Characterised by organic motifs, undulating curves and even bright colours, most travellers throughout Europe will have encountered Art Nouveau in some form or other. Whether it’s through Alphonse Mucha’s iconic lithographs depicting wistful women crowned with coiling locks to Charles Renne Mackintosh’s floral motifs or Barcelona’s technicolor-tiled monuments by Antoní Gaudí, Art Nouveau engraved itself into European culture. Finding examples of this art and architectural form on your travels is not hard – you just pay a visit to Paris, Brussels, Glasgow, Barcelona or Budapest, but there are a few cities off the beaten track worth visiting for the Art Nouveau lover.
Those who know their Art Nouveau history may find this an unconventional choice in the list of more obscure cities, since Darmstadt was actually the heart of the Jugendstil movement, Germany’s own take on Art Nouveau. However, Darmstadt is not a city that generally makes the travel bucket lists. However, if you’re interested in architecture, it’s worth the visit.
At the beginning of the 20th century, this town in the German state of Hessen became famous for its artist colony. Darmstadt became the major centre for Secessionist architecture, applied arts and arts & crafts. The buildings left behind in the colony today echo the life, creativity and Darmstadt’s own unique stylisation of the Art Nouveau movement. The five-fingered Wedding Tower by architect Joseph Maria Olbrich is the poster child for the colony in the area known as Mathildenhöhe, but a stroll round the neighbourhood reveals the residential houses that embrace the style, along with the exhibition hall and an oddly juxtaposing Russian Church by Nikolai L. Benois. Grand exhibitions once took place in the colony in the years 1901, 1904 and 1914, but on the eve of the First World War the colony disbanded, only leaving behind a curious collection of modernist buildings.
Close to the colony, you’ll also find Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s Waldspirale, not technically an Art Nouveau building since it was built in the 1990s, but it’s still an architectural curiosity that blended nature with avant-garde architectural forms and delicate curves, echoing the works of Gaudí. If you visit Darmstadt do make sure you check out this curious tribute to modernist architecture.
Across the Black Sea and beyond the Caucasus Mountains, the Georgian capital of Tbilisi is a city rich in eclectic architecture, from the crumbling galleried houses in the Old Town, the conically topped medieval churches and austere constructions left behind from the Soviet Union. Tbilisi is also home to an amazing and underrated collection of Art Nouveau buildings, dubbed locally as “Stil Modern”. Not much is known academically about the origins of the style, where some art historians believe it trickled down from Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, but it is also possible that it came in from mainland Europe via the Black Sea to the port towns of Batumi, Poti and Sokhumi, but it could also be an organic style that emerged grew out of home soil.
There are two areas of note when it comes to exploring the city’s Art Nouveau heritage. The first are the crumbling villas and apartment blocks up in the neighbourhood of Mtatsminda and across the river around the Marjanishvili Theatre (1907, architect K. Zubalashvili), which is also a wonderful example of the style. Banks, residences, cinemas and theatres embraced the design, where the most notable examples are: the apartment on 4 Vartsikhe Street by architect S. Kldiashvili (1902), the Apollo Cinema (1909, unknown architect) or the stained glass dome in the Georgian Bank on 3 Pushkin St.
Melilla, Spanish Exclave in North Africa
While North Africa might not be a place where you expect to find a city with incredible Art Nouveau architecture, Melilla, a city on Spanish territory that shares a land border with Morocco, is unique for many reasons. Much of the modernist city scape has one man to thank – Enric Nieto i Nieto, a Catalan architect who worked with Gaudí back in Barcelona before he settled in the city in 1909.
Brightly coloured modernist structures populate most of the city’s street corners, from residential buildings to commercial ones, mosques, churches and even the local synagogue. Melilla is also unique for its diversity, being home to Christians, Muslims, Jews and even a sizable Hindu population. Nieto’s architecture is a throwback to the Catalan styles of Gaudí, like the colourful tiles on Plaza Menéndez y Pelayo and the salmon coloured hose 1 on Avenida de Juan Carlos I reflects the ornamental influences from Domènch i Montaner. However, there was also a growing trend to incorporate more neo-Moorish trends in his work, as seen in his mosque and synagogue, as well as more art deco styles too.
But Nieto was not the only architect behind Melilla’s own brand of Art Nouveau, Ramón Gironella’s Casa de los Cristales, Emilio Aluzgara and Luis García-Alix Fernández.
Close to Serbia’s border with Hungary, Subotica, also known as Szabadka by its large Hungarian minority population, is located in the area known as Vojvodina and is one of Europe’s most underrated cities when it comes to its art nouveau architecture.
Subotica was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and played a big role in Hungary’s development. It became ahub of trade and transport with its new railway line in 1869. By the late 19th century, the city was wealthy, and attracted some of the best architects and engineers in the region, such as Hungary’s Art Nouveau pioneer Ödön Lechner, and others like Ferenc Raichl, the Vágo Brothers, Gyula Pártos, Titus Mačković among others.
A wander round Subotica and you’ll find wonderful examples of Art Nouveau style around most of the city’s corners, with the most beautiful examples being the Great Synagogue, the Town Hall and the Raichl Palace. The city is an interesting blend of surrounding Art Nouveau styles, being heavily influenced by Hungarian Secession, such as the synagogue with its green tiled roof by architects Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab who were ardent followers of Lechner, Viennese Secession and German Jugendstil.
Across the Hungarian border in Romania, the city of Oradea has a wonderful collection of Art Mouveau buildings. Oradea has always been a cosmopolitan hub, where its identity lies in its multicultural community. Palaces and residences in this city, like Subotica, were more influenced by the Hungarian schools of the style, since most of its architects graduated from the Polytechnic School of Budapest and were devotees of Ödön Lechner’s work or were influenced by the Viennese school.
Oradea’s art nouveau buildings follows a more classical interpretation, combining classical elements with accents that followed this avant-garde style. Like with most other Art Nouveau buildings, Oradea shows the combination of artistic innovation coupled with new construction techniques. The devil is defnitely in the details here from iron work, stucco and general decoration. While Oradea might not have any singular Art Nouveau monument that any visitor would recognise in an instant, it’s worth walking around the city to stop and look at each and every unique feature on its stunning buildings.
Photos by Author unless stated otherwise.