Two magnificent adjoining townhouses sit prominently on Rue Americaine in Brussels, Belgium. Their facades are decorated with spiraling iron balconies, smooth Belgian blue and French white stone. Inside, four stories of lavish furnishings, curved stairways, and narrow passageways create ambiance that’s anything but austere.
Together, these townhouses comprise a public museum, best known by residents and visitors of Brussels as the former home and workshop of visionary architect Victor Horta (1861-1947), regarded as one of the major propellers of the Art Nouveau movement. Indeed, it was Horta who constructed what is considered the world’s first Art Nouveau building and in doing so ignited the flame that became a 30-year-long international artistic movement.
This year, the city of Brussels is commemorating Horta’s life and career with an ongoing celebration called “Horta Inside Out,” which offers a series of walking and bike tours to Horta landmarks, virtual tours of Horta’s complete body of work, 10 exhibitions, and a photo competition on World Art Nouveau Day (June 10). Below, take a virtual tour of essential Horta designs and explore his artistic legacy.
Victor Horta: A Genius Unfolding
Born in Ghent, Belgium in 1861, a young Victor Horta developed his ardor for architecture on a construction site. He stood out among his 11 siblings as an unruly rebel whose father sought to set him straight by putting him to work. After discovering what would become his life’s work, 12-year-old Horta enrolled in the school of architecture at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Ghent in 1873.
Five years later, Horta left for Paris to study alongside interior designer Jules Debuysson. He described his experience in Paris as one that “threw wide open the windows of [his] artistic soul.” In 1880, the architect returned to Belgium and started school at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. After winning a prestigious award in architecture, Horta became assistant to Alphonse Balat, Belgian King Leopold II’s architect and designer who was then working on the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken. These were masterful structures of iron and glass, materials which later inspired Horta’s best-known designs.
Horta’s Mature Style
Horta’s artistic style slowly began to reveal itself as the Brussels’ bourgeoisie class commissioned him for buildings around the city. While the movement that would become known as Art Nouveau began to take form, architecture in the city of Brussels flourished. Though expensive to construct, the upper and middle class demand for exorbitant new townhouses fueled Horta’s passion. His abundant use of curvature – found in stairwells, door handles, iron railings, and more – became known as “whiplash” style and was partially popularized through art newspapers and magazines across Europe. Horta’s designs paved the way for the emergence of delicate, natural motifs and moving shapes seen in Art Nouveau lamps, jewelry, furniture, and artwork.
“What is interesting about Victor Horta, in comparison with the architects of his time, is that he brought to life the modern idea of Art Nouveau and its natural elements. Because of the originality of his works, he inspired other architects and artists including the first and most well-known one, French architect Hector Guimard, who did an internship at the Horta workshop in 1900,” says Benjamin Zurstrassen, assistant curator at the Horta Museum. “Horta also inspired what we call in Belgium the ‘second generation of architects’ that started in his workshop, where a group of 15 young architects were training.”
The Four Major Townhouses: A Virtual Tour
Many of Horta’s uniquely designed buildings dot the streets of Brussels’ Art Nouveau district of Saint Gilles – there’s even a walking tour for art enthusiasts to marvel at them all in one day. Four of these buildings are remarkable enough in terms of design and condition to be listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Though some are privately owned, the Brussels Regional Council takes care of restoration and inspection of these sites to ensure that they remain in tact for future generations.
Hôtel Tassel: 6 Rue Paul-Emile
In 1893, Horta brought to life what is known as the very first Art Nouveau building: Hôtel Tassel. A refreshingly historic juxtaposition to the modern apartment complex that now sits across the street, the Tassel house has an extraordinarily unique floor plan. Originally built for the Belgian scientist Emile Tassel, it consists of three different parts: two brick-and-stone buildings that are connected by a glass-roofed steel structure inviting in natural light.
With detailed doorways, intricate wood paneling, and mosaic floors, Hôtel Tassel served as inspiration for Horta’s subsequent structures, Hôtel Solvay and Hôtel van Eetvelde. (Note: none of these buildings were actually “hotels” as we know them today; rather, they were “hôtel particuliers,” an Old French term for a grand, free-standing townhouse.)
Hôtel Solvay: 4 Avenue Louis
Considered Horta’s most ambitious work, Hôtel Solvay was constructed just one year after the Tassel house in 1894. It was built for the leading chemist Armand Solvay, who gave Horta free reign to draw up a magnificent space for Solvay’s beloved wife. Like the Tassel house, Hôtel Solvay is equipped with a glass-covered central area, under which Horta designed a charming winter garden. He filled the home with his custom furniture and elegant wood and glass work, incorporating dashes of his signature somersaulting lines.
Hôtel Solvay is said to have fueled Horta’s rise to fame. He began to focus on “the innate vitality of people,” using new materials like industrial steel and glass to better the lives of his residents. In the Solvay home, Horta did this by allowing for a profuse, expansive filtering in of natural light.
Hôtel van Eetvelde: 4 Avenue Palmerston
In 1895, Horta built Hôtel van Eetvelde for another prominent figure living in Brussels at the time – Edmond van Eetvelde, administrator of Congo Free State. The house also consists of a central winter garden, a signature glass-domed skylight, and a hanging steel façade. In 1898, Horta added an extension to the house, this time with a more conventional sandstone façade. The extension included a garage, an office, and separate apartments for renting.
Horta’s House & Workshop: 25 Rue Americaine
Horta’s former home and workshop together form what is now the Horta Museum. The buildings were constructed at the turn of the century, between 1898-1901. Overlooking a back garden, the structures contain four stories and three main stairwells each: one for the residents, one for the servants, and one leading to Horta’s office. In the center, of course, is a glazed glass skylight to let in a circulation of natural light. Visitors today (only 45 at one time, to preserve the condition of the buildings) can tour through most of the rooms in Horta’s home and studio, including a basement kitchen for servants, a dining room, a music room, Horta’s bedroom, and Horta’s daughter Simone’s room.
The museum is filled with his own handmade, beautifully crafted furniture and other decorative art; however, not all pieces in the collection today were originally in Horta’s home. Some works have been taken from other houses he made for his clients. “[I]t’s important for visitors to know that the Horta house they see now hasn’t been like this forever. A lot of work in restoring the house started in 1990 to give visitors the impression of being drawn into the style and presence of Victor Horta,” says Zurstrassen.
Every year, he adds, the museum buys once piece made by Horta at auction to add to their collection. “We’d like to own more of his works, but of course, everytime something goes up for auction we need to quickly find the means to buy it, and that’s difficult for a museum to do.”
Horta’s Contemporary Legacy
Though it’s been over 70 years since his death, Victor Horta’s legacy lives on and is regularly revitalized through works by contemporary artists. At the Horta Museum, such artists works are regularly showcased, organized based on two important factors: the artist’s quality of craftsmanship and/or a connection with Horta’s style. In 2017, for example, designer Nacho Carbonell’s organic, curved furniture was exhibited. Since Horta brought his structures alive with natural motifs, sunlight, and movement, Carbonell’s view of “objects as living organisms” was a fitting complement.
This is not to say that Art Nouveau is making a “comeback,” notes Zurstrassen. But the art of Victor Horta, “its inspiration from nature with stylization, experiments with colors and textures, dynamic and organic lines and forms, and plays of light and shadow,” is still relevant to decorative artists today.
Explore more from the Art Nouveau movement here.