Art Nouveau’s golden hour: a year-long architecture festival in Brussels

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Maison Hannon, in the Brussels district of Saint-Gilles, is often described as “mythical”. Looking up at its bright white-brick and limestone facade, there is something otherworldly about it.

Its windows are elegantly arched and dotted with delicate floral stained-glass motifs. The surrounding golden-hued ironwork is sweeping and sinuous, while a sculpted stone panel reveals a female figure clad in a long-flowing dress, holding a spindle. Inside, the intrigue continues with vast Symbolist frescoes and swirling mosaic floors.

Commissioned in 1902, the house was the unique vision of French-Belgian couple Marie and Édouard Hannon, brought to life by their friend, the relatively little-known Belgian architect Jules Brunfaut. By turns a grand Art Nouveau statement and a derelict wreck, the building was newly opened as a museum on June 1.

“In the area, it’s a revival,” says Jean Spinette, mayor of Saint-Gilles, adding that local public opinion about the restoration project (partly funded by the Region of Brussels & Commune of Saint-Gilles) has been overwhelmingly positive. “It’s a very good opportunity for us to show that in Saint-Gilles we have wonderful Art Nouveau buildings.”

The opening of Maison Hannon is part of the citywide festival Art Nouveau Brussels 2023, a year-long programme of events that includes exhibitions and guided tours — much is planned for June 10, which is World Art Nouveau day.

Stained-glass reinstallation at Maison Hannon © David Plas

Opening the city’s Art Nouveau buildings to the public is at the heart of the campaign, says Pascal Smet, state secretary of the Brussels-Capital Region, responsible for urbanism and heritage. He highlights the Hannon house and the former home and studio of Belgian architect Victor Horta in Saint-Gilles as some of the city’s “most emblematic” examples, alongside Hôtel van Eetvelde, Hôtel Solvay (both also by Horta) and Maison Cauchie, with its illustrated facade inspired by the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Today, around Brussels, banners on lampposts regularly make the claim, “Capital of Art Nouveau”.

The aesthetic movement that flourished in the late 19th century across western Europe is often visually summed up in Paris’s iconic, curvy metro stations (designed by French architect Hector Guimard) or in the winsome, willowy women of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. But the Belgian capital is widely considered home to the first example of Art Nouveau architecture: Hôtel Tassel — a private townhouse built by Horta, finished in 1893, combining a pioneering light-focused layout with the decorative, organic forms. The city’s year-long festival celebrates the 130th anniversary of its completion.

“If you say Art Nouveau to a general member of the public, they’re more likely to think of Barcelona and Gaudí than Brussels,” says Smet. “But we are the capital of Art Nouveau. This year is the start of reclaiming the title and making it part of our identity.”

exterior of Maison Hannon
Maison Hannon, the unique vision of French-Belgian couple Marie and Édouard Hannon, a ‘Symbolist and dreamlike universe’ © David Plas

At Maison Hannon, the initial role of conservator Grégory Van Aelbrouck “wasn’t to restore the building, but to create a museum of the decorative arts”. He was, however, quickly, convinced to do both by a comprehensive archive that contained not only historic invoices about the construction — “We know everything, down to who made the radiators and the toilets” — but also a wealth of letters and photography by Hannon, who had a dark room in his home and was involved with the foundation of the Belgian Association of Photography. “All this information was, for me, evidence to recreate the unique universe of Édouard Hannon.”

Hannon was an engineer who worked for the chemical company Solvay; he met his wife while stationed at the group’s French factory near Nancy. Their Brussels home thus brings togethers elements from both French and Belgian Art Nouveau styles, says Van Aelbrouck, highlighting the original furniture commissioned from French Art Nouveau master Émile Gallé — which will once again be shown in situ.

Moreover, the design is influenced by Marie’s interest in botany — a striking indoor greenhouse is integrated into the building, its metal and glass structure protruding from the facade — and Édouard’s passions, including poetry, antiquity and photography.

They envisioned their home, says Van Aelbrouck, as a “Symbolist and dreamlike universe”, from the frescoes of muses by Paul Baudouin — a disciple of Symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes — to the bas-relief stone panels by the sculptor Victor Rousseau.

Hôtel Solvay exterior
Hôtel Solvay, the town house built by Victor Horta for Armand Solvay, son of industrialist and Solvay Group founder Ernest Solvay © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

Maison Cauchie
Maison Cauchie, a more radical example of Art Nouveau, created by the artist couple Paul and Lina Cauchie © Remy

“The entire focus of the building is the golden hour before the sun sets,” says Van Aelbrouck. “It’s also an allegory of the golden age for the couple, who were in their fifties when they built this house.”

The renovation is a work in progress, due to be completed in 2030. Thus far, the facade, the living rooms and the stairwell are all fully finished. Upstairs, an exhibition space includes creations by Belgian architects such as Horta, but also Henry Van De Velde, Paul Hankar and Gustave Serrurier-Bovy.

“I want to show the plurality of the movement — something other than Horta. A lot of other architects were more radical.” He gives the example of La Maison Cauchie, created by the artist couple Paul and Lina Cauchie in 1905, and functioning as an advertising billboard for their work.

Not all of Brussels’ Art Nouveau buildings have fared so well. The term “Brusselisation” was born out of a previously heavy-handed approach to urban planning that saw Horta’s Hôtel Aubecq dismantled in 1950 — its facade preserved but left “greening with mould and covered in trash in a Brussels warehouse”, according to a 2016 news report — while his Maison du Peuple, a public building commissioned by the Belgian Workers’ Party, was torn down 15 years later.

“Now, there is more awareness, more interest and more knowledge about the Art Nouveau movement generally,” says Brussels-based architect Barbara Van der Wee, a specialist in conservation who has worked on many buildings by Horta. “The city has gone to a lot of effort to invite the citizens in to see these buildings. In the past 20 years, step by step, important houses have been restored and are now open to the public.”

To date, “nine houses are open to the public on a regular basis”, confirms Alice Graas, the co-ordinator of Art Nouveau Brussels 2023, adding that others are in the pipeline.

Van der Wee’s recent projects include a restoration of the facade of Hôtel Solvay: Horta’s grand town house on the stately Avenue Louise for Armand Solvay — son of the chemist, industrialist and founder of the Solvay group Ernest Solvay — and first opened to the public in 2021. On the exterior, “the most striking difference will be the colour [of the ironwork]. There are new methods to examine the original paint, so while it was an ochre brown, now it’s a very, very light pink — exactly the same colour that’s found all over in the interiors. It’s fantastic.”

A bannister in the Hôtel Solvay
A bannister in the Hôtel Solvay © Bridgeman Images

Another Horta project for Van der Wee is the Hôtel van Eetvelde, which she started working on as a student. Last month, however, the whole building was opened for the first time, with a new Art Nouveau information centre, called LAB·An. Originally built for Edmond van Eetvelde, the general administrator of foreign affairs of the Congo Free State, new exhibition spaces will discuss “the link between Belgian Art Nouveau and the Belgian colony of the Congo”.

Belgian King Leopold II established the Congo Free State as his personal possession in 1885, and it was a Belgian colony from 1908 until independence in 1960. Addressing this brutal past has recently been brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement, with a focus on the city’s colonial monuments.

At the end of 2020, a working group was created “to initiate the necessary reflection on symbols in public space related to colonisation and the colonial period”. The result is a 233-page report and a 14-point action plan, including directives to “appoint a decolonisation co-ordinator” and “explore feasibility of establishing a memorial to the victims of colonialism”.

At Hôtel van Eetvelde, a mini-exhibition is dedicated to the house’s original owner, who was “one of King Leopold II’s closest advisers”, says Hortense de Ghellinck, co-ordinator of the LAB·An. “We wanted to evoke Eetvelde’s personal life as well as his role in Congo’s colonisation. His lack of reaction and apparent complacency in the face of the exactions committed against the Congolese people were, and still are, the subject of fierce criticism and lively debate.”

For Sandrine Colard — assistant professor of African art history at Rutgers University and the editor of Recaptioning Congo: African Stories and Colonial Pictures — “it is incredibly exciting to see new and meticulous research about the relationship between colonialism in the Congo and Art Nouveau shake up the national bastion that it is in Belgium.

“It does not take anything away from the importance of the movement and its creators,” she adds. “It actually does it service by allowing for a much richer and expansive understanding of it.”

Interior of Hôtel Solvay
Interior of Hôtel Solvay © Gilles van den Abeele

Another event in the Art Nouveau Brussels 2023 programme is Style Congo. Heritage & Heresy, an exhibition at CIVA centre for architecture (until September 3). It combines contemporary artwork with archive materials to examine the connections between the Congo and Belgian Art Nouveau — at the time also called “Style Congo”.

Included is new photographic work by Brussels-born artist Chrystel Mukeba: portraits of Afro-descendant Belgians taken in the city’s Art Nouveau buildings, including the Horta Museum and Hôtel Van Eetvelde. “When you visit some of the houses, you can see the inspiration [of the Congo] in the motifs, shapes and materials,” she says. “It was important to showcase the Congolese community. My aim is not to create a polemic, but just to question the past.”

Style Congo has attracted record numbers of visitors in its first six weeks, says Graas, adding that an overall aim of the year-long festival is to approach the movement in new ways. This includes highlighting often unsung crafts people and women artists.

Contemporary furniture in the  Hôtel Danckaert
Hôtel Danckaert, an Art Deco house that is home to the contemporary Brussels design gallery Maniera © Jeroen Verrecht for Maniera

Another issue for some is that these pretty houses were created exclusively for the haute bourgeoisie. “Heritage buildings made for rich people are often seen as an opposition to modernity,” says Van Aelbrouck. “Honestly, the main question we are asked by people visiting the building is, ‘But what are you doing for energy and the climate?’ We are trying to strike a balance between heritage preservation and ecological transition.”

To this end, Maison Hannon is being supported by Vinci Energies Belgium in the restoration and its sustainability. And it’s an issue personally close to Van Aelbrouck, who is currently restoring his own Art Nouveau home.

“Today, the foremost challenge of conservation is to answer modern demands for energy saving while also saving the building,” says Van der Wee, one of whose current projects is being given modern relevance in a new incarnation. The heritage-listed Hôtel Danckaert, designed in 1922 by the Belgian architect Jean-Baptiste Dewin, is Art Deco in style rather than Art Nouveau, but has been newly adopted as the home of contemporary Brussels design gallery Maniera.

“We are currently showing the house as we found it,” says Maniera co-founder Amaryllis Jacobs of the villa originally built for industrial engineer Jean Danckaert in the Brussels neighbourhood of Forest. “Now we have to start the restoration: electricity, a new roof . . . historians have discovered that there were very beautiful floral wallpapers. But lots of people say: don’t touch it, it’s so beautiful as it is.”

The early 20th-century interior furnishings and decoration developed by Belgium’s Ateliers d’Art De Coene now sit alongside boldly artistic rugs by Christoph Hefti and the weighty furniture of Georgian design duo Rooms Studio.

“We love showing how contemporary works revitalise these interiors,” adds Jacobs, who has also converted the top floor into an apartment, available on Airbnb. “So many people were curious about the house, and we want it to be open to the public. If somebody wants to come and have a picnic in the rose garden, we are happy to have them.” 

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Source: Financial Times

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