Fresh, innovative, original: that was the vision of emerging artists at the beginning of the 20th century. With bold shapes and colours, they sought to break down the traditional distinction between aesthetics and functionality. This approach manifested itself in various aspects of life –from jewellery and furniture to outstanding architectural projects.

The origins of art nouveau building

The French term “art nouveau” literally translates to “new art“. As the name suggests, the movement was all about leaving old structures behind. In particular, it took a stance against two dominant influences toward the end of the 19th century:

 

  • historicism, i.e. a strong focus on recreating stylistic elements of past epochs

  • industrialisation, particularly mass production and its impact on society

 

To counteract these developments, art nouveau architecture and interior design provided an aesthetic that could appeal to everyone: decorative furniture, commodities, and even entire buildings bridged the gap between functional craftsmanship and fine arts. Among architects, the innovative style saw its heyday between 1890 and 1910.

Jugendstil, Kirche in der Slovakei
Stunning examples of art nouveau architecture are still a main attraction in many European cities. Source: Getty

Characteristics of art nouveau architecture

Art nouveau postulated that a building’s purpose should be reflected in its outward appearance. Simply put: by merely looking at the facade, we should already know what awaits us inside. To implement this idea, architects followed a holistic approach that included everything down to the interior design. Facades were often made from sandstone, since the material’s soft texture makes it easy to integrate filigree ornaments. Other typical features of art nouveau houses include:

  • geometrical shapes

  • depictions of animals and mythical creatures that symbolise specific virtues

  • nature-inspired elements, f.ex. structures reminiscent of tendrils, blossoms, or leaves

Jugendstil, Mietshäuser in Wien
With golden ornaments and floral paintings, this apartment complex in Vienna is a piece of art in itself. Source: iStock

Famous examples of art nouveau architecture across Europe

Located on a busy street at the heart of Barcelona, the Casa Batlló immediately catches your eye. Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí took on the challenge of completely remodelling the construction in 1904. The result: a stunning interplay of mythical symbolism, dynamic shapes, and sparkling ornaments. Gaudí drew a lot of inspiration from oriental architecture for his art nouveau buildings, as showcased in the colourful facade.

Another striking example can be found in Mannheim, Germany: the so-called Water Tower and its surrounding scenery are one of the main reasons why the city was once called “Little Paris”. With an abundance of fountains and promenades, the place has become a hot spot for locals and tourists alike. The place was first created in 1899 and spans a vast area around the Water Tower. Back then, Berlin-based architect Bruno Schmitz drafted the sketches for the park and arcade constructions. The idyllic ensemble of garden patches, pergola, and arcade fuses art nouveau architecture with baroque elements. 

Jugendstil, Secession Wien
Secession: the main building of the art association in Vienna, Austria. Source: iStock

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