Brussels: the birthplace of Art Nouveau
The inter-disciplinary movement of Art Nouveau emerged in the late 19th century, and lasted little more than ten years before morphing into the more stripped-back style of Art Deco. Born from the desire to break with the ideas of the past epochs, the new art was forged in reaction to eclecticism.
The style reflected a changing society and the tastes of the progressive middle classes, with their pursuit of living an aesthetic experience. Influenced by Ruskin, Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, Art Nouveau was a highly stylised, individualistic aesthetic, amalgamating sensitivity, materials and rationality and forging a fresh perspective in the arts and architecture. Employing a combination of materials that were aesthetically pleasing as well as functional, the buildings that were created have organic forms.
Although this style was engendered by the wealthy middle classes, the movement was anti-industrial, political and ideological. Characterised by decorative motifs from nature, and anti-symmetrical, with innovative use of iron, glass, wood and stone, every house was designed to look unique. To build a house like this was a provocative act for the period.
Victor Horta, the father of the movement
Art Nouveau flourished in the discipline of architecture and Brussels is where the realisations of the style were built. One of the principal pioneers of the movement was Victor Horta, an architect with a rebellious nature and an aspiration to create a new building against all the styles of the past. His attention to detail was unsurpassable, going beyond the plan of the structure to include the furniture and interior design.
Horta was initially commissioned to build several town houses, including the stunning Hôtel van Eetvelde, where he was given free rein to apply his own principles. In 1898 he built a house and studio for himself. The house exists as the apex of his work and remains one of the few examples of this stunning architecture which is open to the public; others are currently private offices of companies and rarely seen.
The Horta Museum: an apogee of Art Nouveau architecture
The museum sits halfway down the fairly modest Rue Américaine, a suburb of the city. Although you can instantly witness the distinct style from the façade of knotted iron grille, glazing, wood and stone, the exterior is somewhat restrained and doesn’t prepare the visitor for the sublime interior.
Today, visitors enter the house into a space utilised for the ticket desk and shop. These are a simple affair and visitors are given no map or guide around the house. It can be confusing to know which route to take; I was told to start at the top and work down, only once at the top I was directed down the servants’ back staircase and into the last room. So make sure you start at the beginning; the entrance. This is where my criticism ends.
The entrance of the house is a double door, leading to either his studio or the cloakroom. This panelled room teases visitors about what is about to be exposed. Stained-glass double doors use Tiffany glass to light up the white marble staircase: the extravagant showstopper spiralling elegantly through the centre of the house.
At the foot is a brass column that looks like an ornately carved skeleton; it’s a radiator! This is a key component of Horta design: aesthetic materials applied with a functional use.
The marble and wooden carved hand rail with intricate ironwork, gold leaf and stained glass are the beginning of this journey. On the first axis is another stained-glass window lighting up the servants’ stairs behind it. The fluidity of design moves round into the stairwell, that is presided over by a stained-glass skylight cascading light and transparency down the centre of the house.
The second flight of stairs gives way to a landing into the music room, guarded by a couch which is conceals a built-in radiator. The stairwell and music room merge in a transition of space which is harmonious, elegant and innovative.
The dining room is white enamel brick parquet flooring, mosaic tiles featuring his ’whiplash’ motif, and a stunning sideboard with built-in serving hatch and gas fire. Side salons offer views of the garden.
The first floor holds the bedroom with a side walk-in wardrobe type room leading to a bathroom. On the second floor sit further guest rooms and the Horta’s daughter’s apartment. This space contains a winter garden, which is simply breathtaking.
A second staircase for the service area is also covered with stained glass, connecting the dining room with the kitchen, wine cellar and garden.
Horta’s studio holds some of the original plaster models and a desk. Horta destroyed all his designs and drawings later in his life so little paperwork exists to precisely recreate the studio.
This house is emblematic of the Art Nouveau style, open plan with an emphasis on light and a superfluity of materials harmoniously blending together, producing a poetry of craftsmanship, design and art.
The attention to detail in this opulent residence is astounding: it is exquisitely decorated with furniture and fittings designed by Horta too. His famous ‘whiplash’ curve is found everywhere, from mosaic tiles in the flooring to the beautiful wrought-iron work, transforming an industrial material into sculpture.
This building escaped demolition during the 1960s when most of the Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels were pulled down. Opened as a museum in 1969, restoration was only completed in 2014. The house also holds an archive and library, accessible by appointment.
This house has to be seen to be believed. If you have no other reason to visit Brussels, do visit to see this house, and if you have no interest in Art Nouveau let this building change your mind and demonstrate the power of architecture as an art form.
Rachel Brett, British Library