Naked maidens, snarling gargoyles, screaming faces, writhing snakes, flying dragons, prancing peacocks, and heroic gods and goddesses: does this sound like a recipe for a fantasy novel?
Toss in a few intricate vines, flowers, trees, futuristic geometric designs, and the odd robot head, and what comes out of the mix is the remarkable Art Nouveau architecture of Riga, Latvia.
Tired of the old rules of formal, classical design, in the late 1800s French artists, designers, and architects took a radical, new direction in their creations. It was called Art Nouveau. With the end of a tumultuous century, the arts community was ready for new ideas and the movement spread quickly across Europe. And thanks to a period of exceptional economic prosperity, nowhere did the seeds germinate and flourish more than in Riga. With over 750 buildings, it has earned the title of “European Capital of Art Nouveau.”
One of Art Nouveau’s major design goals was to bring nature into an urban environment. Building facades were characterized by non-geometric plant and floral-inspired motifs, as well as highly-stylized, sinuous lines. No longer was beauty found in symmetry and regularity, but in nature and the human imagination.
Window size and placement was irregular, copper was frequently used as roofing material, and many designs featured intricate wrought-iron balconies.
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.
Most large cities in Europe have a few examples of Art Nouveau scattered around their historic districts. But fully one third of the buildings in central Riga are built in this style, making it the largest concentration in the world. Essentially every street is home to a few jungenstile beauties. Not all have been restored, but enough detail remains to imagine what they were like in their heyday.
As we traveled around Europe our love of Art Nouveau grew slowly. And in fact, when we visited Riga, primarily, we came to see the Medieval Old Town. But the amazing assortment of jugenstile buildings won us over, and made us serious devotees.
Riga has much to offer and is worth a visit in its own right, but the fun, eclectic collection of Art Nouveau buildings is the icing on the cake … and everyone loves extra frosting.
James and Terri