Brussels — The Birthplace of Art Nouveau

Brussels — The Birthplace of Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau, the highly decorative style of architecture popular in Europe from around 1890 until the beginning of World War I, was born in Brussels. The term itself, first coined in 1884 in a Belgian art publication, referred to a group of visionary artists who were rebelling against the elitist art world. To liberate the visuals arts from the rigid constraints of traditional forms, they embraced a new style, inspired by the sinuous lines and flowing organic shapes of the natural world. 

A Fertile Ground for Innovation

The newly wealthy favored distinctive Art Nouveau architecture.

At the time, the industrialization of Europe was in full swing and Belgium, in spite of its small size, was an important economic unit. Its significant and well developed industries were creating a class of newly wealthy who wanted dwellings appropriate to their status. They began buying parcels of land in developing areas of the city, such as Saint-Gilles and Ixelles, to build their homes — and they favored a distinctive new style that would show off their wealth. 

Meanwhile, a new generation of ambitious young architects were eager to prove their talent. Thus, supply and demand found each other.

Victor Horta

Hotel Tassel – Facade.

The Art Nouveau movement develops into a full blown architecture style in 1892, when Professor Émile Tassel commissions prominent architect Victor Horta (1861-1947) to design his home. Introducing the recent technological advances of the industrial revolution to the building process, Horta uses metal and glass to simultaneously strengthen interior structural elements and create the open, light-filled floor plan of the Hotel Tassel (Tassel Mansion) — and contributes to setting the groundwork for modern architecture.

The iconic staircase of Hotel Tassel.

With this commission, Horta also reveals his vision of a complete approach to architecture as an homogenous work of art across multiple medias. He designs every detail of the interior decoration. The repeated use of organically curved, undulating lines — sometimes called whiplash lines — unifies the decor, reappearing in the floor tiles, murals, ironwork, the glass of the doors and skylights, and even the structure of the spiraling staircase.

 

Hotel Solvay

Hotel Solvay – Facade.

In 1894, millionaire industrialist and Art Nouveau enthusiast Armand Solvay charges his friend Horta to build him a huge mansion on the fashionable Avenue Louise, giving him carte blanche and an unlimited budget. Horta delivers his first major masterpiece.

 

 

 

Hotel Solvay – Interior.

The façade features two symmetrical, two-story bay windows topped with balconies. Inside, he creates an airy interior with moveable walls, so that the space can be adapted for family life as well as lavish entertaining.  And he decorates it with sumptuous materials, including over 20 types of marbles and 17 varieties of woods, to achieve a palette dominated by red, orange and gold tones that enhances the luxurious atmosphere.

 

 

Hotel Van Eetvelde

Hotel Van Eetvelde – Facade

The following year (1895) the noted Belgian diplomat and General Secretary of the then Congo Free State, Edmond Van Eetvelde, turns to Horta to create an impressive family home to entertain his distinguished international guests. Horta again channels his design genius into what is considered one of his most accomplished and innovative buildings.

 

 

Hotel Van Eetvelde – Interior.

For the Hotel Van Eetvelde, not only does he design an innovative steel and iron structure for the facade to allow for exceptionally large windows, he also creates a soaring central octagonal atrium on slim iron pillars topped by a stunning stained glass cupola. On the main floor, the oval-shaped salons all open to the atrium as well as the exterior, greatly  enhancing the flow of light. The mansion, in the words of Horta himself is “the most daring one he has ever done.”

 

The Horta Museum

Horta Museum – Facade.

While creating these two seminal masterpieces, Horta is also working on his own home and adjoining studio. Built between 1898 and 1901, the Victor Horta House showcases many of his signature design elements. Converted in 1963 into the Horta Museum, it is characterized by its stunning central staircase, elaborate mosaics, and intricate woodwork.

 

Musee Horta – Interior.

The museum includes the main house where Horta lived with his family, and the attached studio where he worked. Here again, the open plan tallows for spaces to flow into each other and be filled with light, creating a sense of openness and fluidity. 

Dedicated to preserving and promoting Horta’s work, the museum showcases a permanent display of furniture, utensils and art objects designed by him, and documents related to his life and time.

 

Beyond Horta

Paul Hankar House – Sgraffito detail.

While Horta is the uncontested trailblazer of the movement, several of his colleagues also come to prominence for their own interpretation of the Art Nouveau wave. In 1893, while Horta is unveiling the Hotel Tassel, Paul Hankar (1859-1901) is creating his own residence nearby: Hankar House. While featuring the main elements of the Art Nouveau style, it also introduces a stunning facade treatment. 

Hotel Albert Ciamberlani – sgraffito facade.

Hankar turns to his friend, the painter Albert Ciamberlani, to adorn the façade with sgraffito (layers of plaster tinted in pastel colors onto a moistened surface — an ancient technique popular in Renaissance Italy). He’ll subsequently build several houses based on this model, including the Hotel Albert Ciamberlani in 1897. Meanwhile the popularity of sgraffito spreads throughout the city. The Cauchie House, conceived by architect, decorator and painter Paul Cauchie as his personal residence is a jewel of the genre.

 

Hotel Hannon

Hotel Hannon – Facade

Another mansion of interest is the Hotel Hannon. Constructed in 1903-1904 for industrialist Édouard Hannon, it is the only house in the Art Nouveau style designed by architect Jules Brunfaut. Contrary to all the other mansions lined along city blocks, the Hannon House occupies an irregularly shaped corner plot. Here Brunhaut creates an imposing asymmetrical facade: a short span with a single bay faces one street, a more important one with two bays faces the other, with the two façades joined by a three-bay angular span between them. The interior however, revolving around an impressive central staircase topped by an attractive stained glass dome, clearly follows the Horta model.

Beyond the Mansions

Art Nouveau residences endure  along the streets of the city.

The explosion of Art Nouveau architecture projects is not limited to the astonishing Hotels of the very rich. Entire blocks of more modest, but no less attractive, townhouses begin to line the side streets of the Ixelles and Saint-Gilles neighborhoods, and spread farther throughout the city. More than 1,000 houses are built in Art Nouveau style before the onslaught of World War I. Regrettably, many will be demolished in the frenzy of modernization that sweeps through Brussels in the 1960s and 1970s. However, some 500 examples  do survive and their exquisite ironwork. stained glass and sgraffito facades still catch the eye as you wander around the various neighborhoods. 

Saint Cyr House – Upper floors balconies.

One of the most whimsical of all is the Maison Saint Cyr, by Gustave Strauven (1878-1919), a young disciple of Victor Horta. Built in 1901-1903, the house is only 4 meters (13 feet) wide, but it is given extraordinary height by his elaborate architectural inventions. Each of the first three floors has a single, rectangular window, all glass, curves and balconies, and each is slightly different from the others. At the top, a circular window with an elaborate wrought iron decoration appears to float above the facade.

Commercial Buildings

Brasserie “La Porteuse d’Eau” – Facade.

Art Nouveau architects do not limit their creativity to residential structures. They also create a number of storefronts, cafés and brasseries. Several of which have survived, such as La Porteuse d’Eau (The Water Carrier), with its ornate stained glass facade and remarkable bright yellow cupola.

 

 

Old England Department Store – Facade.

On an much grander scale, Paul  Saintenoy (1862–1952), adapts many elements introduced by Horta, including slender iron columns, bow windows and balustrades with curling lines, to his most famous work: the Old England Department Store (1898–99) in central Brussels. Now repurposed as the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM), it showcases a comprehensive selection of musical exhibits within its richly decorated iron grillwork and ceramic tile open floor plan, enhance by natural light streaming throughout. 

Good to Know

  • Getting There — Brussels is Belgium’s capital and home to the European Union Headquarter. Thanks to this central location and standing, it is one of the best-connected cities in Europe, accessible in less than two hours by high speed trains from London, Paris, Amsterdam and Cologne, and daily flights from most major cities.
  • Getting Around — The Brussels metropolitan area includes 19 municipalities (districts), well connected by an extensive network of  buses, trams, and metro. Within the districts, sightseeing is best done on foot. Many of the Art Nouveau gems are located around the Ixelles and Saint-Gilles areas, in the southeastern part of the city, on either side of the famous Avenue Louise.
  • Visiting —Hotel Tassel: rue Paul-Emile Janson 6, 1000 Brussels. Hôtel Solvay, avenue Louise 224, 1000 Brussels.  Hotel Van Eetvelde, avenue Palmerston 4, 1000 Brussels. Horta Museum, rue Américaine 27, 1060 Saint-Gilles,  Brussels. Hankar House, rue Defacqz 71,1060 Saint-Gilles, Brussels. Hotel Albert Ciamberlani, rue Defacqz 48, 1050 Saint Gilles, Brussels. Maison Cauchie, rue des Francs 5, 1040 Brussels.  Hannon House, avenue de la Jonction 1, 1060 Saint-Gilles, Brussels.  Maison Saint Cyr, square Ambiorix 11, 1000 Brussels. La Porteuse d’Eau , avenue Jean Volders 48, 1060 Saint-Gilles, Brussels.Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM – formerly Old England Department Store), Montagne de la Cour, 2, 1000 Brussels. Visiting days and times vary with each building. Consult their sites for up-to-date information. Some buildings remain private residences, and only the exterior can be seen.

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Location, location, location!

Brussels

A Stroll Through Madrid’s Revival Period

A Stroll Through Madrid’s Revival Period

In the latter part of the 19th century, Madrid, like most of the capitals of Europe, experienced unprecedented urban modernization. However, what sets the Spanish capital apart is the variety of designs that flourished around the city as local architects reinterpreted multiple styles of previous centuries and embraced emerging trends from other European countries and the United States.

A Modern Architecture Showcase

Gran Via is a showcase of Revival architecture,

Gran Via, the main artery of the capital and its most famous avenue, is also a prime shopping destination. Created in the earliest years of the 20th century to open up and modernize the chaotic center of the city, it is a showcase of Revival architecture, and a journey through the recent history of the city.

 

 

The Telefonica Building was the first skyscraper built in Spain.

At number 28, the 89 m  (292 ft) tall, New York-inspired Telefonica Building was the first skyscraper built in Spain. A few steps farther, the Avant-garde Gran Via 32 Building occupies the largest block of the avenue. Originally built as the first department store in Madrid, the building is now the flagship store of Primark in Spain and a great place to shop for bargains.

 

 

The Metrópolis dome is decorated with gold-leaf garlands.

Among the several other emblematic buildings, it is impossible to miss the Metrópolis. Located on the corner of Calle Alcalá and Gran Vía, this symbol of the area was designed in 1905 by the French architects Jules and Raymond Février. The brothers created the facade in an elegant Beaux Arts style, with first floor balconies separated by four pairs of Corinthian colonnades, topped by statues representing Mining, Industry, Agriculture and Commerce. The central slate-covered dome is enhanced with elaborate gold-leaf garlands. 

The Eclectic Palacio de la Prensa features a brick-clad facade.

At the far end of the Gran Via, a very different but no less iconic building is the Palacio de la Prensa. Commissioned in 1924 by the Madrid Press Association (APM) for its corporate headquarter, the building was intended for mixed use, including rental apartments, office space, a movie theater and a concert hall. The stark, Eclectic style brick-clad features a16-floor corner tower that rises to a height of 58 m (190 ft).

Palacio de Cibeles

The Fountain of Cybele was moved to the Plaza in 1895.

A mere 10-minute walk west of Gran Via, the Paseo de Prado and the Paseo de Recoleto, two of the grandest shaded boulevards of Madrid, meet to form the Plaza de Cibeles, named for the fountain at its center. It represents Cybele, the Greek goddess nature and fertility, depicted on a carriage drawn by two lions. Designed in 1782 by prominent local architect and artist Ventura Rodriguez, it was moved to its current location in 1895.

The Neoclassical Palacio de Cibeles dominates the square.

However, the dominant masterpiece of the square is the spectacular Neoclassical Palacio de Cibeles. Designed by architects Antonio Palacios Ramilo and Joaquìn Otamendi the monumental building of stone, iron and glass is one of the is one of the first Modernist landmark in the city. Construction began in 1905 and took 12 years to complete. It was for over 80 years the headquarters of the Spanish Postal System and Madrid’s central post office before becoming its city hall in 2007.

 

The terrace of the Palacio de Cibeles offers a spectacular view of the Madrid skyline.

Today it serves as a major cultural venue about the city, offering an extensive program of cultural activities focusing on contemporary art. Under its impressive glass dome, the vast Glass Gallery provides multi-purpose exhibit space as well as a 262 seats auditorium. Above the 6th floor —now a gourmet restaurant — the roof terrace bar offers unbeatable views of the Madrid skyline.

 

 

Art Deco Metalic Architecture

A major product of the industrial revolution, and a defining feature of 19th century architecture  (think London’s Crystal Palace or Paris Grand Palais) —wrought iron also found its way into the mix of Madrid Revival Architecture, My first encounter with it comes as step off the very 21st  century express train from Marseille, France, at Atocha, the city’s main railway complex.

The Atocha train station has retained its original Art Nouveau facade.

Atocha Train Station — Inaugurated in 1851, the original train station was largely destroyed by fire in 1888, and promptly reconstructed to reopen in 1892. The architects for this wrought iron Art Nouveau style replacement were Alberto de Palacio Elissagne, in collaboration with Gustave Eiffel (best remembered for his eponymous tower in Paris). The train platforms were covered by a steel and glass roof in the shape of an inverted hull, 27 m (89 ft) in height and 157 m (515 ft) long, flanked by two brick buildings. 

The Art Nouveau station is now a spectacular tropical garden.

In 1985, a complete remodeling began, based on designs by the prestigious Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. The overall project included taking the original building out of service as a terminal. Now on the site of the old tracks and platforms under the great glass canopy, a concourse with shops, cafés and office space surrounds a lush 4,000 m2  (43,056 sq ft) central tropical garden featuring over 260 species of plants from five continents.

The Glass Palace is now used as temporary exhibition space by the Reina Sofía Museum.

El Palacio de CristalOne of the most striking examples of wrought iron architecture in Madrid is the Glass Palace in El Retiro , the elegant park just a few steps east of the Prado. Originally built in 1887 as a greenhouse to showcase flora and fauna as part of an exhibition on the Philippines, then a Spanish colony, Designed by architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, who modeled it after the Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park (London) back in 1851. Here, the delicate Glass Palace sits at the edge of a pond filled with bald cypresses (originally natives of the the swamps of the South-eastern United States).

The Mercado de San Miguel is now a gastronomic food hall.

Mercado de San MiguelOpened back in May 1916 as a local food market just a stone throw away from the Plaza Mayor, it is another fine example of local wrought iron architecture. In recent decades, it has evolved into a gastronomic food hall where you can sample the best specialties Spain has to offer, including a dizzying variety of irresistible tapas. A dangerous place for foodies to wander into.

 

Good to Know

    • Getting there — By plane: Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport is the largest international airport in Spain, and the home base for Iberia Airlines. It is located 13 km from the city center and includes  4 terminals. Terminals 1, 2 and 3 are serviced by the same metro station, while Terminal 4 has its own metro and commuter train stations. By train: RENFE, the Spanish national railroad company operates frequent daily service between Madrid and all major cities in Spain as well as, in association with neighboring European Union countries rail road companies, to Lisbon, Milan, the French coast and Paris, with continuing journeys to most of Europe.
    • Getting around — The center of Madrid is easily walkable. However, the city is also blessed with Metro de Madrid, one of the better and least expensive subway systems in Europe. This underground network covers practically the entire metropolitan area and the airport. There are easy-to-use ticket dispensers in all the stations, with multilingual with instructions in Spanish, English, French, and German.
    • Visiting — Palacio de Cibeles, Plaza de la Cibeles, Madrid, is open year-round, Tuesday though Sunday from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Closed on Mondays, 1 and 6 January, 1 May and 24, 25 and 31 December. El Retiro Park and Palacio de Cristal , Paseo República de Cuba, Madrid, is open year round, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm October through March, 10 to 6:00 pm November through February, and 10:00 am to 9:00 pm April to September. Closed: 1 and 6 January, 1 May, 25 December.  Mercado San Miguel, Plaza San Miguel, Madrid, is open  from 10:00 am to 12:00 midnight from Sunday through Thursday and from 10:00 am to 1:00 am on Friday, Saturday and Holidays.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Gran Via

In the Land of Gaudi – Barcelona, Spain

In the Land of Gaudi – Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona’s architectural heritage may span 2000 years, but in recent decades this most visited of Spanish cities has become all but synonymous with Gaudi, the undisputed master of Catalan Modernism. His indelible influence helped shape the design of the city during its industrial renaissance heydays.

Who was Gaudi?

Gaudi-Casa Batllo facade detail.

Gaudi’s elaborate dynamic curves and organic shapes are a trademark of Catalan Modernism.

Born Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudi I Cornet in 1852 in  Reus, some 100 kilometers (65 miles) south of Barcelona, in 1852, he studied architecture in the Catalan capital. Here, he quickly embraced the Art Nouveau style and its predominance of curves, dynamic shapes and elaborate decorations that favored the use of organic motives. His work was controversial and not widely appreciated during his lifetime. It was not until well after his death in 1926 that he became recognized as the most influential leader of the Catalan Modernist movement.

Gaudi-Casa Mila atrium.

At Casa Milà, the stairs that lead to the entrance of the apartments wind along the atrium walls.

Now admired worldwide, his buildings figure among the top tourist attractions in Barcelona. Seven of them have been designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO since 1984, for their “exceptional creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” 

Which Gaudi sites to visit? Unless you are an architecture student or an inveterate Gaudi fanatic with several days on your hands, a couple should suffice to get an understanding of the master’s achievements. In addition to which you are sure to catch a walk-by look at a few others, just by wandering around the central Eixample district.

A Gaudi Crash Course – Casa Batlló

Gaudi-Casa Batllo noble floor.

The “noble floor” is an Art Nouveau masterpiece onto itself.

Gaudi-Casa Batlló roofline

The arched roofline gives the house a surreal fairytale look.

This is the first of Gaudi’s works I ever came across, and it remains my favorite. On my first visit to Barcelona some 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a reception here. Our host had privatized the property for the evening, offering guests a unique opportunity to experience at leisure one of the most emblematic works of this brilliant architect.

The house was originally constructed in 1877, and by all accounts was an architecturally unremarkable classic building, albeit located at a desirable spot of the Passeig de Gràcia, in the fashionable new Eixample district. It was purchased in 1903 by Joseph Batlló y Casanovas, a prominent textile industrialist who granted Gaudi full creative freedom to design his residence here. Although the commission initially entailed demolishing the original structure, Gaudi ruled it out. He proposed instead an extensive remodeling effort that redesigned the façade, redistributed the interior spaces and radically expanded the central skylight. Thus transforming the building into a functional, modern home and a striking Art Nouveau showcase.

Gaudi-Casa Batllo skyline.

Natural light flowing down the skylight ripples along  the ceramic tiles.

Covered with a mosaic of glass shards in a palette of blues and greens, the undulating façade, under the effects of the changing light and sunshine, gives an illusion of water in motion. The dramatic arch of the roof, tiled in electric blue Majorca ceramic, tops the building with a giant wave. Many also see in it an interpretation of the legend of Saint George (the patron saint of Catalonia) slaying the dragon. Then, the roof become the scaly back of the dragon, with the cross-topped tower representing the knight’s lance entering his victim. Either way, the house exudes a surreal fairytale look.

Gaudi-Casa Batllo staircase.

The staircase evokes a Jules Verne underwater world.

Behind this Modernist façade, visitors enter a symbolic Jules Verne underwater world, where the grand staircase  undulates like the spine of a giant marine beast, up to the 700 square meter (7500 square foot)  “noble floor,” which the Batlló family occupied until the mid-1950’s, Here, Gaudi transformed the original layout, opening partition walls with large stained glass-paned double doors to create a vast gallery of multi-purpose areas. Today, Casa Batlló is broadly viewed as the ultimate expression of Catalan Modernism.

Park Güell and the Gaudi House Museum

Gaudi-Park Guell gate houses.

Gaudi found inspiration in the tale of Hansel and Gretel for his design of the gate houses.

If Casa Batlló is Gaudi’s fantasy house, Park Güell is his quintessential dream park. Built between 1900 and 1914 as a collaborative venture between entrepreneur Eusebi Güell (hence its name) and Gaudi, the park was originally conceived as a luxury gated community for the Barcelona elite. However, due to its remote Carmel Hill location on the northwestern side of the city, there was little interest in the planned 60 construction plots. Only two houses were built, neither designed by Gaudi. Ironically, he purchased one of them in 1906 and resided there for the remainder of his life. He did, however, design the park, an 18-hectare (45-acre) wonderland with some 3 kilometers (2 miles) of walks and steps, fascinating stone structures, wooded areas laced with pathways and two Hansel and Gretel-style gatehouses.

Gaudi-Park Guell fountain.

The fountain at the main entrance of the park is one of the most photographed lizards in the world.

The steps at the entrance are guarded by one of the most famous lizards ever: the colorful mosaic dragon fountain whose likeness can be found by the shelf-full in gift shops throughout the city. At the top of the hill, a large square surrounded by a sinuous tiled bench offers a spectacular view of the park and the entire city. Gaudi’s home is now a museum housing a comprehensive collection of furniture and decorative elements of his own design.

Iconic Casa Milà

Gaudi-Casa Mila Pedrera.

Casa Milà’s organic facade earned it the moniker of The Quarry.

Casa Milà is considered Gaudi’s most iconic residential design, due to its structural and functional innovations as well as its striking ornamental solutions. Formally named after the businessman who commissioned it, it is better known by the moniker originally given to the structure for its pale, irregular stone façade appearance: La Pedrera (the Quarry).

 

Gaudi-Pedrera atrium frescoes

The vaulted ceilings and walls of the atrium are decorated with colorful frescoes.

The curved façade is a unique example of organic architecture, looking like a massive rock softened by its wavy lines and undulating wrought iron balconies. The house actually consists of two separate buildings that share only their façade and roof.  Both have their individual entrance and atrium. The interior is equally groundbreaking, including an elaborate ventilation system that eliminates the need for air-conditioning.  But it is the roof that is the most startling part of La Pedrera.

Gaudi-Pedrera roof warriors.

Helmet-clad stone warriors conceal ventilation towers.

Aside from its remarkable views of the city, the roof terrace is a unique maze of unbridled creativity. Here, convoluted flights of stairs and walkways lead to and around clusters of giant helmet-clad stone warriors and Darth Vader look-alikes that conceal chimneystacks and ventilation towers. Beneath it, the soaring attic space supported by 270 parabolic brick vaults houses a modest museum with a display of architectural models of Gaudi’s buildings and some of his furniture creations. It is the last residential building designed by Gaudi before he devoted himself entirely to the construction of La Sagrada Familia.

An Overwhelming Architectural Hallucination

Gaudi-Sagrada Familia.

Although still under construction, La Sagrada Familia is the most visited landmark in Spain.

A work in progress for the past 136 years at the time of this writing, La Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family) is one of the most overwhelming catholic sanctuaries ever devised and Gaudi’s most famous work. Financed from the start solely with private donations, and more recently with the steep “donations” levied from tourists, its construction was interrupted in the mid-20th century by the Spanish Revolution. It began to gather momentum again after the Second World War, and the process accelerated exponentially over the past four decades with the introduction of computers into the design and construction process. The project was declared to have passed mid-point in 2010, and to be 70 percent complete in 2016. However some of the greatest challenges remain, including the construction of six additional giant steeples.

Gaudi-Sagrada Familia Nativity.

The Nativity Façade chronicles the birth and life of Jesus.

Of the three great façades, the Nativity to the East, the Passion to the West and the Glory on the South side, only the Nativity was completed in Gaudi’s life time. It is easily recognizable for its molten wax look and its scenes reminiscent of the birth and early life of Jesus. The construction of the Passion façade, built from 1954 to 1976, is especially striking for its stark, gaunt characters, including an emaciated figure of Christ being scourged, and the crucifiction. The Glory, started in 2002 and still unfinished, will the largest of the three. In addition to the Ascension of Christ to heaven, it is expected to represent various scenes of Hell and Purgatory as well as the seven deadly sins.

If time allows, and you have anticipated by purchasing your entrance tickets well ahead (it is the most visited tourist attraction in the Spain), do step in and gawk at the soaring flower vaults and rainbow-colored stain glass, and experience this grandest of architectural hallucination ever.

Good to Know

  • Visiting –  Casa BatllòPasseig de Gràcia 43. Metro: Passeig de Gràcia.Open daily from 9:00 am-9:00 pm. Contact: tel. +34 932 160 306. Park GuellCarrer de Larrard (main entrance). Opendaily from 8:00 am-9:30 pm. Contact +34 934 091 831. La Pedrera, Passeig de Gràcia, 92. Metro: Passeig de Gràcia. Open daily: November through February 9:00 am-6:30 pm and March through November 9:00 am-8:00 pm. Contact: Tel. +34 934 845 900. La Sagrada Familia. Metro Sagrada Familia. Open daily: October through March 9:00 am-7:00 pm, April through September 9:00 am-8:00 pm and November through February: 9:00 am-6:00 pm. Contact:  tel. +34 932 073 031;
  • Budget considerations – Entrance fees to the Gaudi landmarks can get expensive. While I am not usually a fan if city passes, in this case, it could pay to research ahead the various tourist passes for Barcelona, most notably the Barcelona Pass and Barcelona Card. But do check their offerings carefully to make sure they correspond to your plans for visiting the city. You can also save money and time by booking your tickets directly from the various sites. And of course you can always walk by and enjoy the exterior of Gaudi’s buildings for free.

Location, location, location!

Casa Batllo, Barcelona

Park Güell, Barcelona

La Pedrera, Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

The Capital of Art Nouveau – Riga, Latvia

The Capital of Art Nouveau – Riga, Latvia

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?

Riga-Art Nouveau window.

Fragment of facade at 4 Alberta Street (M. Eisenstein -1904).

Riga-Art Nouveau Greek.

The house at 4 Strelnieku Street (M. Eisenstein, 1905), embodies a variety of Art Nouveau elements.

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.

 

Dragons guard the entrance at 8 Antonijas Lela Street (K. Pēkšēns – 1903).

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

Riga-Smilsu 2.

Peacocks are a popular motive in architectural friezes. Here at 2 Smilsu Street (K. Pēkšēns – 1903).

Riga-Smilsu 6

This Smilšu Street 6 banking institution is decorated with Neo-Classic-style mosaics. (V. L. Bokslafs – 1912)

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.

Riga-10b Elizabetes Street .

One of the most striking examples of early Art Nouveau can be seen at 10b Elizabetes Street (M. Eisenstein – 1903).

Riga-Alberta Street 2a.

The building at 2a Alberta Street is a potpourri of Neo-Classic, Neo-Egyptian and Art Nouveau (M. Eisenstein – 1906).

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.

Konstantins Pēkšēns’ residence at 12 Alberta Street now houses the Art Nouveau Museum ( K. Pēkšēns 1908).

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.

 

Beyond Architecture

Riga-Art Nouveau Museum.

Ornate stained glass windows decorate the breakfast nook of K. Pēkšēns’ apartment.

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 konventaseta@rixwell.com-mail.
  • 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 lidojosavarde@inbox.lv.
  • 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 jugendstils@riga.lv.
  • UNESCO Designation – The Historic Center of Riga was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997.

Location, location, location!

Riga Art Nouveau District