examples of Art Nouveau buildings across the city. At this time Riga was known as the ‘Pearl of the Baltic’ and ‘Paris of the North’.

  1. I really like the highlighting of detail you’ve provided. There is so much to look at on this building, it’s easy to overlook some of the smaller detail. I wouldn’t know art nouveau from classical, but I agree this building is stunning!

    • Riga has many outstanding Art Nouveau buildings Joanne, but for me, this is the most attractive and interesting. The others have wonderful, unique artistic detail, but the clean, crisp contrast of the blue brick and the white decorations makes it very appealing (IMHO). ~James

    • Laura, I was surprised at the use of these robot faces Laura. If you look at our other Art Nouveau posts from Riga, you’ll see that a few of the other architects used robot-looking faces and heads as well. And remember this was the turn of the century, which was WAY before the days of sci-fi. Interesting eh? ~James

  2. I always learn something when I read your blogs — like Latvia being a center of Art Nouveau buildings. Just another place to put on my ever-expanding Bucket List! And as for favorites in this post — the close-up shot of that head corner piece. Wow! Never have I seen that anywhere else. Thanks for starting my day with this interesting post.

    • Thanks Rusha. Our trip to Latvia was a part of a long trip around the Baltic states We started in Helsinki, then Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. It was a wonderful trip, and this is when we fell in love with Art Nouveau. Helsinki also has a wonderful collection of Art Nouveau buildings (check out the Baltic Beasties post), so if you ever get to this area, put both Riga and Helsinki on your list. ~James

  3. I could spend hours discovering all the details to this architecture. No-one can design something with this much detail without utmost passion for his work. I’m absolutely gobsmacked. What a revelation. 😉

    • Thanks Tess. The architects had a true appreciation for detail, and there’s an unending supply on the buildings in Riga. And the art pieces are so varied. Beautiful faces on one part of the building and grotesque animals on the other. We fell in love with Art Nouveau in the Baltic. ~James

    • Dorothy, we had read about Riga’s Art Nouveau buildings, but had no idea there were so many. We came in buy bus from Tallinn, Estonia, but in these days of cheap-o airlines, I’m sure it would be cheap to get there. You’ll be happy you did. ~James

    • Thanks Darlene. The Baltic had been on our list for years and we’re glad that we finally made it. The number of outstanding Art Nouveau buildings in Riga was a pleasant surprise. ~James

    • Anita, we knew very little about Art Nouveau before this trip, but after visiting Riga and Helsinki (which also has lots of great AN), we fell in love with the style. The Baltic is a great area to visit because the distances are small, and each country is different. ~James

  4. I love the robot-looking sculptures, especially the one that looks like Marvin the Martian. Wouldn’t modern sculpture be more interesting if some of these design ideas were incorporated today? – Mike

    • I agree Mike. Obviously, these buildings are embellished to the max. But when you look at the total cost of building a new building, the incremental cost for just a bit of decoration would be small addition to the budget. I also feel this way about most new houses. They’re just big boring boxes. ~James

  5. Wow! This architecture is breath-taking! So avantgarde…I didn’t notice the large women’s faces on the facade at first and then they sprung to life! Gorgeous…and the gladiator/martian heads are too cool! Thanks for sharing with us!

    • Thanks Lia. As I said, this is my favorite Art Nouveau building that I’ve seen. This style was such a radical departure from previous styles I wonder how it was received at the time. I’m sure that traditionalists were flipping out. ~James

  6. I’m a great fan of Art Nouveau so I have just added Riga to my must visit list. At this rate I’m going to have to live to be about two hundred to visit everywhere, or maybe win the lottery.

  7. I believe Eisenstein was not aware of the giant faces of Bayon at the Angkor temples complex when he designed this building — it shows how despite the long distances humans are often inspired by the same things. The pyramids of Egypt and Central America are another example of this.

    • You picked a good favourite, the Gallivances!

      Had to pick out this thought as it’s true the buildings are reminiscent of those faces at Angkor. It’s funny how certain motifs crop up. One of those times you want to have a pocket archeologist/anthropologist to talk for hours about the cultural parallels.

      • Bronwyn, I suspect that at some point in their training that most architects must study the classic buildings of history. And you’re right about the Angkor parallels. What I found most appealing about these heads were their subtle wrap around a 90° corner. It’s a wonderful effect. The architect was Russian, so who knows where he got his inspiration, but the results are wonderful. I also wondered about the futuristic-looking robotic faces. Amazing! ~James

      • Yes that 90 degree turn is stunning, and unusual. But it’s not just about studying classic buildings – it’s about which ones (and which features) you then curate/embellish/converse with in the modern day.

        I went to a fashion exhibition with an anthropologist friend once, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about fashion trends through the ages. Designers have all of history to choose from, and yet you find certain trends in response to certain technological and social environments. Or at least you can, in hindsight, make up a good story that hints at a cause-effect. 🙂

      • It’s interesting Bronwyn, that the longer I live, the more I appreciate history. And as a result, more and more questions (like the one you discuss) keep popping up. I sometimes wonder if there’s some genetic hardwiring in humans that make certain patterns, colors, and shapes appealing. This could explain some of these reoccurring, cross-cultural trends across time. Probably total BS, but interesting to think about. ~James

    • Riga, and the Baltic in general, are good shoulder season destinations. The crowds have thinned out, prices are lower (which is particularly important in Helsinki), and hotels and apartments are much easier to get. Winter comes early to this part of the world, and if you time it right, it’s a wonderful place. ~James

    • Jo, this is one of the most unique and beautiful buildings that I’ve seen anywhere. It’s very photogenic and there’s so much wonderful detail that it really helps to have a good zoom camera. All the best to you and your family for a fun and healthy 2016. ~James

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