On a quiet side street in Brussels, just off the busy Avenue Louise, is a building that changed the course of architectural history. The Hotel Tassel was built in 1893 by the brilliant Belgian architect Victor Horta. A symphony of stone and glass and steel, more sculpture than architecture, it still looks avant-garde more than a century after it was built.
In 1893 it caused a sensation. Nobody had seen anything like it. This florid, futuristic style had surfaced in the decorative arts, but never before in architecture. The aesthetic that Horta made concrete here became known as art nouveau.
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In the course of the next 20 years, art nouveau buildings sprouted up all over Brussels. Many were built by Horta, but numerous other architects quickly followed in his footsteps. Art nouveau spread all over Europe, but Brussels is still the best place to hunt for fine examples of this exquisite architectural form.
Despite the vicissitudes of the last century, there are more than a thousand art nouveau sites scattered around the Belgian capital, and a walking trail is a great way to see the city.
Left, detail of a statuette in a room at the Horta Museum, right, dedicated to art nouveau pioneer Victor Horta
The First World War killed off art nouveau, in Brussels and elsewhere. Its ornate aesthetic was too exuberant — and expensive — for wartime. In the 1920s and 1930s, in tune with the spirit of the times, Horta turned his attention to art deco. His simple, streamlined designs were a dramatic break with the earlier style, but they were just as beautiful. Like his art nouveau creations, they inspired countless other architects.
A great many masterpieces were destroyed in the savage post-war reconstruction of Brussels, when art nouveau and art deco both fell out of fashion. However, even the city’s modernist town planners couldn’t obliterate the rich legacy of Horta and his followers.
Italian, An Art Nouveau two-tier table, circa 1900. Estimate: £7,000-10,000. This work is offered in our Historical Design sale at King Street on 3 November
Louis Majorelle (1859-1926), Chicoree, a dining suite, circa 1905. Estimate: £15,000-25,000. This work is offered in our Historical Design sale at King Street on 3 November
Today Brussels is still home to a wealth of art deco, as well as art nouveau. These buildings used to be hard to find, as many are in residential districts, away from the main tourist sites. But Brussels has since realised the importance of its architectural heritage, and at the tourist office you can pick up an annotated map that guides you around the major landmarks in both styles.
Even better, the city now hosts an art nouveau and art deco biennial. For four weekends this month, 80 private properties open to the public, 20 at a time. For anyone who’s interested in architecture (or just likes nosing around other people’s houses), it’s fascinating — and terrific fun.
I begin my tour on the Avenue du Castel, in the leafy suburbs, at an art deco townhouse built in 1932 by Raphaël Lambin. The owner, Céline d’Ursel, an artist, shows me around. From the outside, it looks compact, a neat brick box like a little Lego model; but when you step inside, the house expands. It’s the balance of the building that makes it feel so spacious. The interior dimensions are all in harmony, the fixtures and fittings all fit for purpose. It’s the ultimate design for living.
An interior, left, and stairway, right, at the Horta museum
D’Ursel lives here with her husband and their two children. This is the third time they have opened up their house for the biennial. Last time, she says, they welcomed several hundred visitors every day. D’Ursel used to live in an art deco apartment and has always been a fan of the style. When she moved the carpet. She was delighted to discover perfectly preserved mosaics underneath.
Not all the private properties in the biennial are domestic. My next stop is the École Communale, an art nouveau school built by the philanthropic architect Henri Jacobs for the local education authority. ‘They wanted to educate the children, but to give them a taste of beauty, too,’ explains my guide, Albert Dewalque, an architect with a passion for art nouveau. You can see why he admires this school. It is grand yet welcoming, spacious yet intimate.
Emile Gallé (1846-1904), Aux Libellules, a rare vitrine, 1900-1903. Estimate: £40,000-60,000. This work is offered in our Historical Design sale at King Street on 3 November
Jules-Auguste Habert-Dys (1850-1924), A rare monumental Art Nouveau vase (detail), 1902. Estimate: £25,000-35,000. This work is offered in our Historical Design sale at King Street on 3 November
For the children who came here a hundred years ago, it must have seemed like a palace. It still feels palatial today. As in all the best art nouveau buildings, the attention to detail is incredible. The stairwells are intricate ironwork, the stone floors covered in minute mosaics. From banisters to door handles, every artefact is an objet d’art. ‘There was no ideological edge to it,’ says Dewalque. ‘It was an architecture of pleasure.’
We end our tour of private properties at the Palais de la Folle Chanson, an art deco apartment block built by Antoine Courtens in 1928. Philippe Leblanc shows us his ground-floor flat, a serene geometric space flooded with natural light. He’s an artist and architect. You can understand why he loves living here. From elevators to radiators, everything is art deco.
An interior, left, at the Palais de la Folle Chanson apartment block, right.
We finish up on the top floor, high above the city. It’s like the sun deck of an ocean liner. From this rooftop terrace you can see the evolution of art deco, in the styles of the adjacent buildings. ‘From the 1950s to the end of the 1980s, people didn’t like this style at all,’ says Leblanc. ‘You could buy an apartment here for less than €100,000 in today’s money — 200 square metres!’
In 1988, the Palais de la Folle Chanson finally became a protected building. Since then, happily, attitudes have changed. At the last biennial, there were 2,000 visitors in one weekend.
Agathon Leonard (1841-1923), Danseuse a l'écharpe, a figural lamp, circa 1900. Estimate: £10,000–15,000. This work is offered in our Historical Design sale at King Street on 3 November
Agathon Leonard (1841-1923), Danseuse au cothurne, a sculpture, circa 1900. Estimate: £8,000-12,000. This work is offered in our Historical Design sale at King Street on 3 November
It’s a special treat to peep inside buildings that are normally off limits, but there are lots of art nouveau and art deco buildings in Brussels that you can visit at any time of year. The Horta Museum, housed in the architect’s former home and studio, tends to draw the biggest crowds.
It’s a stunning building, inside and out (Horta designed virtually everything in it), but for me the biggest thrill is finding art nouveau structures that are still functional, rather than architectural relics. Cité Hellemans, by Émile Hellemans, is still a council estate; Horta’s Jardin d’Enfants is still a school.
Other art nouveau buildings have found new functions. A museum devoted to musical instruments now occupies the Old England department store, built by Paul Saintenoy in 1898. The Waucquez Warehouse, built by Horta as a furniture showroom, now houses the Belgian Comic Strip Centre (a must for fans of Hergé, whose lucid style follows the clean lines of art nouveau illustration).
An interior at the Van Buuren Museum
All these are in the city centre, but there’s another cluster in Ixelles, one of the most attractive suburbs. Here you’ll find the best examples of domestic architecture, particularly the work of Paul Hankar, who might have eclipsed Horta if he hadn’t died in 1901, aged 41. Don’t miss his sublime Ciamberlani House, with its delicate sgraffiti. Ixelles is also a fertile hunting ground for art deco. Its centrepiece is Flagey, a chunky tower block beside the pretty Ixelles Ponds. Formerly the National Radio Broadcasting Institute, it’s now a cultural centre and rendezvous. The bustling Café Belga, on the ground floor, is a great place to refuel.
For the complete art deco experience, head for the Van Buuren Museum, an idyllic villa on the green edge of Brussels. David Van Buuren was a banker, but his chief passion was art, and the home he built here with his wife Alice is an artwork in its own right. David died in 1955 and Alice in 1973, but it feels as if they’re still around. This house is their memorial, their gift to Brussels and the world. Built by Leon Govaerts and Alexis Van Vaerenbergh, it has a stark brick exterior in bold contrast to the lush gardens that surround it. The peaceful interior is adorned with tasteful art deco furniture and a fantastic art collection, with works from Braque to Brueghel.
So what makes art nouveau and art deco so special? Why do these buildings still excite us, after all these years? Superficially, they almost seem like opposites — art nouveau is so detailed, art deco so spare — but combining them in one biennial actually makes perfect sense. What unites art nouveau and art deco buildings (and why they have so many fans in common) is the craftsmanship of their construction. They’re pleasing to the eye but they’re also supremely practical. The people who designed them really cared about the people who lived in them. Good to look at and to inhabit, this is architecture that truly works.
The ceiling of the Henry Le Boeuf Hall, left, and a pair of stained-glass doors, right, both at Bozar
I end my architectural odyssey back in the city centre, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts (aka Bozar). This splendid art gallery and concert hall was Horta’s late, great masterpiece. Almost austerely classical, it has a severe symmetry that’s a world away from the flamboyant naturalism of his art nouveau innovations. And it isn’t just a place for culture vultures — it’s also somewhere to hang out. The Bozar Brasserie is a buzzy restaurant, at lunchtime and in the evenings. The open kitchen is a spectacle, but the dining area is plain and functional. Chef David Martin creates French dishes with a modern twist.
But the best thing about discovering art nouveau and art deco in Brussels is the way these contrasting, complementary styles have been absorbed into the city. You can hike around town ticking off the must-see sights, but some of the best examples are virtually invisible to passers-by. Tourists hurry across the Place Royale without noticing the art nouveau foyer of the Gresham Life Assurance building; commuters rush through the Central Station — Horta’s final, unfinished masterwork — oblivious of its art deco design. Both styles began as violent reactions to dull and dreary architecture. Today, in Brussels, they’ve become part of daily life.
Photographs by Frederik Vercruysse
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