"OUR HOMES ARE US OURSELVES IN OUR HANDS". The true philosophy behind Art Nouveau and National Romanticism in Rīga.

To celebrate World Architecture Day we offer you a special, rarely translated 110-year-old textual glimpse of the history of architectural thinking in Rīga that helped shaping both our enormous Art Nouveau heritage and, most of all, the Latvian identity of independence and independent builders proving that – there’s much more about Latvians and Rīga written on our own homes than there is to catch on Instagram.

capital r, eizens laube, art nouveau, national romanticism, brivibas 62,
National Romanticism by Eižens Laube. A relief at Brīvības street 62.

The famous Art Nouveau (Jugendstil, Secession or Style Modern) period in Rīga lasted around 15 years prior to World War I resulting in more than 800 masterpieces with astonishing 150 – 220 buildings erected per year from 1910 – 1913! Yet, especially during the years after 1905 Workers’ revolution in Imperial Russia, when local intelligence took more in charge over their lives, independence and ways of expressing, behind every façade architects were encoding less and less Western, Christian or Mediterranean culture traditions reduplicated for centuries.

Latvian intellectuals, partly front-runned by local architects, artists and sculptors, further formed Latvian identity (started with the “Young/New Latvian” movement more than 50 years before the outbreak of WWI) by constructing canonical truths about the National romanticist architecture. Prior to war 56 out of 70 accredited architects in Rīga were alumni of Rīga Polytechnic institute1, thus establishing a strong and lifelong local philosophy behind a face of every home while proving there’s more than decorativeness and lack of originality than there ought to be.
“It seems illogical to apply shapes of Cologne’s cathedral or the style of Renaissance to creations of our own tenement housing, no matter how beautiful we would acknowledge them to be. It is as faulty as we, the people of these days, would start wearing, say, suits of Rococo. We exactly need to find its particular way to every necessity, so we ourselves, our clothing, our buildings would be as one like it was during any antique eras.
Thankfully to richness of our ancient heritage, us, Latvians, have given a chance to immerse ourselves in the spirit of our ancestors, and, the more we do so, the more the ancient genius will be renewed within us and, revived and mighty, will embrace each one of us and all our life, our deeds. Therefore our buildings will show this character truly Latvian and utterly independent.
Further on, the traffic and the means of reproduction of the new century introduces us with cultures and arts of all lands and ages. [..] But it would be greatly wrong, if we would seclude ourselves from such alien and historical influences, from all the foreign. Our task is to process all what’s seen, yet, at the time of our own production, the task first of all is to hear the voices expressed by our Latvian genius, the one whispered by the spirit of time.”
This is an excerpt by Eižens Laube (1880 – 1967) taken from, probably, one of first modern texts “On style of building” dedicated to Latvian then-current architecture at the “Zalktis” magazine in 1908. Mr. Laube was unarguably one of the most creative and one of very first masters of his profession to speak about how should a modern and Latvian real estate look and feel like. Later that year he would finish a tenement building at Brīvības street 62 with two iconic reliefs – a Latvian holding a house and a Latvian carving a statue. Two simple and seemingly mundane pieces explaining the whole universe of the supreme qualities of architecture, life and art back then – we are carving our own culture and destiny and we are responsible for our own homes held in our hands.

Where: Art Nouveau is scattered widely across a large central portion of East Rīga. If you have more than extra 3 hours to spare for buildings, we strongly suggest you zigzagging up and down all streets away from Old Town starting from street Elizabetes. You won't regret it.
NB: Art Nouveau served more like a philosophy rather than decorative style. Therefore the famous Alberta street with only a few, yet impressive examples of façades will represent a drop of water in an ocean of Art Nouveau.
Read: If you are totally into this period, we suggest finding books by Professor Jānis Krastiņš - almost all of them are translated in English and contain hundreds of Art Nouveau examples in history, locations, pictures.

What about today's architecture? What drives it? Are the people, or architects responsible for it like 100 years ago?

1 Krastiņš, Jānis. Rīgas Jūgenstila ēkas.Rīga: Add Projects, 2007.407 pp.