Victor Horta was a Belgian architect and designer. John Julius Norwich described him as "undoubtedly the key European Art Nouveau architect." Horta is considered one of the most important names in Art Nouveau architecture. With the construction of his Hôtel Tassel in Brussels in 1892-3, he is sometimes credited as the first to introduce the style to architecture from the decorative arts. Additionally, the French architect Hector Guimard was deeply influenced by Horta and further spread the "whiplash" style that Horta purported in France and abroad.
Born in Ghent, Horta was first attracted to the architectural profession when he helped his uncle on a building site at the age of twelve.
When Horta's father died in 1880, he returned to Belgium and moved to Brussels, married his first wife, with whom he later fathered two daughters, and went to study architecture at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. In Brussels Horta built a friendship with Paul Hankar, who would later also embrace Art Nouveau. Horta did well in his studies and was taken on as an assistant by his professor Alphonse Balat, architect to Leopold II of Belgium. Together they designed the royal Greenhouses of Laeken, Horta's first work to utilise glass and iron.
By 1885 Horta was working on his own and was commissioned to design three houses which were built that year. The same year he also joined the Central Society of Belgian Architecture. Over the next few years he entered a number of competitions for public work, and collaborated with sculptors (notably his friend Godefroid Devresse) on statuary and even tombs, winning a number of prizes. He focused on the curvature of his designs, believing that the forms he produced were highly practical and not artistic affectations.
Art Nouveau period
After introducing Art Nouveau in an exhibition held in 1892, Horta was inspired. Commissioned to design a home for professor Emile Tassel, he transfused the recent influences into Hôtel Tassel, completed in 1893. The design had a groundbreaking semi open-plan floor layout for a house of the time, and incorporated interior iron structure with curvilinear botanical forms, later described as “biomorphic whiplash”. Ornate and elaborate designs and natural lighting were concealed behind a stone façade to harmonize the building with the more rigid houses next door. The building has since been recognized as the first appearance of Art Nouveau in architecture.
After receiving great acclaim for his designs, Horta was commissioned to complete many other important buildings throughout Brussels. Enhancing this new architectural style, Horta designed the Hôtel Solvay (1895–1900) and his own residence (1898) employing iron and stone façade with elaborate iron interiors.
During 1894, Horta was elected President of the Central Society of Belgian Architecture, although he resigned the following year following a dispute caused when he was awarded the commission for a kindergarten on rue Saint-Ghislain without a public competition.
From 1895 to 1899 Horta designed the Maison du Peuple (House of the People), a major building for the progressive Belgian Workers' Party consisting of a large complex of offices, meeting rooms, cafe and a conference & concert hall seating over 2,000 people. Its demolition in 1965, in spite of an international protest by over 700 architects, has been described as one of the greatest architectural crimes of the twentieth century.
In tune with the public mood, after some ten years designing in the Art Nouveau style that he pioneered and for which his is best known, from the turn of the century Horta's designs gradually started to become simplified and less flamboyant, with more classical references. This can first be seen in his 1901 extension to his recently completed Hôtel van Eetvelde, in which he chose to specify a pair of marble columns.
The post-war austerity meant that Art Nouveau was no longer affordable or fashionable. From this point on Horta, who had gradually been simplifying his style over the previous decade, no longer used organic forms, and instead based his designs on the geometrical. He continued to use rational floor plans, and to apply the latest developments in building technology and building services engineering. The Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, a multi-purpose cultural centre designed in a formal style that was new at the time, but which foreshadows Art Deco as well as having cubist features, is a particularly prominent example.
Horta developed the design for the Palais over several years from 1919, with construction finally beginning in 1923. Externally the building is clad in stone, however it was largely built using reinforced concrete. Following the way he had left steel exposed in his Art Nouveau buildings, Horta had originally intended to leave the concrete exposed internally. Unfortunately the surface was unsatisfactory and, to his regret, had to be covered.
Horta actually began working on his longest running project - the modernist Brussels-Central railway station - in 1910, although (despite having been commissioned to prepare drawings in 1913) work didn't start until 27 years later. Horta was still working on the station when he died in 1947, and the building was completed to his plans by his colleagues led by Maxime Brunfaut. It eventually opened on 4 October 1952
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