A few months ago, after I had visited Paris, my cocky little pronouncement on IM Pei’s glass pyramid was taken to task by my friend, the redoubtable Dr. Roland, who wrote an entertaining and thought provoking post on the symbolism and ideas in architecture. A couple of days ago, fresh from Riga, I asked him to breakdown that city’s art nouveau buildings. And as his style, he has returned to show that architecture is not just ‘a story of bricks and mortar, but one of a people.’ If you know an architect in an African city, please invite them to comment about their city’s style here.
I would love to give you a long dissertation about Art Nouveau but I don’t know much about it. Add to it the fact that I don’t care for the style very much and you see perhaps why I don’t know much about it. I will give you what I have and let your readers add to it and do their/your own analysis.
I’ll start off with an excerpt from A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals by Spiro Kostof.
“Most everyone agrees that the Art Nouveau started in Brussels in the early Nineties with Victor Horta (1861-1947), and it aspired to that obsessive goal of modernism, freedom from the past. Its signature was a florid, sinuous line suggesting organic growth, the burgeoning of plants. Metal membering, thin and pliant as it was, served the style well, and the frank use of iron now entered domestic architecture for the first time… In the salon of Horta’s Hotel van Eetvelde in Brussels of 1895, we can observe how these supple Art Nouveau filaments swirl about like tendrils, weaving together walls, ceiling, and supports… …the structural and the decorative live inseparably. The other reference would be the to late Gothic—the skeletal élan, the transparency, the flicker of ornament. All this, involving as it did an endless round of individualistic, custom-made invention, did not recommend the Art Nouveau to the functionalist wing of modern architecture.”
We can see that Art Nouveau emerges at the turn of the last century. The first question one should ask is partially answered by Kostof above. Art Nouveau should be considered as part of the modernist movement — but a movement whose rules had not been set in stone. The leading modernists of architecture – such as Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius etc. – were still in their infancy. The great ideas of the left — Marxism, socialism, futurism — still retained the freedom to be vibrant and unrestrained. No dogmas had set in yet. Art Nouveau reflects this. Only later would architecture refine itself and develop the “form follows function” idea that many of you know so well. As you know, many movements develop organically and some explorations become dead ends. While I think it would be too harsh to call Art Nouveau a “dead end”, it clearly did not emerge as the leading form of modernism that you all know today.
Implied in the description above is the idea that Art Nouveau was merely “decorative”. There is the idea that the style was just that, a style and nothing more. It seems to have no more import than to look…pretty. Its organic nature of “tendrils” and “the burgeoning of plants” did not link itself to any deeper movement towards environmentalism or ecology, none of which had yet emerged. Understand also, that the great ideas are such because they link themselves to other great ideas in different fields so as to create an even greater whole. I will leave you to see that Renaissance architecture, which is great in itself, links to Renaissance art, which, in turn, links to Renaissance sculpture and so on. Modernism in architecture links to Modernist art, Modernist music, sculpture, literature, philosophy and so on endlessly. This process reveals how we are able to create the great ages of mankind as the great people in any individual arena are dealing with the same central set of ideas. A modernist poet will always be able to talk to a modernist architect since they both have the same philosophical frame of reference. Unfortunately, Art Nouveau has little of this. It goes only so far as a “look.” Having not been planted on the rich soil of a deep philosophical idea, it has little to grow on and remains mired in the past as an early 20th century “style.”
[Here’s an insider’s tip. If you want to cut someone’s artwork to pieces without sounding vindictive, just call the work “decorative.” This is one of the worst insults you can give to someone’s artwork without actually sounding insulting. It is a left-handed compliment. In the same line you can say that someone’s work is “pretty.” That cuts. Although, when one says that Art Nouveau is “decorative” it isn’t so much an insult as it is the statement of fact that has been proven out over time. Also, we must state here that our arts need not always be laden with philosophical weight all the time! Imagine how horrible it would be to have Beethoven’s 5th as dinner music! (too heavy) Or Wagner! (way to heavy!) Would you be able to work well if your office had Picasso’s Guernica on the wall? Sometimes you need some whimsy, something light.]
Well, the above was just a little introduction to a style that I know little about. Remember how I analyzed architecture in the “Pei” essay. That was all about the shape and form of architecture and how you and I relate to it. Please use this type of analysis in your own interaction with it. Remember the questions we asked: big, small, skinny, fat, heavy, light etc. Most importantly, use these elements of analysis to make your own statements about architecture whenever you see it. This is one art form that we all MUST interact with. How does the building you are sitting in at this moment make you feel? Is it organized well/poorly? Come to your own conclusions and own your feelings. Make the interaction less and less of what I tell you and more and more of what you actually feel when you walk into a building. Try this exercise. Compare and contrast two buildings of the same type. I guarantee that all of you will do this when you decide which house to buy or which apartment/flat to rent. Does the building have a small entranceway that explodes into a huge central atrium? How does that make you feel? Does the house have a huge/small entertainment area? What does that say about its owners? In many art forms we are supposed to ask what the artist means by this or that so that we might have the correct interpretation of what he’s trying to do or say. In a certain poem or music you might be told that perhaps the piccolos and flutes represent birds. Not so in architecture. The feeling is much more visceral: no one needs interpretation when walking into St. Paul’s in London, you can’t help but feel it. Sure you may need some help with the little things such as crenellation, entablature, the type of columns, etc. But you have every right to own your feeling about a building, a space. No one can tell you that you are interpreting it wrong,that’s the beauty of architecture. Buildings must be made to serve people who know nothing about architecture and may be quite illiterate. Look at Gothic architecture in the Middle Ages. The architects had to elicit the proper feelings from peasants who could not even read or write, people who didn’t know the first thing about architecture. It was the architect’s job to bring the unwashed people into the cathedral and make them feel the awe of the stained glass window, the lofty spire, the glory of God, the peace and tranquility that was required for the religious purpose. If the architect was not successful in achieving this response he could not shrug his shoulders haughtily and say, “You are interpreting it wrong.”
Now that you have begun the process of analyzing the shapes and forms that you encounter, you can simply add a few questions as I have asked above of the who, what, where and when as it relates to the building. This is just a little sugar on top and should not affect your feelings about the building. As with everything man does, architecture is not just a story of bricks and mortar, but one of a people.
Now I must ask you for some insight, Kima. Here’s where you have the opportunity to do the analysis you have asked of me. Here are the questions:
1. What is the history of Riga? Have they always thought of themselves as unique? Do they think of themselves as Baltics? Sort-of-Russians? Almost-Scandinavians? I know that they were once part of the Prussia of Fredric the Great, which was quite proudly nationalistic and German. Do they feel this? Do they feel the need to separate themselves from Russia and make artistic statements of independence? Do they struggle to be less Russian? I know that many even in Russia acknowledge that “real” Russia is Kiev, whereas Moscow was created in an effort to be more western. Is this right? Does Riga reflect any of this? What is the character of the Rigan soul?
2. What is the immediate history of Riga? Did they have a mayor at the turn of the century that really wanted to make a statement with his city? Architecture is important for this. Look at Barcelona. All it took was an Olympics meet and a Frank Gehry designed museum and BOOM! All of a sudden Barcelona is hot. Next comes the whispering campaign, “Barcelona is hot now,” and all of the accoutrement follows—internet cafes, new nightclubs, and, of course, thousands of new, upscale shops. Could it be that Riga was trying to develop something like that 100 years ago?
3. Invariably an idea will catch on in some places more than others. All it takes is one professor of architecture at the local university who, maybe, was brought in from Brussels who espoused the style and taught it to several students that could have made the difference. Maybe there was a “Rigan school” of thought in architecture.
4. About this time Lenin was starting to make noises next door. How did this affect architectural choice? Were they trying to make anti-communist statements?
So now I will turn your request onto you, my brother, will you please tell me the story of Art Nouveau architecture in Riga?