Architecture / Latvia / Travel

Riga’s Beautiful Art Nouveau: The Icing On the Cake

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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.

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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.”

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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. 

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Window size and placement was irregular, copper was frequently used as roofing material, and many designs featured intricate wrought-iron balconies.

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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.

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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.

Happy Trails,
James and Terri

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19 thoughts on “Riga’s Beautiful Art Nouveau: The Icing On the Cake

  1. The artistry and ornate precision is astounding. It’s amazing so much of it has been saved/restored. When we think about beautiful construction in present day, nothing so artistic comes to mind. And t think, it was done without the aid of today”s technology. Amazing.

    • Laura, construction costs are high I know, and I get that. But when the overall cost of constructing a building is taken into account, these types of artistic details wouldn’t add that much to the final price tag. There are lots of expensive and boring buildings around. ~James

  2. I’m thinking the architects or designers of the day felt great liberation in this kind of creativity. Almost a bit of a shock factor or that is how I imagine it. Freedom of expression I suppose and I would love to search for these unusual details one day in Riga.

    • That’s a good point Sue. I suspect that most artists looking to break the status quo are searching for a bit of shock value. And, you guys would like the Baltic area. Estonia, Lativa, and Estonia are small and close together, so all three are easy and fun to visit. It’s also a good place to get a glimpse of the ex-communist influence. ~James

  3. Such interesting art, and it being installed on buildings is so pleasant to see. The value of the buildings is definitely enhanced. Buildings built simply for function means drab boxes, who wants to look at that for decades? I also liked the ending – “and everyone loves extra frosting.” It was like a wink and smile at the end of the post. Brilliant !

    • Thanks so much David. As I said to someone else, it’s amazing to me that builders don’t go to a bit more effort to add some character to their buildings. With all the unique, artistic details, these Art Nouveau buildings are like vertical museums, and even though styles change, they stand the test of time. ~James

    • Curt, this building is, without a doubt, one of the most unique and interesting buildings that I’ve seen. It was built in 1903 and is the “poster child” for Art Nouveau in Riga. Luckily, we visited on a good weather day for photos. ~James

  4. I was just in Riga! I didn’t wander through Old Town for long and would have loved to see all these flourishes and adornments. I got a little too taken with the Communist block buildings. Oh, Riga. I need to go back!

    • Juliann, sorry you missed the Art Nouveau, but I understand about being fascinated with the Communist architecture. As a westerner, my travels in Eastern Europe were my first exposure to ex-communist architecture and public art, so it was an eye opener for sure. Were you in Riga on holiday or for work? ~James

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