Friday, May 5, 2017

Belgium 2017: Brussels - Art Nouveau and Victor Horta

Brussels was the home of Belgian architect and designer Victor Horta (1861-1947), considered one of the most important names in the Art Nouveau movement.  Although many of the buildings that Horta designed in this city have sadly been destroyed, there are still traces of his influence as you head south into the municipalities of Ixelles and Saint-Gilles, culminating in the architect’s former home and studio, which has been turned into a museum.  The Maison & Atelier Horta plus three other townhouses (called “Hôtel” in French) remain in Brussels and have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Only the Horta museum is regularly open for visits by the public, while the other three are privately owned, and made available for tours only several times per year.  As part of a self-guided Art Nouveau tour that we planned in advance, we walked by and looked at the exteriors of the Hôtel Solvay, built for wealthy patron Armand Solvay, and Hôtel Tassel, built for Belgian scientist and professor Emile Tassel.  While the façades of the houses have Art Nouveau features such as decorative, curvy woodwork and wrought iron patterns, they are relatively modest compared to the designs of the interiors where no expense was spared in terms of materials used, including marble, bronze, onyx and exotic woods. Horta designed all aspects of the décor and furnishings including the carpets, light fixtures, tableware and doorbell.  It is too bad we could not see the inside of these homes, but photos from the Internet and from books on Horta were available to give us an idea of what we were in store for when we visited the museum.  It is interesting that the Hôtel Tassel had a “For Rent” sign hung on its railing, and also unfortunate since the sign blocked out much of the beautiful ironwork.

En route to the Horta museum, we strolled through the streets of the Ixelles area and spotted more examples of Art Nouveau buildings by other Belgian architects.  One of the most prolific architects was Ernest Blerot (1870-1957), who was responsible for designing numerous homes that are still standing today.  Blerot designed functional homes that were affordable for the middle-class with a standardized layout for the interior, but unique and customized façades and interior décors.  He designed his own stained-glass, plaster, stucco, ironwork, mosaics, and woodwork ornamentations.  We found examples of Blerot’s houses on multiple streets in Ixelles including rue de la Vallée, rue Villain XIIII, avenue General de Gaulle, rue Ernest Solvay and rue Saint-Boniface.  We saw some fabulous buildings with asymmetric, curved forms notable in the Art Nouveau style, as well as doors and windows adorned with curlicue and floral designs, and decorative mosaics on the façades with motifs of plants, flowers, animals and fresh-faced females with long flowing hair, all meant to represent the beauty of nature.

We saw a couple amazing works by Ernest Delune (1859-1945), which both have stunning stained glass windows as their central decorative highlight.  The structure at 6 Rue du Lac was built as the workshop for master glassmaker Clas Gruner Sterner, who made the stained glass windows decorated with floral motifs for his studio.  Described as “Geometric Art Nouveau” in style, the facade features marked asymmetry, combining circular and rectangular windows in off-centred, staircase formations, surrounded by stone mullion pieces that accent and accentuate the shapes.  His work at 32 Rue de la Vallée is slightly less extravagant and elaborate, but still features a beautiful semi-circle shaped stained glass window over the door that is adorned with purple flowers.  The asymmetrical windows on the white door and the decorative wrought-iron balcony add to the overall design of the façade.

Albert Roosenboom (1871-1943) designed the Beukman House at 83 Rue Faider.  The multi-storied house features blue and white stone surrounding ornate wooden doors and windows containing frosted window panes decorated with floral iron trim and a large convex arched bay window on the middle floor.  A magnificent sgraffito (a decorative work made from layered coloured plaster) by Henri Privat-Livemont depicts two children on either side standing in a poppy field under bright stars and a woman in the centre making a shushing motion with her finger.  All three figures have their eyes closed and together, they represent sleep and nocturnal silence, with poppies being considered as the flowers of sleep.

Finally on Rue Defacqz, we saw two homes designed by architect Paul Hankar (1859-1901), another one of Victor Horta’s contemporaries. Built in 1893, Hanker’s own home at #71 Rue Defacqz, along with Horta’s Hôtel Tassel, were considered the first two houses to be built in the Art Nouveau style.  Maison Hanker is a three-story narrow, box-like structure with murals by Adolphe Crespin featuring flowers and cats at the base of the large bay windows.  The primarily red-bricked structure is accented by white, grey and yellow bricks.  Hankar signed his name in one of the stone blocks near the front door.  Just down the block at #48, another masterpiece is the Hôtel Ciamberlani, which Hankar built in 1897 for painter painter Albert Ciamberlani.  This mansion features bricks, natural stone and iron work in its façade and a pair of gorgeous sgraffiti murals.  The one flanking the rounded windows on the second floor depicts scenes of nature with nudes picking flowers in the forest while peacock-like birds look on.  The frieze just under the eaves include various scenes of wild horses battling other animals.  The murals were designed by Ciamberlani and created by Crespin.  The result is truly magnificent to see up close.

After our tour of the Art Nouveau homes in the area, we finally reached the Horta Museum, established between 1961-1971 by acquiring and restoring Victor Horta’s own private house and adjacent work studio, which he built between 1898 and 1901.  The house included a basement storage area for provisions, wine and coal, the ground floor containing the kitchen, lavatory and cloakroom, the “first floor” where the living room, dining room and music room (used as the reception area) are found, bedrooms on the “second and third” floors and servants quarters found in the space under the mansard roof.  The smaller building housing Horta’s studio included a sculpture room, offices for his employees, his own office and reception area and a designer’s studio.  The adjoining buildings are connected and accessible from several of the floors.  While the exterior of the house (and the studio to a much lesser extent) exhibit Art Nouveau features such as decorative wrought iron designs on the balconies, doors and windows and curved lines in the woodwork, it is less ostentatious than the works of Blerot, Hanker or Delune, eschewing the use of mosaics, sgraffito or stained glass windows.  Instead, Horta saved his most of his ornamental flair for the interior designs.

Art Nouveau is described as “harmony between architecture and interior design, transforming the home into a work of art”.  This is definitely true of Victor Horta’s creations as you can see the creativity and expertise of craftsmanship in the use of high-quality materials, fine finishings and details found in the railings, banisters, stained glass designs in the doors and windows, decorative door handles and hinges, swirly, floral patterns in the mosaic floors, colourful carpets, curvy wood trim and the floral designs of many of the light fixtures.

Once we paid our entrance fee, we were left to wander around this beautiful home at our own pace.  Photography was prohibited but I hoped that I could buy some postcards or a souvenir book of photos in the gift shop after the visit.  Surprisingly there was not much of a selection to choose from.  Luckily there were some photos on the museum’s website and more from some books of about Victor Horta’s works, so I was able to retain some memories of what we experienced.  From the colourful glazed panels in the doors of the entrance vestibule to the expansive skylight in the roof that provided natural lighting, everything in this house was just stunning.  A central staircase led to each of the floors while a back staircase was available for the servants.  Despite describing this as a “3-storied house”, the distance from the basement up to the servants quarters was actually 6 flights, which made for much stair-climbing.

One of the most impressive rooms of the house is the large dining room with double doors leading to the outdoor garden.  Although a book that I read described this room as “lacking in continuity and cohesion” in terms of materials and design compared to Horta’s earlier works, I thought it was gorgeous nonetheless.  I liked the rounded archways leading into and within the room as well as the ornate cabinet and fireplace, and the various carvings that were built into the mini brick-tiled walls.  Horta must have had a taste for Asian art as there were several examples of paintings hung throughout the home.  It is interesting to note that American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had a similar penchant.

Even the furniture including the beds, cabinets, tables and chairs exhibited Art Nouveau features including plant and floral patterns and shapes.  It was not clear whether Horta personally designed these items or if they were period pieces of the time that were added during the renovation process for the museum.  It is easy to believe that these were works by Horta himself since the designs fit in nicely with the rest of the architecture of the interior.  I wish that we had been able to tour the interiors of the Hotel Solvay or Tassel in order to see more examples of Horta’s masterpieces.  It is easy to understand why the Art Nouveau style did not last very long, since it must have cost a fortune to build and maintain.  But the results certainly were spectacular and it is fortunate that there are still a few such fine examples around.

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