Riga is known for its breathtaking collection of Art Nouveau architecture. It’s also a meeting point of Germanic, Slavic, and Scandinavian cultures. Perhaps less obvious is the fact that its architecture is in fact an expression of its multiculturalism on several different levels. Not only were its buildings designed by architects of different ethnicities, but they also showcased trends from across fin-de-siècle Europe and borrowed symbols from different continents, civilisations, and religions to create an architectural language of their own.
Art Nouveau spread across Europe from 1890 to 1910, and was originally inspired by the British Arts and Crafts movement and Japanese woodblock printing. Over its development, different countries took on the style and made it their own. Riga, too, which was growing rapidly at the time, designed many of its new buildings in the fashionable style. Interestingly, however, it neither created its own version of Art Nouveau nor adhered to any one trend. Instead, it picked and chose, moving from ‘Eclectic’ to ‘National Romantic’ to ‘Perpendicular’ to ‘Neo-Classical’. The city is now an open-air museum of these styles. Undoubtedly, the fact that many of Riga’s architects were not ethnically Latvian, and had a variety of European influences, played a part in this diverse mix.
One of the most famous Art Nouveau architects in Riga, for example, was Mikhail Eisenstein. Although born in Russia, he incorporated many aspects from German designers into his buildings, which are known for their intricate, complex facades and have become emblems for the city. Eisenstein was the foremost representative of the early ‘Eclecticism’ phase of Art Nouveau, which concentrated on the stylistic details of façade design.
By 1904, this kind of complexity had passed out of fashion, superseded by two new fads: ‘National Romantic’ and ‘Perpendicular’. The former was particularly popular from 1905 until 1911, and reflected Latvia’s search for a national architectural style. As a result, many of these buildings include Latvian folkloric symbols and natural materials, and most architects in this style were ethnic Latvians. But despite the aim of the movement, its designs borrowed heavily from the Art Nouveau of Finland. This was also true of ‘Perpendicular’ Art Nouveau, an off shoot which concentrated on the vertical features of buildings’ facades and favoured more geometric detail.
Art Nouveau continued its blend of cultures through to its final phase—the ‘Neo-Classical’ style—whose designs are reminiscent of Classical Greece and Rome. However, it was also greatly influenced by the architecture of Russia, not only in the 19th century Neo-Classical period, but also at the start of the 20th, when a Neo-Classical revival began to take over from Art Nouveau. Moreover, in addition to this blend of Russian and Classical influences, some of the most famous Neo-Classical designs in Riga are those of a Lithuanian-born architect, Paul Mandelstam.
Apart from this assortment of architectural styles, on closer inspection, Riga’s Art Nouveau buildings, particularly the ‘Eclectic’ constructions, reveal a far more extensive conglomeration of cultures.
As a result of the movement’s close link to Symbolism, an entirely new architectural language was formed by incorporating symbols from different cultures, continents and civilisations. It was the first time that the ornamentation of buildings was not simply decorative, but held a deeper, and often esoteric, meaning.
Some of the most popular symbols used came from nature, and unusual plants and animals can be found in the façades of Riga’s buildings. One of the better-known symbols was that of a tree, which was often represented the life of a person, growing from the roots of ancestors, ageing, and eventually dying.
Some architects delved deeper still into the specific attributes of certain species. In one of his 1903 constructions, Paul Mandelstam used a chestnut tree and its blossom, in reference to the Roman myth in which Venus created this tree so that its candle flowers would light up the May nights and her son Amor would see the hearts he was piercing more clearly. Indeed, the entire decorative ensemble culminates in a prominent, overhanging lamp.
Two of the most intriguing animal designs found throughout Riga are those of peacocks and dragons. The peacock is an understandable choice for a façade decoration, and many Art Nouveau architects indeed saw it as the best expression of their cult of beauty. However, in terms of its more metaphorical meaning, it can be found in countless cultures. In Greco-Roman mythology its ‘eyes’ symbolised the stars. In Asian spirituality it is a symbol of good luck, and in Christianity it is associated with resurrection.
Perhaps most unusual is the use of dragons in Riga’s architecture, something favoured by the Latvian architect Pekšens. Although dragons are often associated with malice in western European mythology, in East Asian cultures they symbolise strength, fertility, wisdom and prosperity.
On first glance, Riga’s architecture can seem like a collection of quirky, mismatched buildings. In fact, at almost every stage of their creation, these buildings are a junction of national tastes and traditions. Riga’s architects, both in their propagation of Art Nouveau and in the choices they made within the style, created not only a monument to one of history’s most exquisite artistic movements, but an intersection of European, and world, culture. Without a doubt, Riga could not have gained its reputation as the ‘Paris of the North’ without its cosmopolitan architectural backdrop