March 31, 2022

Art Nouveau in the Old town of Riga - your guide to an unforgettable walk

There is a misconception that there is only one street of Art Nouveau in Riga – Alberta Street. All in all Riga treasures around 800 buildings of Art Nouveau and some of them can be also found in the Old Town.

Author: guide Kristīne Bähr-Gurtiņa.

There is a misconception that there is only one street of Art Nouveau in Riga – Alberta Street. All in all Riga treasures around 800 buildings of Art Nouveau and some of them can be also found in the Old Town.

What exactly is Art Nouveau? Several languages indicate this style clearly as something new: in French – Art Nouveau, in German – Jugendstil, in Spanish – Modernisme, in Russian – стиль модерн, in Italian - Stile Liberty. A young, energetic person will strive for something new, undiscovered, rebellious, to show the old generation that the new can be different, perhaps even better, by giving up the old altogether. In the 19th century, eclecticism determined the style of architecture. From old styles something new was created - Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Baroque. Adding simply "neo" (meaning new in Greek) to the style – No, that's not enough! We need to create something completely new and unprecedented! The ideal ‘stage’ is the turn of the 19th century. The old century is coming to an end and a new one is starting! And the ART NOUVEAU style can appear in the spotlight.

What did Art Nouveau change? What was so innovative? What was new and modern? Art critic and publicist Jānis Asars formulated it very well: "… it is necessary to construct from the inside out, to make the interior completely useful and beautiful, and then the exterior of the house must be applied to their order." Previously, the determining factor in eclecticism was the symmetry of the façade – whether a window was needed for the interior or not, it was not important, because the symmetry of the façade required it. One day, look at the façades in the streets of Old Riga and you will even see painted windows on them, to ensure the symmetry!

An essential feature of Art Nouveau, a source of inspiration and unifying throughout Europe was nature! The motifs were sought not only in the local flora and fauna, but also in distant lands and in the world of fantastic beings, as well as in mythology. The subject of nature has been in vogue since Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution. So it is not a surprise that we will even see monkeys on some Art Nouveau buildings in Riga. However, it is also believed that this glorification of nature is the opposite of the 19th century industrial revolution. Another very important feature of Riga's Art Nouveau style is ‘Latvianness’.

Riga in 1201 was actually founded by Germans and was still very German until the 19th century. This changed at the turn of the 19th century, when more and more Latvians, who were released from serfdom, came from the countryside to the city. If in 1868 42.9% of the total population of Riga were Germans, 25.1% Russians and only 23.6% Latvians, then in 1913, when Riga already had more than half a million inhabitants, the ethnic composition had changed significantly: 13,3% Germans, 19.3% Russians and an overwhelming majority of Latvians with 42.2% (1). Changes in the ethnic composition coincide with the flourishing of Art Nouveau in Riga. Therefore, it is safe to say that more Latvian features were entering the city of Riga - now the costumers ordering construction of new buildings, as well as the architects, were not only from the privileged German class, but also Latvians. The costumer ordering the new building on Jauniela Street 25/27 was a Latvian! Ludvigs Neiburgs – a master mason and construction contractor.

Now, enough talking about Art Nouveau. You have to see it with your own eyes! I offer a route of Art Nouveau in the Old Town of Riga.

Jauniela Street 25/27 – hotel and restaurant Neiburgs

1903, Baltic German architect Wilhelm Ludwig Nikolai Bockslaff

If we would put all the buildings designed by W. Bokslaff in one row, they would all be very different. Just to mention some: he is the author of a school building (nowadays the Academy of Arts in Riga), a hunting castle, 2 water towers and 2 churches. Stand in front of the facade in Jauniela, lift your head and at the very top you will see a sphinx leaning against the tower! Under the sphinx a face with a scary grimace. Have now a look on the main entrance - every guest entering is greeted by a large mask and a bright sun. Run the view a little higher, to the right and left smiling faces. Further to the right under the two balconies, faces with scary grimaces masked in plant ornamentation. Stay a little longer and you will discover more and more fascinating details yourself.

Turn into Krāmu Street and then turn left into Tirgoņu Street.

Tirgoņu Street 4

1900, German architects Heinrich Scheel and Friedrich Scheffel

H.Scheel was born in Hamburg and received his professional education in St. Petersburg. F. Scheffel studied in Germany, at the Ekernferde School of Construction and in 1899 acquired contruction rights in St. Petersburg. From 1900 to 1904, the two worked together in H. Scheel's construction office in Riga. The expressive windows on the first two floors indicate the need for shops at the beginning of the century. The city's population is growing, the industrial revolution is producing large quantities of goods and shopkeepers need bright and spacious rooms. One of the features of this Art Nouveau building is the beautiful metal forgings around the large window frames.

Head further down the street and then turn right into Šķūņu Street.

Šķūņu Street 10/12 – Detman’s House

1902 same architects as of previous building

An excellent example of early Art Nouveau, when the facades were saturated with plant motifs and ornamentation. The facade of this building has another special feature of Art Nouveau – curved lines. Even the window sills have a curved line! Raise your head – from the very top of the building a wolf is looking down on you. Or is it a dog ? Or maybe a werewolf after all? Look at the building on the right. An excellent example of a building from the 19th century with symmetrically rhythmic windows - but what’s that? The last windows on the facade are painted and not real!?

Continue to walk down Šķūņu Street, which further changes its name to Skārņu Street. Go till the junction with Audēju Street and turn left into this street.

Audēju Street 7 – Groset’s House

1899, architects Alfred Aschenkampff and Max Schwerwinsky

This is considered to be one of the first Art Nouveau buildings in Riga. The building was not built from scratch, but rebuilt, and these works were commissioned by the book publisher Aleksandrs Grosets. Raise your head up to the ledge - interesting metal forgings and expressive metal railings for the upper attic floor. Next on the facade you will see the lines, circles and plant ornaments so characteristic of the early Art Nouveau. The building uses green-whitish paint, which is a very typical color of Art Nouveau buildings.

Let's go a little further down Audēju Street and than turn left onto Kalēju Street. From a far you will already spot the next magnificent building.

Jāņa Street 23

1903, Jewish descent architect Paul Mandelstamm

The impressive corner bay window will greet every visitor - a chestnut tree, a chain of white flowers and an impressive lantern. Raise your eyes a little higher and the gilded sun will shine on you. The facade uses very distinctive features of early Art Nouveau - polychromy and various finishing materials. So many colors are used: the typical green, brick and roof trim in bright red and light lines wrap the building. Another distinctive feature of Art Nouveau are the vertical lesenes - between the windows three lines of columns that end in circles.

Walking further along Kalēju Street, pay a little more attention to the beautiful wooden doors of this building!

Turn right onto Teātra Street and walk to the Kempinski Hotel’s main entrance. This time we will not look at this hotel, but we will turn 180 degrees to see the building at the corner of Teātra and Vaļņu streets.

Teātra Street 9

1904, architects Heinrich Scheel and Friedrich Scheffel

A beautiful and gorgeous eclectically decorative building, where it can be seen that the architects have not yet abandoned the old styles - Renaissance and Baroque. However, distinctive Art Nouveau features are the corner window on the 5th floor, in the form of a keyhole and a decorative mosaic around it. This building has not a tower, but a globe held by 3 atlases. This was created by the famous sculptor of Riga August Folz. Today, the inhabitant of the beautiful building is the Embassy of Italy.

Turn right into Vaļņu Street and go to the intersection with Kaļķu Street.

Kaļķu Street 15

1914, Latvian architect Jānis Alksnis

At first glance, we might not associate this building with Art Nouveau. However, spotting the year on the facade, there is no longer any doubt. This building is a good example of the end of Art Nouveau, because, unfortunately, the style was interrupted by the First World War. After 1910 architects returned to the classics and neoclassicism emerged, which was most often used for monumental buildings such as banks. This building was built for the bank of the Riga Pardaugava Mutual Credit Union and one of the first buildings in Riga to use a monolithic reinforced concrete frame construction.

Go a little further along Vaļņu Street, then turn left into Zirgu Street and go to the intersection with Meistaru Street.

Meistaru Street 10 – The Black Cat’s House

1909, architect Friedrich Scheffel

Every guest of Riga is told the legend of the black cats and Mr. Plūme. However, few will mention that this is an Art Nouveau building. Stand in front of the facade on Meistaru Street and you will see the beautiful entrance portal. From above two cats are watching you.

Turn left onto Mazā Smilšu Street, after reaching the end of the street, turn left onto Smilšu Street.

Smilšu Street 8 – Bobrobv’s House

1902, architects Heinrich Scheel, Friedrich Scheffel

More than 120 years ago you would stand before old storehouse buildings. In some narrow streets of Old Riga you will still see them here and there. Here the storehouse was bought by the Russian merchant Ilya Bobrov, who owned a shop. As his wealth grew, he ordered a luxurious, representative building with shops on the ground floor, office space on the first floor and rental apartments on the upper floors. Access the entrance door on both the Smilšu and Aldaru streets and if you can't enter the staircase, at least have a look through the windows and see one of the most beautiful interior decorations in Riga.

Before you continue walking down Smilšu Street, find the monkey with the building year of the house!

Continue along Smilšu Street towards the Dome Square.

Smilšu Street 2

1902, Latvian architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns

Looking at the details of the façade, it might seem that we are in a zoo - each floor is decorated with different animals: dogs, mice, birds, butterflies, owls, squirrels, sheep, wolves and on the 2-storey bay window a peacock - one of the symbols of Art Nouveau beauty and self-confidence. K. Pēkšēns is one of the “fathers” of Riga Art Nouveau and now his former apartment on the corner of Alberta and Strēlnieku Streets is an Art Nouveau Museum, which every guest and even citizen of Riga should definitely visit to experience the spirit of life beginning of the 20th century.

Citizens of Riga take its architecture for granted, but are they aware of its value? And the need to save these beautiful treasures for future generations? If you want to know more about Art Nouveau in Riga and what important preconditions determined that Riga is so rich in Art Nouveau, I offer a walk through Old Riga Art Nouveau with my stories and discoveries.

Riga guide

Kristine Bähr-Gurtiņa

mob.: +371 26305304



English, German and Latvian guiding services in Riga and the Baltics.

(1) Jānis Krastiņš Rīgas jūgendstila ēkas 2007. – Page 14