Tuesday 24 April 2018

Master of Light: Victor Horta in Brussels

The spectacular glass cupola of Victor Horta's Van Eetvelde House. Photograph (above) and Cover picture of the Horta- Lambeaux Pavilion for DAM by Elli Ioannou
Belgian architect Victor Horta was one of the pioneers of Art Nouveau and his work is celebrated this year by the City of Brussels with an extensive program of exhibitions and events. We look at some of the most innovative and influential townhouses he built, where he designed not only the architecture but every detail of the interiors. A special report by Jeanne-Marie Cilento. Photographs by Elli Ioannou

The dining room Victor Horta designed for his own
townhouse in Brussels
ARCHITECTURE makes up the visual language of a city, it defines it’s identity, history and atmosphere. Evocative architecture creates great cities and draws people from around the world. Brussels distinctive Art Nouveau buildings have become landmarks for both the city's inhabitants and for visitors alike. One of the major Belgian architects who has contributed to creating Brussels' historic built environment is Victor Horta who has left his mark not only on the city's architecture but as a Belgian pioneer in Art Nouveau design.

This year, Brussels is celebrating the architect as one of Belgium's most influential designers and a leader of the Art Nouveau movement. The 12 month program, called Horta Inside Out, has many of the architect's Brussels' buildings open to the public for different events. It is presented by the City of Brussels and includes conferences, guided visits and exhibitions which explore Victor Horta's work.

Art Nouveau emerged in the 1890s and is characterised by sinuous lines and flowing organic shapes based on plant forms. It was a complete design philosophy and aesthetic that encompassed not only architecture but interior design, furniture, wallpaper and fabrics. The origins of Art Nouveau can be traced back to the writings of the French architectural theoretician Eugène Viollet-le-Duc whose Entretiens was published in 1863 and 1872. He wrote about using modern materials and new technology, such as lightweight metal armatures that would allow cantilevered or arched forms without the traditional use of heavy masonry, as a way to break from the past.

The light-filled cupola and atrium of
 the Van Eetvelde House
Victor Horta was a disciple of Viollet-le-Duc and was the first architect to use these ideas to create the sinuous Art Nouveau buildings we know today. Steel was the great innovation of the late 19th century and Horta used it in the designs of his new public, commercial and residential buildings and he was one of the first to expose it structurally rather than cover it with masonry. In 1893, he stunned the international architectural community with the virtuosity of his fluid design for the light and spacious Emile Tassel townhouse that brought Art Nouveau from purely the decorative arts into the architectural realm. The Tassel House is one of the key buildings of the era and has many of Horta’s design motifs which were to become synonymous with Art Nouveau. Other influential buildings are his home and atelier, now a museum, and the lesser known but equally important Maison Frison and Maison Van Eetvelde, all built within a short period, from 1893 to 1900.

Horta’s particular style of Art Nouveau was influenced by botanical studies and was less floral than the motifs used by designers in Paris. He was more interested in the stems of plants and the way they grow upwards seemingly ‘extending into infinity'. They inspired his use of the spiral staircase and creating landings ~ like leaves on a branch ~ leading to different living spaces. As Horta's stairwells are covered by glass ceilings they give a glimpse of light and sky, looking up into endless space.

Central to Victor Horta’s design methodology was his study of movement and light. His approach and design solutions also considered the ergonomic as well as the artistic and he was very forward thinking for his time. Horta valued both the function and look of a design equally and this was integral to his Modernist sensibility that was a true break from 19th century thinking.

Movement and light are key to Horta's design philosophy

The curling, plant-like design of the
 stair rail at the Frison House
The architect's sources of inspiration and influences were equally innovative. These included the work of Viollet-le-Duc, botanical studies and Japanese art and culture. Like many avant-garde designers, Horta's new and unfamiliar work was not always appreciated and accepted at the time. Even some of his builders tried to sabotage his projects. Unfortunately, many of Horta’s buildings which were privately commissioned, were destroyed or significantly altered during his lifetime. A distraught Horta subsequently proceeded to destroy many of his drawings, making it a difficult jigsaw puzzle to restore some of the remaining buildings back to their original condition.

Victor Horta was passionate about design and often worked in his Brussels atelier for three days without stopping or allowing himself to be disturbed. His food was even left outside of the door so he wouldn't be interrupted. He designed buildings and interiors, oversaw the making of models and had a basement space dedicated to the making of ornaments created by sculptors he employed, many of them his friends.

Horta took a very different approach to design compared to French architects and his work is the opposite of the wide open spaces and direct perspective that was typical in Paris at the time.

The vaulted atrium above the stairwell
in Horta's house.
His work is complex and circular; Horta often used spiral staircases and steel and glass ceilings to bring movement and light into buildings. Tall terraces sitting side by side typified the housing in Brussels. Combined with the city's long winters, this meant that they could be dark and depressing so it was important to be able to bring natural light into the centre of buildings which Horta nicknamed the ‘dead zone’.

Horta's choice of materials was integral to both the design and functionality of his buildings: the transparency of glass in different textures, leadlight and mirrors all contributed to a sense of creating motion and a perception of light and space, as well as being decorative. The architect's other main design solutions for opening up the physical space of an interior was to introduce mezzanines between floors, a revolutionary change at the time. Horta also pioneered the use of electricity in private homes which, at that period, was predominantly only used commercially.

Horta was so passionate about design he often worked in his Brussels atelier for three days without stopping

The curvilinear design of Horta's
innovative suspended,
steel balconies.
Victor Horta's Townhouse and Atelier
The architect's former house and studio situated in the St Gilles district in Brussels is now the Victor Horta museum and embodies the essence of his Art Nouveau philosophy. It was built between 1898 -1901 and has recently been restored. Horta not only designed the architecture of the building but created every detail of the interiors. Each room is full of his experimental use of new forms and materials from the swirling designs of the mosaic floors and the wall coverings in marble, bronze and silks along with the vivid and curvilinear stained glass panels, plant-like light fittings, vases, carved wooden furniture and the fine bronze door handles and hinges with dynamic shapes.

It was very unusual at the time that his work encompassed not just the architecture but a complete and integrated design for the interior of his houses. He was daring in his design thinking and the insistence on its exact execution. And since Brussels in the late 19th century and early 20th century was one of the wealthiest industrialised cities in Europe, Horta's clients had budgets that allowed him to explore and experiment with new designs.

For his own house, the external materials were more elaborate than his adjoining atelier as he wanted to make a statement that an affluent architect lived here. The balconies were innovative and Horta used suspended steel rather than using supporting columns from below. He was one of the first architects to use steel in this type of construction and chose to reveal the structure which was new and experimental. He highlighted this by using bronze which showed the structure as part of the design.

The clever addition of mirrors
created a great sense of light
and space in the stairwell of
Horta's house.
Horta’s designs also reflected the societal norms of the times particularly in the separation of the movement throughout the building by the owners, their guests and the home's staff. Different stairwells, passageways and doors were designed just for the use of staff and ensured the smooth running of the household.

In Horta's house, the first floor landing of the stairwell opens to three different spaces separated by steel, glass and double folding doors in mahogany with botanical designs for the leadlights.

At the very top of the staircase is a vaulted, glazed atrium that brings natural light flooding through the building. This is further enhanced by mirrors on opposite walls that give the sense of looking into infinite, light-filled space.

Always inventive and going against current trends, Horta continued to experiment with unexpected materials. For example, he covered the dining room walls in white enamelled brick, a material that was not considered sophisticated at the time but was exquisitely worked, alternating with glass, marble, gilt metal and fine woods. He even used exposed steel in bedrooms much to his clients' consternation.

Horta's work encompassed not just the architecture of a building but a complete and integrated interior design

 Beautiful bronze door handles
with Horta's signature whiplash curve
Other inventive touches in the living and dining rooms of the Horta house are ergonomic door handles with the same curve as the hand, built-in furniture and a dining table connected to electricity to keep plates warm. He also had a telephone at hand to call his staff  whenever they were needed which apparently impressed his guests.

The UNESCO commission recognized the Horta Museum as a World Heritage site in 2000 along with three other of his major town houses: the Maison Tassel, Maison Solvay and Maison van Eetvelde. Victor Horta's Art Nouveau designs are considered some of the most remarkable pioneering works of architecture of the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Their revolutionary steel structure, open plan interiors, natural light, fluid, botanical designs and multi levels made them unlike any other architecture seen before. An extensive restoration project of the Horta Maison and Atelier was completed in 2013 and the following year it won the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage.

The entrance to the Frison House
showing the stained glass windows
 and the sinuous handrails.
The Frison House
Where would historic buildings be without the support of private patrons and not for profit organisations coming to their rescue? Maison Frison is another of Victor Horta's important townhouses in need of restoration and its recent purchase reads like a movie script. The house was bought less than 12 months ago by Indian-born arts patron and jewellery designer, Nupur Tron. Living between Paris and Brussels, the designer says the decision to move to Belgium was with the intention of setting up a foundation as a platform for an exchange of art and cultural projects between India and Europe.

She was searching for a home to live in and came across the Frison House, even though at first she was unaware of its significant architectural and cultural history. She felt like it was destiny finding the house and buying it happened very quickly. Now she plans to run the Maison Frison as a museum and cultural foundation aiming to bridge the gap between the East and West with new artistic projects.

"There is a strong correlation between India and Art Nouveau ~ which was inspired by the East"

A detail showing the Frison House's bronze
handles and hand-painted decoration.
“I just went with the feeling and the energy of the house. It felt like the house found me, as if it was destiny,” she says today. “This house is a jewel and it was like discovering an uncut diamond that just needs polishing.

"There is a strong correlation between India and Art Nouveau, which was influenced by the East. The curves, the stained glass windows, are typical of palaces in Rajasthan. Yet the house is at the same time contemporary, futuristic and modern but not kitsch. Art Nouveau is liveable but also it is discreet. The restoration and preservation of a house like this makes you proud of your heritage.”

The Frison House was originally built by Victor Horta for his friend, lawyer Maurice Frison, in 1894.  There are many Art Nouveau details remaining in the house, including dozens of steel handles with the iconic motif of vines. The house, located on a hilltop near Sablon in Brussels, was altered in 1955 when it was turned into a retail space and its ground floor had a shop window installed.

The slim, light structure of the
Frison House's conservatory.
Until the 1960s, Art Nouveau was often not valued and some of the buildings were sold for the price of the land. Although, today they are rare and worth several millions of dollars.

The Frison House's grand salon upstairs, features the original decorative marble fireplace, oak parquet floor and curved high ceilings. The substantial doors have lustrous handles designed with counterweights that could easily be opened by staff.

One of the outstanding features of the building is the conservatory, with its vaulted, stained-glass roof and slim, curling iron columns.

This space was restored by the former owners in 2005, using old photographs to replicate iron work and stained glass. It is one of Horta's most notable winter gardens. Napur Tron has embarked on a major restoration of the building and, when it is complete, it will be a new arts and culture centre for Brussels.

The Van Eetvelde House
The beautiful glass cupola and atrium
of the Van Eetvelde House
Many of Victor Horta’s clients were affluent and came from the Belgian capital's cultural elite and bourgeois intelligentsia. The Brussels' avant-garde wanted not only a new and modern art but an architecture that reflected the break with tradition. With a booming economy in Brussels, Edmond van Eetvelde, King Léopold II's Minister for Congolese affairs, commissioned Victor Horta to design him a luxurious townhouse in 1897.

By the late 19th century, Belgium was an industrialized country producing iron and steel that was also used in building houses. But it was not until Victor Horta and the advent of Art Nouveau that these materials were used in such an expressive way, later to be simplified and expressed more structurally in Modernist buildings.

For the Van Eetvelde house, Horta not only designed an innovative steel and iron structure for the façade, allowing for large windows decorated with his signature whiplash curves but he used steel for the interior detailing. The townhouse's structure is particularly slender and represents a modern way of building construction still being used now, and yet Horta was using these techniques in the 1890s.

To solve the dilemma of bringing natural light into Brussels' terraced houses, Horta once again opened up the centre of the building. This lead to one of his most beautiful designs, the soaring, octagonal atrium on slim iron pillars topped by cupola in stained glass that the Maison Van Eetvelde is known for. Horta also used other effective design solutions for opening up the space by using reflective materials such as mirrored glass and steel to enhance the sense of light. The botanical Art Nouveau designs of the stained glass of the cupola have a palm leaf motif and the pillars form the stems with vine-like curling iron banisters.

To solve the dilemma of getting natural light into Brussels' terraced houses, Horta opened up the centre of the building

Victor Horta's richly designed salon
 of the Van Eetvelde House with its
tall mirrors, green marble, silk
 and bronze borders.
The walls today are adorned with the original drawings of floral motifs synonymous with Art Nouveau. Victor Horta’s artists drew directly on to the wall, without stencils and in order to ensure their steady hands, their contract included a clause of no drinking or staying up late!

The octagonal stair-hall had various doors leading to different parts of the house and discretion and privacy were at the heart of its sophisticated design. The double height entrance also enabled circulation in a spiral movement. Horta designed the building so people lived at the centre of the house but circulated around the periphery.

The designer used expensive materials for the Van Eetveld house: marble and bronze with silk wall coverings, fine mosaics for the floors in green and pink with stairs bordered by dramatic curves. The colour palette of gold, green and ochre gave a cohesive look to the interior design.

 Horta was also a collector of Japanese art and the influence from Japan is especially evident in the main living room with its silk wall coverings. This large room has high, decorative ceilings and is lit by big windows. The architect cleverly uses mirrors as an integral part of the design rather than as a separate element. The walls are lined with green marble and the silk from France, bordered by rich bronze borders curling into Horta's whiplash shapes. The silk in the dining room is a copy of the original, as this was faded, but it has been recreated by the original company in Lyon.

Horta was not just an architect but a brilliantly creative artist and an unusually skilful designer.

A detail of the marble and bronze fireplace in the salon
with its handsome French silk wall covering.
The Van Eetvelde townhouse was designed and built in two stages, initially from 1895-97, and then an extension from 1899-1901. This had a sandstone façade and housed a garage, an office for Van Eetvelde with a separate entrance. Horta liked to design each of his buildings customised to the individual client, in exacting detail, according to their particular needs. This made it difficult for the next generation of owners to adapt to the space and many were sold with great difficulty although today they are very valuable. Today, the Van Eetvelde house is currently commercially leased.

Victor Horta's Legacy
Victor Horta was not just an architect but rather a brilliantly creative artist and an unusually skillful and imaginative industrial and interior designer. For him, architecture included every aspect associated with the buildings he designed from the light fittings to the furniture and the wallpaper to the floor tiles. Today, there are ten townhouses which remain standing and are now private residences, foundations or commercially occupied.

The intricate mosaic-tiled Art Nouveau patterns of the
Van Eetvelde's House's floors.
These buildings are considered the greatest expression of Art Nouveau in art and architecture and represent some of the most influential artistic and technological innovations that heralded the 20th century and the beginning of  Modernism.

The City of Brussels' program Horta: Inside Out  highlights and celebrates Victor Horta and his work and it is a unique opportunity to visit the architect's buildings that are not usually open to the public.

For more information about Victor Horta, the events in Brussels and the townhouses that are open, go to the Visit Brussels website.

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