Victor Horta and his associates, the founders of art nouveau in Brussels, illuminated 19th-century architecture with the light of the coming 20th century.
Barcelona may have Gaudí and France may claim the École de Nancy, but Belgium boasts Victor Horta and his associates. In modern Brussels, exemplary art nouveau details still exist aplenty in neighborhoods like Ixelles, Uccle, and Saint-Gilles. At the end of the 19th century, these communities were popular with the bourgeoisie, who could afford the new style and patronize its purveyors. A century later, they are filled with the efforts of those who sought to make beauty accessible to all.
Architectural art nouveau in Brussels was a dramatic departure from traditional Flemish gable-centric design. The photo below from S Marks The Spots, is a perfect example of how the new style illuminated the city.
Art Nouveau, according to Michèle Lavallée, writing for the Grove Dictionary of Art, paved the transition between the historic revivalism (Greek, Gothic, etc.) of the 19th century to 20th century Modernism. In 1893, a writer for inPan magazine described a wall hanging done by Hermann Obrist as “sudden violent curves generated by the crack of a whip.” Since then, “whiplash” has been the term used to describe the flowing turns and undulations that characterize the style.
After visiting Barcelona, our eyes became accustomed to art nouveau elements. Our first up-close and personal glimpse of art nouveau in Brussels occurred at a restaurant in the Ixelles neighborhood, Brasserie La Quincallerie. Seated on the catwalk level, we felt like we were in a steampunk stage set.
We read from the menu that this was a former hardware store, designed by a student of Victor Horta. Who was Victor Horta we wondered? From then, the chase was on.
Horta and his colleagues, we learned, strengthened interior structural elements in their buildings using metal, allowing for open, light-filled interiors. Their stylized motifs were drawn from nature – the floral or animal pattern, the feminine silhouette, and the traditional arabesque. Between 1892, when Horta designed the Hôtel Tassel, and the first World War, art nouveau in Brussels matured from the flamboyant to the classical.
Since that evening, we’ve discovered a dozen different ways you can get your fix for art nouveau in Brussels, too:
1. Introduce yourself to Victor Horta, the father of art nouveau in Brussels, and perhaps the world.
Horta Museum – located in the private house and atelier of the architect, whose Brussels townhouses are now designated in a UNESCO World Heritage listing for “brilliantly illustrating the transition from the 19th to the 20th century in art, thought, and society.” The two buildings were constructed between 1898 and 1901, with additions in 1906 and 1908.
Horta was a pre-eminent art nouveau creationist, adapting the style to architecture in 1893. He was a professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Brussels Académie des Beaux-Arts, and was granted the title of Baron by King Albert I of Belgium in 1932.
The residence’s interior spaces flank a central staircase which is lit by a glass skylight, allowing light to circulate throughout. The house, although it was built in 1898, is amazingly relevant to the needs of a contemporary lifestyle. Horta’s gracious gilding, light tile details, and open living concept must have seemed revolutionary to post-Victorians. Since no photography is allowed in the interior, we found an outstanding video which will take you through and introduce you to Horta’s other works:
Victor Horta – Architect and Designer Video:
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 14:00-17:30, last entry at 17:15. Adult admission: 8€, Students, Seniors and St. Gilles residents: 4€. Rue Américaine, 23-25, 1060 Brussels (Saint-Gilles). Trams: 81, 91, 92, 97 (place Janson). Bus: 54 Guided tours and private visits available. Reminder: no interior photography allowed.
2. Amble around the Ixelles/Louise neighborhoods on an informal walking tour of art nouveau in Brussels.
Pick up a paper guide at the Horta Museum to 10 additional buildings within walking distance designed by Horta or his associates, Paul Hankar, Albert Roosenboom, Octave van Rysselberghe and Jules Bruneaut. Worthy of note on this tour are two out of the additional three Horta townhouses (his former home housing the museum being the first) designated on the UNESCO list:
a. Hôtel Tassel, Rue Janson-straat 6, 1000 Brussels. According to UNESCO, the founding work of Art Nouveau in Brussels, commissioned by Professor Emile Tassel, designed and built in 1893-4. Horta designed furniture for this house for several years thereafter. From the Wikipedia description: “Two rather conventional buildings in brick and natural stone – on on the side of the street and one on the side of the garden – were linked by a steel structure covered with glass” which functions as a connector and light source.
b. Hôtel Solvay, Avenue Louise-Louizalaan 224, 1050 Brussels. Commissioned by Armand Solvay, heir to the chemical company that developed sodium bicarbonate, who granted Horta creative and financial carte blanche. Built from 1895-98, furniture completed in 1903. In 1980, it underwent a massive restoration including glass roofs on the main staircase, facade and interior decoration. Interior is intact with original art and functioning utilities. Still privately owned, but open to the public several times per year. A 1984 New York Times article noted several innovations which were firsts in Brussels: first house to be lighted entirely by electricity, first to use glass partitions and skylights to flood the central stairwell, fresh air system via duct network, rotating bathroom sinks empty instantaneously, rooms are laid out to conceal the movements of servants, interior walls move, open and close for public and private use.
3. Take a guided tour of art nouveau in Brussels with an expert.
ARAU Guided Tours L’ARAU (Atelier de Recherché et d/Actions urbaines) offer guided coach and walking tours in French and English on a rotating weekend schedule. Topics: Art deco, modernism and art nouveau in Brussels districts, Horta, commerce and trade, Brussels cuisine. Prices per person start at 10€ with discounts for -25/+65 years and the unemployed. Pre-booking is required. Private group tours can be arranged for any day in English, French, Dutch, German, Spanish or Italian. Guides have a background in urban planning, architecture or art history, with thorough knowledge of Brussels. L’ARAU is a non profit whose objective is to promote Brussels as a place where people want to live by examining urban development projects and attempting improvements through housing and mixed-function initiatives, adding public space and integrating social classes. Memberships: 25€ includes 4 free guided tours and discounts on other activities.
4. Attend the Art Nouveau and Art Deco Biennial Event 2015.
Visit Brussels celebrates the Art Nouveau and Art Deco Biennial Event 2015 with 6 guided tours of house interiors each weekend in October, 2015. Includes residences in the Uccle, Forest, Saint-Gilles, Avenue Louise, and City Centre. Tickets: 20€ per tour. A search query for “art nouveau” on the Visit Brussels site yields more than 150 results.
5. People watch over a coffee from the sidewalk Cafe Métropole.
Café Métropole – Place de Brouckère, 31, 1000 Brussels. Tel. (+32) 2 214 26 27. High-end brasserie, founded in 1890. Original art nouveau interior and exterior. Lavish interior and French-style heated terrace seating. Mon-Fri 09:00 – 01:00, Sat-Sun 11:00-01:00.
6. Celebrate happy hour A La Mort Subite.
A La Mort Subite, Rue Montagne-aux-Herbes Potagères 7, 1000 Brussels. Tel. (+32) (0)2 513 13 18. Formerly an establishment by the name of La Cour Royale, this restaurant was popular with bank employees playing a dice game called “421.” The loser of the last game played before returning to the office was dubbed “Mort Subite” (sudden death). In 1928, the pub was renamed “At the Mort Subite.” On draft: Cherry, Faro, Peach, Raspberry, Lambic White, Maes Pils, Special Palm, Abbey Dark and Blond beers, Trappist Blond and Dark. Foreign varieties, aperitifs, wines, specialty waters and juices, tonics, teas and coffee.
6, 7 and 8. Indulge in atmospheric cuisine de brasserie.
De Ultieme Hallucinatie, Rue Royale 315, 1210 Brussels. Tel. (+32) 2 217 06 14 Restaurant Brasserie in an original neoclassical mansion built in 1850. Restructured and redecorated in 1904 by architect Paul Hamesse in a “contemporary geometrical art nouveau style.” Other rooms influenced by Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and French art nouveau. Jugendstil stained glass windows in the orangeries. Mon-Sat 18:00-23:00
Brasserie La Quincaillerie, Rue de Page 45 , 1050 Brussels (Ixelles). Tel. (+32) 02 533 98 33. Designed by a student of Victor Horta, this former ironmonger’s hardware store is known for its fresh seafood and oysters. The restaurant maintains its own farm where lambs, pigs, and fowl are raised. Oysters are specially cultivated in two varieties in a collaboration with growers, and their House Beer is a private brew of finely hopped triple top-fermented beer. Mon-Sat 12-2pm and 7-Midnight. Sunday 7-Midnight.
Le Cirio, Rue de la Bourse 18, 1000 Ville de Bruxelles. Tel. (+32) 025 12 13 95. Dating from 1886, a typical Belgian brasserie frequented by Jacques Brel. The half in half (half champagne and half white wine) is a specialty, and we can attest to its deliciousness. Moderate prices, menu items range from appetizer size, croques and baguette sandwiches, pasta and traditional Belgian entrees such as waterzooi (a kind of chicken stew, great comfort food) and steak à l’americaine (inexplicable name, sort of like steak tartare, but comes on the plate looking like flattened raw hamburger. Hint: mix the accompanying condiments into it, and it’s pretty tasty.)
9. Shop for art nouveau personal treasures.
Senses Art Nouveau, Rue Lebeau 31, 1000 Ville de Bruxelles. Art nouveau originals and reproductions, jewelry, gifts and accessories, starting from under 25€ to well over 250€. Tel. (+32) 025 02 15 30.
10. Experience the multi-dimensional aspects of art nouveau in Brussels.
Musee Fin-de-Siècle, newly opened in 2013, offers a multi-disciplinary, dynamic approach to the creative arts from 1868-1914 in partnership with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, the Royal Library, the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and several foundations. Presents art nouveau architecture with integrated 3-D images of six houses. Rue de la Régence/Regentschapsstraat 3, 1000 Brussels. Tel. (+32) 025 08 32 11. Open Tues-Fri 10-17:00, Weekends 11-18:00 Adults: 8€, Seniors: 6€
11 and 12. Spend the night in art nouveau surroundings.
B&B Art Nouveau Rue Georges Moreau 1070, near the Brussels Thalys and Gare du Midi, built in 1906. Small guest apartment in the home of an employee of the Horta Museum consists of a double bedroom, lounge, kitchen, private bathroom and WC. Please note the bathroom is only accessible via a narrow spiral staircase. Two night minimum stay, from 66.95€. Tel. (+32) 026 46 07 37
Hotel Métropole, Place de Brouckère 31, B-1000 Brussels. Tel. (+32) 2 217 23 00 Designed by French architect Alban Chambon with Empire influences, stained glass, mahogany, teak, marble and bronze notes. One of the first hotels with lifts, electricity and central heating in Europe. Requisitioned by the Germans during WWII, and later by the Allies. Award-winning restaurant L’Alban Chambon (2 red chef’s hat and 16/20 in GaultMillau culinary guide). Rooms from 104€ on weekday nights.
Note that we previously touched on a style of art nouveau, Jugendstil, in Schwabing: Where the 20th Century Took Hold in Europe. If you would like to see more art nouveau world-wide, view this excellent set of three videos below: