Great architecture influences our daily lives, often without us paying much attention to it. The work of architects dominates what we see every day, each time we leave our house and walk down the street. Some architects change the way we live by rethinking how cities are planned and constructed, like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe. Others have their names inexorably linked to cities, like Antonio Gaudi to Barcelona and, although not exactly an architect, Baron Hausmann to Paris.
Now, Brussels may not be top of everyone’s list of cities to visit but if you are interested in architecture there are many reasons why you should go there. La Grande Place is maybe the finest town square in the world and the city’s preponderance of Art Nouveau is second to none – and the one man who is largely responsible for that is Victor Horta. His name is maybe not as widely known as the architects listed above but his work was as influential and important as any of them.
Victor Pierre Horta (later Victor, Baron Horta) was born in Ghent in 1861, son of a master shoemaker. When he was seventeen he moved to Paris and worked with the architect and designer Jules Debuysson. After the death of his father in 1880 Horta returned to Belgium, marrying, setting up home in Brussels and studying architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
Horta is credited with designing the first Art Nouveau houses, the Hôtel Tassel in Rue Paul-Émile Janson and the Autrique House in the Schaerbeek district, both completed in 1893. The Tassel house, as with much of Horta’s work, was very much inspired by the work of French architect Viollet-le-Duc, responsible for the controversial restoration/recreation of Carcassonne in South West France.
In 2023 Belgium, and Brussels in particular, is celebrating The Year of Art Nouveau and to mark the event Brussels’ publisher Ludion has brought out a splendid book by Françoise Aubry entitled The Brussels of Horta. This beautiful, lavishly illustrated book, with photographs by Jacques Evrard and Christine Bastin, takes us step-by-step through the architect’s work, starting with the 1890 Matyn House, a fairly conventional looking building but with an exquisite attention to detail and clever use of different stone. His next project, the Pavilion of Human Passions in the Cinquantenaire Park, a pseudo classical building a couple of years later, gave no hint of what was to come only a few months after.
It was with the private house commissioned by fellow Freemason Eugène Autrique that Horta finally revealed his genius. Both the inside and exterior of the house reveal the elements of the new style that would change all aspects of design for ever. Over the next ten years Horta was responsible for dozens of buildings, both private and public in and around Brussels, making the city a showcase of Art Nouveau architecture. Victor, Baron Horta died in Brussels on 8th September 1947 aged 86, but his legacy, for all to see, will live for ever.
Ms Aubry’s handy guide examines and explains Horta’s buildings in chronological order, showing how his work developed. The text describes, in detail, all aspects of each building, giving us an insight into Art Nouveau’s revolutionary way of seeing. The book is also a practical guide with a map and details of the buildings which are open to the public.
A must-have for all those interested in architecture or design, Françoise Aubry’s excellent The Brussels of Horta is available in Dutch, French and, luckily, English. Michael HASTED 23rd May 2023