Row of elegant buildings in cream, blue and white
Architecture,  Latvia,  Photographing Public Art,  Travel galleries

Gallery: the Art Nouveau gems of Riga

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

39 Comments

  • Nancy Gordon

    Beautiful Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings! I really love all the people and shell carvings on the buildings the best. But I do think many are overdone but still impressive as well.

  • Fergy.

    Sarah, I am surprised at you, I always thought you were architecturally a “Brutalist Babe”. That term is not meant to be patronising or demeaning and I just made it up but you know I love a bit of alliteration.

    If I could ever be said to have any architectural / decorative preference (doubtful, thug that I am) it would be for Art Deco rather than Art Nouveau but there is no denying these are beautiful buildings, so well maintained and obviously loved, that is the main thing.

    The Acropolis / Parthenon is stunning and a day walking the old Roman walls in Silchester is recommended but they are somewhat sterile now. These are obviously living, functioning structures which makes them the more interesting. Imagine owning a flat in one of those!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I have a soft spot for brutalist sculpture as seen in Eastern Europe and the DPRK, but I’m less a fan of the architecture. To be honest these Art Nouveau buildings are somewhat over the top but are an incredible sight and I loved photographing all the details 🙂

  • Julie

    I did not know that is why it’s called “Art Nouveau.” I’ve seen quite a bit of art nouveau around downtown LA and Pasadena. I just knew of “Art Nouveau” from the time period.

  • Easymalc

    You’ve got a fantastic collection of images here Sarah. I’m familiar with these streets as I stayed in a nearby hotel, and they are, as you say, the best the city has to offer where this type of architecture is concerned. Fabulous architecture – and fabulous photography 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Malcolm 😊 This must have been a pleasant area to stay in. I stayed in a hotel in the old town on both visits (VT meet and subsequent) which was a great location too.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Jane 😊 Riga has a lot going for it, with architecture from several periods (15th century through to 20th), great markets, fascinating history and excellent food and drink – the perfect city break!

  • Forestwood

    I was going to write a post on Jugendstil after a visit to Alesund in Norway, a town constructed entirely in Art Nouveau after a devastating fire. I missed out on going to Riga, as I went to Talliin instead. So it is nice to see some of what I missed here in your post.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’ve never been to Alesund – sounds like I should add it to the list! We went to Riga and Tallinn on the same trip, as it’s an easy bus journey between the two. They’re very different and both really worth seeing 🙂

      • Forestwood

        I really do regret not adding a bus trip or ferry stop on. I had heard stories about some undesirable reasons for people to visit Riga and travelling solo with a child, as well as my Swedish friends, kind of put me off the idea. I am sure I would have been fine though.
        You really should visit Alesund. The coutryside around is is equally amazing. I arrived there just after a hurricane had visited, so couldn’t visit all the countryside that I wanted to. Even so, I saw heaps of great things! There is a Jugendstil museum there!

  • Marsha

    Sarah, my mouth is hanging open as I read through your post. I love the Wedgewood blue and white, of course, but the array of different sculptures on the building is staggering. I want to memorize yours and Teresa’s posts about architecture. I hope you are teaching architectural and other history classes through your vast collection of travel photos. What a treasure trove you both created this week.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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