Art Nouveau architecture in Riga
Art Nouveau architecture in Riga makes up roughly one third of all buildings in the centre of Riga, making the Latvian capital the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world. Built during a period of rapid economic growth, most of the Art Nouveau buildings of Riga date from between 1904 and 1914. The style is most commonly represented in multi-storey apartment buildings.
At the end of the 19th century, the old Hanseatic town and seaport of Riga was an important city in the Russian Empire. It was a period of rapid economic, industrial and demographic development. Between 1897 and 1913, the city grew by 88% to a population of 530,000 in 1914. By that time, it was the fifth largest city in the Russian Empire and the third largest city in the Baltic region. This was the highest growth rate of the city so far experienced.
Already in the middle of the 19th century, the city had begun to expand beyond its medieval core, which was surrounded by fortifications. These were torn down, beginning in 1856, and replaced with a belt of boulevards and gardens surrounding the old town of Riga. The new part of the city was developed along a grid pattern and following strict building regulations (stating, for example, that no house could be taller than six storeys or 21.3 metres (70 ft)), thus creating a large degree of urban coherence. Between 1910 and 1913, between 300 and 500 new buildings were built each year in Riga, most of them in Art Nouveau style and most of them outside the old town. Still, a number of Art Nouveau buildings were erected in the old town of Riga, as well as several single-family homes in the suburb of Mežaparks. Indeed, the very first Art Nouveau building to be erected in Riga (to designs by architects Alfred Aschenkampff and Max Scherwinsky) lies on Audēju iela 7 (Audeju street) in the medieval part of the city. It is however the part of the city centre which lies outside the ring of boulevards which is where the vast majority of Art Nouveau architecture in Riga can be found.
The owners, builders and architects of these houses came from a variety of different ethnic groups; among these the first ethnic Latvians to reach such levels in society. Apart from Latvian architects (among the most well represented are Eižens Laube, Konstantīns Pēkšēns and Jānis Alksnis) there were also Jewish (Mikhail Eisenstein, Paul Mandelstamm) and Baltic German (among them Bernhard Bielenstein, Rudolph Dohnberg and Artur Moedlinger) architects working during this period in Riga. During this time of a developing Latvian national identity, a relatively small number of the architects were ethnic Latvians (with Latvian as their first language), but they designed nearly 40% of all new buildings in Riga in the early 20th century. An increasing number of the house owners were also Latvian, rather than German- or Russian-speaking. Regardless of their ethnicity, most of the practitioners creating the Art Nouveau architecture of Riga were locals, although stylistically influenced by foreign architecture – mainly from Germany, Austria and Finland. Significant for this development was the opening of the faculty of architecture at the Riga Polytechnic Institute (today Riga Technical University) in 1869, which helped educate a generation of local architects.
The decorative details of the buildings, in the form of sculptures, stained glass, majolica stoves and so on were partly imported and partly made locally by companies in Riga. In this regard, decorative arts companies from Riga also worked on a regional market and products from Riga workshops were exported (within the Russian Empire) to e.g. Tallinn and Saint Petersburg.
Today, Art Nouveau architecture makes out roughly one third of all buildings in the centre of Riga, making it the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world. The style is most commonly represented in multi-storey apartment buildings.
Art Nouveau developed from but also as a reaction against Eclecticism and different Revivalist styles. Like Art Nouveau elsewhere, its development was driven by a desire to create an individualistic style less dependent on obvious historical references, a wish to express local traits and traditions and a move towards a rational architecture based on an "honest" use of materials and ornamentation which doesn't deny the structural layout of the building.
Stylistically, the Art Nouveau architecture of Riga is often divided into four main categories: Eclectic or Decorative; Perpendicular or Vertical; National Romantic and lastly Neo-Classical. These categorisations are not always mutually exclusive; many buildings display influences from several different styles.
Eclectic Art Nouveau
The earliest Art Nouveau buildings in Riga were of this kind. Beginning as a purely decorative change from Eclecticism, buildings of this type simply adopted new forms of Art Nouveau decoration in lieu of earlier styles, but did little or nothing to change earlier concepts of the structure of buildings as such. Eclectic Art Nouveau still displays the rhythmic facades and opulent decoration of earlier styles. In this early form of Art Nouveau, foreign influence was quite strong, especially from Germany, as was influences from contemporary Symbolism. The arguably most famous Art Nouveau houses in Riga, a row of houses along Alberta iela (Albert Street), many to the design of Mikhail Eisenstein, are of this style. Though a major tourist attraction, they are not representative of the vast majority of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga.
Perpendicular Art Nouveau
Eclecticism eventually gave way to a more rationalist style of Art Nouveau in Riga, characterised by marked vertical compositions of the facades, and geometrical ornaments integrated into the overall architectural composition. The structure of the buildings also shifted into an essentially modern quality where the exterior reflects the layout of the interior, rather than being a facade without any rational connection with the structural layout of the building as was the case earlier. Several department stores where built in this style, and it is sometimes also referred to as Department Store Style or Warenhausstil in German.
National Romantic Art Nouveau
The Latvian National Awakening which began in the 19th century initiated a process of conscious formulation of a specific Latvian identity, both politically and culturally. This, together with political developments (especially the Revolution of 1905) led to a stronger desire to express a specifically Latvian identity also through art and architecture during the early 20th century. The National Romantic style is sometimes considered an architectural style in its own right, but in Latvian context often described as a variant of Art Nouveau. It was relatively short-lived and flourished between 1905 and 1911. A certain amount of influence came from Finnish architecture, but as the idea was to develop a specific Latvian form of architecture, many of its aspects are particular for Latvian architecture. It is a style characterised by restrained decoration inspired by local folk art, monumental volumes and the use of natural building materials.
Neo-Classical Art Nouveau
The last stage of the development of Art Nouveau architecture in Riga is also the style least well represented, so-called Neo-Classical Art Nouveau. Drawing on the language of Classical architecture which had been a prolific style in the Russian Empire during the 19th century (but not common in Riga), this rather monumental variant of Art Nouveau was used in several new bank buildings.
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