Architecture / Serbia / Travel

Upstarts and Ingrates: Art Nouveau in Subotica, Serbia

Raichle Palace 1

From fashion to furniture, houses to hair styles, every generation knows exactly what it finds attractive. And then the next-generation ingrates arrive on the scene to scoff at bygone trends, calling them old-fashioned and outdated relics.

Architecture isn’t excluded from these generational fashion flip-flops, which is precisely what happened in Europe at the end of the 19th century.

Tired of the old rules of formal, classical design, in the late 1800s a new wave of architects made a 180° turn. No longer was beauty found in symmetry and regularity, but in nature and the human imagination. This new movement was Art Nouveau.

This is our fifth trip to Eastern Europe, and we’ve worked our way south from Finland to Latvia, Slovakia to Serbia. It’s interesting that, without much planning, and to our great delight, we’ve discovered excellent collections of Art Nouveau architecture on each of these trips.

Postcard of Subotica's Tram System 1914

Postcard of Subotica’s Tram System 1914

In the far north of Serbia, near the Hungarian border, the small city of Subotica (Soo-bo-teets-za) seems an unlikely location for an impressive collection of European Art Nouveau architecture. But at the beginning of the 20th Century it was a part of the far-reaching Austro-Hungarian Empire. And given its proximity to Budapest, its population at the time was distinctly European.

One characteristic we’ve noticed on these trips is how architects from each area stuck to the basic tenets of the natural style of Art Nouveau, but superimposed regional preferences that were frequently based on nationalism and local folklore.

Architects in Helsinki, Finland were enthusiastic followers of the new trend and they had a penchant for animal adornments. There were animals of all types and sizes, both realistic and stylized. For the designers, this was a way to bring charming and playful animals out of their natural habitats and into a busy, industrial city.

Our ferry across the Baltic brought us to Riga, Latvia, which has over 750 Art Nouveau buildings, making it the undisputed “European Capital of Art Nouveau.” For architecture enthusiasts like us, it was like a trip to Oz. In Riga, the artists liked their animals realistic, but they showed a predilection for the human form included on their fancy facades – full bodies and faces – large and small, happy and sad. Riga was a non-stop show about how buildings can be more than function.

Synagogue

Which brings us to Subotica’s Art Nouveau. There’s a surprising variation of design in this small town: palaces, businesses, the city hall, and a synagogue.

Floral 1 Floral 2

Each building is unique, but when compared to northern styles, the architects in Subotica dialed down the animals and humans and cranked up plant and floral motifs, sinuous lines, creative use of ceramics, wavy shapes, and unusual color combinations.

Raichle Palace 2

The jewel in Subotica’s crown is the Raichle Palace. Architect Ferenc Raichle built the palace in 1904 on a prime location across the street from the park and train station.

Raichle Palace Balcony

Raichle Palace Roofline

Raichle Palace Railing

His lavish design uses ceramics, wrought iron, carved wood, and a colorful floral motif. Unfortunately he spent a bit too generously on the palace, and in 1908 went bankrupt and was forced to move and sell everything.

Bank

On the main pedestrian street in the center stands the lovely Savings Bank Building. When it was built in 1907, it was the only bank on the city’s main street: location, location, location.

It’s hard to imagine a bunch of conservative bankers investing in such a flamboyant facade, but in addition to a stern-looking matron overseeing the goings-on, they included a couple of subtle architectural messages to mollify nervous customers: the beehive symbolizing frugality, and the squirrel representing trust. They obviously didn’t have bird feeders in those days. 

Bank Beehive 2 Bank Door Bank Beehive 1

There are many other Art Nouveau buildings and residences in Subotica, which makes it a worthwhile stop on any trip to Serbia. It’s a long day trip by bus from Belgrade, and an easy hop if you base yourself in Novi Sad, which we chose. The train station is on the main line from Budapest, so it can also be an intermediate stop on the way south from Hungary. If you want a feel for how the wealthy lived in fin de siècle Europe, a stop in Subotica will do it.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Floral Windows

61 thoughts on “Upstarts and Ingrates: Art Nouveau in Subotica, Serbia

  1. The play and color of Art Nouveau always makes me smile, James and Terri. I’d be a little hesitant about a squirrel representing trust, however. I am with you on the bird feeders. 🙂 But even without bird feeders, there is plenty of other mischief for squirrels to get into. At least ours do. Fun blog. –Curt

    • Thanks Curt, and welcome back. I see from your posts that your summer with the boys was busy, and eventful. I’m sure you’re exhausted. That’s your genetic code getting payback. As you can probably tell, we really enjoy Art Nouveau. It’s amazing how much there is in Eastern Europe, and the number of buildings in Subotica was a real surprise. There’s a fantastic city hall and synagogue that we didn’t cover that we’ll do later. Thanks again for dropping by and welcome back into the ether. ~James

  2. That style of architecture gets a big thumbs up from me. I was surprised to find some examples in Florence, cheek by jowl with utilitarian, crowded apartment buildings, and Trieste had quite a lot too.

    Your offerings are much appreciated, thank you.

    • Thanks Yvonne. We spent a week in Florence, and somehow missed the Art Nouveau buildings. I’ll have to check it out to see where it was in town. I’m sure that when it was built those Renaissance snobs thought it was outrageous. ~James

      • Tours are pretty rare Yvonne. The only places we’ve seen for tours were in Barcelona. These places must cost an absolute fortune to restore, so the last thing the present (rich) owners want are a bunch of tourists trooping through. ~James

    • I agree Andrew. I don’t know of any city that even comes close to Riga in number of buildings or variety of styles. It was wonderful to see. If you come to Serbia, don’t miss Subotica. In addition to the Art Nouveau, it has a very relaxed ambience with lots of greenspace and low traffic – unlike gritty Belgrade. ~James

    • You may have been to the Subotica bus station Kathy and remember how small and quiet it was. But the day we were there it was absolutely packed. The police had set up right outside to keep things orderly. And you’re right, when we visited, the Hungarian border was the last place we wanted to go. ~James

    • Thanks Alison. We love Art Nouveau, and our appreciation for the style is a direct result of our travels in Eastern Europe. Somehow, it seems to have captured the imagination of artists and architects in those areas, and luckily, much of it has been preserved or restored. ~James

  3. Such beautiful buildings! It would take me forever to walk down a street with my camera. It’s hard to decide what I like better, animals, people or the riotous color patterns. Continued safe travels.

    • We love it all as wall Laura. And as you can imagine, for every photo on the blog we probably took about 50 that didn’t make it in. It’s such an attractive style particularly for the details: complex colors, unique materials, and excellent artistry. They really are a photographer’s dream. ~James

    • Thanks very much Tricia. Even though our’s is a travel blog, we realize that the last thing most people need is another travel journal or description of yet another famous cathedral. So we work hard to have an angle and a story that’s different. Most people seem to like it, and this approach also makes it much more interesting for us. Thanks for continuing to follow along. ~James

    • This really is a charming building Joyce. As I said, it had a beautiful use of ceramics, and I love the unusual colors. We hadn’t seen one like it before. It must have cost a fortune to build, so much that the poor guy went broke. Say hello to Dascal. Love, JH

    • Thanks Darlene. The bank doors are exceptional. Most Art Nouveau architects we’ve seen put lots of emphasis on doors and windows. I also enjoyed the ceramic beehive at the top, which was on two sides of the building. ~James

    • Thanks Brenda. It’s great to hear from you. It doesn’t surprise me that a color-loving artist like you enjoys and appreciates Art Nouveau. E&K tell us that you guys are loving Indy and being close to family. We’re back in KY after (gulp) 40 years, so we can relate. Hugs to Larry and Hillary. ~James

  4. James and Terri Subotica looks like one fascinating location! I love all of the color. At first glance it has a Mexican or Spanish look, at least the coloring. You are the masters of finding detils in architecture, door knobs, amd wall adornments. I know you will always provide some oh so unique finds. It has made me look more intently when we travel for those types of details.

    • Thanks Sue, and we appreciate you’re continuing to follow along. As hokey as it may sound, meditation taught me that if I pay attention to the details, I won’t miss the big things. And the delightful thing about Art Nouveau is that it’s all in the details. It must have been such a radical idea at the time, and as an creative artist, it must have been so much fun to paint outside the lines … way outside the lines. ~James

    • Thanks Anita. If you want Art Nouveau, Riga is the perfect place to start. It has an incredible collection and the city has a nice vibe as well. And if you go, don’t miss Tallinn, Estonia. It’s been interesting to see the differences in the Northeastern vs. Southeastern European countries. Most are ex-communist, but the impact of the iron fist of Mother Russia on the people and their attitudes has been amazingly different. Luckily, the Art Nouveau architecture has survived. ~James

    • Probably not Dorothy. Most of these cities only have a few examples, and luckily, they’ve been restored to their original splendor. They’re like the spice in the stew – subtle and tasty. ~James

  5. I have read about Subotica some time ago. It looks like it’s one of the hidden pearls of Serbia. I am also trying to find our places like this. There are many in Romania as well. Nice to read this post and see your faboulous images.

    • Thanks Roberto. Subotica is very unlike Belgrade and other Serbian cities, and is definitely worth a trip to see. It’s an easy and pleasant day trip from Novi Sad by bus, and in fact, it would be a good place to spend a couple of nights. ~James

      • Hi James, Serbia is on my list! Because of the flag you left in my blog, I have noticed that you are now in Bulgaria! I will be looking forward to reading your post from there! Enjoy the Balkans!

      • Very observant Roberto. Yes we have moved on and we’re in Plovdiv, Bulgaria which is fabulous. We’re still catching up on posts and will be post on each stop, so watch this space. ~James

  6. A perfect blend of a post! A little history of art and architecture, some fabulous photos, and even a little geography lesson in there for me! I remember the carved animals from my trip to Helsinki, but I was particularly taken with the Riga scenes. Is all the Art Nouveau architecture in Riga just white or do they also use ceramics and colors? I wish I had gone there while in Tallinn!

    • Thanks Lexie. If you like Art Nouveau, Riga is the place. Nowhere that we’ve see even comes close to Riga in variety and number of buildings. Not all have been renovated, but a huge number have been, and it’s fabulous. And no, the buildings don’t just use white. It just so happens that the ones we included do. If you get back to this area, definitely check Riga out. ~James

  7. I love Art Nouveau and found this post most enjoyable. The coloring is reminiscent of Mexico but perhaps a bit more subtle. The faces appeal to me the most. I love your eye for detail. 🙂

    • Thanks LuAnn. One of the features that I love about Art Nouveau is all the detail. These intricate details seem to be where the architects are their most creative and playful. As to color, after our last trip to Mexico and our visits to SMA and Guanajuato, I’m convinced that Mexico wins the vivid color award. The Art Nouveau buildings in Subotica and elsewhere are colorful, but they can’t hold a candle to the Mexican highlands. ~James

  8. Modern buildings certainly lack the color and creativity of Art Nouveau styles! One could while away many hours just looking at all the detail. Very fascinating post – both the photos and writing. Thanks!

    • Thanks Marilyn. A visit to a city like Subotica reminds me of how drab, dull, and uninteresting most US buildings are. It’s too bad that a bit more creativity isn’t built in. And strangely, given the overall cost of a new building, adding a bit of color and a few artistic details would only add a pittance to the cost. I’ve never understood it. ~James

  9. Wow! What a wonderful journey through Art Nouveau styles. I love that you ended with Subotica with its almost Mediterranean colors and symbols. Glorious post and adventure, Terri and James! Thank you!!

    • Thanks Martha. I’m not sure, but I think that Subotica is about as far south as Art Nouveau goes. The Austro-Hungarian Empire stretched down into this part of the world, and not much farther. And the locals liked the Hungarians not one bit. In fact, the “Shot heard round the world” that happened in Sarajevo, Bosnia, killed Archduke Ferdinand and started WWI was an indicator. Of course, I learned all this in Western Civ in college, but it was meaningless until I started traveling in the Balkans. Funny how that happens. ~James

  10. Having only experienced American and Western European Art Nouveau, the examples of it from the eastern and baltic destinations have a wonderful and strange twist for me. I am especially enchanted by the Baltic squirrel motifs. Thanks for the architectural insight.

    • Thanks for the comment Atreyee, and for dropping by the blog. Interestingly, I’ve seen much more Eastern European Art Nouveau than in the West. For some reason (or combination of reasons), the style seems to have been more popular in Eastern Europe. And since the styles vary in Eastern Europe, it doesn’t surprise me that it varies from east to west. One of the endearing aspects of Art Nouveau is that it gives the artists and architects room to experiment with a bit of personal style and preference. ~James

  11. What fun, bright and funky colors adding some life to the sometime dullness of Eastern Europe.

    By the way, you’ve been chosen as one of today’s nine blogs in That’s So Jacob’s Ninth Month Blog Challenge (http://www.thatssojacob.wordpress.com)! I challenge you to find nine blogs you find interesting and give them a comment to brighten their day…well, eight other blogs and mine 🙂 Copy this message in your comment and enjoy your new blog friends!

  12. Pingback: Art Nouveau in Serbia – SCUBIDU

    • Thanks for linking to our post about Subotica. We love Art Nouveau architecture, and were surprised and pleased that Subotica had such an outstanding collection. The ceramic details on each building is fabulous, and the synagogue is wonderful. The photos of the interior that you include in your post are excellent. ~James

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