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.
In the mid nineteenth century the old city walls of the seaport were demolished to allow for considerable and rapid expansion. New elegant boulevards were laid out, lined with smart modern buildings. At the height of the boom in the early 1900s between 300-500 building were being built each year; and most of them were in the fashionable style of that time, Art Nouveau.
Today the Latvian capital 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.
For this week’s Photographing Public Art challenge I want to share some of my favourites with you.
Strēlnieku iela 4a
This is one of the most dramatic and dazzling buildings in the district. 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.
Alberta iela 2a
This is also by Mikhail Eisenstein. In addition to two victory figures (one with a flame, the other with a victor’s wreath) it has sphinxes, masks that resemble American Indians and more besides.
Alberta iela 4
This is considered one of the most elegant and most original eclectically decorative Art Nouveau buildings, and again was designed by Mikhail Eisenstein. There are Medusa heads placed above the cornice with their mouths agape as if screaming; the Medusa was a popular image in Art Nouveau design. The lions either side of this reminded me somewhat of the lion of the Dukes of Northumberland with their tails sticking out like this.
Alberta iela 8
Here is yet another of Eisenstein’s masterpieces. The imposing centrepiece of the building includes arboreal and lion motifs. The façade is divided by pilasters topped with female heads. The window mouldings feature monsters aimed at keeping the inhabitants safe, and inevitably there are sphinxes thrown into the mix. This building can also be seen in my feature photo.
Alberta iela 9
Our walk in this district really opened my eyes to all the different styles that could be encompassed in or are related to Art Nouveau. This one is in the style known as eclectic which preceded Art Nouveau, built in 1901.
Alberta iela 13
Yet another of Eisenstein’s designs, this one was influenced by his distress at the news of the defeat of Russian fleet in the Russian-Japanese war in 1904.
Elizabetes Street 10b
This is one of the most famous Art Nouveau buildings in the city, and again was designed by Mikhail Eisenstein. It dates from 1903 and is extremely colourful, adorned with a rich mix of masks, peacocks, sculptural elements and geometrical figures.
Antonijas iela 8
This 1903/04 building was designed by Latvian architect, Konstantīns Peksens. It is somewhat simpler than Eisenstein’s creations, but features an impressive entrance with winged dragons either side. Above the door is carved the date of completion and higher still are perched a pair of surprisingly domestic-looking cats.
I visited Riga in 2014 and again in 2015; most of these photos were taken on the first visit, a few on the second one