Riga’s streets of art nouveau

John Westbrooke sees the architectural treasures of the Latvian capital

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Art Nouveau is usually thought of as a north European movement, Paris and Brussels rather than Rome. And yet some of its greatest architectural treasures may be found further north still – in Riga, capital of Latvia, by the Baltic Sea.

Take the amazing five-storey apartment house at 10b Elizabetes St, for instance, built in 1903. The top two floors are decorated with blue tiles, picked out with heavily decorated white pillars. The tendrils of typical art nouveau have been corralled into straight lines, which stops them looking cluttered. There are geometric figures, circles, masks, faces of humans and lions, wreaths.

The centrepiece is a balcony above a bay, topped by a peacock. On either side of it are huge female faces looking away. And to top it off, there’s a face that might be a man or a lion, screaming, or maybe roaring. There’s not another building quite like this, anywhere.

The man behind it was Mikhail Eisenstein, perhaps better known these days as the father of the Soviet film pioneer Sergei. Between 1900 and 1906 he designed 20-odd buildings, so imaginative and striking that he can take his place alongside Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona and Jože Plečnik in Ljubljana – architects whose works identify a city.

In fact, he wasn’t even an architect: his day job was as a senior civil servant, head of the traffic department in the Russian governorate of Livonia. But he was signed up by a lawyer friend who was developing an empty area of town and knew of his interest in design; Eisenstein made the most of his chance.

He had a febrile marriage – both parties on the rebound – and Sergei recalled duels and attempted suicides, which may explain the stern female faces lining Mikhail’s walls, and maybe the screaming ones too. He got a divorce in 1909, but he left architecture too: though his homes were snapped up (and are still lived in, so few tourists will see the interiors), the critics were disdainful. Unlike Sergei, he left the country after the Russian Revolution, and died in Berlin.

Most of his work can be seen in Elizabetes St and Albert St round the corner, and it’s all inventive. 2a Albert St has sphinxes at the bottom and the top row of windows aren’t windows at all, just empty circles you can see the sky through. Number 4 has dragons in relief at the bottom, free-standing lions and snake-haired medusas at the top, and a gracefully curved central window. Number 8 comes close to over-decorated, with Pans and their pipes, Egyptians, and a lion’s head leaning out in 3D.

Eisenstein was by no means the only architect working at the time. Riga has 1000 or so art nouveau buildings from the same era, a third of them designed by just 10 architects, as the city was expanding rapidly: the population doubled between 1900 and 1914, while the proportion of Germans and Russians – traditional neighbours and occupiers – was dwindling. The city had just staged an exhibition of industry and crafts for its 700th anniversary, giving citizens a taste of modern styles, and the local polytechnic had begun to produce Latvian architects.

So in 1997, Unesco designated its historic centre as a World Heritage Site, noting, “It is generally recognised that Riga has the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe.” A third of the central city buildings are art nouveau, though there are also a handful of medieval structures that survived fires over the centuries, neoclassical models (banks liked these), modern buildings erected since Latvia left the Soviet Union in 1991, and even occasional low-rise wooden shops adding a rustic touch. Plus the main market, dramatically housed in old Zeppelin hangars.

Eižens Laube and Konstantīns Pēkšēns collaborated on the design of 12 Albert St with its lighthouse-style tower and corner balconies stepped back as you get higher. Formerly Pēkšēns’ own house, it’s now an art nouveau museum, but a little disappointing: there are useful information films and artefacts and a bookshop downstairs, but if you climb the spiral staircase, all you find is offices still in use – a tribute to the building’s functionality, but nothing to see.

Pēkšēns designed some 250 buildings in Riga, and Laube 200, none of them looking much like Eisenstein’s work, let alone that of Gaudí or Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, which leaves you wondering just how art nouveau is defined. It’s a broad church: my Riga guidebook subdivides it into Eclectically Decorative, Perpendicular and National Romanticism; and locally it’s often called Jugendstil, the equivalent German name.

Number 18 Krišjāņa Valdemāra St has a flat central section, the bottom half painted red, flanked by two broad bays, also painted red, resting on rough ground floor stonework. Apart from those basic materials and colours, there’s no ornamentation at all. That’s National Romanticism, and it couldn’t be further from Eisenstein.

Still, ornament does mark out most of Riga’s houses. Sometimes it’s little friezes or repeated plaques, geometric shapes such as circular or semicircular windows, or the use of balconies and bays to add depth and shadow. Sometimes it’s stylised faces, sometimes floral decoration that recalls the posters of Alphonse Mucha, still the best known master of 2D art nouveau. And statues of rococo naked women seem to have been popular, as always.

In the end, what’s so impressive about them all is the care architects have taken. Working to a limit of six storeys, they’ve produced harmonious and yet highly individual streetscapes in which every building is different. They may not all be as jaw-dropping as the Eisensteins of Albert St, but anyone coming from a town lined with brutalist concrete and glass boxes can only wish they had some at home.