Monday, February 21, 2011

Victor Horta and his Art Nouveau

by Michelle Nott

One hundred fifty years ago, a self-proclaimed genius in architecture and design was born. His name was Victor Horta. Rumor has it that he was an intolerable man. But, personality flaws aside, his brain created some of the most noteworthy buildings of the 20th century.
For the past seven years I have been walking in Brussels and admiring the random facades that whisper, “Look over here. I am Art Nouveau.” Out of careless walks around a pond or down a street, I find myself privileged to see such extraordinary examples of art. Every architectural style brings its own calm or intrigue to its structure, but Art Nouveau seems to be foremost art...that happens to create an incredible and durable living space.
For years, actually until Horta became a professor himself, architects had to study first fine art and then just extend their studies for six more months to earn a degree in architecture. So, at that time, architects just dealt with the look of a structure and left the actual building to the builders. Horta felt this way of thinking was very wrong. During his own studies, he won a scholarship to study under any architect he wanted. He chose Gustave Eiffel – who wasn't an architect at all but an engineer. His choice was disputed but he stood firm saying that Eiffel worked in steel and that was the building material of the future.
All of Horta's houses could still be standing today if they had never caught fire or been torn down. The one flaw in Horta's philosophy is that each house should be completely designed to suit the living habits of its individual inhabitants. In theory, this idea was great. As for its “resale value”, not so much. At least not in the early part of last century. Nowadays, a mere visit to the Solvay home on Avenue Louise can cost 800 euros. Needless to say, the value of any of his Art Nouveau homes are now certainly through the stain-glassed roofs.
Like any great art movement, Art Nouveau is a revolution against tradition. The “nouveau” aspect is influenced by several trends of the 19th century. The Pre-Raphaelites illustrated romantic, fantasy-like scenes with bright colors. Japonism produced flat, woodblock prints with no shadows. Symbolism went against naturalism and realism, creating spiritual, decadent, even morbid works of art. Finally, the aesthetic movement in design had itself also been influenced by Japanese lines and colors. Wrapping all these attributes together and picking out the most functional of each, Horta became one of the most amazing and acclaimed architects of his time...until WWI.
Horta wanted to build homes using only natural materials and methods. He wanted everything to be functional. He originally worked in such a way to provide his services to a more humble clientele. Then, he realized just how much the wealthier population would spend on his expertise. He not only designed the homes, but also the furniture down to the hinges on the doors, and had to approve any home decor the owners wanted to acquire. He personally designed many Tiffany stained-glass for his clients. After receiving the hand-drawn sketch of a lamp or window in New York, Tiffany would create it, take it apart, number each piece, and send it all back to Brussels to be reassembled. Once WWI came and went, however, the money did not flow as freely and Art Nouveau's popularity diminished. Already by 1922, one of his first houses was destroyed.
Between about 1893 and 1911, Art Nouveau triumphed in the architecture and design world. Although interest in the movement slept for many decades, the 1960s psychedelics woke it up again. The 150 year anniversary of Horta seems like a fitting time to look back and forward at what Art Nouveau can bring to today's and tomorrow's architects and art enthusiasts. 
For information on the Horta Museum, refer to the article At the Home of Victor Horta.
For more information on Art Nouveau and where you can see it in Brussels, you can refer to the following links:

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