In the land of beer, chocolate and waffles, on a recent (purely cultural!) long weekend, I made a visit to the wonderful Musée Horta – the home and studio of prominent Art Nouveau designer and architect Victor Horta. The whole building is meticulously designed and crafted, inside and out, by Horta; from the centrepiece of the house – the stunning cantilever staircase with its intricate balustrade – right down to the smallest keyholes on cabinet doors. The whole décor plays off sinuous organic forms which arc and wind elegantly, integrating the design with the architecture and creating a harmonious, unified interior. (Sadly no photos are allowed inside!)
Horta was a leading figure of the Art Nouveau movement and is credited with being the first to carry the style across from the decorative arts into architecture. His buildings are dotted around the city, including his earliest Art Nouveau building, the Hotel Tassel. In 2000 the museum, along with 3 other Horta-designed townhouses, was awarded UNESCO world heritage status. UNESCO recognises that “the Town Houses of Victor Horta in Brussels are works of human creative genius, representing the highest expression of the influential Art Nouveau style in art and architecture[...]brilliantly illustrating the transition from the 19th to the 20th century in art, thought, and society”.
Another notable Art Nouveau building in the city is the Museum of Musical Instruments, built in 1899 by Paul Saintenoy. Formerly the ‘Old England’ department store until the museum’s installation there in 1978, the building stands prominently on top of the hill near the Palais Royal and the Musée des Beaux Arts. Its exterior is striking in girded steel and glass, decked out in snaking wrought iron which culminates in an ornamental bell tower, dominating the skyline.
Other examples of the Art Nouveau style abound in Brussels, hidden in and amongst the traditional Flemish façades which exemplify the city’s most prominent architectural style. On closer inspection there are Art Nouveau buildings (many of them elegant Belle Epoque bars and cafés) scattered all around the city. The influence of the movement is widespread and Art Nouveau detailing can be found everywhere, particularly in the city’s extensive wrought ironwork. Thanks to Victor Horta, Brussels was at the epicentre of the Art Nouveau movement in architecture; and the legacy of this movement lives on in an architecturally diverse and interesting city full of contrasting styles and characters, which range from the grandiose opulence of the Grand Place’s Flemish façades to the flowing and organic exteriors of Horta’s world heritage houses.