Art Nouveau in Riga: Architecture with Style

Riga, Latvia, is one of the Baltic capitals that you should visit when you travel the Baltic countries. One of Riga’s highlights is its many examples of Art Nouveau architecture.

This style, which took inspiration from organic shapes and nature, was popular at the beginning of the 20th century. Due to a construction boom that coincided with Art Nouveau’s popularity, Riga has many fine examples. So many, in fact, you won’t be able to avoid encountering Art Nouveau in Riga when you visit. It’s certainly one of the top reasons to visit Riga and one of the best things to do in Latvia.

Let’s discover what makes Art Nouveau in Riga special and some of the best examples of this style in the Latvian capital city.

A blue Riga Art Nouveau building with white elements: faces and bird
Photo 124265846 / Art Nouveau © Gunold | Dreamstime.com

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What is Art Nouveau?

To understand Riga’s Art Nouveau—and indeed Art Nouveau in other cities—it’s important to understand a bit about the development of the style in general.

The style began to be popular in the 1890s and inspired a flurry of work in various artistic fields through the beginning of the 20th century—architecture, furniture, jewelry, and other objects  were created to reflect the aesthetics of Art Nouveau design; graphic design of the era was also impacted. It is also widely known as Jugenstil (Youth Style) or Secession Style. Latvia uses the word Jūgendstils to describe Art Nouveau. It is known by various other names throughout Europe

The bust of a woman on a building
Photo 98534683 / Art Nouveau © Odze | Dreamstime.com

Art Nouveau grew out of various aesthetics and ideas about art, including Japanese woodblocks, the style of William Morris, and considerations about how material determined form. It was also a reaction to industrial, mass-produced design, emphasizing instead bespoke pieces or elements.

Art Nouveau Artists in Europe

Some famous Art Nouveau artists in Europe included Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist known for his graphic art and painting; Antoni Gaudi, a Spanish architect; and Rene Lalique, a French jewelry designer.

Jugenstil as a Way of Expressing National Identity

One of the ways that Art Nouveau distinguishes itself is that it allowed artists and architects to incorporate national or traditional symbolism into the overall design. While the style would naturally develop differently in various parts of Europe, that the rise in popularity of Jugenstil coincided with a period of time when some nations were striving to express national identity is one reason Art Nouveau in Riga is distinctive from, for example, Art Nouveau in Czechia or Hungary.

Riga Art Nouveau Architecture Development

The Industrial Revolution brought wealth to Latvia, and the increase in construction that followed led to 40% of buildings in Riga being built in the Art Nouveau style.

The architectural style was introduced to Latvia via two exhibitions, the Latvian Ethnographic Exhibition in 1896 and the Industrial and Handicrafts Exhibition in 1901. The pavilions for these exhibitions used Art Nouveau style, which helped launch the popularity of the architectural style for architects working at the time and clients who wanted to follow the latest trends.

Building of verticle lines in the style of Art Nouveau in Riga
Photo 92111876 / Art Nouveau © Nick86174 | Dreamstime.com

Riga Art Nouveau Sub-styles

Various subcategories emerged in Riga Art Nouveau architecture. Eclectic Art Nouveau is characterized by elements from nature and floral motifs. Perpendicular Art Nouveau is distinctive for its vertical façade compositions, the regular lines creating rhythm across building faces. National Romanticism incorporates folk motifs.

It’s the National Romantic Art Nouveau style that was especially important to the Latvian period of national revival. This style, which rose to prominence in 1905, incorporates elements from Latvian traditional architecture as well as folk motifs and those out of local legend, and local materials for construction were also used in building Riga Art Nouveau architecture.

Art Nouveau in Riga: Architects to Know

If you take a tour of Art Nouveau in Riga, you’ll likely hear various names repeatedly. These architects excelled at Art Nouveau architecture and took advantage of the flexibility of Jugendstil to impress upon the city their own interpretations of the style, often incorporating Latvian motifs.

Mikhail Eisenstein: Father of the Soviet film direct Sergei Eisenstein, Mikhail Eisenstein made his mark on Riga through architecture. He created some of Riga’s most notable designs and memorable, impressive features. One of the most notable examples of Riga Art Nouveau by Eisenstein is the blue building on Elizabetes iela with large, mournful faces flanking the central design. He is known for his architecture in the Eclectic Art Nouveau style.

20th c. building seen from a corner angle
Photo 103963770 / Art Nouveau © Ryhor Bruyeu | Dreamstime.com

Jānis Alksnis: Alknis, a prolific architect for both private and public purposes, is famous for his architecture in Perpendicular Art Nouveau style. In addition to private residences, he designed for banks, the buildings of which continue to stand today and are used for various purposes.

Konstantins Peksens: Though Peksens began working in the Eclectic Art Nouveau style, he moved on to National Romanticism. At least 250 buildings in Riga can be attributed to his designs. His buildings were so much associated with this style that one of the sculptures on the façade of the Smilsu Street 2 building is called Miss Riga.

Aleksandrs Vanags: When Vanags began his work as an architect, he worked under Peksens, and so it is no wonder that he adopted the National Romantic style of Art Nouveau to continue his independence pursuits. One of his most recognizable works is that at Brīvības 58/61, which is often called the Corner House. Though it didn’t become so until later, it’s one of the best-known Soviet sites in Latvia.

Of course, other architects were working in the Riga Art Nouveau style at the time, including Bernhard Bilensteins, Augusts Malvess, Eizens Laube, and Paul Mandelstamm, the latter of whom is responsible for what is now the Latvian Radio building on Dom Square in Riga.

These architects and others left hundreds of examples of Art Nouveau in Riga and Latvia and played a large part in shaping how the city looked then and how it looks today.

Top Art Nouveau in Riga Sites

Though Riga has many wonderful examples of Art Nouveau that you can see just by taking a stroll through the city, some particular buildings are visitors’ favorites. Riga has such an excellent collection of Art Nouveau buildings that it’s one factor that figures into its inscription into UNESCO’s list of World Heritage.

Statues of a man and a woman on a building facade
Photo 48038013 / Art Nouveau © Mauro Carli | Dreamstime.com

Elizabetes 10a and 10b: One of the symbols of Art Nouveau in Riga is on Elizabeta Street, famous for its excellent examples of the style. They were built by Mikhail Eisenstein.

Elizabeta 10b, with its striking blue façade with white accents, topped with an arched decoration flanked by faces, can indeed be called one of the “faces” of Art Nouveau in Riga. Eisenstein didn’t hold back when designing this beauty, which draws the eye upward towards the crowning glory of the building.

Elizabeta 10a is monochromatic but resplendent with an ovoid window—topped by floral motifs and the head of a man crowned with leaves—that open onto an ornate balcony.

Smilsu iela 8: Smilsu iela 8 features two female figures holding a wreath over a window and fanciful metalwork among other elements.

Alberta iela 11: Though perhaps darker and heavier than other examples of Art Nouveau in Riga, the residential building at Alberta iela 11, built by Eizens Laube in 1908, reflects an effort to create a Latvian style. It’s considered a prime example of the National Romantic subcategory of Riga Art Nouveau.

Visitors to Alberta iela—either through a tour or just due to the impressive array of architecture on display—will be encouraged to look at the various buildings on this street, a sort of epicenter for Art Nouveau in Riga.

Many of the buildings here were designed by Eisenstein and feature creatures from mythology, faces reflecting various states of emotion, and a sculptural representation of freedom.

Building detail with oval window and balcony
ID 180368667 © Fotojanis | Dreamstime.com

Kaleju 23: One of the most in-your-face examples of Art Nouveau in Riga, the building at Kaleju 23 is emblazoned with a sun, underneath which an entryway overhang boasts a garland of white flowers and a canopy of greenery sprouting from a tangle of branches. This creation of Paul Mandelstamm looks like it’s been drawn from a fairy tale.

Of course, with over 800 examples of buildings constructed in the style of Art Nouveau in Riga, you’ll encounter them around every corner—and you’re sure to find your favorite.

Riga Art Nouveau Tours

One of the best ways of experiencing Art Nouveau in Riga is through a tour. A guide will take you to the most Art Nouveau-dense sections of the city, introduce you to less-known examples, be able to point out important details and explain them, and answer questions. It’s one of the best ways of understanding Riga’s relationship with this architectural style.

The Riga Art Nouveau Museum

The Riga Art Nouveau Museum is an excellent opportunity to understand the Art Nouveau interior and what it may have been like to live in Riga in the early 20th century.

Inside the museum, starting with its beautiful stairwell—the subject of countless photos—you’ll encounter recreated Art Nouveau-style rooms complete with objects made in Latvia during the time this style was popular. Many of the items in the museum’s collection were donated by local families interested in preserving this aspect of family, Rigan, and Latvian heritage.

winding staircase with decorated ceiling
Photo 68874643 / Art Nouveau © Igorr | Dreamstime.com

The museum’s building, constructed by Konstantins Peksens and Eizens Laube between 1903 and 1905, is located at Alberta iela 12, on a street famous for Art Nouveau in Riga. Visitors will see Peksens’ own apartment, though heavy renovation and restoration had to take place and the objects are not necessarily original to the flat.

The Riga Art Nouveau Museum also has a shop with Art Nouveau-style gifts and souvenirs, books about the period and its architects, and postcards.

Art Nouveau in Latvia

Of course, Riga Art Nouveau isn’t the only Art Nouveau architecture Latvia has to offer. You’ll find Art Nouveau in other cities in Latvia as well.

For example, Jurmala, the seaside resort town just a short train ride from Riga, has Art Nouveau buildings that are smaller and cozier than you’ll find in the city. These seaside villas made of wood will tempt fans of luxury real estate. Some of these summer homes have been converted into hotels or now serve other purposes, while others remain residential houses.

Liepaja, a coastal city, is also a good destination for lovers of Art Nouveau architecture. Decorative exterior elements can be immediately identified on apartment buildings, and even some interior artistic elements remain. Liepaja also has one of Latvia’s top castles, among other attractions.

If you’re traveling in the Baltic countries or even just stopping by the Baltic capital cities, Riga will wow you with its architectural beauties.

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