At the beginning of the twentieth century an artistic rebellion swept through Europe. Artists, architects, and graphic designers attempted to liberate the visual arts from the rigid constrains of the past and developed Art Nouveau, a new style inspired by the natural world. Art Nouveau left its mark on cities in Europe and North America like Barcelona, Brussels, Prague, Vienna and New York. No other city is, however, defined as much by the ornamental style as Riga, the capital of Latvia and largest city in the Baltic: almost one third of the buildings in the city’s center are in the Art Nouveau style.
The blossoming of Art Nouveau in the beginning of the 20th century coincided with one of the most productive periods in Latvian arts and culture, for which its large folk song festivals became the most famous. Yet, surprisingly, in 1900 there were only ten Latvian architects practicing in Latvia. Despite their small numbers, these individuals were full of new ideas, fresh concepts, and energy. This generation of architects ended up designing a third of all Art Nouveau buildings in the city.
The cultural innovation in Riga coincided with an industrial boom in the city at the turn of the century. In 1897, Riga’s residents numbered 282,943 more than doubling to 569,100 on the eve of World War I, making it the third-largest city in czarist Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg. The growth in population, commerce, culture and industry in Riga resulted in an unprecedented construction boom. Hundreds of new residential and public buildings were erected from 1910-1913, including between 150-220 new multi-story rental buildings each year. It was during this period that Riga acquired its contemporary look. Intricate floral designs, flowing lines, expressive masks, ornate sculptural figures, elaborate geometric forms, and weaving garlands still decorate the facades of buildings all over the city.
The unusually heavy concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga’s center is due not only to the mammoth construction boom, but also to the fact that after 1904 not a single Eclecticism building – the “competing” style of architecture at the time – was erected. Riga’s building regulations of 1867, 1881, and 1904, which were strictly observed until 1944 and supported by the city’s masterplan from the 1870s, also encouraged harmonious development of the city center. Consequently, almost one third of the buildings in Riga’s central district are in the Art Nouveau style.
While many buildings fell into disrepair under the Communist occupation from 1944-1990, most of the Art Nouveau facades have now been restored to their full glory – just in time to celebrate Latvia’s centenary as an independent state on November 18, 2018.