It’s not all Eurocrats and expensive chocolates you know. The Belgian capital also has a wealth of beautiful Art Nouveau architecture to be explored
Art Nouveau, it seems, is having a moment. And it makes sense that the flamboyant fin de siè cle style of art and architecture, with its curves, spirals and motifs from nature, resonates in these eco-conscious times. Meanwhile its emphasis on craftsmanship, and its marriage of high-quality materials (wood, glass, iron) with what were then cutting-edge technologies, strikes a chord with a generation tired of cheaply built cubes and boxes.
The last time Art Nouveau was in fashion was in the 1960s and early 1970s – I still treasure a silver Art Nouveau pin in the shape of a dragonfly given to me then – and they were uncertain times too. Minimalism seems sleek and fun when there’s plenty of money sloshing around, but when things are looking a bit grim, Art Nouveau’s organic qualities, its delicacy, sensuousness and elegance offer a kind of aesthetic comfort. And it was closely aligned to the arts and crafts movement, whose emphasis on creating useful and beautiful things is also fashionable again.
Though it was popular all over Europe, some of the finest examples of original Art Nouveau art and architecture are to be found in Brussels and on my recent, first, trip to the city, to visit friends, I decided to explore them.
Father of Art Noveau
Architect Victor Horta (1871-1947) is considered the father of Belgian Art Nouveau. Four of the houses he built in the city – Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel van Eetvelde, Hôtel Solvay, and his own house and studio, now the Horta Museum – have been together designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
You don’t have to wait long to encounter Horta’s work. The convenient train that runs from the station underneath Brussels Airport right to the city centre (a journey of about 15 minutes, €7.60 one way) whisks you through the heavily industrialised landscape of Flanders before fetching up at Brussels Central Station, which was designed by the ground-breaking architect. It has the curved facade, grand stairway and light-filled interior typical of Art Nouveau but it is a late Horta building, and by the time he designed it, after the first World War, he – and architecture – had begun to explore a more classical, geometric style which would eventually evolve into Modernism and Art Deco.
For a real taste of Horta at the height of his Art Nouveau period, a visit to his own house and studio, the Musée Horta on Rue Américaine, in Saint Gilles, is essential. You might have to queue for a while – they only allow a limited number of people in at any one time – but it is worth the wait. Built in 1898, it is an extraordinary place. Like many Art Nouveau houses, it has a winter garden: conservatories and indoor gardens had become popular in the late 19th century as places to grow the new and exotic plants that were being brought home by explorers and naturalists.
Horta brought light into Brussels houses, which tended to be tall and narrow, by using central stairways topped with glass roofs. He often used coloured glass or the new opalescent glass, which had just been developed by Americans John la Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany. His own house has a magnificent glass canopy over the stairs.
But Horta was an interior designer as well as an architect. He wanted “to provide his clients with a world of sensory richness that transfigured daily life” and his house, which like many architects, he used as a kind of showcase for his work, reflects this.
He liked to combine industrial and luxury materials and the diningroom walls are covered in white-glazed tiles, while the floor is a light coloured wood. He embraced the new electric lighting, too, creating magnificent fittings of curling, stem-like brass tubes with bulbs on the end resembling buds, and lamps with flower-shaped glass shades. Fronds, arabesques and floral motifs abound – particularly in the wrought iron of the staircase and the exposed iron columns and structures. He insisted on light instead of dark colours, too, using shades of light pink, green and ochre, unheard of at the time.
Horta aimed to create a harmonious whole and the detail in his house – everything, down to the handles on the windows and even the keyholes is beautifully designed and crafted – is meticulous. It somehow feels uplifting rather than overpowering – maybe because the rooms are not enormous and the light from the stained glass and the fittings gives the building a homely, peachy glow.
Two of the Unesco Horta buildings, the Hôtel Tassel and the Hôtel van Eetvelde, are not open to the public, except as part of group tours organised by ARAU, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting the public spaces of the city.
To visit Horta’s other masterpiece, the Hôtel Solvay, on Avenue Louise 224 (hotelsolvay.be) you must have a group of more than 20 people, so like us you may have to content yourself with a look at the outside. This is pretty spectacular, with a curving facade, intricate carving and large bow windows.
The Autrique House, on Chaussée de Haecht, a little farther out, in Schaerbeek, is the first of Horta’s Art Nouveau houses. He designed it in 1893 for his engineer friend Eugene Autrique, and it incorporates many of the elements he would later refine. But Horta and his colleagues also built department stores, exhibition spaces and public buildings, among them the imposing Palais des Beaux-Arts on Rue Ravenstein, still a public arts centre. Also worth a look is the building that now houses the Belgian Comic Strip Centre at Rue des Sables – essential for your Tintin and Smurfs research, it has ongoing comic strip exhibitions too.
Although many of the buildings have been torn down, more than 500 are still in existence. In fact, Art Nouveau is everywhere in the city. Its influence is visible even in the modern plastic billboards, which have a curved flourish, and in the contemporary lettering on the fronts of bars and perfumeries.
We came across lots of Art Nouveau houses just wandering around. In the European quarter, on Place Ambiorix we chanced on Villa Saint-Cyr, a flamboyant mansion built for the painter Georges Léonard de Saint-Cyr in 1903 by Gustave Strauven (1878-1919), a disciple of Horta. Its intricate ironwork balconies and crown were described by a less-than-impressed contemporary critic as “epileptic macaroni”. And in the Ixelles district’s Pond Quarter (so called because it surrounds two pretty ponds) on Vilain XIIII, we found two lovely adjoining houses designed by Ernest Blérot. On Avenue du Général de Gaulle, overlooking the ponds, numbers 38-39, also by Blérot, are for rent (the going rate, apparently, is about €9,000 per month).
HOW TO GET THERE
Aer Lingus has flights every day from Dublin to Brussels airport and three flights a week from Cork to Brussels airport, from around €39 one way. Ryanair has flights every day from Dublin to Charleroi airport, from around the same price. (Charleroi is approximately an hour from the centre of Brussels; shuttle buses to Central Station leave from the airport every 30 mins, €13 one way, €22 return).
WHERE TO EAT
To continue the theme of the weekend we had lunch in La Quincaillerie Brasserie (45 Rue du Page, quincaillerie.be), a former ironmongers, built in 1903. The food was unremarkable, but the building, with its exposed ironwork painted bottle green and countless original wooden drawers lining the walls (presumably originally used to store nails, screws and tools), is gorgeous. As an alternative you could have a croque (toasted cheese sandwich) or a salad and a beer at Le Cirio, at Rue de la Bourse 18, a sumptuous grand café dating from 1886 with dark wood interior and old-fashioned-aproned waiters. Or linger over a coffee in the restaurant on the top floor of the Museum of Musical Instruments (Montagne de la Cour 2, just 200 metres from Central Station, mim.be), which has a glass and iron terrasse, with wonderful views of the city.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotels are generally quite good value as many offer deals at the weekend when the Eurocrats return home.
Made in Louise was voted the best hotel in Brussels by Tripadvisor. It’s in the Ixelles district, a short tram or metro ride from the centre.
Made In Louise, 40 Rue Veydt, Ixelles, 1050 Brussels, madeinlouise.com. From €80 per night single, €107 for a double.
If you want to splash out a bit more, The Dominican, just off the Grand Place and behind the national opera house, La Monnaie, was designed by award-winning Dutch design duo FGStijl. The Dominican, Rue Léopold / Leopoldstraat 9, 1000 Brussels thedominican.be From €120 per room per night (plus €7.58 city tax per night)