Traveling to Latvia? Interested in checking out the impressive collection of art nouveau in Riga? Have no idea what art nouveau is? No problem! You’ve come to the right place. In Riga art nouveau is everywhere, and we’ll help you make sense of it!
Welcome to our Riga Art Nouveau Guide!
With this guide you’ll be able to impress your travel companions with your in-depth knowledge of the artistic movement that took the early 20th century by storm! You’ll annoy them with your oh-so-insightful-and-slightly-pedantic comments about the buildings you see! You’ll take self-satisfaction in the fact that you didn’t JUST stumble drunkenly past the architectural treasures Riga has to offer — you stumbled drunkenly WHILE admiring the architectural treasures. And without further ado: Wandertooth’s Riga Art Nouveau Guide (drum roll, please).
What is this “Riga art nouveau” you speak of?
Great question! Art nouveau took Europe by storm in the late 19th and early 20th century. Some say it was a reaction to the mass production of the industrial revolution — after all, mass production is so gauche — and others say it was a reaction to the structure and rules imposed by the neoclassical and romantic movements: artists yearned to bust free from strict aesthetic rules and express themselves creatively. For our purposes, we’re going to say it was a little from column A, a little from column B. Even though it was only popular for 25 years or so, it spread like wildfire throughout Europe, and little old Riga (seriously, Riga is OLD!) has the best collection in all of Europa. Excited yet?
What is this “Riga art nouveau” all about?
Art nouveau is all about creativity, craftsmanship, opulence, and nature. Not limited to architecture, it’s a decorative style that sought to bring the highest levels of craftsmanship and decoration to everyday objects. In this way, I imagine it was a big middle finger to mass production (imagine being the key word — this is not based in fact). It has a lovey-dovey, flowing, and decorative aesthetic, making use of wavy, billowing, and curved lines, and smooth, stone surfaces. Finally, it takes its inspiration from nature: in Riga art nouveau buildings are covered in flowers, plants, and adorable woodland creatures you’ll want to cuddle, stuff in your backpack, and sneak through customs.
Where can I see this “Riga art nouveau” you speak of?
Step one: Go to Latvia. From there, it’s pretty easy. In Riga art nouveau buildings make up forty-ish percent of the old town, so all you really need to do is open your eyes. However, if you REALLY want to get into it, and see the creme de la creme, you’ll need to wander on over to Alberta Iela, in Riga’s Quiet Centre, which houses buildings by Mihail Einstein, who is kind of a big deal when it comes to art nouveau architecture. On your way there, you’ll notice some fine specimens on Elizabetes iela; the birthday cake-like building at 33 Elizabetes Iela is an Einstein original.
Once on Alberta Iela, you’ll have a virtual cornucopia of art nouveau awesomeness, many of which are Einstein buildings. For example, there’s this guy:
If you’re really into it, you could stop by the art nouveau museum at Alberta Iela 12, which is apparently a must see in Riga (ed: we did not see it). If, however, you don’t feel like even venturing out of the old town, no problem. There’s lots of nouveau-y buildings there at which you can ooh and awe.
But how will I know which ones are the good ones?
Yes, of course. A natural question. You don’t want to stand in front of one building commenting on its nouveau-ness only to have your know-it-all traveling companion tell you the building you’re referring to is actually baroque, duh. You would feel like an idiot! A fool!
We used the Lonely Planet guide to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on our Baltics trip, and despite its failings when it comes to maps of smaller towns and our ill-fated Sigulda day-trip, it does have a handy 2-page walking tour that takes you past some of the most important examples of art nouveau architecture in Riga. The Rough Guide for the same countries mentions a few of the important buildings, but is less comprehensive.