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« Fond Memories of Hell Week | Main | Roundabouts Come 'Round Again »

February 21, 2006

What Sergei Eisenstein's Dad Did

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Are you a cinema buff and an architecture buff? Then this post's for you.

Art Nouveau architecture (roughly 1885-1910) can be seen as part of the transition from eclectic Classicism to International Style Modernism. There are different flavors of Art Nouveau as well as alternative names such as "Jugendstil." Some Art Nouveau architecture is ornate, replacing Baroque decoration with tendrils and other plant motifs. Other buildings have more geometric decor as practiced by Charles Rennie Macintosh, Otto Wagner and Frank Lloyd Wright.

If you want to view Art Nouveau in person, Europe is a happier hunting ground than America. You can find excellent examples scattered about Paris, Brussels and Vienna.

But if you want to see large concentrations of Art Nouveau buildings, I suggest you head for Prague and some of the larger cities in the Baltic region -- Prague and Riga (in Latvia) especially.

The reason why Prague and Riga have entire neighborhoods dominated by Art Nouveau buildings has to do with timing (which, as we all know, is "everything"). In Prague's case, an old part of town was razed and redeveloped about the time Art Nouveau was fashionable. (I'll be back to Prague this September and will try to work up material for a post.)

Riga had a city wall until the mid-1800s and all buildings beyond the wall (before it came down) had to be built of wood for military reasons. Around 1900 Riga was a rapidly-growing city (by the end of the Russian Empire, it was its fifth-largest city) and much of this growth took place in the area beyond the former wall in the form of apartment buildings.

In Riga you can find entire block fronts almost entirely comprised of Art Nouveau style buildings. Examples are Vilandes Iela (street), Rupniecibas Iela and Alberta Iela. Below is a view of Alberta Iela.

Alberta iela.jpg
Riga's Alberta Iela.
Downloadable image copyright Latvia University Press Centre.

Around 20 buildings in Riga are attributed to Mikhail Eisenstein (1867-1921) a civil engineer and architect who was the father of famed Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948). Sergei's critically acclaimed films included Ivan the Terrible (parts I and II), Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky. The younger Eisenstein died shortly after his 50th birthday and his father died in Germany before reaching 55. For a photo of young Sergei and his parents, click here.

Here are some examples of Eisenstein's buildings.

Gallery

Elizabetes 10b 03.jpg
Elizabetes Iela 10b, 1903.

Elizabetes iela 33.jpg
Elizabete Iela 33.

Alberta iela 2a - 1906.jpg
Alberta Iela 2a, 1906.
This was a childhood home of philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin.

Commentary

Mikhail Eisenstein's style strikes me as over-decorated. I respect it, but am ambivalent even though I'm a fan of Art Nouveau. I prefer Art Nouveau buildings with comparatively large plain surfaces that are set off by well-placed bits or concentrations of ornament or sculpture. Such contrasts of surfaces also can be seen in Spanish Colonial Revival buildings in Southern California and other parts of the American Southwest. Moreover, I'd like to see more use of this approach to surface and ornament in new buildings.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at February 21, 2006




Comments

Aleksander Genis, for "New Gazette"(in Russian) First Russian City in Europe(about Riga):

"City where I grew up was too beautiful: culture was replaced with streetscape too perfect for improvement. Depressed by surroundings, we invented an Universal Theory of Compilation.[...] "Everything has been done,- my friend was saying,- everything has been declared, everything written. And that's great. The only worthy business left for aristocrats of spirit is to recycle the old for the puzzleof new."

Posted by: Tatyana on February 21, 2006 1:26 PM



I like Eisenstadt's buildings very much---certainly much better than M Blowhard's translucency examples of a few days ago or that Music Museum by Gehry you showed us in Seattle. I guess I like the ornamentation. It's like the buildings were being taken seriously. Interesting that buildings of this era don't "all look alike" even if they are in generally the same style. They have personalities of their own.

Posted by: annette on February 21, 2006 2:49 PM



I'm a fan of Gaudi, who's often lumped in w/ Catalan "Modernisme" and Art Nouveau, but he's pretty sui generis... like an architectural Lewis Carroll. :)

Posted by: Agnostic on February 21, 2006 10:27 PM



Donald, I have walked down those very streets in Riga and was enchanted by the imaginative, whimsical facades on these buildings. You can't really tell from the photographs just how incredibly cool they are. Not only that, but because of the Latvian economy (at least a few years ago) you could actually buy one of these historic buildings for a pittance-- about the price of a decent house here in the U.S. They are so magical, some people even allow themselves to think crazy thoughts (for 60 seconds or so) about getting one. It's a great place to visit, but ultimately I found the cumulative effect of all the faces and creatures and body parts popping out of the walls a little overwhelming and creepy.

Posted by: David on February 21, 2006 11:28 PM



I found the cumulative effect of all the faces and creatures and body parts popping out of the walls a little overwhelming and creepy.

This always happens in places with long history, even if creatures and body parts aren't prominently displayed.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 22, 2006 9:47 AM



Wow, who knew, thanks. I got a kick out of these photos of Eisenstein Sr.'s exuberant wedding-cake Art Nouveau -- more of a kick than I ever got out of his son's movies, that's for sure.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 22, 2006 11:38 AM



I'm surprised Tatyana did not exclaim: "Riga is Latvian city, you dunderhead, not Russian!" So I'm doing it for her. ;^)

Posted by: ricpic on February 22, 2006 11:52 AM



No, Rick, in fact I trust Al.Genis whom I quoted above - he's a native of Riga. If he calls it "A first Russian City in Europe", than it must be true!

(cue Latvians with piles of rotten potatoes)

I wanted to add one fact, though: UNESCO recognized the significance and high quality of Riga AN architecture and gave the city a landmark status, I think in 1997 (I might be mistaken of exact date).

Posted by: Tatyana on February 22, 2006 12:17 PM



Annette -- I like the details ... but I think there are too darn many of 'em!

David -- I was in Riga last September as part of a spam-in-a-can tour group, so I didn't get to see all the sites I wanted to. The streets I mentioned in the post were those I actually strolled.

Michael -- Yep, the Eisenstein movies -- oops, films -- certainly had a lot of "mannered" composition and dramatic lightling, didn't they. The architecture is much more approachable.

ricpic -- Latvians do have this small "thing" about the Russians, don't they? A large minority share of the population is Russian (thanks to Soviet policies) and Russian is supposedly one of the country's languages -- excpet you almost never see it in the streetscape.

Tatyana -- You're right that Riga was so honored, and deservedly so.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 23, 2006 8:54 PM






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