Art Nouveau Architecture
In the late nineteenth century architecture underwent a far-reaching transformation of the understanding of space and the conception of interior decoration. Three names dominated in what would become Belgian art nouveau architecture, those of Victor Horta, Paul Hankar and Henry Van de Velde, who would be both its theoreticians and its initiators.
Horta develops his own vision, which led him to prefer curves to straight lines. He was also one of the first to understand the ornamental potential of iron. His first commissioners, Émile Tassel, a university professor, and Eugène Autrique, a famous lawyer, introduced him into the sophisticated circles of Brussels where he would find many of his clients. Among his most famous buildings in Brussels are the Maison du Peuple (1895–99, destroyed in 1965), the Palais des Beaux-Arts and the Gare Centrale, though he died before this last project was completed.
The practice of Paul Hankar was shaped by his theoretical consideration of the arts and his commitment to social architecture. Although Hankar also favoured asymmetry and curves, he differed in his taste for polychromy and the different manner with which the materials were treated.. One of his masterpieces is the house of the symbolist Albert Ciamberlani in Ixelles, in which the facade is decorated using sgraffito to allow the metal structure beneath to appear.
After giving up painting and long arguing that the distinction between the major and minor arts should be abolished, Henry Van de Velde argued for a new art (“art nouveau”) founded on morality and the union of the arts. He also placed insistence on use of the line. Application of his theories followed soon after and in 1895, five years before he left for Berlin, he designed without any architectural training his own house (Bloemenwerf, or Court of Flowers) in Uccle, with features similar to those of English cottages.
Initiated by these three important individuals, art nouveau architecture was continued by followers who concerned themselves only with a building’s appearance, without linking this to its structural logic. The aesthetic eventually wearied the progressive bourgeoisie. With interest in it waning, the splendid heritage represented by art nouveau architecture was increasingly demolished.
Built between 1905 and 1911 at 279 avenue de Tervueren in Brussels, Stoclet House was designed by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann, a member of the Viennese Secession, for the director of the Société Générale Adolphe Stoclet. Breaking entirely with the art nouveau aesthetic, the austere facade clad with white marble is formed by geometric volumes whose edges are emphasized by thick bronze beading. Its gleaming surfaces are unbroken and uniformly flat. The interior is a perfect synthesis of styles in which a wide variety of techniques and materials have been used: the friezes in the dining room –“L’Attente and L’Accomplissement”– designed by Gustav Klimt have affinities with Byzantine mosaics. Crowned by four sculptures by Franz Metzner, the tower accommodates a staircase and private and service spaces. The workshops of the Wiener Werkstätte, founded in Vienna by Josef Hoffmann, Kolomann Moser and Fritz Waerndorfer, produced all the elements used in the interior decoration, including the furniture, central lights, crockery and silverware. This residence is the only surviving Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) elaborated by the Wiener Werkstätte.