What Is Art Nouveau Architecture?

What is Art Nouveau architecture
Albert Street, Riga, Latvia

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Art Nouveau is a late 19th and early 20th century aesthetic movement inspired by the natural world that produced a highly expressive style of architecture, interior design, furniture, décor, glasswork, jewelry, and visual arts. 

What Is Art Nouveau Architecture?

Art Nouveau is a late 19th and early 20th century aesthetic movement that is influenced by the natural world and defined by organic shapes and sinuous lines.

Art Nouveau's broad influence across architecture, design, and visual arts allows for the creation of what are known as total works of art, where every element of a structure from its windows to its door handles to its decorative flourishes can be harmonized to create an immersive Art Nouveau style. 

What is Art Nouveau architecture
Antoni Gaudi designed Casa Batllo in Barcelona, Spain

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History of Art Nouveau Architecture

Art Nouveau (“New Art”) emerged in Belgium and France in the 1890s, continuing through the turn of the 20th century until World War 1. Popularized thanks to the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, Art Nouveau spread throughout Europe and to the United States.

The impetus behind Art Nouveau design was to break with tradition and explore newer, freer forms of visual expression. It was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in its embrace of quality and craftsmanship. But where Arts and Crafts designers sought to eschew the technologies that allowed Victorian era mass production, Art Nouveau designers and architects leveraged Industrial Age technologies to realize highly stylized designs that had artistic qualities. 

Tiffany lamp Art Nouveau

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While Art Nouveau is mainly concentrated in Europe and in the United States, it is considered an international style. Variations of Art Nouveau are known by various names in varying countries. The term Art Nouveau first appeared in Belgium and is used in France, where offshoots of the style may also be referred to as Belle Epoque and Style Guimard. In Spain it’s called Modernism, and Jugendstil (Youth Style) in Germany. In the United States Art Nouveau is often referred to as Tiffany Style, thanks to the high-profile work of Art Nouveau jeweler and glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), creator of the iconic Tiffany lamp.

Art Nouveau architecture was succeeded by Art Deco architecture, which became a dominant style in the 1920s, differentiating itself with its use of bold, striking, geometrical forms and high profile skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building in NYC. 

What is Art Nouveau architecture
Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue in Paris

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Key Characteristics of Art Nouveau Architecture

  • Art Nouveau style is inspired by the natural world, characterized by sinuous, sculptural, organic shapes, arches, curving lines, and sensual ornamentation. 
  • Common motifs include stylized versions of leaves, flowers, vines, insects, animals, and other natural elements. 
  • Decorative elements found on the inside and outside of buildings include intricate mosaic work, stained and curved glass, and decorative wrought iron. 
What is Art Nouveau architecture
Museum of Musical Instruments, Brussels

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Where To Find Art Nouveau Architecture

Art Nouveau architecture is an international style concentrated in Europe and the U.S. that took on varying names and characteristics as it spread. Here are some notable places where you can find prime examples of Art Nouveau style today. 

Riga: One third of the architecture in this Latvian city is Art Nouveau, making it the largest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in Europe. Some of the most crowd pleasing and decorative examples designed by architect Mikhail Eisenstein are located on Albert Street. 

Brussels: Architect and designer Victor Horta designed what many consider the first  Art Nouveau building, the magnificent Hôtel Tassel, in the early 1890s in this Belgian city. It now forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 1899, the former Old England department store, currently known as The Museum of Musical Instruments designed by architect Paul Saintenoy, is another stand-out piece of Art Nouveau architecture in this Belgian city. 

Paris: Working between 1890 and 1930, leading Art Nouveau architect and designer Hector Guimard built 50 buildings, but he is best known as the man responsible for the curved glass and wrought iron canopies that marked the entrances to the Paris Métro. While these landmarks are coveted today, much of his work had been torn down by the 1960s as Art Nouveau fell out of fashion. Those that have been preserved remain some of the city’s most photographed and beloved landmarks and their Art Nouveau curves undeniably form an integral part of Paris’ design DNA. 

What is Art Nouveau architecture
Paris Métro station entrance designed by Hector Guimard

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And while Paris is best known for its 19th-century Haussmannian architecture, one of the city's most remarkable building façades can be found at 31 rue Campagne-Première in Montparnasse. Designed by French architect André-Louis Arfvidson, and featuring sandstone tilework from ceramicist Alexandre Bigot, this 1911 Art Nouveau building was once the home and studio of world class artists including Man Ray. 

Barcelona: The most astonishing and beloved buildings in this Spanish city were designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926), whose work took Art Nouveau to astonishing and fantastical heights. 

Austria: Designed by architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, the 1898 Secession Building in Vienna is a prime example of Secession style, a variation of Art Nouveau. It features the well known Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt, one of the artists most associated with Art Nouveau.

Scotland: One of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s (1868-1928) masterpieces was the Glasgow School of Art, which was influenced by British Art Nouveau style and mixed with Scottish flair.