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Art Nouveau in Brussels

Art Nouveau in Brussels

Created by Sean on 23/10/2010
Updated on 15/06/2012
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By Noisette
Noisette, a member on the Google Earth Community has put together a historical tour of "Art Nouveau" in Brussels, Belgium. See descriptions and images about the artists whose influence proved so strong in the artistic history of this vibrant European city.

The art nouveau period in Brusssels started in 1893 with the construction of Victor Horta's Hôtel Tassel and Paul Hankar's own house in rue Defaqcz. It lasted until just before the first world war. The name "art nouveau" was first used later when the art dealer Siegfried ("Samuel") Bing opened a store in Paris which he called the "Maison de l'Art Nouveau".

In the late 19th century Belgium was a prosperous country with income from industry and from its African colony, the Congo. In the 1870s the river Senne in Brussels was covered and diverted underground, and the boulevards were laid out on the Paris model. The king, Leopold II funded most of these developments himself in an effort to make Brussels a modern capital.

The newly prosperous middle classes wanted to move out to the new suburbs, and they wanted new modern houses to show off their individuality and their taste. Iron and glass was being used for industrial building, and in the royal greenhouses at Laeken commissioned by the king. Architects like Victor Horta and Paul Hankar started to use it for houses as well. Plots of land in Brussels averaged 6 metres in width, and the traditional houses had three rooms from front to back, which meant that the middle room was usually dark. Horta started using stained glass light wells to bring light into this middle room. The use of iron for columns meant they could be much thinner than traditional stone columns. Every modern convenience was installed, running water, sewers, gas and electric lighting.

Art nouveau architects undertook every aspect of the design, down to the door handles, bells, letterboxes and air vents, and often the furniture as well. Decoration was important, often including decorative mosaics or sgraffito. Inspiration for designs came from the natural world, flowing lines and organic forms, including Horta's famous whiplash movement.

Art nouveau in Belgium did not reject machines and industrialisation as the arts and crafts movement in England did, but there were undoubtedly influences in both directions. Other artists like the Austrian Josef Hoffmann came to Belgium to see this new style, and Hoffmann built the Palais Stoclet, placemarked here.

When art nouveau fell out of favour, a lot of the buildings were destroyed or "renovated". In the 1960s and 70s a lot these buildings were demolished by property developers backed by politicians. Listed buildings such as Horta's "Maison du Peuple", the socialist party headquarters, could not be demolished, they were therefore "deconstructed" so that in theory they could be reconstructed elsewhere. In practice the pieces were left open to the elements, some parts were stolen, and they can never now be rebuilt. Some buildings survived years of neglect to reopen with a new purpose, for example the former Old England department store now the Musical Instrument Museum, and the former Waucquez shop, now the Belgian Comic Strip Centre, but many more were destroyed, the bulldozers sometimes moving in at night to avoid restraining orders. Ironically appartments in one of the new buildings thus created were advertised as having a magnificient view of the 19th century housing which remained.

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