Art Nouveau was a ‘total art’ style encompassing many aspects of fine and decorative art and design; it was also highly international in both its inspirations and its practice. But for Art Nouveau architecture, we can identify a definite origin in both place and time: Brussels, 1893. The Belgian capital was home to many key figures of the movement, and arguably the most notable was Victor Horta; a series of town houses he built in Brussels are collectively listed as one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. Art Nouveau flourished only briefly (before giving way to Art Deco and Modernism), but in the two decades straddling the turn of the century Horta and his contemporaries constructed plenty of buildings in the style.
125 years later I was still able to fill a map with surviving examples, which Alaina and I set about exploring over a leisurely weekend. However, I’ve pulled out just the highlights here to create a collection that would be realistic for a single day, should you not wish to devote an entire trip to 19th century architecture. This is essentially a walking route / photography tour, since only rarely are there opportunities to go inside most of these buildings; but I’ve noted any I’m aware of. I’ve also pinned each location featured onto a google map, rather than attempt to give precise co-ordinates below, although I have offered some directions from each site to the next.
Around the parks
The first few buildings we checked out were in a familiar area for us; in fact, I’m amazed we hadn’t spotted any of these during our previous stay. But a project like this can help you see somewhere as if for the first time!
Directions: From the metro station Schuman it’s a short walk north to a pair of small but pleasant garden ‘squares’, Marie-Louise and Ambiorix. You can find the first two properties on the far side; once you’re done, from the southeast corner of Square Ambiorix take Avenue Michel-Ange to the much grander Parc du Cinquantenaire. You’ll need to walk through most of the park – not an unpleasant fate! – past the museums and through the arch before finding a southern exit onto Avenue des Galois. There’s a small footpath which emerges almost directly opposite Rue des Francs, where you’ll find the Cauchie House; but if you under- or overshoot on the way out of the park you should still end up on the main road.
Hôtel van Eetvelde
This is one of Victor Horta’s earlier creations, but makes the cut as part of his world heritage site listing. Two buildings make up the entry: No. 4 to the right is the earlier and more innovative, with its exposed metal structure a common feature of Art Nouveau construction; the extension to No. 2 is later, this time with a stone facade featuring the carefully sculpted curves that would become another hallmark of the style.
Gustave Strauven joined Horta’s company at 18; by 23 he was building this, arguably his masterpiece. Decorative elements make the most of the narrow space available – the house is just four metres wide – and the mix of geometric patterns and mimicry of natural forms, worked in metal and glass, are very much Art Nouveau. However, it’s so extravagant that it also edges into baroque, and has long divided opinion. Fortunately after a period of disrepair it has been restored to its original tumultuous glory. Easily the most striking example in the city!
Mr. and Mme. Cauchie designed and built this house to advertise their (extensive) artistic skills; inside and out, it embodies architecture, painting, sculpture and decorative arts. This last was Paul Cauchie’s particular strength, as witnessed by the striking sgraffiti works on the upper floors. Amazingly the building was at risk of demolition in the 1970s, but was saved; listed; and finally restored to its original condition.
Visiting: Tours of the interior are possible… but only on the first weekend of each month between 10am and 5:30pm, excluding 1pm-2pm and with no admittance after 4:30pm.
This district is the heart of Art Nouveau Brussels, and a part of the city we hadn’t previously explored (despite noting some promising restaurants last time we were here).
Directions: From the Cauchie House, either double back to the edge of the park and take tram route 81 from Merode to Flagey. We walked it instead, taking a little over half an hour, with plenty of interesting streets along the way – by now we were scanning every building for Art Nouveau features! – although in high summer heat it was a bit of a slog. Once at the market square, aim for the nearer of the ponds (Etangs d’Ixelles) and the quieter Avenue du Général de Gaulle which runs alongside it. From there proceed to the junction by the cafe and head uphill to Rue de Lac, where the first site can be found at No. 6.
Atelier Du Maître Verrier Sterner
This studio for master glassworker Clas Gruner Sterner was designed by Ernest Delune, although it was Sterner who created the striking stained glass features (he also made windows for other buildings by Delune). Sadly it’s not in such great shape today, with several panes – and the remarkable curved door – absent and boarded up. I can only hope that, like Maisons Saint-Cyr and Cauchie, it will find a saviour and be restored.
Directions: Continue up Rue de Lac to Avenue Louise; turn left for Hôtel Max Hallet, nearby on the same side of the street (or head right for Hôtel Solvay, a few minutes walk along the avenue).
Hôtel Max Hallet
This is one of Horta’s later works, and is in a more restrained style as a result – although less immediately striking, there’s still plenty of Art Nouveau charm to be found.
Visiting: The real treat is apparently the interior; unfortunately tours are an expensive €25 per person, with limited capacity and only offered on a few dates each year.
Directions: Turn back in the direction you came from, but stay on this side of the avenue and continue along to Hôtel Solvay.
Another of Horta’s town houses that has been awarded world heritage status, this was one of his most ambitious projects, taking almost a decade to complete. This was one of several buildings where we ran into other seekers of Art Nouveau – or possibly just curious passers-by, peering in through the windows of the carriage entrance. We couldn’t resist doing the same.
Visiting: Hôtel Solvay can be toured by special appointment, or during the Brussels Art Nouveau and Art Deco festival.
Directions: Cross to the other side of the avenue and continue northeast; Rue Paul Emile Janson is the third on the left.
Another of Horta’s celebrated town houses, this was the one which started it all: built in 1893, it established both his reputation and Art Nouveau architecture. The facade reflects the complex spatial arrangement of the interior, accenting the main rooms and playing with the distribution of light.
Directions: Zig-zag right onto Rue de Livourne then left onto Rue Defacqz; the next stop is just opposite Rue Veydt.
Like the Atelier Du Maître Verrier Sterner, this building (by Paul Hankar) was created both for and in collaboration with the owner; in this case the artist Albert Ciamberlani, who designed the sgraffiti on the upper floors. Hankar’s work rejects the symmetry of classical buildings, from the off-centered doorways to the unusual windows shapes and positions. Once a private residence, it now appears to have a diplomatic function.
Directions: Continue along Rue Defacqz to No. 71.
More of Hankar’s disregard for symmetry can be seen in his own home, dating from 1893 and thus one of the earliest examples of Art Nouveau – although at this stage of his career the style only features in decorative elements rather than the construction itself.
Directions: Proceed to the end of Rue Defacqz, and turn left at the junction with the larger Chaussée de Charleroi. Take the first left onto Rue Américaine.
House and Workshop of Victor Horta
The last component of the world heritage site is, of course, Horta’s own home and studio.
Visiting: Better still, these days it’s a museum, with conventional and regular opening hours… Since that’s clearly too straightforward, you are forbidden from taking in bags, phones or cameras, but after all these exteriors you should treat yourself with a look inside. However, whilst we found the structure remarkable – particularly the way light is routed through the building, and details such as the staircase – much of the decor struck us as fairly hideous! We were somewhat tempted by a pair of Art Nouveau socks in the gift shop, though, so our tastes may not be entirely reliable.
Directions: This completes the Ixelles portion, so it’s time to head back to the centre for one last treat. There are probably more convenient ways to achieve this, but for an extra bonus, travel via Horta light rail station (return to Chaussée de Charleroi, cross over and continue in the same direction as before, take a right onto Avenue Ducpétiaux , then right again onto Chaussée de Waterloo and walk along for a while until you spot the escalators down to the underground platforms).
This light rail station doesn’t just bear Horta’s name; it has been decorated with ironwork and stained glass from Maison du Peuple and Hôtel Aubecq, two buildings of his which were not able to avoid the wrecking ball during the 50s and 60s.
Directions: Take any of the northbound lines back to central Brussels.
Musical Instrument Museum
There were a few other central locations on our original list, but this was the stand-out. Originally designed by Paul Saintenoy for the Old England department store, this ticks plenty of Art Nouveau boxes: from the unashamed use of steel; to light-maximising expanses of glass; via decorative elements that draw from botanical inspiration. As with several other buildings on this tour, these wonderful attributes almost weren’t enough to save it… although the government purchased it after Old England moved out in the early 70s, it languished in increasingly poor condition until 1989. Fortunately it found a new role as part of the Musical Instrument Museum, for which it was fully restored – and even gained some additional decoration.
If sadly you can’t make it to Brussels to explore further in person, I’ve gathered together a few more detail shots from our wanderings in this gallery.