One of the biggest surprises for me in Brussels was the Art Nouveau buildings in this city. As a person living in Vienna for many years, I associated Art Nouveau mainly with the Austrian capital. However, the Art Nouveau style in architecture and design first appeared in Brussels in the early 90s of the 19th century and then quickly spread from Belgium to France and the rest of Europe.
Originally, there were over 1,000 Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels. The very rapid expansion of the city in the 60s and 70s of the last century meant the need for new construction – as European institutions and NATO were located in Brussels, more residential buildings, hotels, boulevards and transport infrastructure were needed. This resulted in the demolition of old buildings, regardless of their architectural or historical value. Such uncontrolled urban planning has since been called Brusselization. More than 400 Art Nouveau buildings fell victim. In some that have survived to the present day, museums have been set up, mostly related to the building or its architect. Some buildings are not open to the public, but it is still worth looking at them from the outside.
I have selected 9 objects for this article (status: February 2022), using their French names: hôtel or maison (the name hôtel does not mean a hotel!).
(1) Hôtel Tassel – UNESCO! – Rue Paul-Emile Janson 6
1893, Victor Horta
Victor Horta (1861 – 1947) is for the Belgian capital who Otto Wagner is for Vienna. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, later worked there as a teacher and even became its director. Already during his studies, he worked as an assistant to Professor Alphonse Balat, who was the court architect of King Leopold II of Belgium. Together they designed the royal greenhouses in Laeken, where Horta used his knowledge of the use of glass and steel, but his desire was to create his own style.
Before completing his first commission – the House Autrique, he created a design for the House Tassel in 1893 – for the scientist and professor of geometry Emile Tassel. This house is considered to be the first Art Nouveau building, a manifesto of Art Nouveau architecture. Everything that Horta later achieved with his talent has its origin in this building.
Four of the buildings he has designed have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, and Hôtel Tassel is one of them.
The main element of the narrow façade (7.5 m) is a convex window which proves the mastery of the young architect. The metal plays an important constructive role, which made it possible to design the bay window without masonry columns and to completely open the middle part of the façade. The house is built around a central staircase. The glass roof acts as a light shaft which brings natural light to the center of the house.
Unfortunately, the house was under renovation during my visit. If I ever return to Brussels, I would very much like to visit the house so that I can admire the typical Horta’s wavy lines on the spot. Some experts compare them to whiplash, but the architect found inspiration in nature – in the shoots of grapevine and other climbing plants. As he said, “you just have to throw away the flowers and leave only the stems.” These wavy lines wind from floor to ceiling, repeated in the railing fittings along the stairs, climbing on the walls and even “hugging” the furniture. Horta gave them an unprecedented vitality and impulse, characteristic of plants that stretch for light.
If you are interested in visiting this house, make sure it has opened already, as well as the dates of the tours on the page: Tassel
Photography not allowed.
(2) Hôtel van Eetvelde – UNESCO! – Avenue Palmerston 2-4
1895 – 1901, Victor Horta
Horta built this house for Edmont van Eetvelde, Secretary of State for King Leopold II. Although iron was used for industrial buildings at the time, the architect designed an iron façade. Later, two more plots of land were purchased and Horta was invited to the construction again, but this time he preferred a stone façade for this building.
(3) Hôtel Hannon – Avenue de la Jonction 1
1902 – 1903, Jules Brunfaut
This house was built for the engineer and hobby photographer Edouard Hannon. Maybe that’s why there should be a Museum of Contemporary Photography in the building, but when I was there, the house wasn’t open to the public.
The façade attracts with convex and concave lines, the relief in the upper corner is from the Belgian sculptor Victor Rousseau.
(4) Les Hiboux – Avenue Brugmann 55
1899, Édouard Pelseneer
Right next to Hôtel Hannon, you will find this truly fun house which is built entirely in the sign of the owl. Even the three large windows seemed to resemble this night bird in shape. Two owls are about to take off from the roof – or are they sleeping there?
Also above the entrance, there are two owls and the name of the house, which in French means – owls – what else?
(5) Hôtel Otlet – Rue de Livourne 48
1896 – 1898, Octave van Rysselberghe
This house was built for the son of Paul Otlet, a Belgian industrialist who became rich through the production of trams. The interior of the house must certainly be impressive as well, with the Flemish painter and designer Henry van de Velde collaborating on its design.
The corner house attracts with its façade with striking asymmetrically distributed elements.
(6) Maison Hankar – Rue Defacqz 71
1893, Paul Hankar
The first two Art Nouveau houses in Brussels were built in the same year. One was designed by Horta, the other by Paul Hankar as his own residence. Hankar was Horta’s student and at the same time a competitor, he also preferred asymmetry and curves, but his style was a little different and he also used different ways of processing materials.
To decorate his house, Hankar combined the talents of several of his artistic friends, who decorated the facade with sgraffito. What I found interesting are the symbolic images of individual times of the day through various species of flying animals, such as the swallow for the evening and the bat for the night.
The colorful façade was created using bricks and stone of various colors and shades. The large bay window provided enough light for Hankar’s art workshop. On the façade and balconies, you can see the wavy wrought iron railings in the Art Nouveau style. Hankar also built other houses in Brussels according to this model.
(7) Hotel Ciamberlani – Rue Defacqz 48
1897, Paul Hankar
Another of the houses designed by Paul Hankar. It was built for the painter Albert Ciamberlani, a representative of symbolism. Behind the extravagant large horseshoe-shaped windows was his studio.
Almost the entire façade is covered with rich sgraffito.
(8) House Saint-Cyr – Square Ambiorix 11
1900 – 1903, Gustave Strauven
This house near the EU-district will definitely not be overlooked by any passers-by. It is incredibly narrow – only 4 m, but it has an amazing decoration of iron and glass. I could observe the intertwined metal lines for a long time. Architect Gustave Strauven was only 21 at the time, he was also a student of Victor Horta. The house was designed for the painter and decorator Léonard de Saint-Cyr.
This house was also threatened with demolition in the 1960s. However, the house was more fortunate than, for example, the People’s House, built by Victor Horta in the years 1895 – 1899 as the seat of the Belgian Workers’ Party not only with offices and meeting rooms but also with a cafe and a large concert hall. This building was demolished in 1965, despite an international protest petition signed by more than 700 architects. Part of the material from the building was used for the construction of the Brussels subway…
(9) Palac Stoclet – UNESCO! – Avenue de Tervurene 279
1905 – 1911, Josef Hoffmann
Brussels has not only the oldest Art Nouveau houses but also one of the best examples of late Art Nouveau. It is the Stoclet Palace, which is one of the most luxurious private houses of the 20th century. The building was designed by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann for the Brussels banker and art collector Adolph Stoclet, who met Hoffmann in Vienna and was very impressed by his work. In 2009, this house was also included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, but it is not open to the public at all (due to disagreements between the owners), which is certainly a great pity. It can be seen only from the outside, even only from behind a high fence.
The exterior consists of large marble cubes. The building is dominated by a tower which is crowned by four statues by Czech sculptor of German nationality Franz Metzner.
The interior is much more lavish, all its elements made in the Vienna Art Workshops (Wiener Werkstätte), including furniture, central lights and dishes. However, we can only admire it in photographs in professional publications or on the Internet. I visited an exhibition in Vienna dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the birth of Josef Hoffmann at the Museum of Applied Arts. A model of the palace was also exhibited here, which at least indicates how large the complex is.
And at least in the photos, I could see the interior, especially the dining room, whose longitudinal walls are decorated with a frieze – a mosaic with a well-known motif of the tree of life from another famous representative of the Viennese Art Nouveau movement – Gustav Klimt.
If you want to see at least a few Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels, visit the Saint-Gilles district (tram 92, Faider or Janson stop), where you will find buildings 1, 5, 6 and 7, as well as other Art Nouveau houses that are open to the public, including the house and studio of the most expensive Brussels architect in the early 20th century – Victor Horta. More about those buildings in the following article.
If you visit Brussels and walk its streets, keep your eyes open. You will definitely discover even more Art Nouveau buildings. And who knows, maybe they’ll also open some of them to the public. In the meantime, you can visit: 8 Art Nouveau buildings that can be admired from the inside
My thanks to explore.brussels for providing a photo of the interior of Hôtel Tassel.
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri