Victor Horta - Biography and Legacy
Belgian Architect and Designer
Biography of Victor Horta
Childhood and Training
Victor Horta was born in Ghent on 6 January 1861 into a large family. His father, Pierre Horta, was a luxury shoemaker, who, according to Victor, "ran his studio with such an air of superiority that for him it became an art." Victor was attracted to music at a young age, learning to play the violin. It appeared to be one of the very few things he was passionate about; nonetheless, at age 12 he was first attracted to architecture when he helped his uncle on a building site.
Horta matriculated to the local Académie des Beaux-Arts in Ghent, then left for Paris in 1878 to work in the atelier of the architect and interior decorator Jules Dubuysson in Montmartre, returning to Ghent two years later upon the death of his father. There in 1881 he married Pauline Heyse, and then moved to Brussels, where he enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, the national art school. He also met the aspiring architect Paul Hankar, who during the 1890s would become one of his better-known colleagues in Belgium to work in Art Nouveau.
Horta did well at the Académie; in 1884 he won the inaugural Godecharle Prize for architecture, which still exists to promote the careers of young Belgian sculptors, painters, and architects, specifically to further their education and training. Around the same time he was taken on as an assistant by his professor Alphonse Balat, who was the architect to the Belgian king Léopold II. Horta was thrilled by this opportunity, as he had aspired to work with Balat for a long time. Balat was then in the midst of designing for Léopold the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken, a commodious expanse of iron-and-glass domed structures on the grounds of the royal palace (to which Balat had earlier made additions and renovations). Though not particularly inventive in terms of technology or form, the structure of the greenhouses nonetheless discloses the almost-purely-functional use of industrial materials that Horta would develop extensively thereafter.
Balat's mentoring paid off for Horta. By 1885, he had joined the Société Centrale de l'Architecture Belge (Central Society of Belgian Architecture), established his own independent practice, and built three houses at 45-47 Twwaalfkameren Street in Ghent, his only structures in his native city. Through his mentor's influence he was awarded the commission for a small pavilion in 1889 to house a sculpture by Jef Lambeux in the Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels, which still stands. In 1890, his daughter Sophie was born, to whom Horta grew so strongly attached that he received custody of her when he divorced his first wife in 1906. (Their first daughter Marguerite died very young - only a few months old).
Horta socialized widely, and in 1888 he joined the Masonic lodge Les Amis Philanthropes of the Grand Orient of Belgium in Brussels, which brought him into contact with a large number of potential future clients. He was also appointed Head of Graphic Design for Architecture at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 1892, then a professor of Architecture the following year.
Art Nouveau and the Development of a Personal Style
Horta's fellow masons Eugene Autrique and Emile Tassel (who was also a professor like Horta at the Université Libre de Bruxelles) soon commissioned him to design residences for them. These two houses, finished in 1893, represent Horta's first works in Art Nouveau - the Tassel House is often cited as the first Art Nouveau building. Horta later recalled that his goal in these two buildings was "to create a personal style, in which could be found a constructive, architectural, and social rationalism. In the Tassel House one sees for the first time the flowering of the style in full force, where Horta fuses seamlessly the structure of iron and twists it into decoration, making it resemble the shapes of vines and tendrils. This is mirrored by the decoration of the mosaic floors, the curves of the chandeliers and balustrades, and the snaking stenciled plant forms of the home's great stair hall.
It was also through Tassel that Horta met the engineer Charles Lefebure, who happened to be the secretary to Ernest Solvay, the chemist and king of industrial soda, used in various applications, including the production of glass, metallurgy, and detergents. Solvay's son Armand confided to Horta the commission for a lavish town house on the Avenue Louise in the Ixelles section of Brussels, giving the architect virtually carte blanche, and Horta obliged. He designed every facet of the house, down to the knobs, carpets, and doorbells, using expensive onyx, marble, bronze, and exotic woods, and collaborated with the painter Theo van Rysselberghe on the design of the grand staircase. The result is the Hotel Solvay, built from 1894-98, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Tassel House, the van Eetvelde House, and Horta's own house and studio. The Tassel House's use of audacious, 'whiplash' natural forms that became the hallmark of Horta's strain of Art Nouveau brought the architect instant renown, and he received a bevy of commissions in the last half of the 1890s, from various clients.
1895 was a banner year for Horta's practice. That year the city of Brussels commissioned him to build a kindergarten on the rue Saint-Ghislain. The same year, he was approached by the leaders of the Belgian Workers' Party (Parti Ouvrier Belge) to build them their new headquarters not far away. Though in his memoirs Horta insisted on his distance from politics, he had nonetheless taught an art class at the Party's old headquarters and was good friends with its intellectual leaders, including Max Hallet, Leon Furnemont and Emile Vandervelde. Horta accepted the challenge.
The result was his masterwork, the Maison du Peuple, a multifunctional structure of iron, glass, and brick that combined the Party's offices, stores, a cafe, recreational spaces, a library, and a large auditorium, all fitted into a highly irregular site on a circular plaza and on a slope. Horta supposedly made 8,500 square meters of drawings and fifteen craftsman worked for eighteen months on the ironwork. The building was finally inaugurated on Easter, in 1899, in the presence of the great French socialist leader Jean Jaurès. Brussels newspapers presented the event with great fanfare, even printing Horta's portrait among their coverage. After World War II the Belgian Workers' Party merged with other leftist organizations to form the Belgian Socialist Party, and vacated the Maison du Peuple. Amidst massive international outcry, the building was demolished in 1965, though a few remnants have been saved, and can be seen in a Brussels subway station and the Horta Museum. Its destruction and replacement by a soulless concrete skyscraper have since been described by some critics as the "greatest architectural crime" of the 20th century.
Also in 1895, Léopold II's secretary for the affairs of the Congo, Edmond van Eetvelde, commissioned Horta to build him a new residence in the fashionable district of the Avenue Palmerston. The house, which was built in two stages (the second from 1899-1901, after van Eetvelde was made a baron by Léopold), is often called Horta's most daring residential design, with the interior organized around a central octagonal stair-hall resting on iron pillars and topped by a stained glass skylight. Van Eetvelde also got Horta the job to design a pavilion of the Congo at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, though the contracts for this project were cancelled and only the drawings survive.
With this burst of success, between 1895-98 Horta purchased a couple of lots in the Saint-Gilles district of Brussels, not far from where he had built many of his residences in the 1890s and erected his own house and studio, which, thanks to the efforts of his student Jean Delhaye, now functions as the Horta Museum.
In 1897, Horta exhibited several of his designs for furniture and decor at the salon of the avant-garde artists' group La Libre Esthetique, thereby introducing his skill as an interior designer to an even wider public. That same year he was also commissioned by the Solvay family to build them a country chateau in Chambley, in northeastern France near Nancy, a kind of combination of Gothic revival and Art Nouveau design; unfortunately, the house's location near the front during World War I exposed it to bombardment and it was demolished soon after.
The New Century
Horta's career continued to flourish as the 20th century was born. While continuing to receive residential commissions in Brussels, such as the Aubecq House (1899), the Roger and Dubois Houses (1901), and a house for socialist leader Max Hallet (1902), Horta also was asked to design several department stores, such as the Grand Bazar d'Anspach in Brussels and Frankfurt, Germany (1903), the Waucquez department store in Brussels (1906), and three branches of L'Innovation in Brussels and Antwerp (1901, 1903, and 1906). In one of the two Brussels stores, Horta reached the apogee of his Art Nouveau work, employing a steel framework filled only by glass panels, thus creating a fully transparent, modern facade that functioned as a giant shop window. His work also was one of the prime attractions at the First International Exposition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin, Italy, in 1902, a fair which represented the apex of Art Nouveau's popularity in Europe.
In 1906, Horta divorced his first wife (he would remarry, to Julia Carlsson, two years later). That same year he began work on a large complex of structures for the Brugmann University Hospital in Laeken, not far from the Royal Palace, which spread out over a large number of low-rise pavilions, separated by function. The campus buildings, which cover 44 acres, use a striking combination of red and white brick. They show the stiffening and simplification of Horta's Art Nouveau, and appear much more workmanlike and sober than the exuberant, energetic designs for his more famous earlier buildings. Construction on the large project started only in 1911, was interrupted by World War I, and was only finished in 1923. It is still in use as a hospital today, and its design was positively received among the European medical community. In 1907, he designed a new Museum of Fine Arts in Tournai, Belgium, although it did not open until 1928. In 1910, Horta also received the commission for the planned new Brussels-Central Railway Station, though the work would not be completed until 1952, five years after Horta's death.
Horta resigned from his professorship at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 1911 when the university administration did not offer him the contract to design extensions to the school's buildings. But the following year he accepted an appointment at his alma mater, the Académie des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, and in 1913 began a three-year term as director. He planned on revising significantly the teaching of architecture at the school, which earned him the enmity of his colleagues.
World War I and Aftermath
Horta left for London in 1915 to attend the Town Planning Conference on the Reconstruction of Belgium, organized by the International Garden Cities and Town Planning Association. Belgium had already been devastated by World War I, with the German armies committing a great cultural crime by wantonly burning a large portion of the city of Louvain, including its university library, whose collection had held many priceless medieval manuscripts. However, Horta was unable to return to Belgium, so he left Britain for the United States, where he remained for the rest of the war, giving lectures at several American universities, including Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Yale, Smith College, and Wellesley College. In 1917, he accepted an appointment as Professor of Architecture at George Washington University in Washington, DC. In the United States, Horta also encountered the skyscraper for the first time and realized definitively that the wave of building in the future would not use Art Nouveau, and he resolved once the war concluded that he would need to adjust his designs to current tastes.
Turn to Art Deco and Later Works
The war left Horta in a difficult situation. Upon his return to Belgium in 1919 he sold his house and studio. That year, however, he was commissioned to design the new Palais des Beaux-Arts (Center for Fine Arts) in Brussels, a multipurpose facility that includes a concert hall, recital hall, chamber music room, a large exhibition space, a movie theater, and lecture rooms. The building took nearly ten years to complete, and was finally inaugurated in 1928; its aesthetic demonstrates that Horta had abandoned Art Nouveau fully and instead turned to a highly geometricized, rectilinear, classicized aesthetic that reflected the development of what we now call Art Deco.
In 1925, Horta was called upon to design the Belgian pavilion at the Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris (International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts; the 1925 World's Fair). He produced a modest, symmetrical structure of wood, plaster, and other low-cost materials, whose straightforward rectilinearity was somewhat reminiscent of a small Greek temple or aedicule. It was crowned by six statues representing the historical development of the decorative arts by Marcel Wolfers, whose family had commissioned Horta to design a jewelry shop for them in Brussels in 1909.
Though late in life Horta was occupied with very few commissions, save for the ongoing work with the Brussels-Central Railway Station, he was given several honors both at home and abroad. In 1919, he was made a member of the Order of the Crown and the following year inducted into the Order of Léopold, the two highest classes of honors awarded by the Belgian state. In 1926, he served on the jury for the competition of the new buildings for the League of Nations in Geneva, and was named a member of the French Legion of Honor. In 1932, he was named a Baron by Albert I, the Belgian king.
In 1939, Horta began work on his Mémoires, which were only published posthumously in 1985. During the Second World War, he burned most of his papers and designs, regretting that he had never made the effort to actually publish his works. Perhaps because he had never done so, Horta was mostly forgotten at the time of his death in 1947. His student Maxine Brunfaut completed his unfinished Brussels-Central Railway Station in 1952, according to Horta's own plans. Horta was interred at Ixelles Cemetery in Brussels.
The Legacy of Victor Horta
During the height of his career at the turn of the 20th century, Horta achieved international renown as an innovator. He was an especially strong influence on the French Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard, whom Horta met once in 1894 and advised to "banish the flower" in favor of the stalk in Guimard's own explorations of style. Horta also inspired a large number of minor architects in Belgium and especially around Brussels, thereby making Art Nouveau a kind of "national style" around 1900. His 'whiplash' curves, nearly a trademark aesthetic, are often termed "the Belgian line" in architectural discourse.
Horta did not represent the complete trajectory of Art Nouveau in Belgium, however; on the other pole was Henry van de Velde, with whom Horta did not have a good relationship. Though he sometimes borrowed from Horta's curvilinear aesthetic, van de Velde was known much more to favor the Arts and Crafts, and eventually left Belgium in 1899 to become director of the Arts and Crafts school in Weimar, Germany, before being forced out at the start of World War I. Unlike Horta, van de Velde had come to architecture through painting and the decorative arts (with Horta it was the other way around, and Horta never painted, anyways). While van de Velde was a gifted and polemical writer, Horta was laconic and published very little, preferring to let his built work and designs speak for him.
Horta died during an era when Art Nouveau began to enter one of the darkest chapters of its history. He had foreseen that many of his works would likely be destroyed because of the nature of the style in many places as a passing fad. Most of his department stores have been demolished; his great branch of L'Innovation in Brussels of 1903 was remodeled and then destroyed in a fire in 1967, and most famously, the Maison du Peuple was dismantled in 1965 amid a public outcry.
Such is not the case with Horta's residential works. His students Jean Delhaye and Maxine Brunfaut did much to ensure the survival of several of Horta's key works, as did many private owners of the houses that he built in Brussels, and a great number of them still remain; some are even open to the public occasionally. Even the Waucquez Department Store in Brussels still stands, and is in large part preserved, having now been transformed into the Museum of the Comic Strip.
With the revival of scholarly attention on Art Nouveau between the 1950s and 1970s, Horta's image began to be rehabilitated. At first, much of Art Nouveau was considered to be a critical forerunner or embryonic form of the modern movement, part of the search for a style for the "machine age" as epitomized by the International Style of architecture at midcentury. But more recently, Art Nouveau has begun to be treated as a style worthy of its own scholarly treatment and Horta's image as one of the great Belgian architects has been restored. At the end of the 20th century, Horta's portrait and whiplash designs were featured on the 2000 Belgian franc note.
Railings from Horta's Maison du Peuple can now be seen in the Brussels subway station Horta (named for him). Today the Musée Horta is now located in his former house and studio, meticulously preserved, and dedicated to the cultivation of his legacy.