Sunday, March 30, 2014

Less is Less

The phrase “less is more” can be traced to a Robert Browning poem of the 1850s, though most of us associate the sentiment with the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; it's a shorthand summary of his minimalism and hostility to ornamentation.  But anyone who has ever had the privilege of touring a Charles Rennie Mackintosh house or tea room, or savored the sensuous paintings of the pre-Raphaelites, will not be immune to the charms of Art Nouveau architecture.

Jane and I have just returned from a weekend in Riga, the capital of Latvia, and a most intriguing city.  We enjoyed a highly skilled and entertaining performance of The Barber of Seville by the Latvian National Opera.  We ate well.  We stumbled upon a statue in the park paying homage to Karlis Ulmanis, a prime minister and president of Latvia during the interwar period who is described as a “victim of the Soviet totalitarian regime,” a characterization that must rankle in some quarters of Riga.  Best of all, we took a self-guided walking tour of the city’s Art Nouveau district. 

We started out at the Riga Art Nouveau Museum (see top photo, above), which is a stunner.  According to Riga’sofficial website, the structure was “built in 1903 as a private property of K. Pēkšēns” with the assistance of “his architecture student Eižens Laube.”  “The museum interior has been restored to its authentic look of 1903.  A thorough inspection of the premises began in 2007, discovering and taking note of the original interior makeup.  The renovation work was carried out in 2008-2009 under the guidance of master renovator Gunita Čakare.”  The interior was “designed by architect Liesma Markova.”  A well-informed docent told us that during the Soviet period the flat was occupied by five different families.

Most of the facades and architectural details depicted in the attached photos, like the museum itself, are on Alberta Iela.  At the other end of the street, we came across an apartment building with a plaque declaring that the social philosopher Isaiah Berlin lived there as a child.  Here’s the remarkable thing:  according to our Lonely Planet guide, there are some 750 art nouveau buildings in Riga.





  1. Great photos! Great commentary! Great opportunity to see architecture that we are, otherwise, very unlikely to still get to. Thanks, Ken & Jane (who doesn't look even a tiny bit Art Nouveau Egyptian sphinx-like . . . ).

  2. Thanks, cascade. By sheer coincidence, it was the 10th anniversary of Latvia's having joined NATO, so there was a big celebration under the Freedom Monument. We had celebrated with the same event here in Lithuania several weeks ago.

  3. Thanks, Cascade! It was a lovely 2 days, and spring has ALMOST arrived in the Baltics. Jane