Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Travel: Brussels - Art Nouveau Walking Tour and the Victor Horta Museum

Art Nouveau
noun, art nou·veau  \ˌär(t)-nü-ˈvō\
: a style of art, design, and architecture that uses curving lines and shapes that look like leaves and flowers

I awoke early to a gorgeous morning. The sun was out and I had a spring in my step as I was heading to yet another museum, and a self-guided Art Nouveau architectural tour of sorts. My travelling companions were having a lie-in, having overindulged the night before so this was a solo tour, following a walking guide-map I had picked up in the tourist office

Art Nouveau developed in the 1880s and 1890s, possibly from the Arts and Crafts movement in England and swept through many cities in Europe and North America in the 1900s and 1910s, going by different names in different countries - Jugendstil and Liberty style to name but two. Brussels was one of the main cities where it took hold, thanks in no small part to the work of Victor Horta, Paul Hamesse and Paul Hanker, who along with others left their stamp on the city.
An overly simplified description would be to say that the style was influenced heavily by organic, florid, flowing forms and by the use of new materials - by-products of the industrial revolution such as cast iron for example - but hand crafted instead of mass produced. It is typified in art by the works of Mucha and Klimt, and others such as Mackintosh, Gaudi, Liberty, Lalique and Tiffany are also synonymous with the movement.

I set off through the quiet Sunday morning streets of the city. Very few people were around apart from the street cleaners, and the odd person walking their dog while leaving a trail of turds. (The dogs I mean...) I passed the obscenely enormous Palace of Justice, crossed the busy ring road and soon I was in the St Giles area of the city, an open-air Art Nouveau building museum. I spent a pleasant morning admiring the beautiful façades of the houses that lined the streets. Appreciating the flowing metal and stonework, and studying the intricate woodwork of the doors and windows. At any minute I expected a police car to roll up and to be taken away, accused of being a peeping tom as I stood staring in awe at the design and workmanship of the buildings. It was, for me, a fantastic way to spend a Sunday morning in a strange city with no other souls around.

The city was starting to wake up from its Sunday morning slumber as I made my way over to Rue Américaine and the Victor Horta Museum, my ultimate destination. Cafés were opening up and people were coming and going with the morning papers or buying pastries for breakfast. The streets were a mixture of old and new buildings and I still caught glimpses of the city's Art Nouveau past squashed between ugly 1960s or 1970s structures. The city was relatively clean, only marred by the dog turds and the 'tagging' graffiti that seemed to be in every town and city in Europe now. I am all for decent urban 'wall art', especially on ugly concrete slabs but this is meaningless vandalism to my mind.
I arrived too early at the museum and after pausing briefly to admire the two buildings that it is composed of, I headed further along the street for a stroll in the sunshine, eventually reaching a nice circular park, Leemansplace. It was a pretty spot to sit and have a rest only marred by the now ubiquitous, aforementioned piles of dog faeces and some discarded needles under the benches, both now a part of the sights and experiences of parks all over the world. Worried about the chances of catching something or of being accused of now looking like a heroin-junkie-peeping-tom, I decided to wander back up the street to a small café that was just opening up as I went past it towards the park. I resisted the urge to have a beer and instead had a coffee and a glass of water, as I waited impatiently for the museum to open up.

Eventually it did and I joined the small queue waiting to enter. It is a smallish building which wasn't designed for large groups of people so only a certain number can be inside at any one time, so as some leave, more are let in. While waiting outside I admired the façade's design again and the attention to detail, which Horta applied to all his work.

Victor Horta was born in Ghent, Belgium in 1861 but studied and learned his trade in Brussels. He made a name for himself when he designed a couple of hotels in the city and his career snowballed from there. He was soon being commissioned to design buildings throughout Brussels. He built his house and studio on the site where I now stood between 1898 and 1901. After an enforced stint lecturing in America because of the WWI he returned to Brussels and sold the house and the attached studio. The house was bought by the local community in 1969 and opened as a museum two years later. The attached studio was purchased in 1971 and restoration has been ongoing since. Horta died in 1947 and many of his buildings were demolished in acts of what can only be classed as insanity in the 1950s and 1960s. (How this could be let happen is a mystery to me, I can only presume that monkeys were among the town planners back then. Actually, that is probably a little unfair to monkeys.)

I was finally let inside the door and had to wait in a small hallway, for some unknown reason, for five or so minutes before being let into the house proper. Perhaps it was an airlock where I was slowly and secretly infused with Art Nouveau appreciation gas. Whatever the reason, when I reached the main hall I was blown away. A beautiful staircase winds its way up through the house, culminating in a curvilinear glass ceiling that floods light back down through the stairwell. The rooms leading from the stairwell on all levels were exquisitely designed with incredible attention to detail. Even the door handles were decorative works of art. It was staggering how the functional aspects of home living were cunningly concealed. (Like a urinal which swings out from a hidden compartment beside the bed, a feature that would be of utmost use in my own home.) I walked up and down the stairs with my mouth open, seeing things I had missed on my first trip into a room or looking at a stained-glass window, beautifully moulded door or mosaic section of flooring from a different angle. Sometimes I just stood and tried to absorb and see the tiny details that are the hallmark of a perfectionist. Time appeared to slow down... and almost stop, but looking at my watch I realised I had been in here for ages.

The house was starting to fill up now so after one last look around and a visit to the gift shop I headed out. With a smile on my face, and whistling to myself I headed back towards the city centre. On the way I visited another Art Nouveau building, the beautiful, if slightly less ornate, Hôtel Hannon on Rue de la Jonction, designed by the architect Jules Brunfaut and built in 1903. The sad thing was, I was the only one there. Nobody else came to admire the mosaics, mural and ironwork, or the extremely elegant façade. I wandered around the building with only some photographs, a gallery, and the curator for company.

I met up with the others in a little park in the Sablon district called La Place du Petit Sablon. It was a very pretty little place full of statues, roses and lavender with a nice fountain as a centrepiece. Directly across from it stands the 15th century church of Notre Dame du Sablon, yet another example of Gothic architecture of which Brussels has some superb examples. The park was quite busy with locals enjoying a cooling break from what was now becoming a heavy, clammy day, and tourists like us admiring the statues, fountain and the view across to the church.

We decided to go for a beer, as it was now early afternoon, calling in to the church firstly. Unfortunately, some restoration and renovation was taking place and most of the church was sealed off so we traipsed back out and around the back to an antique market. We had just surmised that anything worth buying was outside our budgetary constraints when we noticed the sun had disappeared and it was getting overcast. Suddenly the heavens opened and we ran to the safety of the nearest bar, shaking ourselves dry as we entered.

We immediately sensed that this was not our kind of place. Something about the well-dressed clientele, the silver cutlery and the look of disdain on the waiter's face as we stood shaking like dogs at his desk were a giveaway I think. Not to mention the fact that we now realised it was a restaurant and not a bar.

    'Ah, a table for four?' inquired my companion, not wanting to lose face by retreating back to the rain.

The waiter looked us up and down from his lectern, his hands moving to a shelf underneath. I sensed his finger hovering over the button that called security or opened a trap door under our feet, but he must have had a change of heart as next thing he ushered us towards a seat across from the window. If I had been him I would have hidden us down the back of the establishment but perhaps he felt we might be a source of amusement for the other customers.

    'Here are the lunch menus, gentlemen,' he said, handing them to us.

    'Actually, we just wanted to get a few beers.'

This news was received with a withering look of disdain but in fairness he took our order and came back with our selection promptly but by then we had suddenly been distracted by a plaque that we had spotted on the wall.

It read:

(Mr Bill Clinton
President of the United States of America
sat at this table on 9th January 1994
He drank coffee and chatted an hour
with all present.)

Imagine if it hadn't started to rain, and we hadn't run in here, and the waiter had turned us away? We would never have sat at the same table as Slick Willy - for good or for bad.

As we drank our beers, which I never took note of, we started to wonder why the waiter had put us there? I am not sure what it says about us - or Bill - but at least we can say our butts shared a seat with an American president. We thought and talked about this as we drank our beer, then paid our enormous bill - obviously there was a surcharge for that table - and vowed to come back for a meal sometime we could afford it.

Which wouldn't be any time soon...


(Originally written 2008)

(All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its source and a link back to this post. All original photographs are my own and can not be used elsewhere without my consent.)

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