The city of Riga is home to one of the Worlds largest collections of Art Nouveau architecture. Why, you may ask, is a city tucked away in the small country of Latvia, home to such decadent and ornate architecture?
The short answer is that Riga at the turn of the 1900's was one of the most influential and rapidly expanding cities of the Russian Empire. During this vibrant period of change, the wealthy elite of Riga began to leave their impressions through the style of the time, Art Nouveau. Riga grew to be one of the largest cities in the Russian Empire by the start of WW1.
With the expansion of urban areas in part caused by the industrial revolution and changing habits and desires for city living, the city of Riga began to reshape itself rapidly in the second half of the 1800's. New building regulations came into force that finally allowed brick buildings to be constructed beyond the historical city walls of Old Riga. This led to a massive construction boom, fuelled by the ever growing population and wealth of Riga at the time. Being a major port city and industrial hub of that period, there was no shortage of demand for new forms of housing. Society was rejecting life within the medieval Old City and favoured the new designs of apartment life.
Huge swathes of Riga's new city developments were at first designed in Classicism and Eclectic styles but with the new trend of Art Nouveau arriving and spreading throughout Europe, Riga had a chance to 'catch the artistic wave' so to speak. It was during the early years of the 1900's that the first buildings began to appear and very rapidly local forms of the style would begin to evolve from what many of us deem to be traditional Art Nouveau. The style would flourish and dominate the buildings of Riga until the start of WW1.
At first the arrival of Art Nouveau was mixed hand in hand with the Eclectic styles of the late 1800's but new more localised ideas such as National Romanticism and Folk revivalism would be intermixed and show a definite connection to the Northern location of these buildings. Heavy Germanic, Russian and Latvian ideas mixed into these decorative forms and styles. Folk ideas and craftsmanship was celebrated in this period. Towards the end of the Art Nouveau influence, Riga took a turn to more simplistic and rational Art Nouveau architecture, with the style locally known as Riga Perpendicular, easily recognised by its long drawn out lines and geometric features.
One thing is for sure a visit to Riga is not complete without exploring the many examples of varied Art Nouveau dotted throughout the city. Many people claim there to be a definitive Art Nouveau quarter in Riga but this is arguably incorrect. For the style can be found literally everywhere, from Old Town to the left bank of the Daugava, in brick form and also some wooden facades. Writers and historians have put the number of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga at around 7- 800 examples but I will let you into a secret here, this number seems to grow every time I pick up a new book on the subject.
Make sure to check out this wonderful period of Riga's history and to look it up when exploring the city. Or, join our special free Riga art nouveau tour and hear about this beautiful style of architecture from our local guides.
Article by: James, the founder of Riga Free Tour