Victor Horta, a lost world
The exhibition at the Autrique residence puts a number of decisive moments in the architectural career of Victor Horta in the spotlights. Horta, who loved his realisations as if they were his children, saw many of the buildings being taken down.
One can barely fathom how an œuvre so highly spoken of at the time, and internationally acclaimed because of the technical ingenuity ánd of the top quality materials used, would fall into disgrace only a few years later.
Only about 100 years after the style was introduced did the Art Nouveau experience a renaissance. The story of the style could even be seen as a modern fairy tale.
In 2011, we will be celebrating the 150th birthday of Victor Horta, who was born in Ghent on 6 January, 1861. As of the age of 12, his mind was entirely set on things of architecture. Until 1891, he will intermittently work for Alphonse Balat, who worked on the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken and made Horta familiar with the real classics. Through Balat, Horta gets to build the Lambeaux temple (Cinquantenaire park) in 1889. The date marks the real start of Horta's career in Brussels. At the age of 32, the architect is contracted by both Eugène Autrique and Emile Tassel. He gets carte blanche to develop a new architectural form, which has nothing whatsoever to do with existing styles and reveals, throughout the buildings, the construction materials used.
New orders keep coming in : private houses for Frison, Winssinger, Solvay and Van Eetvelde lead to bigger contracts, like the Maison du Peuple (People's House) for the Belgian Socialist Party in 1895 or the kindergarden, which Brussels' lord mayor Charles Buls ordered to be built in the Marolles district.
By 1898, Horta can afford to have his own house, annex studio, built in the rue Américaine in Saint-Gilles. He has become a fashionable architect and is at the top of his career, both as an architect and as an interior decorator. Owners of department stores turn up at his doorstep and Horta will design the Innovation, Grand Bazar and Wolfers stores.
Horta will become a professor at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts. His attempts to reorganise the teaching methods in the department of architecture will prove to be harder than he thought. His activities are stopped by World War I. Horta goes into exile. First to the United Kingdom, and from there to the United States. Upon his return, his ideas on architecture have changed completely. Designs entailing tremendous craftsmanship from a myriad of workers will, henceforth, be exchanged for much simplified plans. The concept of the artistic house is abandoned after the war.Horta even puts his house up for sale, and moves into a building along the avenue Louise, which he transforms to meet his demands. He starts designing the Palace of Fine Arts and reworks the plans for Central Station.
Horta, although bestowed with honours, has become an embittered man. He realises that the Art Nouveau style is now putting people off. He, therefore, decides to destroy the main part of his archives, before dying on 8 September, 1947.
All comments in italic are quotes from Horta's Memoirs. Françoise Aubry excerpted them for her book « Horta ou la passion de l'architecture » (Ludion, Brussels 2005)
La Maison du Peuple (People's House) rue Joseph Stevens (Place Emile Vandervelde), Brussels
Horta's idea was to build a ‘palace' that would not look like a palace but would be a ‘home' in which air and light were to be the luxury that workers' slums had missed for such a long time ; a ‘house' in which not only the party would have its offices, but where there would also be a pub where the drinks on offer would be in line with the aspirations of the leaders fighting alcoholism, and conference rooms, in which the people would receive education, and, crowning it all, a "huge" room for meetings and political party conventions and also for musical and theatrical entertainment for the members.
The People's House was inaugurated on April 1, 1899. Transformation works in 1911 and 1912 made it lose its dominant red colour. In 1965, the building was demolished. Some structural elements were kept on a landfill for numerous years, until they too were sold for scrap metal. Only a handful of elements, like the ones on display here, have survived.
Anna Boch, painter and arts collector, asked Horta to rearrange and redecorate part of her mansion at avenue de la Toison d'Or 75 in 1895.
The successive designs for the tapistries show that the logic of constructive ornament is not just pure fantasy. To see so many sketches by Horta, who spent three years on this project, is unique. Transformation plans are kept in the municipal archives of Saint-Gilles; project drawings for the tapistries are property of the archives of the Horta Museum and the sketches from the hand of Anna Boch are to found in the Maison des Arts in Schaerbeek.
Just like the People's House, Horta proved with the building of the Innovation department store in rue Neuve, that he mastered an astonishing balance from the façade onwards, considering that never before, a building had been so faithful to the theory that the façade is merely the result of what is to be found behind it. The front had been covered up for a long time, only to be revealed again in the tragic fire of the Innovation in 1967.
The building of the store for goldsmith Wolfers at rue d'Arenberg proved to be quite complex. Implementing the design and making the most of what was possible, both from an artistic and from a constructive point of view, proved that one mastered enough competence and experience to make everyone involved happy. Because the metal structure varied from floor to floor, Horta had to come up with a very unusual plan.
The former Wolfers stores, highly revamped, now house part of the administration of KBC bank.
The present day Comics Museum in the rue des Sables constitute a last witness of Horta's career as a builder of department stores, as they were conceived as Magasins Waucquez for a famous cloth dealer.
The Congo pavilion
Designed mainly in 1898 to feature in the 1900 World Fair in Paris, the plans was never executed.
520 Avenue Louise, Brussels
The Aubecq residence was one of the things Horta was most proud of. According to him, never were a client and an architect more grateful to one another, never did a family agree more to love the house and live in it.
The house was taken down in 1950, like many of the buildings along the Avenue Louise. The furniture was scattered over a number of museums and avid collectors. Part of the front is kept in a Schaerbeek warehouse, awaiting a possible reconstruction. Two such projects by La Cambre students from the 1970, are shown here.
End date : 2012-04-15
The Autrique house
Chaussée de Haecht 266
From Wednesday to Sunday,
From 12 to 18 hours
(Last admission at 5:30 pm).
Closed on bank holidays.
Seniors, students, unemployed: 5€
Children, from Schaerbeek: 3€
Article 27: 1,25€