A new style turned heads around at the turn of the 20th century. Art Noveau, also known as Jugendstil, gave Rīga a trademark look. Intricate floral designs, weaving garlands, expressive masks, ornate sculptural figures, flowing lines, and elaborate geometric forms still decorate the facades of buildings all over Rīga.
Art Nouveau in Riga
Industrial Revolution gave Rīga unprecedented prosperity and a sudden expansion of the population. Wealthy entrepreneurs erected several hundred multi-story buildings. The distinctive look of Riga’s central districts took shape in the early 20th century. By 1904, the eclectic character of Riga’s architecture disappeared completely. 40% of all buildings in central Rīga were built in the Art Nouveau style. This is considerably more than in any other city in the world.
Local architects – students of the Riga Polytechnic Institute – designed 250 buildings. Most notable were K. Pēkšēns, J. Alksnis, O. Bārs, R. Donbergs, E. Laube, A.Vanags, P. Mandelštams, E.Pole, B. Bīlenšteins and M. Nukša.
Art Nouveau extended beyond architecture, and influenced the designers of furniture, silverware, porcelain, linens, and clothing. Art Nouveau was the first example of modern design, which gathered strength after the First World War and continued to develop throughout the course of the century.
Art Noveau was a reaction to nineteenth-century mass production. Designers emphasized that every house and object should be a work of art. Homes designed in the Art Nouveau style had everything from door handles to window latches specially designed and handmade by a craftsman. People did not just take an industrially manufactured product and put it to use.
Fans of modernism who are tired of standardization of contemporary European interiors are encouraged to pay a pilgrimage to the Art Nouveau Museum on Alberta Street. Housed in a stunning building erected in 1903, the museum is located in the former apartment of its architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns.
The restored apartment is filled with authentic design objects constructed between 1890 and World War I in cities throughout Europe, particularly Paris, Brussels, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. These include period mirrors, cabinets, armoires, and sideboards, as well as authentically upholstered couches, settees, and chairs. Rīga locals donated over 200 objects to the museum.
Visitors can imagine that they have been invited for tea in the Pēkšēns family’s carefully recreated breakfast nook in a window bay at the corner of the building, where a set of authentic silverware has been set out on the mahogany table. You can enjoy the view of the magnificent edifice across the street, built by Mikhail Eisenstein in 1905. Two historical gramophones located in the rooms are brought to life by one of the costumed tour guides, instantly conjuring up the feel of a turn of the century cocktail party.
These rooms also prove to be the apartment’s most interesting exhibits. For example, the flush toilet bears the printed words “The Incomparable Closet” on the inside of the bowl. Instead of referring to a brand name, as a similarly placed logo would today, the phrase instead signifies the object itself the incomparable water closet which was certainly a luxury in those days of outhouses and communal hallway lavatories.
Likewise, the apartment’s kitchen is a wonderland of historical artefacts. It contains an early model refrigerator, complete with a separate compartment for ice blocks and a faucet to drain melted water, as well as a fascinating bread-slicing device that looks like an oversized cigar cutter. The tiny room for the maid is just steps from the massive wood-burning stove. For those interested in mastering the art of Latvian cooking, the shelf in the kitchen also holds a copy of a local Latvian-language cookbook, dated 1904.
Interiors of the Art Nouveau period eschewed all natural surfaces, such as the exposed bricks and sanded wooden floors that are so fashionable today. Instead, craftsmen preferred to create a “natural” look with artistic means, painting woodgrain finish atop the natural wood on doors or windowsills, or covering floorboards with pastel linseed paint. Likewise, ceilings and walls featured stylized images of objects from nature such as stencilled pinecones, garlands, or flowers rather than realistic representations of the things themselves.
Adherents of the Art Nouveau favoured artistry above all else: the intricate and elaborate creations of the human mind and its infinite capacity for imagination.
Varieties of Art Nouveau
Regular rhythms with a saturated surface décor define the Eclectic Art Noveau. Tensely articulated lines, geometric figures or stylized ornaments depicting plants, and masks, and extended proportions appeared in the early stages of Art Nouveau development. The most characteristic examples are buildings on and near Alberta Street designed by M. Eisenstein, and several buildings designed by H. Šēls, F. Šefels, R. Cirkvics. J. Alksnis and other architects.
Perpendicular Art Nouveau spread after 1906 when romantic stylized motifs slowly disappeared from building facades. Vertical elements were emphasized in the facade. Bay windows and reliefs were strongly articulated and outwardly projecting strips extend upward for several floors. Ornamental decorations are introduced in the spaces between floors and are completely integrated into the basic architectural forms of the fasade.More than a third of Riga’s richly varied legacy of Art Nouveau buildings exhibit the Perpendicular Art Nouveau style. In some locations these buildings totally dominate and define their surrounding urban environment (Brīvības Street, Ģertrūdes Street, Aleksandra Čaka Street etc.). It is most often represented in the designs of J. Alksnis, E. Laube, B. Bīlenšteins, O. Bārs, P. Mandelštams etc.
National Romanticism reflects an attempt by Rīga architects to develop a distinctive Latvian style. This trend prospered between 1905 and 1911. Traditional wooden buildings and the decorative arts served as the main source of inspiration. Latvian architects embraced natural and local building materials. Up to a third of Rīga Art Noveau falls in this category. The greatest masters in this form were E. Laube, K. Pēkšēns, A. Vanags, and A. Malvess. National Romanticism can also be observed in the works of Baltic German architects. Certain heaviness of forms, monumental nobility, steep roofs, window aisles with angled tops, and elegant ethnographic motifs are the main features of this trend.
© The Latvian Institute 2015; Photos © Jordan Sanchez, Jörg Bandell, O. Kotovičs, Arkadiusz Flaga, Jim Zuckerman, Hans A. Rosbach, Tēvijas Sargs.