Art Nouveau: Brussels cherishes its charm
As the 19th century drew to a close, Belgium was the second industrial power of Europe. Spurred by a new, wealthy middle class, a new vision on architecture began to emerge in Brussels: Art Nouveau. The most significant originator of this new style was Victor Horta. Many of the architectural gems still standing in Brussels today are a legacy from this era. Many of these are private residences, whose doors will be opened to the public this October during the Art Nouveau and Art Déco Biennial Event.
Windows in a myriad of shapes and sizes, a set of French doors crowned by a canopy decorated with swirling ironwork reminiscent of the spiralling stems of a plant: the elegant façade of Maison Autrique in the Brussels Schaarbeek district attracts the attention of passers-by almost automatically. Built in 1893, it was one of the first Art Nouveau works designed by Victor Horta.
This house is only one of many examples. Brussels, also called the capital of Art Nouveau, is one of Europe’s most prominent Art Nouveau cities, along with Vienna, Budapest and Barcelona. The city still boasts over 500 buildings that represent this movement, such as Hotel Solvay, the Central Station, the Library Solvay and the British international school of Brussels, as well as a large array of private residences, the Palace of Fine Arts (Bozar), the Belgian Comic Strip Centre and the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM).
Art Nouveau derives much of its inspiration from nature, a predilection for Japanese art and industrialisation. The movement’s principal features are the visible incorporation of materials such as iron, cast iron, wood and glass, and a flowing, almost living, play of lines in glass, ironwork and mosaics that frequently refer to plants and nature. Art Nouveau is Gesamtkunst - a ‘total work of art’, as the architects would design not only the exterior of a building, but also all of its furnishings.
‘As a rising industrial power, Brussels wanted to set itself apart from other cities’, says Carlos Ramos of the urban association ARAU (Atelier de Recherche et d'Action Urbaines), one of the organisers of the biennial event. ‘Art Nouveau was instrumental in creating this distinction.’
As such, Art Nouveau was, above all, a fashion trend. On the orders of the new aristocracy, the style was imitated by many architects. In Brussels these included Paul Hankar, Henry Van de Velde, Strauven, Vizzavona, Hamesse, Sneyers and Cauchie, to name a few.
After the Second World War, the movement went out of style. Ramos: ‘Architects began to gravitate towards a more modern style. Many Art Nouveau buildings became dilapidated and renovating them was too expensive.’ Many of these were demolished, particularly in the centre of Brussels, to make room for new office buildings. When, at the end of the 1960s, Victor Horta’s celebrated Volkshuis could not escape the wrecking ball, the sentiment towards Art Nouveau began to change.
In other European countries, movements to save Art Nouveau buildings began to spring up as well and a budding awareness grew among the Brussels authorities of the importance of preserving this movement for the country’s heritage and the city’s unique charm. As a result, the following decades saw the renovation of more and more Art Nouveau buildings.
Victor Horta’s residence is now a museum and stands symbol for his work and the movement of which he was the founder. Numerous examples of the legacy of this flourishing era are still visible on the street corners of the Belgian capital.
Biennial Art Nouveau and Art Déco: from October 5th untill October 27th 2013
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