In various others of my Riga reviews I have referred to, or drawn the reader’s attention to, examples of Art Nouveau in the Old City and, to a letter degree, in the Moscow District. Nice as those are, no visit to Riga would be complete without a visit to the heart of Art Nouveau in in the city, the area to the northeast of Kronvalda Park and in particular Elizabetes iela and Alberta iela – though do not limit your exploring to just those two streets.
This area certainly has the greatest quantity and the highest quality Art Nouveau buildings that I have seen anywhere and Riga is justifiably world renowned for the abundance and quality of its Art Nouveau buildings.
In terms of art/architectural styles, people are prone to confusing Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
Art Nouveau (also referred to as Jugendstil in Riga) pre-dates Art Deco which was common in the 1930s. Art Nouveau was popular in the late 1800s and the early 1900s (pre-WWI). In terms of appearance, Art Deco tends to be more slick with straight lines and defined angles (think Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building in the US) while gargoyles, naked maidens, floral motifs, faces, masks and the like are more likely to feature in Art Nouveau.
Ok, so why such an abundance of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga?
There are basically two reasons.
Firstly, from medieval times to the mid 1800s all buildings outside the city walls were wooden, such that in the event that the city was being invaded the buildings could be razed to the ground to prevent invaders using them as shelter. I have referred to an example of this in my Riga Church of Jesus review, noting there that the buildings in what is now the northern part of the Moscow District were razed to prevent Napoleon’s army taking refuge therein in 1812.
By the mid 1800s, Mother Russia finally acknowledged that modern warfare techniques made the city’s walls and fortifications obsolete, so down they came and a ban on masonry buildings outside the city walls was lifted.
This happened at a time when Riga was going through an unprecedented financial boom. A construction boom lasting 20-30 years resulted. By the end of this time over a third of the city had been rebuilt in the style of the day, Art Nouveau. It is worth noting that Art Nouveau was not limited to the façades of buildings but was ‘a way of life’ extending to building interiors, furnishings, fashion, silverware, porcelain, linen, and more.
While I spent a good hour and a half or more wandering around the Elizabetes iela and Alberta iela area, admiring the stunning buildings, many of which have been recently beautifully restored, and ending up with over one hundred photos (these buildings are so photogenic) my interest does not extend to reading up on who owned the buildings or who the architects were. That said, I did note that one of the buildings (pictured in the 3rd circle above) was home to Latvian/British philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, between 1909 and 1915 – his early childhood.
Directions: Various streets to the northeast of Kronvalda Park, including Elizabetes iela and Alberta iela