Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Riga: Art Nouveau

While much of Riga was decimated by the Nazis and then the Soviets, large sections managed to survive to become a treasure trove of some of Eastern Europe's finest architecture.

Not only is there the exquisite Old Town around the train station...

...which includes such reconstructed Medieval masterpieces as the Blackheads' House (1344) on the Rātslaukums...

There's also the small enclave in the Central District just north of the Freedom Monument...

It's completely devoted to Art Nouveau, or what the Latvians call Jugendstil (Youth), from the German.

Dating from 1899, many of the buildings were designed by Latvians, but some of the more audacious creations were made by Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the famous Soviet director, Sergei Eisenstein.

Art Nouveau was originally influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e (woodcut) artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. Europeans like Czech artist Alphonse Mucha got caught up in the wave of Japonisme that was sweeping the continent at the time and began to develop their own style. It eventually evolved beyond the decorative arts, culminating in some of the world's most unique architecture.

Yuko and I spent an afternoon exploring the neighbourhood, frolicking around and getting freaked out by the faces that seemed to be clawing themselves away from the building's facades.

UNESCO included this neighbourhood as a world heritage site in 1997 saying it has "the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe."

This is precisely why I travel - to discover the unknown, to upend my assumptions and find beauty in corners of the world I never would have expected.

Art Nouveau in the Baltics? You bet - a treasure trove.

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