Avenue Louise is a super-wide boulevard that leads south-east from the centre of Brussels. Wide enough to accommodate four lanes of traffic, two reserved tram tracks and two service roads, it was established by Léopold II and named for his unfortunate eldest daughter. Appropriately, given Louise’s reputation for compulsive shopping, the avenue that bears her name became home to the haute bourgeoisie and associated luxury retail business. By the end of the 19th. century developers were building substantial three or four storey residences for the mercantile class to the west of avenue Louise and north of rue du Bailli. The tram service could deliver the hard-pressed businessman along the leafy avenue to the city centre office with all due speed. Most residents were content with pattern-book designs that provided large double doorways, spacious rooms with high ceilings, big bay windows and Classical details but a discriminating minority purchased the services of a new generation of architects to produce individual designs that would stand out from the common herd. These clients became patrons of an emerging and challenging artistic style (Art Nouveau) while the flamboyant façades of their new homes spoke to the world about their daring taste for aesthetic innovation. Internally their new homes had a unique ornamental grandeur and spatial flow.
The most prominent Art Nouveau architect was Victor Horta and his network of friends and clients revolved around his links with the Freemasons (whom he joined in 1888) and the Socialists. Masonic contacts produced commissions from industrialists such as Solvay and Tassell and Socialism brought commissions from Max Hallet and for the Maison du Peuple (demolished in 1965). Modern industrial building techniques were employed and ironwork was revealed and treated to decorative effect. The decorative linear qualities of contemporary graphics and illustration were adapted in three dimensions. Wrought iron forms were persuaded to twist and turn in space with an intensity bordering on the neurotic. Where stone and metal met the transition was marked by some lively metallic gymnastics and curvilinear ferrous forms would strap themselves around stone staircases, arches and plinths with limpet-like pressure. Mosaics on the floor, stained glass, painted walls, light fittings and custom-built furniture echo and repeat the ornamental forms and motifs. New forms and new materials were the mark of the discriminating client.
One of Horta’s clients was the Minister for the Congo, Baron van Eetveldte, a man who could hardly be more implicated in Léopold II’s murderous exploitation of his colonial territory. Some of the ill-gotten spoils would find their way into the Art Nouveau home in the form of exotic African hardwoods, much prized for the beauty of their colour and grain. Several Art Nouveau architects were offered Congo-related commissions for the 1900 Paris Exhibition and for the Congolese section of the 1897 Brussels Exhibition. Léopold’s colonial monstrosity would cast a shadow over Belgian public life that, to this day, has not entirely dispersed.
Two other architects are represented here – Albert Roosenboom (83 rue Faider) and Octave van Rysselberghe (Hôtel Otlet, rue de Florence). Rooseboom’s design included a prominent central bay and sgraffito decoration in a Symbolist idiom by Armand Van Waesberghe. Hôtel Otlet sits on a corner site and displays a more sculptural sensibility with alternating bays and recesses. It is defiantly assymetric with conventional dormers and external decoration limited to a single line of floral tiling at the top of the building. The economics of owning an Art Nouveau house in contemporary Brussels are explored in a Financial Times article that makes some interesting points about their price, availability and desirability. Despite their exclusivity it’s not always easy to find a buyer among the ranks of the super-rich who are generally deterred by the conservation issues and prefer homes that can be adapted to display their wealth and soi-disant good taste.