Victor Horta designed and built his own home and studio at 25 rue Américaine in the commune of Saint-Gilles, about 2 miles south of the centre of Brussels. Construction took place between 1898 and 1901 and the house was extended in 1906 and 1908. Positioned on a double width plot, Horta divided the space vertically to separate living accommodation and studio and business space. Horta’s talent for exuberant decoration was more than equalled by his command of spatial organisation, seen at its best in the separation of rooms around the central staircase by minor but defining changes in levels of two, three or four steps. These subtleties enable the spatial flow to match the flowing forms that coil and twist throughout the house. The visual language of Art Nouveau perished instantly in the mechanised slaughter of the Great War and when Horta moved out in 1919 to a town-house on avenue Louise, he left behind what was already an extraordinary anachronism. He adapted to the times and developed an architecture of geometric sobriety that brought some prestigious projects (Palais des Beaux-Arts and Brussels-Central railway station) that resulted in worthy but unmemorable buildings. With the ascendancy of Modernism, the rising execration of the style of his early maturity was something Horta had to endure until his death in 1947, some two decades before the rehabilitation of Art Nouveau as part of a new narrative of architectural and design history.
Horta’s house is now a national monument and a significant part of it is curated and open to the public. Visiting is a strange experience. Modern museums are not unreasonably, generally unwelcoming to backpacks and large bags, requiring them to be deposited in cloakrooms. But the Musée Horta has extended this to include virtually all hand held bags including handbags of purse-like dimensions. The result is an enormous cloakroom queue held up by protesting visitors, mainly female, angrily transferring cash, cards and valuables to their person before consigning their handbags into the custody of museum staff in whom they have absolutely no trust. Admission tickets are sold by a functionary perched halfway up the stairs at a tiny table while members of staff self-importantly bustle around continually creating unwanted turbulence in the confined spaces. A ban on photography is rigorously enforced which does induce caution on the part of those unwilling to comply.
None of this makes for a contemplative experience but nevertheless it is fascinating to explore a space that offers such a total design experience where almost every feature has been subordinated to the designer’s brief. Movement around the stairwell and through the rooms is a genuine visual and physical pleasure, greatly enhanced by the flow of forms that gather and surge throughout the building. Almost every feature bears examination for its formal ingenuity and visitors can be seen staring intently at banisters, tie-rods, light pendants, matchbox holders and keyholes, all specially designed and custom-built. Horta’s vision was unusually intense and triggered an explosion of Art Nouveau architectural exuberance across Europe and North America and in doing so boosted the first 20th. century art movement to explode into life and expire in little more than a decade, pioneering a tradition of rapid transience that shows no sign of changing.