Before my trip to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, my impression of the Baltics was based on only two pieces of information: the countries used to be Soviet, and it’s probably cold there. And while I did need a sweater in the spring, my idea of what a former Soviet country would look like was blown out of the water. Basic, gray, concrete, utilitarian, ugly? Think again. Art Nouveau in Riga couldn’t be further from my misconception of what this place would look like.
Only one kilometer from the heart of Riga’s Old Town is the city’s Art Nouveau district. While Riga has over 800 Art Nouveau buildings in all, some of the best examples line Alberta, Elizabetes, and Strelniku streets. That’s where I focused on my visit.
The short-lived Art Nouveau movement began in Riga just before the turn of the 20th century (1898, to be precise), long before the Soviets were in the picture. Until this time, art and architecture in Europe followed strict rules and norms. But a period of significant economic growth across the continent led to a new middle class. People had a better quality of life, money to spend, and a desire to demonstrate their new-found wealth and “lightness.” This new way of living meant it was time to break the old rules.
Art Nouveau was different from any other style before it. It was about opulence, creativity, and shaking things up. Art Nouveau was a rejection of everything plain. It drew from aspects of nature and fantasy as well as shapes and curved lines. As you walk around the Art Nouveau district of Riga, all of these elements are still apparent as you gaze up at the faces, animals, and unusual things that adorn the facades. It reminded me very much of the architecture of Rockefeller Center in New York, seemingly a world away.
It’s hard to imagine now, but these unique buildings were not well-received by critics when they were built. The work, especially that of high-profile architect Mikhail Eisenstein, was rejected as exaggerated and eccentric – an eyesore in the otherwise lovely city of Riga. Nevertheless, all the houses on “piteous Alberta Street,” as it was called, were bought. Around the time of World War I, money became more limited, and tastes began to shift again, so new Art Nouveau construction stopped only about 20 years after it started.
During Soviet times, the buildings were claimed by the government. Used as communal houses with multiple families living in each apartment, the interiors gradually fell into disrepair. On the outside, layers of pollution and crumbling facades marred the beauty of these unique structures. When Communism fell, the new government had more important priorities than renovating the Art Nouveau buildings, and individual citizens lacked the funds help. The potential for tourism (which was almost non-existent) and fixing the buildings took a backseat to feeding people and stabilizing the economy.
Over time, though, many of the buildings have been restored to the way they looked 100 years ago, and others are still undergoing repair. Today, the Art Nouveau buildings are one of the most distinguishing aspects of Riga. Their existence and volume was at the heart of the decision to make the historic center of Riga a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Proving Eisenstein’s critics wrong, Alberta Street is now one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the Baltics.
A visit to the Art Nouveau area of Riga is a surprising step back to a time of playful, unique art and architecture before the dark Soviet times. A walking tour of the area takes less than an hour, plus a little extra time if you choose to visit the Riga Art Nouveau Museum.