Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are beautiful, green, forested, nearly flat, and primarily rural. Each of the Baltic countries has a strong, distinct culture and identity. I recently spent a far too-brief month traveling and photographing in the Baltic countries.
The stunning medieval centers of the capitals are surrounded by modern business districts supported by the most advanced technologies. In general, the people are kind but private. The populations have congregated in the capitals leaving vast areas of gently rolling farmland, forests, and parks sparsely populated with hard-working and not rich people.
Exploring the Baltic countries led me to Riga, Latvia. I want to tell a brief story about Art Nouveau architecture in Latvia.
Riga is the capital of Latvia and lies along the lower Daugava River near the Baltic Sea. It has a very interesting and robust old town district but it is also a town of broad boulevards and expansive parks.
Latvians are still emerging from the long night of Soviet occupation which followed the even darker Nazi occupation.
Riga is famous for its beautiful medieval old town. People are flocking to the old cobblestone streets, beautiful cathedrals, and plentiful outdoor cafés. The Latvians have managed to obliterate most of the Soviet-era buildings and replace them with replica medieval architecture that compliments the many surviving ancient (pre-Soviet) buildings.
Riga is also famous for its Art Nouveau buildings. This expressive art form dominated throughout Scandinavia and Europe in the early 20th century prior to World War I. Latvian architects were both very creative and prolific. Many of their best examples still exist in Riga.
The most famous street is Alberta iela. The surrounding area also contains superb buildings. I strolled down Alberta iela a couple times. During my second walk the early morning light was just right to emphasize the most ostentatious ornamentations I have ever seen.
I had left my hotel early hoping to photograph along a scenic stream that flows through a downtown park. The day had dawned perfectly clear. The sky was deep blue and the sun was bright. I didn’t have much success in the park, but I was only a few blocks from the heart of the old Art Nouveau neighborhoods. So I continued walking toward Albert iela. It was a quiet morning, as people had already gone to work by the time I got there.
I spent a long time walking along the shaded side of the street photographing the beautifully illuminated buildings on the other side. It was the kind of morning stroll that a street photographer lives for. I had all day and stunning subjects.
The buildings were being used as residences or professional offices. There were many artistic details on the buildings.
For sure, these ornamentations were way outside the realm of architectural functionality. They were pure art.
Near the far end of Albert iela I found what I thought was the king of ostentatiousness. This building is a big sculpture and maybe overwrought.
So if you have neighbors who have an ostentatious house, just think of this building. This guy went all out.
Art Nouveau and its expressive artistic freedom were snuffed out by World War I. There was no longer time, money, nor workers available to build unnecessary frills and sculptures on the outside of buildings.
In Latvia, fortunately these buildings survived both World Wars without being bombed. During the 50+ years of Soviet occupation that followed, new buildings became much less artistic. In fact, the stark and hideous functionality of Soviet-era buildings is the architectural opposite of these Art Nouveau buildings.
The Latvians knew the solution to that. When they achieved independence in 1991 those Soviet buildings were summarily demolished in the Riga Town Square.
Except for the most ominous greyish green monstrosity. Which is now The Museum of Occupation of Latvia. It is where you learn that despite the most depraved oppression and slaughter neither the Nazis nor the Soviets could break the spirit of people who can create soaring creations like the Art Nouveau architecture of Riga.
As I left the Art Nouveau neighborhoods I came across this graffiti. As I have said before, I wish there wasn’t graffiti on historic buildings. But there is. Perhaps we should consider dedicated walls for this art. It should not diminish the art of the architect or deface private or public property. But there should be somewhere for it to be.
Because examples like these prove to my eye, that this IS art. Graf Nouveau. Most graffiti does not rise to the design and creative strength of these. But art, whether it is a building or spray painting, is in the eye of the beholder, eh?