As you saunter around the heart of Riga, take the time to look up. Faces and bodies coil round the gilded façades, almost sensual, always expressive. They stare down and emote from the city’s art nouveau monuments, acting out a silent drama on the streets of Riga.
People rush along the streets of the Latvian capital. Cars pause at the traffic lights on Elizabetes ielā before revving on with their daily lives, others sit waiting for the bus, sandwiched in between the elegance of grand buildings and poignant, poetic street art stating “If you are not a slave, then stop acting like one” or wander past witty declarations like “Free Palestine! Free Ukraine! Free WiFi!” on ivy-clad firewalls.
Riga is a living city, both on the streets and on its façades. While only four hours by bus separate the Latvian capital from the fairytale turrets of Tallinn in Estonia, the two cities couldn’t be more different in both looks and personality. Riga combines the ornate elegance of art nouveau with its chocolate box old town and gritty contemporary life in a living poem where the ebb and flow of life flows like a sweet and bitter nectar of the local Black Balsam with Blackcurrant.
Riga’s art nouveau architecture was one of the many incentives for visiting the Latvian capital. A personal grand passion of mine, art nouveau architecture has taken me on pilgrimages to its mainstream locales like Paris, Barcelona, and my current hometown of Budapest, as well as to more obscure destinations like Melilla, Darmstadt, Tbilisi, Subotica, and Oradea.
Riga is an extraordinary example, though. Here, art nouveau is everywhere, and with a third of its buildings embodying the style – it’s the city with the highest concentration of art nouveau buildings in the world. On Riga’s elegant boulevards, its streets come to life with buildings that seduce, scream and snarl. Where Gaudí, Lechner, and Mackintosh drew their motifs from nature, in Riga it’s the human face and form that stare out from each street and corner, poised in expression as if they are about to say something.
Begin the quest for Riga’s art nouveau on Elizabetes ielā 10b. Built in 1903 by Mikhail Eisenstein, the hues of blue ceramic tiling contrasted with white plasterwork serves as a canvas for the structure’s decorated rich ornamentation. A complex picture of peacocks and geometric figures, but it’s the two, giant sculpted heads that carry the building’s iconic appeal and stops people in their tracks. The original vision of this grand façade began life on the page of a sketch by two architects from Leipzig, published in a collection of designs and released in St. Petersburg, before being brought to life on the streets of Riga.
Wandering up the block, the Museum of Riga Art Nouveau is also a good place to begin one’s Art Nouveau pilgrimage. Entering the grand building on Alberta ielā 12, where ielā is the Latvian for “street” and flows elegantly off the tongue, the museum lies on the ground floor beneath a decadent staircase that spirals up into the turret that punctuates the top of the building. Here, inside the fantastical creation by Konstantīns Pēkšēns and Eižens Laube, daily life in fin de siècle Riga reveals itself in ornately decorated rooms, where each detail is curated to follow the ebb and flow of local art nouveau.
While the grand drawing room and dining room are expected to follow a grand aesthetic, even the kitchen and the maid’s room offer a hint of jugendstil from the intertwined reeds of the carpet beater hanging on the wall to the delicate curves on the wardrobes and cupboards.
The building itself is intricate, featuring several projections such as loggias, balconies, and its crowning corner tower, with echoes paying tribute to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, while still embodying National Romanticism. However, the devil lies in the details, where in classic art nouveau style, you’ll find floral motifs and natural elements, such as pine cones and needles. Stained glass windows inspire wanderlust with its representation of exotic plants.
Exiting the museum, it’s worth wandering down the rest of Alberta ielā where a dense collection of art nouveau masterpieces by various styles and form contrast and complement each other on the street. Opposite the museum, at number 13, Mikhail Eisenstein’s screaming faces offer a sense of drama, echoing the Greek masks of tragedy, while others sigh, women express an array of emotion in a building which itself is a play in its own right.
The most striking buildings hail from Eisenstein’s work. The Russian-born architect of Baltic German and Jewish descent (although converted to Orthodox Christianity), hailed originally from St. Petersburg, although believed to have been German Jews and of Swedish extract, left his mark on the city. His decorative motifs and feminine figures left Riga with a stunning architectural legacy. However, the architect fled the Baltics during the Russian revolution and died in Berlin in 1921.
When Riga expanded beyond its medieval core, the city developed a new style for the “modern age” and between 1910 and 1913, between 300 to 500 new buildings sprung up each year, the most of which embodied the style. Architects and owners comprised of ethnic Latvians in high society, such as Konstantīns Pēkšēns and Eižens Laube, Jewish architects like Eisenstein and Baltic German architects.
Even though many architects were not ethnically Latvian, architecture became a form of expression to develop a Latvian identity, but art nouveau of course came stylistically influenced from other countries, such as Germany or Finland, although many architects studied locally at the faculty of architecture in Riga Polytechnic Institute, which opened in 1869.
Riga’s art nouveau grew, just like in other cities, as a new style that can throw off its shackles from historical references. Instead, art nouveau expresses local traditions, like the folklore elements prevalent in Ödön Lechner’s work in Hungary. Ornamentation is expressive and not simply decorative in art nouveau architecture, and underneath it all there is a message.
While it’s impossible to write about every building, if you visit Riga, keep an eye out for its variations in art nouveau. Eclectic is perhaps the most dominant, such as Eisenstein’s work, which blends various decorative styles, motifs and even international influences. The best examples of this are Eisenstein’s houses on Alberta ielā.
Perpendicular art nouveau came as Riga’s façades gave into a more rationalist design, defined by vertical composition and geometrical details.
National Romantic Art Nouveau brings up the question of Latvian identity. You’ll find motifs from folk art and natural materials prevalent in this unique branch of the style, which particularly flourished between 1905 and 1911.
And finally, Neo Classical Art Nouveau, a form of architectural fusion particularly drawing on the classicism of the Russian Empire, offering a more monumental depiction of the style.
Whether or not you’re an expert on the details or a simple lover of buildings of beauty, take a stroll on Riga’s streets and take the time to look up, breathe in the details and fall in love with this unique Baltic city.
Photos by author