The best place to start a visit to St-Gilles is the delightful Musée Victor Horta (wwww.hortamuseum.be), just off the chaussée de Charleroi at rue Américaine 25 and reachable by tram #92 from place Louise. The museum occupies the two houses Horta designed as his home and studio at the end of the nineteenth century, and was where he lived until 1919. The exterior sets the tone, a striking re-working and re-ordering of what was originally a modest terraced structure, the fluidity of the design incorporating almost casually knotted and twisted ironwork. Yet it is for his interiors that Horta is particularly famous. Inside is a sunny, sensuous dwelling exhibiting all the architect’s favourite flourishes – wrought iron, stained glass, ornate furniture and panelling made from several different types of timber. The main unifying feature is the staircase, a dainty spiralling affair, which runs through the centre of the house illuminated by a large skylight. Decorated with painted motifs and surrounded by mirrors, it remains one of Horta’s most magnificent and ingenious creations, giving access to a sequence of wide, bright rooms. Also of interest is the modest but enjoyable selection of paintings, many of which were given to Horta by friends and colleagues, including works by Félicien Rops and Joseph Heymans.
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The son of a shoemaker, Victor Horta (1861–1947) was born in Ghent, where he failed in his first career, being unceremoniously expelled from the city’s music conservatory for indiscipline. He promptly moved to Paris to study architecture, returning to Belgium in 1880 to complete his internship in Brussels with Alphonse Balat, architect to King Léopold II. Balat was a traditionalist, partly responsible for the classical facades of the Palais Royal – among many other prestigious projects – and Horta looked elsewhere for inspiration. He found it in the work of William Morris, the leading figure of the English Arts and Crafts movement, whose designs were key to the development of Art Nouveau. Taking its name from the Maison de l’Art Nouveau, a Parisian shop which sold items of modern design, Art Nouveau rejected the imitative architectures which were popular at the time – Neoclassical and neo-Gothic – in favour of an innovatory style characterized by sinuous, flowing lines. In England, Morris and his colleagues had focused on book illustrations and furnishings, but in Belgium Horta extrapolated the new style into architecture, experimenting with new building materials – steel and concrete – as well as traditional stone, glass and wood.
In 1893, Horta completed the curvaceous Hôtel Tassel, Brussels’ first Art Nouveau building (“hôtel” meaning town house). Inevitably, there were howls of protest from the traditionalists, but no matter what his opponents said, Horta never lacked work again. The following years – roughly 1893 to 1905 – were Horta’s most inventive and prolific. He designed over forty buildings, including the Hôtel Solvay, the Hôtel Max Hallet, and his own beautifully decorated house and studio, now the Musée Victor Horta. The delight Horta took in his work is obvious, especially when employed on private houses, and his enthusiasm was all-encompassing – he almost always designed everything from the blueprints to the wallpaper and carpets. He never kept a straight line or sharp angle where he could deploy a curve, and his use of light was revolutionary, often filtering through from above, with skylights and as many windows as possible. Horta felt that the architect was as much an artist as the painter or sculptor, and so he insisted on complete stylistic freedom; curiously, he also believed that originality was born of frustration, so he deliberately created architectural difficulties, pushing himself to find harmonious solutions. It was part of a well-thought-out value system that allied him with the political Left; as he wrote, “My friends and I were reds, without however having thought about Marx or his theories”.
Completed in 1906, the Grand Magasin Waucquez department store was a transitional building signalling the end of Horta’s Art Nouveau period. His later works were more Modernist constructions, whose understated lines were a far cry from the ornateness of his earlier work. In Brussels, the best example of his later work is the Palais des Beaux Arts (BOZAR) of 1928.