Victor, Baron Horta was a Belgian architect and designer. John Julius Norwich described him as "undoubtedly the key European Art Nouveau architect." Indeed, Horta is one of the most important names in Art Nouveau architecture; the construction of his Hôtel Tassel in Brussels in 1892-3 means that he is sometimes credited as the first to introduce the style to architecture from the decorative arts. The French architect Hector Guimard was deeply influenced by Horta and further spread the "whiplash" style in France and abroad.
In 1932 King Albert I of Belgium conferred on Horta the title of Baron for his services to architecture. Four of the buildings he designed have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Life and career
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.
Horta had had a great interest in music since childhood and, in 1873, went to study musical theory at the Ghent Conservatory. After being expelled for bad behaviour he joined the Department of Architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent instead. In 1878 Horta left for Paris, finding work with architect and designer Jules Debuysson in Montmartre. There he was inspired by the emerging impressionist and pointillist artists, and also by the possibilities of working in iron and glass.
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.
In 1884 Horta won the first Prix Godecharle to be awarded for Architecture (for his unbuilt design for Parliament), as well as the Grand Prix in architecture on leaving the Royal Academy.
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.
During this period, Horta socialised widely and, in 1888, joined the freemasons as a member of the lodge Les Amis Philanthropes of the Grand Orient of Belgium in Brussels. This ensured a stream of clients when he returned to designing houses and shops from 1893.
Horta was appointed Head of Graphic Design for Architecture at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 1892, before being promoted to Professor of Architecture in 1893, a post he left in 1911 after the university authorities failed to offer him the opportunity to design an extension to the university buildings.
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.
Horta and his first wife were divorced in 1906. He married his second wife, Julia Carlsson, in 1908.
In 1906, Horta accepted the commission for the new Brugmann University Hospital (now the Victor Horta Site of the Brugmann University Hospital). Developed to take into account the views of the clinicians and hospital managers, Horta's design separated the functions of the hospital into a number of low-rise pavilions spread over the 18 hectares (44 acres) park based campus, and work began in 1911. Although used during World War I, the official opening was delayed until 1923. Its unusual design and layout attracted great interest from the European medical community, and his buildings continue in use to this day.
In 1907, and of note for the inclusion of a greater number of classical references, Horta designed the Museum for Fine Arts in Tournai, although it did not open until 1928 due to the war.
With World War I in progress, Horta left Belgium for London in February 1915 and attended the Town Planning Conference on the Reconstruction of Belgium, organised by the International Garden Cities and Town Planning Association. Unable to return to Belgium due to the war, at the end of the year he decided to go to the United States, where he gave a number of lectures at universities including Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Smith College, Wellesley College and Yale and, in 1917, became Professor of Architecture at George Washington University, and Charles Eliot Norton Memorial Lecturer.
Towards Art deco and Modernism
On Horta's return to Brussels in January 1919 he sold his home and workshop on the rue Américaine, and also became a full member of the Belgian Royal Academy.
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. Internally, Horta's complex floor plans again demonstrate his talent for rational design. Combining his love of both music and architecture, Horta designed an unusual egg-shaped concert hall which is regarded as one of the Worlds' greatest, although modifications in 1970 harmed the acoustics. The Henry Leboeuf hall, the main concert hall, was renovated in 2000 and the acoustics have been restored. Further restoration work on other parts of the building took place during the 2000s.
In 1927, Horta became the Director of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, a post he held for four years until 1931. In recognition of his work, Horta was awarded the title of Baron by Albert I of Belgium in 1932.
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. It was originally envisaged that this would form part of a much larger Municipal Development, which Horta also worked on during the 1920s, although this never materialised. The start of construction was seriously delayed due to the lengthy process of purchasing and demolishing over 1,000 buildings along the route of the new railway (between the existing stations), technical problems, and the intervention of World War I. Construction finally began in 1937 as part of the plans to boost the economy during the Great Depression, before being delayed again by the outbreak of World War II. 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.