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 And then the next-generation ingrates arrive on the scene to scoff at bygone trends, labelling them old-fashioned and outdated relics.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.
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.
Art Nouveau was popular throughout Eastern Europe, and each area stuck to the basic tenets of the style. But local architects chose to superimpose 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.
Riga, Latvia, which has over 750 Art Nouveau buildings, is the undisputed “European Capital of Art Nouveau.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, the designers 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.
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.
James & Terri
Last updated January 5, 2020