“Every block of stone has a statue inside it
and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
James & Terri