Art Nouveau, the highly decorative style of architecture popular in Europe from around 1890 until the beginning of World War I, was born in Brussels. The term itself, first coined in 1884 in a Belgian art publication, referred to a group of visionary artists who were rebelling against the elitist art world. To liberate the visuals arts from the rigid constraints of traditional forms, they embraced a new style, inspired by the sinuous lines and flowing organic shapes of the natural world. 

A Fertile Ground for Innovation

The newly wealthy favored distinctive Art Nouveau architecture.

At the time, the industrialization of Europe was in full swing and Belgium, in spite of its small size, was an important economic unit. Its significant and well developed industries were creating a class of newly wealthy who wanted dwellings appropriate to their status. They began buying parcels of land in developing areas of the city, such as Saint-Gilles and Ixelles, to build their homes — and they favored a distinctive new style that would show off their wealth. 

Meanwhile, a new generation of ambitious young architects were eager to prove their talent. Thus, supply and demand found each other.

Victor Horta

Hotel Tassel – Facade.

The Art Nouveau movement develops into a full blown architecture style in 1892, when Professor Émile Tassel commissions prominent architect Victor Horta (1861-1947) to design his home. Introducing the recent technological advances of the industrial revolution to the building process, Horta uses metal and glass to simultaneously strengthen interior structural elements and create the open, light-filled floor plan of the Hotel Tassel (Tassel Mansion) — and contributes to setting the groundwork for modern architecture.

The iconic staircase of Hotel Tassel.

With this commission, Horta also reveals his vision of a complete approach to architecture as an homogenous work of art across multiple medias. He designs every detail of the interior decoration. The repeated use of organically curved, undulating lines — sometimes called whiplash lines — unifies the decor, reappearing in the floor tiles, murals, ironwork, the glass of the doors and skylights, and even the structure of the spiraling staircase.

 

Hotel Solvay

Hotel Solvay – Facade.

In 1894, millionaire industrialist and Art Nouveau enthusiast Armand Solvay charges his friend Horta to build him a huge mansion on the fashionable Avenue Louise, giving him carte blanche and an unlimited budget. Horta delivers his first major masterpiece.

 

 

 

Hotel Solvay – Interior.

The façade features two symmetrical, two-story bay windows topped with balconies. Inside, he creates an airy interior with moveable walls, so that the space can be adapted for family life as well as lavish entertaining.  And he decorates it with sumptuous materials, including over 20 types of marbles and 17 varieties of woods, to achieve a palette dominated by red, orange and gold tones that enhances the luxurious atmosphere.

 

 

Hotel Van Eetvelde

Hotel Van Eetvelde – Facade

The following year (1895) the noted Belgian diplomat and General Secretary of the then Congo Free State, Edmond Van Eetvelde, turns to Horta to create an impressive family home to entertain his distinguished international guests. Horta again channels his design genius into what is considered one of his most accomplished and innovative buildings.

 

 

Hotel Van Eetvelde – Interior.

For the Hotel Van Eetvelde, not only does he design an innovative steel and iron structure for the facade to allow for exceptionally large windows, he also creates a soaring central octagonal atrium on slim iron pillars topped by a stunning stained glass cupola. On the main floor, the oval-shaped salons all open to the atrium as well as the exterior, greatly  enhancing the flow of light. The mansion, in the words of Horta himself is “the most daring one he has ever done.”

 

The Horta Museum

Horta Museum – Facade.

While creating these two seminal masterpieces, Horta is also working on his own home and adjoining studio. Built between 1898 and 1901, the Victor Horta House showcases many of his signature design elements. Converted in 1963 into the Horta Museum, it is characterized by its stunning central staircase, elaborate mosaics, and intricate woodwork.

 

Musee Horta – Interior.

The museum includes the main house where Horta lived with his family, and the attached studio where he worked. Here again, the open plan tallows for spaces to flow into each other and be filled with light, creating a sense of openness and fluidity. 

Dedicated to preserving and promoting Horta’s work, the museum showcases a permanent display of furniture, utensils and art objects designed by him, and documents related to his life and time.

 

Beyond Horta

Paul Hankar House – Sgraffito detail.

While Horta is the uncontested trailblazer of the movement, several of his colleagues also come to prominence for their own interpretation of the Art Nouveau wave. In 1893, while Horta is unveiling the Hotel Tassel, Paul Hankar (1859-1901) is creating his own residence nearby: Hankar House. While featuring the main elements of the Art Nouveau style, it also introduces a stunning facade treatment. 

Hotel Albert Ciamberlani – sgraffito facade.

Hankar turns to his friend, the painter Albert Ciamberlani, to adorn the façade with sgraffito (layers of plaster tinted in pastel colors onto a moistened surface — an ancient technique popular in Renaissance Italy). He’ll subsequently build several houses based on this model, including the Hotel Albert Ciamberlani in 1897. Meanwhile the popularity of sgraffito spreads throughout the city. The Cauchie House, conceived by architect, decorator and painter Paul Cauchie as his personal residence is a jewel of the genre.

 

Hotel Hannon

Hotel Hannon – Facade

Another mansion of interest is the Hotel Hannon. Constructed in 1903-1904 for industrialist Édouard Hannon, it is the only house in the Art Nouveau style designed by architect Jules Brunfaut. Contrary to all the other mansions lined along city blocks, the Hannon House occupies an irregularly shaped corner plot. Here Brunhaut creates an imposing asymmetrical facade: a short span with a single bay faces one street, a more important one with two bays faces the other, with the two façades joined by a three-bay angular span between them. The interior however, revolving around an impressive central staircase topped by an attractive stained glass dome, clearly follows the Horta model.

Beyond the Mansions

Art Nouveau residences endure  along the streets of the city.

The explosion of Art Nouveau architecture projects is not limited to the astonishing Hotels of the very rich. Entire blocks of more modest, but no less attractive, townhouses begin to line the side streets of the Ixelles and Saint-Gilles neighborhoods, and spread farther throughout the city. More than 1,000 houses are built in Art Nouveau style before the onslaught of World War I. Regrettably, many will be demolished in the frenzy of modernization that sweeps through Brussels in the 1960s and 1970s. However, some 500 examples  do survive and their exquisite ironwork. stained glass and sgraffito facades still catch the eye as you wander around the various neighborhoods. 

Saint Cyr House – Upper floors balconies.

One of the most whimsical of all is the Maison Saint Cyr, by Gustave Strauven (1878-1919), a young disciple of Victor Horta. Built in 1901-1903, the house is only 4 meters (13 feet) wide, but it is given extraordinary height by his elaborate architectural inventions. Each of the first three floors has a single, rectangular window, all glass, curves and balconies, and each is slightly different from the others. At the top, a circular window with an elaborate wrought iron decoration appears to float above the facade.

Commercial Buildings

Brasserie “La Porteuse d’Eau” – Facade.

Art Nouveau architects do not limit their creativity to residential structures. They also create a number of storefronts, cafés and brasseries. Several of which have survived, such as La Porteuse d’Eau (The Water Carrier), with its ornate stained glass facade and remarkable bright yellow cupola.

 

 

Old England Department Store – Facade.

On an much grander scale, Paul  Saintenoy (1862–1952), adapts many elements introduced by Horta, including slender iron columns, bow windows and balustrades with curling lines, to his most famous work: the Old England Department Store (1898–99) in central Brussels. Now repurposed as the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM), it showcases a comprehensive selection of musical exhibits within its richly decorated iron grillwork and ceramic tile open floor plan, enhance by natural light streaming throughout. 

Good to Know

  • Getting There — Brussels is Belgium’s capital and home to the European Union Headquarter. Thanks to this central location and standing, it is one of the best-connected cities in Europe, accessible in less than two hours by high speed trains from London, Paris, Amsterdam and Cologne, and daily flights from most major cities.
  • Getting Around — The Brussels metropolitan area includes 19 municipalities (districts), well connected by an extensive network of  buses, trams, and metro. Within the districts, sightseeing is best done on foot. Many of the Art Nouveau gems are located around the Ixelles and Saint-Gilles areas, in the southeastern part of the city, on either side of the famous Avenue Louise.
  • Visiting —Hotel Tassel: rue Paul-Emile Janson 6, 1000 Brussels. Hôtel Solvay, avenue Louise 224, 1000 Brussels.  Hotel Van Eetvelde, avenue Palmerston 4, 1000 Brussels. Horta Museum, rue Américaine 27, 1060 Saint-Gilles,  Brussels. Hankar House, rue Defacqz 71,1060 Saint-Gilles, Brussels. Hotel Albert Ciamberlani, rue Defacqz 48, 1050 Saint Gilles, Brussels. Maison Cauchie, rue des Francs 5, 1040 Brussels.  Hannon House, avenue de la Jonction 1, 1060 Saint-Gilles, Brussels.  Maison Saint Cyr, square Ambiorix 11, 1000 Brussels. La Porteuse d’Eau , avenue Jean Volders 48, 1060 Saint-Gilles, Brussels.Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM – formerly Old England Department Store), Montagne de la Cour, 2, 1000 Brussels. Visiting days and times vary with each building. Consult their sites for up-to-date information. Some buildings remain private residences, and only the exterior can be seen.

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