Sculpted cats and larger-than-life faces of women, men growing out of trees, winged lions astride turrets, a shepherd, a satyr and exquisite peacocks — all embellished on the facades of buildings — this is an architectural feast. The Art Nouveau Movement was a rebellious reaction to Victorian sensibilities by a new wave of architects and designers, who used futuristic elements and artwork to express them.
Riga, the capital of Latvia, has an amazing wealth of more than 800 Art Nouveau buildings built in the late 19th and early 20th century. How did Riga’s buildings survive? When Art Nouveau was popular, Riga was riding a wave of prosperity and the Russians, Jewish, German and Latvian merchants poured their riches into its real estate. Later, when Art Nouveau went out of fashion, many buildings all over Europe were pulled down but Latvia’s economic position compelled many of the buildings to be converted into Soviet communal apartments.
Many of the buildings became shabby and unkempt. In recent times, foreign investment as well as banks and cultural preservation funds have helped to renovate buildings to their past glory though many of them are still in the throes of transition.
One name that appears with amazing regularity in the Art Nouveau Movement in Riga is Mikhail Eisenstein, the father of the popular film director, Sergei Eisenstein, who made movies like Battleship Potemkin. Sergei was not a fan of his father’s work and said of his father’s fanciful creations, “He must have had nightmares, putting all that detail into his buildings,’’ and called him a “ a maker of cakes, who placed statues of human beings one and a half storey high”.
Mikhail was known for his use of coloured bricks and tiles, decorative masks and geometric motifs. We see Mikhail Eisenstein’s creations especially on Alberta Iela where five of his buildings lie next to each other. Wrought iron balconies attract and giant faces peer down at us.
The gorgeous Art Nouveau Museum in Alberta Street has stylised plants, pine cones, squirrels on the facade and the spiral staircase has ornamental motifs on the ceiling. Art Nouveau went through a phase of ‘National Romanticism’ here, when Latvian architects introduced elements from ethnic mythology into their designs. Most buildings have a rough finish. Riga’s eclectic architecture is a reason in itself to visit this historical city!