General Meeting

Program time:
THE YEAR OF ART NOUVEAU IN BRUSSELS
Speaker: Alice Graas
Alice Graas
Alice Graas
Location
CHÂTEAU SAINTE-ANNE Rue Du Vieux Moulin 103 1160 Bruxelles

Alice Graas will talk about the beginning of Art Nouveau in Brussels; how and why this style appeared specifically in the neighbourhood of Avenue Louise and the exceptional constructions of the movement that were built there from 1893 until the new century.

Alice Graas is the coordinator of Art Nouveau Brussels 2023.

After graduating in anthropology, she focused on the study and valorisation of heritage, specifically that of Art Nouveau heritage through various initiatives.

Since 2017, Alice coordinates the association Maison Cauchie which is dedicated to the valorisation of the house and the work of the decorator couple Paul and Lina Cauchie. In this context, she has carried out archiving and researching the work on the building as well as updating the exhibition's scenography, in order to be able to enrich and improve the work of the guides. She is also involved in the day-to-day management of the association, as a volunteer, in order to keep the house open on a regular basis. Alice set up a heritage study that was conducted by an architectural and stenographic office, Architectures Parallèles.

Concurrently, she is creating guided tours dedicated to districts where Art Nouveau is strongly represented in order to share her passion of this heritage with the public and is working on the implementation of the Art Nouveau year, a project of “urban.brussels” which endeavours to establish the Brussels Region as the capital of Art Nouveau, celebrating the 130th anniversary of the first "Art Nouveau" house, the Hotel Tassel.

A Review
THE YEAR OF ART NOUVEAU IN BRUSSELS
A review by Larisa Doctorow
art nouveau in brussels

Our lecturer Alice Graas is the coordinator of Art Nouveau Brussels 2023. 

After graduating in anthropology, she focused on the study and valorisation of heritage, specifically the Art Nouveau heritage through different initiatives. Since 2017, she has been coordinator at the association Maison Cauchy, one of the Art Nouveau buildings. She is also creating guided tours around Art Nouveau districts of Brussels. 

In 2023, the Brussels Region celebrates the 130th anniversary of the first Art Nouveau house, the Tassel building. This is the year of implementation of the urban.brussels project which aims to establish the Brussels Region as the capital of Art Nouveau. 

At the end of the 19th century, the Art Nouveau style became a trend in the arts, mainly in the architecture of many countries around the world. This fashion took Europe by storm but after less than 20 years it was gone. Nonetheless, what was left for posterity is very exciting. This is especially true for those of us who live in Brussels. 

One of my Belgian-Russian friends lived close to Avenue Louise in the early 1950s and walked every day along the avenue to her school. She told me that in those days the avenue was elegant. It had two alleys of chestnut trees under which there were benches. In the middle, there was a trail for horsemen. Along the two sides there were tram lines. The facades of maisons de maître buildings were exquisite. It was a pleasure to look at them day after day. Avenue Louise was created to provide city people with access to the Bois de la Cambre park, an important green space within the city’s boundaries. That was during the reign of King Leopold II.

evolution

But the roots for this beauty lay in the second half of the 19th century, when the economic situation of the country created possibilities for people to become well-to-do. King Leopold II and the government provided means for developing infrastructure like the Tervuren Avenue, tram lines, railways, the Palais de Justice and the Cinquantenaire complex celebrating the 50th anniversary of the creation of Belgium. Industrialization brought wealth to some. Moreover, there were cheap raw materials from the Congo, which was the personal property of the King. He favoured the development of Brussels, his capital, and was generous with funds. 

Belgium, in spite of its size, was an important economic unit. It had significant and well developed industry. The newly wealthy wanted dwellings appropriate to their status. 

They began to buy parcels of land along Avenue Louise and on side streets to build fashionable houses. But they wanted to have something different from the residences of their parents. They rejected traditional dwellings and wanted a distinctive new style to show off their wealth. At the same time a new generation of young architects graduated from universities and were eager to show their talent and knowledge. Thus, supply and demand found each other. 

Avenue Louise became the construction area for the ambitious projects of young architects. 

The whole world knows the name of the architect Victor Horta, the forerunner of Art Nouveau. He was the creator of the major projects executed in the centre of Brussels, such as the Gare Centrale, the Palais des Beaux Arts, the Solvay house on Avenue Louise and many private residences. In this period, there was a Maison du Peuple on the Grand Sablon, but in the 1960s the government decided to demolish it in spite of overwhelming protests and built a multi- storied tower instead. Fragments of the construction are exhibited in Ghent, the birthplace of Victor Horta. For himself, Horta built a mansion on Rue Americaine, which is now a museum and is open for visits. At that time the architecture in Brussels went its own way. If we compare Paris and Brussels, we notice a big contrast. French architects kept on constructing luxurious apartment houses, while Belgians preferred to have private residences with private entrances to their houses. It is clear that for architects Brussels was very fertile ground.

interior

In 1893 Victor Horta built the Tassel building on Rue P. E. Janson 6. This date is considered the birth of the Art Nouveau style. The house was totally asymmetrical. At the ground floor there is a small room to receive guests, who then go up and find themselves in a winter garden. The dining room follows. On the second floor there is a living room and on the third floor there are bedrooms. The kitchen is not in the basement as it was in the past. The architect did interior decorations as well, for which he used a lot of stained glass. His idea was to achieve a unity of the façade with the interior of the house. Victor Horta at that time was 32 years old. Starting from this moment, he continued to build houses and had many followers among architects. 

One of the most prolific was Paul Hankar, who designed the famous Ciamberlani building on Rue Defacqz 48 in Ixelles. Its façade has two round windows. Two huge salons take the width of the house. The space under the roof is decorated with small cameos, depicting the transition from childhood to old age. The furniture was also designed by Paul Hankar. 

Our lecturer showed us a few examples of how the style of the new mansions was changing. At the start of the new trend, the maisons de maître did not differ much from the previous ones, exhibiting the same entrances, asymmetrical arrangement of the rooms on the ground floor and the suites of rooms on the first and the second floors. The kitchen according to the tradition was still in the basement. Gradually the planning of the rooms changed. First, the kitchen was moved up to the ground floor. A small room was added where the guests could gather. The bedrooms and the bathroom remained on the top floor. 

People began paying more attention to light and fresh air in the age of Art Nouveau. Sometimes glass ceilings were installed above the stairwells. There were small balconies decorated with elaborate cast iron railings added to the facades. This was a big change because previously fresh air, like water, was considered bad for the health. Things changed further after WWI. 

Two places, on Avenue Louise and Place Stephanie are particularly interesting for the Art Nouveau trend in Brussels. A tram station was built on Place Stephanie. The reason was to connect the Bois de la Cambre with the city centre. That was the first tram line in the city. Avenue Louise was then the luxurious avenue that my friend knew in the 1950s. In the nearby district of Saint-Gilles, the houses lining the streets had small gardens in front of their facades. Thus, the area was very green. 

The Solvay House on Avenue Louise was built by Victor Horta for the descendant of an industrialist who made his fortune producing and selling soda. The house shows a generous use of iron and big open spaces inside. If necessary, one could open all the interior doors and hide the partitions between the rooms. The house was built to impress Belgian society, and so the architect was not sparing decorations. He used 23 types of marble and many types of wood. The furniture in the house was also designed by Victor Horta.

sgraffiti

Some features of the new style were: 

• The unity of the façade and the interior decoration of a house. 

• Detailed planning and design, including the interior decoration, which had many decorative details, for example at the banisters and among the window frames. Sgraffites were widely used on the façade and there were stucco surfaces inside the house. 

• The new materials used included iron bars inside the houses, left exposed as part of the interior decoration. 

• The staircases were very large and elaborate. The idea was to show that the owner had so much space that he did not care about losing a few meters on stairs. The balconies had elaborate metal railings. 

• There was influence coming from China and Japan, especially in the use of natural materials. 

After WWI the new style lost its glamour. The legacy of Victor Horta was forgotten, though the Palais de Beaux Arts was designed by him in 1922 and was constructed in 1929. The same kind of delay applies to the Central Railway station. It was also designed by Victor Horta in 1910, but constructed in 1935. 

Horta died in 1947 a forgotten man. In this post-war period, the process of demolishing Brussels’ heritage for the sake of new office buildings began. It was given the name Brusselisation. The Maison du Peuple was among the first victims. Avenue Louise lost its glamour. The elegant maisons de maître were replaced by concrete office buildings. Now many of them are empty, and some are being converted to residential homes.

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