The Art Nouveau DIY tour of Brussels

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This cosmopolitan city in the heart of Belgium offers center of food, fashion, and architecture that few can resist. But Brussels has existed since medieval times and its rich architectural story is sometimes overshadowed by its delicious food and sophisticated shopping. I was visiting Brussels to explore its Art Nouveau history, a short-lived but highly distinctive style that influenced everything from buildings to jewelry. It was a cultural movement that sought to fuse fine and applied arts to create a complete and integrated design and living environment.

What is Art Nouveau

Inspired by natural forms, the elements of Art Nouveau (or New Art) included curlicues and "whiplashes" a visual flourish. Art wasn't something apart from life, it is what made even the commonplace satisfying to use. Even the prosaic boot scrapper was made beautiful.

Quite short-lived -- lasting not even 20 years -- Art Nouveau spread across Europe, but Belgium, and Brussels in particular had an important place from the beginning. The term Art Nouveau first appeared in the 1880s in a Belgian art journal, and the first two major Art Nouveau buildings were constructed in Brussels. Victor Horta's Hotel Tassel and Paul Hankar's personal residence were both built in its early years -- 1893.

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In most cities, the Art Nouveau legacy was attenuated by newer building styles and further reduced by the ravages of urban renewal. But Brussels managed to keep many of its building intact and has emerged as one of today's Art Nouveau capitals.

Major Art Nouveau Buildings

The UNESCO World Heritage List has singled out four major town houses as valued examples of Art Nouveau -- all designed by architect Horta, and all in Brussels -- The Hotel Tassel, Hotel Solvay, Hotel van Eetvelde, and Maison & Atelier Horta. UNESCO notes "The stylistic revolution represented by these works is characterized by their open plan, the diffusion of light, and the brilliant joining of the curved lines of decoration with the structure of the building.”

The architectural triumvirate of Horta, Hankar, and Henry Van de Velde, were the principals who embraced the Art Nouveau style in Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century. There are gems by these and other architects scattered throughout the city, but here are some Art Nouveau beauties that should not be missed.

One of the two earliest buildings can be found at rue Defacqz, 71. It is the home of Paul Hankar which he built in 1893. But it is the house down the block that instantly captures attention with its golden facade. The Hotel Ciamberlani at rue Defacqz, 48, is one of the most glorious Art Nouveau buildings in the city. This private residence (don't be confused by the use of the word "hotel") was built by Hankar in 1897 for the painter Albert Ciamberlani. The grand architecture (note the two huge horseshoe-shaped windows) is elevated above and beyond by the lush sgraffiti frescoes designed by Ciamberlani himself. Sgraffiti (sometimes spelled scraffito) when used on building facades or interiors is a technique uses layers of plaster tinted in varied colors to a moistened surface with the design carved or scratched into the plaster. For the Ciamberlani gold leaf was later applied. The Tree of Life tableau is gorgeous.

The private home and workshop of Victor Horta, also known as Maison & Atelier Horta, is now the Horta Museum and is open to the public, it was one of the buildings specifically mentioned by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. And that honor is well-deserved.

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The two buildings, his workshop and his home, are examples of the Art Nouveau at its height. It's one of the few buildings that can be visited. Inside the ornate environment overflows with curving lines and thoughtful engineering in stain glass windows, ironwork, and mosaics. Horta took care to make even the door a work of Art Nouveau art. Horta's personal archives, a collection of plans of the buildings he designed and the library are also open to the public by appointment. It's at rue Americaine 25 Amerikaansestraat, 1060 Brussels Guided tours are available at the Horta Museum and well worth the effort of booking them in advance.

Several other Art Nouveau creatons are clustered in the area of rue Faider and rue Emile Janson. The remains of one once-gorgeous Art Nouveau building can be found at rue Faider, 83. Sadly the house, designed by Albert Rosenboom, is currently empty and is falling into disrepair. Its scraffiti, unlike the gold-leaf perfection on the Ciamberlani, has fallen away.

Nearby, at rue Paul-Emile Janson 6, is the Tassel townhouse built by Horta in 1893 for Belgian scientist and professor Emile Tassel. Although this UNESCO site is occupied it is visible from the street, and a outdoor stele explains the building's history and design. Again, there is the wrought iron and stained glass using the signature Art Nouveau serpentine lines as well as the signature elements of Horta's style -- light, spacious.

A few blocks away at rue Louise 224 is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Solvay House designed by Horta and built for Ernest Solvay. Horta was given free reign, and in his characteristic manner, designed everything inside and out.

The last UNESCO World Heritage Sites designed by Horta is the Hotel van Eetvelde a townhouse at rue Palmerston 4. It is not open to the public but no compilation of Art Nouveau masterpieces would be complete with its mention.

Our New Book

Finally, there's one other building that simply must be included in any discussion of Art Nouveau architecture, both for its confectionary design and its accessibility to the public. It is the delightful Musical Instrument Museum or the MIM. Known for its collection of over 8,000 instruments, the museum not only highlights Belgian musical history but has an extensive collection of the innovative instruments of inventor Adolphe Sax (father of the saxophone). Headphones allow visitors to hear almost 200 musical extracts of the instruments on display. It was designed by architect Paul Saintenoy in 1898 as the Old England department store. It's at rue Montagne de la Cour 2.

Although Art Nouveau didn't last long, it helped birth another art movement that also went round the world. Art Deco took the elaborate curvilinear visual flourishes and transformed them into sleekly bold geometric shapes and designs. The Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center in New York City are two prominent examples.

If You Go

During my explorations of Brussels I stayed in two completely different style hotels. For quirky fun little beats
Brussels Welcome Hotel located in the Quartier Saint Catherine. Think 17 rooms each decorated to represent a different country around the world. They offer three levels of accommodation differing mainly in size and opulency of the furnishings. It isn't luxury, but breakfast is included as is the WiFi and the staff is both friendly and very helpful.

Located in a totally different part of town, near the trendy Avenue Louise, The Hotel offers an unusual combination -- real luxury that is surprisingly affordable. The Deluxe Panorama rooms come with a delicious breakfast buffet and access to the upscale lounge for afternoon beverages and snacks. All rooms comes with free WiFi.

Belgium tourism offers this listing of the major Art Nouveau buildings.

The nonprofit group ARAU offers fee-based tours. It's an interesting organizations -- a registered non-profit set up by a group of Brussels residents to defend their points of view in the town-planning process. They offer a range of tours, not just Art Nouveau.

Of course Visit Brussels and Visit Belgium provide great information.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: August 1st, 2015

© 2015