Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Riga art nouveau: The Quiet Centre

 Alberta iela 12, which contains the Art Nouveau Museum

Riga is famous for having one of the largest collections of art nouveau buildings in Europe. This post will focus on the main concentration in the so-called Quiet Centre, to the north of the Old Town. There are a number of art nouveau buildings scattered through the Old Town as well and these will be described in a separate post.

We started our walk at the beginning of Elizabetes iela (iela is street), the principal road on the edge of the Quiet Centre with our first target (from a list in our guidebook) at number 10b. We kept our eyes open of course for other possibilities and were delighted to spot this gem off to the right at Baznicas iela 5.

The façade had all sorts of motifs, particularly around the windows. I particularly liked the group under the oriel windows. In the next side street, Skolas iela, we spotted another example at number 3: it was a style of building we hadn't previously seen in Riga, more like the French style of art nouveau as seen in Nancy or Paris: asymmetrical and picturesque in its composition.

Elizabetes iela 10b (M. Eisenstein, 1903), when we finally reached it, was a rather extraordinary structure, enlivened by the wonderful blue bricks, but not easy to identify as art nouveau. It seemed too symmetrical and covered in too much ornamentation.

I have to admit that I did like the central gable with its stylised peacock (a classic art nouveau motif) and massive heads which seemed more art deco than nouveau.

The building opposite at number 23, also on the guide book list, had even more extreme symmetry and columns with entablatures. How could this possibly be seen as art nouveau? It was more like a sort of neo-Baroque.

Just round the next corner at Antonijas 8 however was a splendid building, with a simple but regular façade and delightful flower and animal motifs.

We especially liked the pair of dragons (another art nouveau motif) by the front door.

Further along Elizabetes iela we came to the next one on our target list, number 33. This was another heavily decorated building, but with a clear stylistic unity and some nice details. Here is the main gable with the motto Labor omnia vincit (work conquers all), apparently a tribute to the architect.

We continued along Elizabetes, passing other minor examples, and turned into Vilandes iela where number 2 had a quite classical façade but with design elements that were almost art deco.

Numbers 4 and 10 were also interesting with, in both cases, their doors being especially good.

We headed back along Elizabetes to turn left into Streinieku iela where number 2 looked extraordinarily modern and 4a (M. Eisenstein again, 1905) was even more over-decorated that Elizabetes 10b. On the corner with Alberta iela is the Art Nouveau Museum, an apartment belonging to the architect Konstantins Pēkšēns who designed the whole building with Eižens Laube. The building reminded us of Villa Majorelle in Nancy. The beautifully decorated staircase was a bonus before we had even entered the museum.

The museum consists of only a few rooms, which have been lovingly restored, but it is an absolute delight. The ceilings have beautiful plaster moldings and each room has a signature colour with a complementary frieze. This is the Dining Room.

Further along Alberta iela, number 4 (M. Eisenstein 1904)  has many now-familiar elements including flower and animal motifs and sculpted faces at key points.

Next door, number 3, was similar if even more exuberant. The pinky-red bricks produced a nice effect. Outside there were matching sphinxes, a magnet for people having their photo taken.

The doors through to the courtyard were elegant

We continued to puzzle over what counts as art nouveau. There is a clear Riga style and this reminds us that art nouveau was somewhat different in every country where it had a significant impact. The most surprising thing was the presence of neo-classical and Baroque elements. One of the main common threads in the art nouveau movement was the desire to create a new architecture for the new century. There was also an overlapping movement towards creating a distinctively national architecture. Overall I think that enthusiasts for art nouvea in Riga have maybe drawn the net too widely. Art nouveau has to be more than just buildings which happened to have been built around 1900.

Conditions: cloudy, rain, sunny periods - we felt at home!

Distance: Maybe four miles there and back from the Old Town.

Rating: five stars. Thoroughly interesting, even if controversial. The museum was wonderful.

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