Riga, the capital of Latvia, is renowned for its fantastic Art Nouveau/Jugendstil buildings built at the beginning of the 20th century.
Riga developed rapidly once the city walls were demolished in the mid-19th century (1857-63). The rapid expansion of the population, which almost doubled in the 20 years before the First World war, reaching over half a million, prompted a building boom. Many apartment blocks were constructed along the straight boulevards, laid in a grid pattern, of the ‘new town’. By the 1930s, Riga was known as ‘The Little Paris of the North’. However, in addition to responding to modernity, with industrialisation and urbanisation signalling a new urban lifestyle, the emergence of Art Nouveau/Jugendstil in Riga also addressed Latvian identity. This helps to explain the variants of the style in the national capital, which reflect both a cosmopolitan internationalism and a desire to forge a distinctly Latvian architectural language based on native vernacular architecture and folk-art forms.
Academics have broken the different stylistic forms into four categories:
Eclectic or Decorative
Architects simply adopted forms of Art Nouveau/Jugendstil decoration in lieu of earlier styles. The apartments along Alberta iela (Albert Street), many designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, who studied in St Peterburg, are typical. This approach embraced a cosmopolitan internationalism, particularly drawing on French decorative forms (female mascaron/face masks, stylized floral forms and peacocks).
Indicative buildings in the Old Town include:
Alfred Aschenkampf & Max Scherwinsky, Audēju iela 7 (1899), one of the first Jugend Stila buildings in Riga.
Heinrich Scheel et Friedrich Scheffe, Skunu 10/12, for a store for Henrich Dettmann (1903)
Pauls Mandelštams (1872-1941), Kalēju 23/ Meistaru iela 10 (1909).
Konstantīns Pēkšēns (1859-1926), 2 rue Smilsu (1902)
Perpendicular or Vertical
About a third of the Art Nouveau/Jugendstil buildings of Riga were built according to these ideals which became popular after c. 1905. The influence of the Vienna Secession and German Jugendstil is clear. Many examples can be found in Brīvības iela, Ģertrūdes iela and, Aleksandrqa Čaka iela. Architects associated with this style include Rūdolfs Filips Donbergs (1864-1918) and later works by Konstantīns Pēkšēns.
Between 1905 and 1911 architects also tried to create a specific Latvian style of modern architecture, National Romanticism. With many stylistic aspects particular to Latvia, alongside the use of natural building materials, architects drew on vernacular architecture and folk art. There is a notable influence of Finnish National Romantic forms. Eižens Laube, Alberta iela 11, built in 1908, is typical, with its towers and tapered windows.
A late variant, a reaction to highly decorated earlier forms. Often used for banks. Fundamentally a return to historicism.
Given this localized diversity it would be useful to devise a Latvian term unique to Riga, such as Riga Jugend Stila, Jauniešu stils or Atdalīšanās (Secession).
Many architects were able to train locally, rather than in St Petersburg or Berlin. The Technical Society was founded in 1864, with some half of its members architects. The Polytechnicum (Riga Polytechnic Institute) opened a department for architecture in 1869. In 1872 the Crafts School of the Riga Trades Association was founded. These new institutions lay outside the immediate control of the Academy in St Petersburg. Graduates of the Riga Polytechnic Institute designed many Jauniešu stils buildings. Most notable were Konstantīns Pēkšēns, J. Alksnis, O. Bārs, R. Donbergs, E. Laube, A.Vanags, P. Mandelštams, E.Pole, B. Bīlenšteins and M. Nukša.
‘First Latvian National Awakening’
With the native Latvian population ‘oppressed’ in turn by the Germans, Swedes, and Russians, by the mid-19th century there was a conscious desire to reassert Latvian identity. Tsar Aleksandr III’s Russification policies stimulated the ‘First Latvian National Awakening’ (1850s-1880s). Krišjānis Valdemārs (1825-91), was the most prominent member of Young Latvia ( Jaunlatvieši). The Latvian language newspaper Mājas Viesis was launched. The Riga Latvian Society, which brought together Latvian intellectuals and radicals, was founded in 1868. The Society reclaimed Latvian history and folklore. Scholars and writers sought to prove that Baltic cultural traditions were as deep as those of other nations. The ‘First Latvian National Awakening’ was followed by the New Current (Socialist) which led up to the 1905 First Russian Revolution.
In 1891, August Bielenstein was the first scholar to support the establishment of a folklore material archives. Fricis Brīvzemnieks has been justifiably identified as the founder of Latvian folklore studies. The first collections of folk tales and legends assembled by Brīvzemnieks appeared in 1887. Stories often revolve around pre-Christian deities like the sun goddess Saule and the moon god Mēness. Another major theme is the human life cycle, especially the three major events: birth, wedding, and death (including burial). Ensuring a good harvest was the primary function of Jumis. Many stories revolve around the devil and warding off evil spirits.
Lacking a national hero, Andrejs Pumpurs gathered materials to create a national epic poem Lāčplēsis (Bear Slayer). Composed between 1872–1887, the saga is set in the Livonian Crusades and the struggle against the German invaders. The Bear Slayer is commemorated on the Latvian Freedom Monument, which marks the brief period of Latvian independence following the First World War.
“I was Born and Raised Singing”
Collecting and publishing folk songs underpinned the ‘national awakening’. The first Latvian Song Festival was held in 1873. ‘Father of Folk Songs’, Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923) collected Latvju Dainas (folk songs). Dainas are little quatrains of ancient Latvian wisdom captured in song. Dating back some thousand years, Dainas were sung at celebrations and while at daily work. Songs commemorate Latvian mythology and traditional festivals rather than legendary heroes. They are reflections on life preserved in oral form. There are more than 1.2 million Dainas. German geographer and traveller J.G. Khol noted in his memoirs (1841): “[..]Every Latvian is a born poet, they all compose verses and songs, and they can all sing these songs [..] They deserve to be called the nation of poets.”
Barons formed the most complete anthology of Latvian folk songs. Between 1894 and 1915 he published seven volumes containing 217, 996 folk song texts. Baron’s Cabinet of Folksongs, containing around 150,000 texts, on slips of paper survives in the National Library of Latvia.
Barons is commemorated at the ‘Song Garden’, Sculpture Park, Sigulda, created by Indulis Ranka in 1985. 25 sculptures by Ranka convey the spirt of the Dainas. One sculpture depicts Barons as a wise old man, while on the other side are singers from three generations (mother, daughter, granddaughter). Beside them is a defender – a powerful young man. The figures protect the dowry chest which symbolizes the dowry of songs.
The unique character of Latvian culture was celebrated with the publication of Latvju dainas, by Krišjānis Barons, Latvju tautas mūzikas materiāli (Latvian Folk Music Materials) by Jurjāns Andrejs (1856-1922), and the seven-part publication by Ansis Lerhis-Puškaitis, Latviešu tautas teikas un pasakas. (Latvian Folk Tales and Fairy Tales)
The original building of the Riga Latvian Society was designed by J.Baumanis, the first professional Latvian architect, in 1869. It was conceived as a centre for Latvian culture accommodating a theatre as well as the Society’s archives. Latvian theatre originated within the society. The building was rebuilt in 1909 by Eižens Laube and E.Pole. The decorative panels were designed by Janis Rozentals, Latvia’s leading Symbolist artist.
Power, Sketch for the fresco for the Riga Latvian Society, 1910Janis Rozentāls.
The leading Latvian artists:
Janis Rozentāls 1866-1916. Trained at the St Petersburg Academy (1888-96). Vilhelms Purvītis was a fellow student. Both joined Rūķis (Elf) a Latvian artists’ society founded in St Petersburg. In 1903 married Elli Forssell (1871–1943), a Finnish singer. 1915 Rozentāls and his family fled to Helsinki. Lived here until his death in 1916.
Vilhelms Purvītis (1872, Zaube, Latvia- 1945 Bad Nauheim, Germany) known as the ‘philosopher of snow’ and ‘father’ of Latvian landscape painting. From 1890 to 1897, he studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. In 1899, Purvītis returned to Rīga. After Latvia gained independence, Purvītis became the rector of the Latvian Academy of Art (1919–1934).
Johann Walter-Kurau, also known as Jānis Valters (Latvian) (1869-1932). Studied art at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg with Janis Rozentāls and Vilhelms Purvītis. Left Latvia in 1906 to work in Dresden, then based Berlin from 1916/17.
They were influenced by the Peredvizhniki (The Wanderers or The Itinerants), a group of Russian Realists who rebelled against the Imperial Academy in 1863. Fourteen students. They founded the Obshchestvo peredvizhnykh vystavok or Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions in 1870. Many of the Peredvizhniki gained fame for their depictions of the Russian land:
Iwan Iwanowitsch Schishkin (1832-96), known as ‘Singer of forest’.
Ilja Jefimowitsch Repin (1844-1930). Some Peredvizhniki canvases were overtly political, such as Ilia Repin’s monumental, Volga Barge Haulers (1870-73), which portrayed the inhumane conditions under which these men worked. Repin, Demonstration on October 17, 1905 (1907) commemorated the First Russian Revolution.
Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi (c.1842-1910) renowned for his atmospheric landscapes.
Jūlijs Madernieks (1870-1955), founder of Latvian decorative arts and design. Studied at Stiglitz The Central School of Technical Drawing, St Petersburg. Joined Rūķis (Elf) Latvian artists’ society founded in St Petersburg. Won a Travel scholarship to Paris in the late 1890s, where he was introduced to Art Nouveau. Illustrated the magazines Zalktis (1906-10, The Grass Snake) and Vērotājs. 1904 Madernieks established J.Madernieka Drawing and Painting workshop. Published Ornaments (1913) folk art; Patterns (1930)
Eclectic/Decorative Jugend Stila: Alberta iela
Alberta Street carries the name of the man who founded Riga, Bishop Albert. Now it is one of the most beautiful and splendid streets in the city largely in the Eclectic/Decorative style. The construction of this street took place in a rather short period of time – from 1901 till 1908. The authors of these magnificent buildings are Mihail Eizenšteins (father of the film director Sergei) and Konstantīns Pēkšēns.
These buildings are rich in picturesque sculptural details. You will find astonishing facemasks (laughing, screaming, melancholy or thoughtful) a large bestiary of animals and references to Classical art. These motifs symbolized the spirit of the age, its intense mood, sense of urgency and the rapid pace of development.
Alberta iela 13, a residential building designed by Eisenstein, was built in 1904 for State Counsellor A. Lebedinsky.
Alberta iela 13, 1904, Mihail Eizenšteins
Lebedinsky also commissioned apartment houses designed by Eisenstein at Alberta iela 4 (in 1904) and Alberta iela 6 (in 1903) and at Elizabetes iela 10b (in 1903) distinguished by its blue tiled façade. The facades of all these apartment blocks provide a spectacular display of ornamental sculpture. It seems the creative imagination of this architect knew no bounds.
4 Alberta Street (M. Eisenstein 1904). The Lyebedinskiy apartment building
The Secession Building, Vienna, Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1898. The Gorgons: Painting, Architecture, Sculpture.
Black Cats House
In Old City, this National Romantic style building designed by F.Shefel is decorated with two black cats on the roof line (1909). An urban myth maintains that the owner of the building was angry with the City Council leading him to place the cats on top of the roof with their tails up in the direction of the City Council.
Grosa, Silvija, Art Nouveau in Riga, Riga: Jumava, 2003.
Hämäläinen, Pirjo, Jugend Suomessa, Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava, 2010
Howard, Jeremy, Art Nouveau International and National Styles in Europe, Manchester: MUP, 1996.
Krastiņs̆, Jānis (ed), Art Nouveau Architecture of Riga, exhibition catalogue, Riga: Riga 800, 1998.
Krastiņs̆, Jānis, Art Nouveau Buildings in Riga, A Guide to Architecture of Art Nouveau Metropolis, Riga: ADD Projekts, 2012.
L’Age Du Symbolisme en Lettonie/The Age of Symbolism in Latvia, exhibition catalogue, Luxembourg: Musee national histoire et d’art Luxembourg, 2010.
Rush, Solveiga, Mikhail Eisenstein. Themes and Symbols in Art Nouveau Architecture of Riga, 1901-06, Riga: Neptns, 2003.