Thursday, April 07, 2011

La Maison Autrique, chez un ami

by Michelle Nott

Eugène Autrique, an engineer and friend of Victor Horta, lived at what is now 266 Chaussée de Haecht in Schaerbeek. One of Horta's first creations, the house was commissioned in 1893. Already by walking up to the facade, and back across the street for a thorough view, the visitor gets a glimpse into the life that inspired the home. Horta and Autrique were both “Franc-Maçons”. Symbols of this discreet organization appear in the door frame, in the sculpted stone and in the iron design of the window décor. Although the turn-of-the century thought protested traditional neo-gothique style, that and the Egyptian motifs present in Autrique's facade possibly refer to the Grand Temple in Brussels.
Horta's Art Nouveau style is well-known for considering the specifics of the inhabitants as much as of the building materials themselves. Autrique came from a middle-class family and stated that he wanted nothing luxurious. Economically-speaking the choice of glass was particularly considered. The architect chose different qualities of glass for the upper and lower sections of the guillotine windows. Also, white stone was rare for such a bourgeois house of the time, but Horta was adamant. He took charge of those himself. Despite Autrique's more modest budget (compared to their friend Tassel, for whom Horta creates a house the same year), the architect still succeeded in creating a noteworthy example of art nouveau.
Before ringing the bell, I looked up to Horta's first arabesque. These unique sgraffiti appear between the third-floor windows. I rang the bell. This early into Spring, not many tourists were about, just another woman taking photographs alongside me and a mother/daughter pair from Australia. The house was ours. Once in awhile, our flashes crossed paths, but otherwise, I walked right into the end of the 1890s, alone.
I appreciated the light of the entryway, accented by clear walls sharing only enough space for a couple of golden light fixtures. I then stepped into the living room, in between the marble pillars towards the grand piano past the fireplace mantle, and under chandeliers hanging from wood panels. I looked out to the garden. In a small room to the right was a coat rack. A hanging hat gives the impression that someone just might be home. I turned and looked down a staircase.
I got much more than I expected from my visit to la Maison d'Autrique. I went looking for the banister curves, stained glass and metal work I appreciated so much in Victor Horta's own house on rue Américaine. In fact, after coming from Horta's own house, la maison d'Autrique seems relatively simple and yet still so rich. I ventured down to the basement.
The smooth wooden railing slid my hand to the last curve, bringing my foot onto the small, maroon and off-white tiles. As soon as I walked into the main hall of the domestic area, I looked left into the kitchen. “Here's where everyone is!” This thought caught me by surprise... and yet seemed so obvious.
This area of the house was less an example of Art Nouveau, strictly-speaking, than it was an example of the art of life. Copper pans sat on the stove burners. White and blue ceramic pots stood on the counter under the street-level windows. I peered up the small service staircase almost expecting someone to be bringing down groceries.
The tiles in the laundry area combine to form blue flowers resting in the center of hexagons. Feet stood many hours ironing and folding at a table. They went kilometers peddling under the sewing machine. A thread hangs loose from its bobbin. At the back, light comes in through the windows pretending to sear the linens that have been hanging past their drying time. According to his “Mémoires”, Horta was careful not to bury too deeply the basement, assuring a certain amount of light without having to raise the ground floor more than necessary. The habits of the people living within the walls, in between the stories, from the cellar to the attic, indeed designed the home.
After a peek in the wine cellar, where bottles still stack high, I continue my exploration.
The banister guides my hand along its smooth surface back up to the ground floor. I turn left down the hall and left again to follow my wooden guide. Before my foot steps up, I admire the beautiful arabesque in the floor tiles. At a certain angle, I could make out a swervy A. Coincidence or intentional?
Although the majority of the banister looks rather traditional, Japanese art influenced the start of the railing.(The same design is not seen in the service stairs.) Besides all the hands who have helped Luc Maes restore this home, how many have held on to this house in one form or another? I imagine Mr Autrique climbing these stairs every evening. Tired from a long day at work, how much did he notice the amazing Japanese-inspired stained-glass window that welcomed him at the top of these stairs? Its natural tones color the tree, flowers, and sky differently in the evening than the shades provoke under a morning sky.
Autrique's bedroom is behind the next wall. Despite the large space, the beige and green-patterned wallpaper induces a cozy feel. Wood panels reinforce the strength of this room, supporting a chandelier above the elaborately carved bed frame. The freshly fluffed duvets just beg someone to lie down. A certain spirit in the room is further enhanced by the painting above the headboard – an angelic scene of doves flying to the heavens. This relatively classic work of art contrasts the Japanese-influenced décor associated with Art Nouveau. And so, a work by Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano (born 1952) stands beside the bed. More examples of the artist's dreamy landscapes, creatures and fairies are appreciated throughout the house.
Facing the back garden, a vanity area with a sink, mirror and toiletry bags convinces the visitor of a presence in the house. To the left, a dumb-waiter opens ready to descend a tray of tea. A bathroom door cracks open just enough to reveal the claw-footed tub. Thanks to Luc Maes' renovations, a certain life breaths again within the space.
A small passage connects Autrique's bedroom to a large room facing the street. Yoshitaka Amano's video display peers down under the chandelier, onto photo albums lying open on a dining table. Floral-patterned curtains hang like secrets, tied to the sides just enough to hint at an outdoor light.
The floral design continues at the base of lamps and into the hallway onto the tiles. A burgundy and green palette swirls into arabesque patterns. My wandering leads back under the stained-glass windows around and up to another floor before reaching another story. An open space soaks up the sun. The warmth through the window panes create a lightness Autrique must have felt standing on the terrace overlooking the garden.
Up another flight of stairs, I find an office space, a possible sitting room and a bedroom. Three hats hang on a coat rack next to a globe tempting me to wonder where they must have hung in their previous lives.
In the street-facing room, lacy white bed covers lie and hang just barely above the rug. The brown and gray-loomed tones create a delicate floral pattern softening the hard wood floors. This chandelier is much more simple than the previous metal branches blooming into glass petals. An almost bare ring surrounds the light source decorated with two bowing stems of leaves.
I almost venture back down to the ground floor before remembering one last set of stairs to my left. They lead to the attic. Having spent this home tour in my own solitude, the statue of a man on the top floor startles me. This attic was Axel Wappendorf's space. He spent many years working in this office area as an inventor. Unfortunately, his most reputable creations have not been found. But before hurrying back down to the entrance, my curiosity takes the best of me. A peep-hole is open. I look through. I hope curiosity takes the best of you and you venture to this Schaerbeek home.
If it weren't for the skill and talents of craftsmen, be them from the turn-of-this-century or last, Victor Horta's architectural masterpieces would be less than that. Any aesthetic beauty catches people's attention, but it is a beautiful soul that holds on to it.
I will surely return to Autrique's home and visit more of Horta's creations. Whether an old friend or a new acquaintance, the architect studied his clients well - their daily routines, qualities and expectations. It is now, in venturing back through their doors, that each generation can resuscitate the lives that inspired them.

La Maison Autrique
Chaussée de Haecht, 266
1030 Brussels
Tel : 02/2156600
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 12 until 6pm (last entry at 5:30)

By the way, there is a fabulous little organic shop and tea room just around the corner:
Avenue Louis Bertrand, 25
1030 Schaerbeek
Open Tuesday to Friday, 9am until 6pm and Saturday, 9:15am until 5:30pm