The Baltics: Riga, the flamboyant Art Nouveau District

Riga
Staircase inside the building where the Art Nouveau Museum is located

Riga

— ART NOUVEAU IN RIGA —

I have already posted about Riga, the biggest metropole of the Baltics. I wished I had spent more time there, but I have unsteady feet and well, I wanted to see as much as I could.

Riga is particularly special because it is the city with the biggest number of Art Nouveau style buildings in the entire of the world. The style was born European so it does make sense the owner of this title would be located in Europe. But why Riga? Why in Latvia, a country so often forgotten when looking at the map of Europe? Why not Paris, London or Rome?

Riga just happened to be flourishing in the time when Art Nouveau was in the rise. Seeing its economy booming, people had more money – which means investing in housing but also to invest in the Arts. The first faculty of Architecture opened at this time, in 1869, training local architects strongly influenced by foreign styles. This was lucky. Art Nouveau is beautiful. Extremely decorated, flamboyant and floral, it makes any street look rich, classy. Can you imagine how the city must have been like during these times? Before two World Wars shut the blinds down and emerged the country in darkness.

Rest assured things are now all right. To see the best of Art Nouveau in Riga, head to Alberta’s Street. But be reassured that you’ll find hundreds of examples of this beautiful, flamboyant style. Even on the outskirts of the city, on my way to Sigulda, I’ve noticed plenty of buildings in this beautiful style but in need of restoration. This makes sense, as the construction was based mostly outside the old town, which maintained the medieval lines.

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The one thing you need to be careful though is not to shock against anybody or be run over by a car, while you’re walking on the streets and not really seeing where you’re going. It’s really hard not to be distracted. As someone with a camera, I was probably being considered as an annoying tourist, but I also found myself struggling to take good pictures of the buildings.

Some streets were busy, especially on weekdays, when locals are rushing to get to their jobs. I was putting an extra effort making sure I wasn’t in the way of anybody. I know the pain. I live and work in London. Worst. I work in Camden, where the affluence of tourists is high at any time of the year.

However, I like to think locals must be proud of this heritage. After all, there weren’t that many tourists and how can you blame me? These buildings are absolutely stunning.

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The reason why I like Art Nouveau so much, truth to be told, is because in certain ways I am so far from being practical. I have a certain disdain towards modern architecture. Not I don’t appreciate it – I’ve seen amazing buildings looking like spaceships that took me away – but the style born with Bauhaus is just a bit “meh” for me. You can praise its functionality, the use of new, less expensive materials, the fast construction necessary in this fast-living, fast-growing society. But it just not it. I can’t see the magic in functionality.

I cannot stop myself from wonder: is that what we are leaving to the future generations? Functionality? I now look at an Art Nouveau, Baroque, Byzantine style or even Gothic buildings and my mouth shapes itself as an “o”. It makes me stop, it makes me take my eyes from the screen of my mobile. I praise the genius behind such masterpieces.

So… I know. I can almost hear my mum saying “can you imagine how difficult it is to clean those Art Nouveau interiors? Those Baroque pieces of furniture?”. Others will argue, how expensive, time-consuming. So much decor, for what? What’s the functionality? You don’t really need that.

Well… I’d say it’s pretty. A weak argument, I know. We don’t really need pretty. It doesn’t make us function better.  But in a world where it’s hard to be a focus on the good things in life when sometimes beauty seems to have ceased to exist or we lack the ability to appreciate it, I like to wander, to dream. To sort of escape from grey daily life and put me in such romantic settings, where functionality is just something that is less important.

Riga

Art Nouveau was born precisely from the same thinking I’m rambling about. A desire of going back to praising craftmanship.

So, perhaps I am an old-fashioned dreamer. You can say “such pretty buildings, so what… as if that is doing something for the poor people. As if it brings opportunities to its people”.

And that’s true as well. That’s what I say from my own country when people praise the sunny weather and the infinite amount of beaches. But can we for one moment, one moment only, forget about all pains and just dream?

I say yes, Yes, we can.

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A very interesting fact is that it was precisely an Englishman, George Armitstead, a mayor of the city between 1901 and 1912, who presided over the Belle Époche and was responsible for such a cosmopolitan elegance. 680 art nouveau buildings were born during his time, as well as the Latvian National Art Museum, parks surrounding the old town, the electric tram (which was often spoiling my photos by the way, with its wires on the way of the beautiful façades), the Central Market and even the still working water supply system. Most important, it was under his watch Riga became a global city.

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Riga

Riga

Daydreaming as an outsider, you can’t really stop yourself from imagining what would have been to live in these times, especially (and obviously) as part of an aristocracy or, at least, a family of wealthy merchants. Even today, when aristocracy is part of the past (at least for most of us), I felt like I was stepping in the space I didn’t belong in, as stupid as this may sound. Especially when I dared to visit the Art Nouveau Museum, which gives you an opportunity to sneak peek inside an art nouveau house. It’s simply stunning.

Riga

Riga

Riga

I really hope you enjoyed my modest gallery of Art Nouveau photography from Riga 🙂

Love, Nic

Come fly with me on my Instagram.

 

 

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