Art Nouveau Buildings, Riga
Riga is famous for its large number of well-preserved (or more often, well-restored) Art Nouveau buildings. These are dotted across the city, but there is a particular concentration of them in one area on and around Elizabetes and Alberta streets. We spent part of a morning strolling these streets and could easily have spent longer.
Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil as it is also known, was an art and architecture movement of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, at its height 1890–1910. As an artistic philosophy it proposed that art should be a way of life, and that everyday items could be beautiful too. It was inspired by nature – flowers, animals, natural forms. In the old buildings of Riga it is at times at its most flamboyant and exuberant. And I loved it! I took so many photos here that editing them for inclusion in this tip has been incredibly difficult, so I have put more into a separate travelogue. But for now, enjoy this taste of Art Nouveau, Riga-style:
Photo one: this is one of the most dramatic and dazzling buildings in the district, 4a Strēlnieku iela. It dates from 1905 and is one of many by perhaps the best known architect of Riga’s Art Nouveau period, Mikhail Eisenstein (father of the famous film director Sergei Eisenstein). Eisenstein’s main concept was that even the smallest thing could be beautiful. I loved the Wedgewood-blue and white colour scheme of this building, and the over-the-top ornamentation with snakes and even robot-like creatures (see the photo in my travelogue for one of these)
Photo two – Detail of 2a Alberta iela, also by Mikhail Eisenstein , which in addition to two victory figures (this one with a flame, the other with a victor’s wreath) has sphinxes, masks that resemble American Indians (see the base of my photo) and more besides.
Photo three – houses in Alberta iela – the blue one, number 8, is yet another of Eisenstein’s designs, dating from 1903.
Photo four – 9 Alberta iela, in the style known as eclectic which preceded Art Nouveau, built in 1901. Our walk in this district, and Rita’s informative descriptions, really opened my eyes to all the different styles that could be encompassed in or are related to Art Nouveau.
Photo five – a detail of one of the most famous Art Nouveau buildings in the city, Elizabetes Street, 10b (again by Mikhail Eisenstein). It dates from 1903 and is extremely colourful, adorned with a rich mix of masks, peacocks, sculptural elements and geometrical figures.
Next tip: the nearby Art Nouveau Museum
If, as many visitors to Riga do, you are walking around the Art Nouveau district, do take the time also to go inside the Art Nouveau Museum. When I first heard of this museum I expected to find a traditional museum with cases full of objects and maybe some furniture – interesting but probably not absorbing. What I found on visiting was so much better.
This is a well-preserved building from the height of the Art Nouveau period with its ground floor flat furnished in the style of a well-to-do middle class family at the start of the 20th century. The rooms are exquisite and full of fascinating and beautiful details - ornaments, stained glass windows, pictures, furnishings and so on. There are information cards in several languages in each room so it is easy to appreciate what you are looking at. The Dining Room is perhaps the most ornate but I liked best the Fireplace Room (photos two and four) with its beautiful stained glass windows, and the Living Room with its delicate bay window all ready for a tea time visitor perhaps (photo three). It was also interesting to see the kitchen, maid's room (any maid who slept here would I think have counted herself luckier than many of her peers) and the flushing toilet - a real luxury for those days. The building also boasts a truly beautiful staircase.
In the entrance area you can try on hats of the period, and in the old office watch a short DVD (about 10 minutes) about Art Nouveau in Riga, which gives a good overview (in English) and brief descriptions of several of the other buildings you will see in the city. I enjoyed watching this and later found that it had opened my eyes to what I was seeing as I walked around, spotting Art Nouveau elements that I might well have missed had I not had that useful introduction to the variety of styles encompassed within the movement.
On a practical note, the museum is open every day, except Mondays, 10.00-18.00. Entry costs 5€ for adults in the summer (1st of May - 30th of September) and just 3.50€ the rest of the year. There are student concessions and family tickets available. While guides, dressed in period costumes, are available in each room to answer your questions, you can if you prefer book a guided tour for 14.50€ (30 minutes) or hire an audio guide for 7.50€.
If you can’t visit, the website linked below has a detailed look at each of the rooms which admirers of this style will certainly enjoy.
Next tip: pancakes at the Flying Frog
Do allow yourself plenty of time to walk around Centrs. Of course the 'most important' or 'best' examples of this style of architecture are to be found on Elizabetes iela and Albertes iela (probably) but the whole district is stuffed with twiddles, twirls, gargoyles, dragons, screaming faces, naked ladies and goodness knows what other decorative elements could be worked into the architecture. It's great fun just wandering and spotting the detaisl.
I also enjoyed spotting the examples of 'National Romanticism', and architectural movement which followed hard on the heels of Art Nouveau in Latvia. These buildings have little peaked roofs, and sub-cottage-y lines, maybe a turret or two, maybe pretty little tiled inserts which reflect traditional Latvian patterns.
There are loads and loads of examples of both types of architectural style in Centrs side-streets. so do take the time to have a proper wander around rather than just rush to Albertes iela for your photos.
More photos in my Centrs travelogue
I don't know the differences, sorry.
But I do know that that the part of Riga immediately outside the line of the old city walls has some excellent examples of this twiddly, fiddly style of architecture dating from the very late 1800s and the first couple of decades of the 1900s.
Confusingly, the area is called 'Centrs'...one tends to think of the historical heart of a city as its 'centre'...but it's easily accessible on foot if you like walking, or you can take a bus or tram.
The 'best' area (supposedly) is the north-western corner of Centrs, where you will find an apartment building designed by Eisenstein (Elizabetes 10 and B) and the houses along Albertes Iela. One side of the road is a terrace, yet each house is entirely different. The 'Egyptian' one is being extensively restored and renovated at the moment, so it was shrouded in protective covers..but I could still see the sphinxes guarding its entrance.
More photos (and more detailed photos) of Albertes iela and the Eisenstein building in my travelogue
But although 'they' may think that area is the 'best', I explored more of Centrs and found plenty to interest me. See the next tip......
Riga is the city if you want to see concentration of Art Nouveau architecture. You can find it in the old and new town district around Elizabetes, Elizabetes Street, Alberta and Strelnieku Streets. I don’t know much about Art Nouveau architecture but from looking at it I thought in general it was a fantastic era of architecture. It’s a pity they don’t infiltrate into today design. I am glad today us tourist can still appreciate the beauty of the past.
This building was a different, brightly coloured design. It was an apartment house and shop, and is known for the blossoming foliage-shaped corner with a stylised sun above.
Designed in 1903 by architect P. Mandelstam.
I found more wonderful buildings in Smilsu Street!
Located at no. 2, is a beautiful art nouveau Peacock sitting on top of a small bay. More statues that look to be holding the building up!
At no. 8, is a building constructed in 1902, and adorned with geometric shapes, stylised floral ornamentation and female figures.
Alberta Street is a wonderful street to walk along and see all the wonderful Art Nouveau buildings.
Most were built by M. Eisenstein, like lots of these beautiful buildings in Riga.
Number 4 is unusual, as it's decorated by three heads of screaming jellyfish with lions standing on either side as symbols of security and protection. The central windows are of interesting shape, as on the first floor they resemble the letter T, the second floor are a lovely large oval shape, and on the third floor - a keyhole.
The former Stock exchange is now the Riga Bourse Art Museum.
This is a beautiful Art Nouveau building on the outside, and inside, a modern museum of 17th century collections of Japenese, Chinese and Delft Blue porcelain, lots of silverware, paintings, including one by Monet and Rodin. Theres a cafe and souvenir shop.
Evidently, the brown colour of the building is the original colour of this venetian palzzo style building that was built in 1855.
OPEN....DAILY....10 - 6PM & FRIDAYS.....10-10 PM .......CLOSED MONDAYS
Admission: 2 - 4.50Ls
guided tours in English, German or Russian 10Ls
The street of Elizabetes Street has a park on one side, and quite a few Art Nouveau buildings on the other side. It is one of the best streets to see the art work.
Be careful when walking, as the Tram crosses the street, and then runs through this park.
What I liked straight away, was the use of colour on these buildings. Pretty yellows, orange, blue, green, you name it, they were painted! It looked good, especially as they were in well kept condition.
A lot of the Art Nouveau work in Riga was done by architect Mikhail Eisenstein. The building at 10B is really interesting! Take a look at the half heads, masks, peacocks, sculptural heads and geometrical figures on the upper cornices of the facade, and areas at the top-storey level, they really stand out against the bright blue brick work.
No wonder this building is famous!
Eisenstein mostly copied from German architects' designs which were published in some book, how-ever he often added his own ideas to them and was able to do what he wanted.
The Facade sculptures are symbolizing the struggle between world's rational and chaotic forces.
A little further along the same street, is another apartment building with shops, which has a lot of Art Nouveau.
This building has Lions and figures and was done by the same artist, Mikhail Eisenstein.
Another good building to view!
I was fascinated by Central Riga’s glorious Art Deco architecture which made me realise what a prosperous and cosmopolitan city it must have been in the early 20th century. There are over 800 Art Deco buildings in Riga, and apparently over a third of the buildings Riga's Central district (focused around Elizabetes Street) are built in this style. What is even more interesting is that these were designed by Latvian architects, who were clearly highly competent exponents of this style.
Many of the buildings are somewhat unprepossessing from ground level and it’s only when you chance to look up that you see unexpected and often frivolous motifs – an owl here, a woman’s face there. The irrepressible exuberance and ornate detail of the Art Deco buildings must have sharply contrasted with the austere starkness of the Communist era, and it is cause for celebration that so many of these marvellous buildings have survived in a state of reasonable repair.
What I love about Art Deco is that its a very accessible style of architecture and you don't need to be an architecture buff to appreciate the beauty of these amazing buildings. Just be warned that after a few hours of strolling around this district, you'll likely have a sore neck as you try to take it all in!
Although there are Art Nouveau period buildings throughout the New Town (and a number in the Old Town), the main concentration is to the north and east of the Old Town. A map from the tourist office lists the streets and numbers where the best examples are found. Apparently Riga is one of the major centres for this type of architecture in Europe. As you can see from the photographs, there are some quite amazing buildings.
Thats what profesionals say about this are ------> Riga has one of the greatest gatherings of Art Nouveau in the world with around a third of the city centre created in the style. At the turn of the century the population of Riga doubled which resulted in a succession of great mansion blocks, all rejoicing in varied Art Nouveau decoration. As Latvia was still part of the Russian Empire, Latvian identity asserted itself in literature, music, art and architecture. Many of the architects were locally trained Latvians who developed Art Nouveau, including a substantial element of national romanticism, using local materials and traditional shapes. I am not so enthusiastic about this are, 'cause my office windows stares at it all day, though I must admit that it is interesting are for architecture history lovers.