Since its foundation in 1201, Riga, the capital of Latvia, has been shaped by the rise and fall of the surrounding foreign powers that successively held sway over country. First Germany, then Sweden and finally Russia, all left their mark on the architectural heritage of the historic Old Town. Yet it is Riga’s Art Nouveau District that is now the city’s main claim to fame.
What is Art Nouveau?
Art Nouveau is an artistic rebellion that swept through Europe for two decades at the turn of the 20th century. Led by a generation of brilliant designers, it sought to liberate the visual arts from the rigid constrains of the past and develop a new style inspired by the natural world.
In residential architecture, Art Nouveau adopted a humanistic approach to the urban environment. It focused on combining utilitarian structural elements with the new artistic values, while enhancing the functionality of the buildings for the comfort of their inhabitants. In many European cities where the Industrial Revolution was generating a construction boom, architects became enthusiastic practitioners of the style, adorning their facades with flowing lines, undulating contours, mythical animals and geometric ornaments. Throughout Europe, Art Nouveau architecture became a statement of national modernity and aesthetic tastes.
By the time the style reached Riga, the city was experiencing an unprecedented, industry-fueled affluence and exponential population growth. Wealthy entrepreneurs eager to become landlords commissioned hundreds of multi-story buildings. By the onset of the First World War, forty percent of all buildings in central Riga were built in the Art Nouveau style.
Art Nouveau in the Old Town
Throughout its history, Riga had been contained within the fortifications of the Old Town, where the city’s prosperous merchants had built lofty houses embellished with elaborate portals and ornate façades. The entrances of their warehouses were similarly decorated with sculptural moldings as a sign of distinction. Over the centuries, as new constructions were added, the facades of existing homes were altered with at least some elements reflecting the latest trends.
By the turn of the 20th century, even as architects began, cautiously at first, to propose buildings in the new style, a number houses in the Old Town still showed Baroque facades, albeit with such Art Nouveau elements as colored mosaics, unusually shaped windows, or the occasional rooftop statues. However, by respecting the influence of preceding architectural styles, Art Nouveau architects ensured that all the elements of over half a millennium of architecture could coexist harmoniously in the Old Town.
The Art Nouveau District
No such restrains applied to the Art Nouveau District, where architects and their patrons had a blank slate.
After the ramparts were dismantled in 1865 and the moat transformed into a park, the Old Town was encircled by a wide boulevard. Beyond it, a new neighborhood was free to expand, laid out in a grid pattern; the only restriction being its height. No construction could exceed six stories or 21 meters (70 feet). Within this framework, a modern city, now paradoxically known at the Historic District (or more commonly the Art Nouveau District) became an architectural free-for-all. Although fine examples of Art Nouveau design can be found throughout the neighborhood, the highest density of creations, ranging from spectacular to mind-boggling, is concentrated along three intersecting streets: Elizabetes, Alberta and Strelnieku.
On Alberta alone, where the entire street was built over a period of seven years (from 1901 to 1908), eight buildings are now recognized as national architectural monuments (at numbers 2, 2a, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12 and 13). From these, a staggering five were designed by Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein (numbers 2, 2A, 4, 6, 8). While not the most prolific on the Riga architectural scene of the time, Eisenstein left the most vivid imprint on the district. Any one of his 19 buildings is instantly identifiable by the overwhelming potpourri of human and mythical elements, and the vivid ceramic tiles that adorns its façade.
Even more influential, however, was Konstantins Pēkšēns, who contributed well over 30 buildings to the Art Nouveau district alone, and is now widely regarded as one of the most prominent Latvian architects of all times. His creations are remarkable for the abundance and variety of their decorative elements. But more importantly, they strongly espouse the overarching Art Nouveau principle that the beauty of a building should not depend solely on exterior ornamentation, but also on enhancing its utilitarian function and layout. A visit to his 12 Alberta building, now home to the Art Nouveau Museum, offers a clear illustration of his vision.
Located in Pēkšēns’ own apartment, the museum is ideal opportunity to get an insider’s impression of life in the golden age of Art Nouveau. The building’s central staircase, a beautifully renovated six-story swirling work of art, is in itself worth a visit.
The apartment captures the essence of the style, in the layout of the rooms, original wall and ceiling paintings, stained-glass windows and objects of everyday life. In a corner of the oak-paneled dining room, the mahogany table of the breakfast nook is set with period silverware and china. Next to the bathroom, the water closet features one the newly introduced flush toilets. As you walk through the apartment, every detail is a reminder that Art Nouveau extended far beyond architecture to the design of furniture, and all manners of home goods and clothing, to become a way of life.
Good to Know
- Getting there – By air. Riga International Airport, with direct flights from major cities in Europe, is located 10 kilometers southwest of the city. There is a minibus shuttle (Airport Express) every 30 minutes with fixed stops at several hotels in the old town (cost was €5 pp at the time of this writing). However, several taxi companies operate from the airport to the centre of the city for a fixed, pre-paid price of €15 if pre-booked online or via your hotel. Otherwise, metered rates apply if paid to the driver. A ride to the Old Town takes 20 minutes.
- Getting around – A short walk across the park from the Old Town, the Art Nouveau District with its grid layout, wide sidewalks, and so much to see along the streets, is definitely best visited on foot.
- Staying – There is an abundance of short-term lodging options throughout the Old Town and the Historic District, ranging from efficiency apartments to boutique hotels and international chains. On this recent stay, I chose the Konventa Sēta Hotel, Kalēju iela 9/11, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050for its ideal location in a quiet enclave in the heart of the Old Town. Housed in a former convent now designated as a historic monument, the property consisted of seven buildings around an interior cobblestone courtyard. It had been fully renovated with all modern amenities, and decorated in the functional, minimalist décor that is typical of Northern European hotels. The very reasonable room-rate included a generous buffet breakfast and reliable Wi-Fi throughout the property. The front desk staff spoke proficient English and was unfailingly helpful and pleasant. Contact: tel. +371 60008700, e-mail email@example.com.
- Eating– For a relaxing lunch break in the Art Nouvau Distrist, I enjoyed the laid-back The Flying Frog (or Lidojošā varde in Latvian) at 31 Elizabetese Street, for its seasonal menu of freshly prepared cosmopolitan offerings, large covered terrace and efficient service. The Flying Frog is open daily from 10:00 am to midnight. Contact: tel. +371 67 321 184, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Visiting – The Art Nouveau Museum 12 Alberta Street, LV1010 Riga, is open Tuesday through Sunday for 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Note – entrance is around the corner on Strēlnieku Street. Contact: tel.+371 67181465, email email@example.com.
- UNESCO Designation – The Historic Center of Riga was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997.