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The Jugendstil Art of the City

By Philip Birzulis . 03.02.2009

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A gallery of urban flavour and artistic fantasy, Riga’s Jugendstil heritage is one of the architectural treasures of modern Europe.

Riga is a city of many faces, from the medieval ambience of the Old Town to some interesting contemporary structures – even the stoic Soviet suburbs can have an odd charm. Along with other European capitals, Riga’s centre can be divided into its intellectual, bohemian and commercial sectors. However, the city’s brightest calling cards are undoubtedly the joyful and perplexing, ambiguous and bold façades of its many Jugendstil (art nouveau) buildings.

A walk down Alberta, Vīlandes, Elizabetes and many other streets may suggest an outbreak of happy insanity. Gargoyles and lions mingle amidst exotic plant-forms and anthropomorphic images. Windows wink from unexpected angles and boring flat surfaces are abandoned in favour of ramparts, balconies and innumerable other protrusions.

Far from being random whims, these expressions in point of fact shattered the architectural conventions of 19th century Europe. And according to Jānis Krastiņš, an architecture professor at Riga Technical University and Jugendstil expert, no other city in the world can match Riga’s collection. “Riga is in first place. The number of buildings here and their concentration is found nowhere else,” he said.

Radical departure

From the mid- to late 19th century, the dominant trend in Riga was eclecticism, meaning that architects borrowed from various historical styles. Jugendstil broke away from this by declaring that “you can’t deck yourself out in the clothes of the past,” and sought inspiration from nature, ethnography and other non-traditional sources. It developed and changed over time, said Krastiņš, and assimilated form with function. For example, neatly lined-up windows gave way to placements that let more light inside.

The genre first appeared in Brussels in 1893, but until 1899, when Riga’s first Jugendstil structure was erected, only a few dozen others existed in Europe. Between 1904 and 1914, it was by far the most popular construction style in the Latvian capital, and today still comprises at least one third of all the buildings in the city centre.

A range of factors contributed to the growth of this style. During the 25 years prior to the start of World War I, in 1914, Riga’s population almost doubled as Riga became the largest port in the Czar’s Empire, leading to a massive building boom. New materials such as steel and reinforced concrete, as well as generous bank lending also helped, but Krastiņš believes that psychological motives also played a role. The pre-War years were tumultuous, with left-wing militants and Latvian patriots clamouring for change.

Architects were not immune to this hunger for the new. While the designs of Mikhail Eisenstein are probably the best known examples of the style, Krastiņš said that the straightforward window layout and other elements of his work indicate that they were part of a transitional phase from eclecticism. Eisenstein was the creator of the majority of the expressive and decorative buildings on Alberta iela. The façades of the buildings at 2, 2a, 4 and 6 Alberta iela, designed by him, are richly decorated, although the traditional U-shape plans of the buildings are similar. The professor believes that the real innovators were Konstantīns Pēkšēns, Eižēns Laube and a string of other young architects, all of whom graduated from the Architecture Department of Riga Technical University at the turn of the century.

The excessive building façades certainly suggest that the young designers were shedding their inhibitions. Silvija Grosa, a lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Art who is working on a doctorate about the paintings and sculptures on Jugendstil exteriors, said that they fall into two distinct periods. Initially, there was a strong movement of “biological romanticism,” with natural symbolism expressing changes in life and nature. Examples include the very first Jugendstil building in Riga at 7-9 Audēju iela, 2 Smiļšu iela by Pēkšēns, and Eisenstein’s blue-tiled wonders at 10a and 10b Elizabetes iela. Today all of these buildings have helped Riga to become acclaimed as the “Art Nouveau Metropolis” of Europe.

After 1905, according to Grosa, there was a movement toward “unifying the beautiful and the practical.” Some buildings, such as the Latvian Society House at 13 Mērķeļa iela, and 2 Vaļņu, were distinctly Jugendstil with some neo-classical elements. This later period also saw the flourishing of National Romanticism. In the search for novel inspirations, Latvian architects borrowed from their nation’s folklore and traditional country houses, such as steeply sloping roofs. Numerous examples can be found on Tērbatas and Valdemāra ielas.

Grosa speculates that the collapse of the 1905 Revolution might have moved the mood away from this fin de siecle exuberance. However, she also warned against making sweeping links between political trends and the decorative solutions. The Latvian motifs cannot only be linked to nationalism; rather, there was a trend across Europe to seek innovation from many sources.

Commercial common sense prevented the architects of the era from making overt ideological statements. “You have to remember that these were rental buildings that the developers wanted to sell. If they had been private villas it might have been different,” she said.

Furthermore, back then people had a deeper understanding of symbolism than today, in art and literature as much as architecture. Grosa is also working on a book about dragon motifs in Jugendstil ornamentation. She said that since ancient times these creatures have been seen as guardians of property – an association that would have been appreciated during the infant capitalism of a century ago.

Value judgements

Perhaps surprisingly, Krastiņš said that Jugendstil buildings were not the solely for the rich – they so dominated the housing supply that they were built for all classes. In 1913, 70% of apartments only had two rooms, and on Bruņinieku iela, which is located on the periphery of the city center, there are many blocks with one-room flats.
What is more, fashions changed, and after its peak people dismissed Jugendstil as a mistake. In the 1930s a form of “neo-eclecticism” dominated and newspapers wrote disparagingly about “pitiable Alberta iela.” Krastiņš said that later in life even Laube, author of the building at 11 Alberta iela, was on record as saying that he wanted to “hide beneath his hat” when he walked past one of his “youthful follies.”

Renovations on these buildings only started after 1991, but a lot of catching up has been done. Reconstructed buildings in the foreign embassy quarter are still the hottest properties in town – and Jugendstil blocks command a 20% premium over other styles. Places of this quality will never be built again (what modern developer would install walls that are 20 to 30 cm. thick?), so supply is restricted.


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