When I was young, my only idea of Belgium was Christelle Roelandts. The year was 1994. And my interest in Belgium began.
Christelle Roelandts and 1994?
Miss Universe 1994 was held in Manila, Philippines. Christelle Roelandts was Miss Belgium and she was one of my favorites. Unfortunately, she did not make it – not even to the semi-finals. But anyhow, without Roelandts my interest in Belgium would not grow.
Today, Belgium is one of my favorite European destinations. I have fallen in love with its fairy-tale-like and charming cities: Antwerp, Brussels, Gent, Mechelen and Brugges. As a matter of fact, in my bucket list, Belgium’s other grand cities must be visited before I turn 60: Leuven and other cities in the Wallonian region.
Other than Roelandts, another notable Belgian figure fascinated me: Victor Horta, an architect and one of the founding fathers of Art Nouveau.
Art Nouveau is a late 19th-century art movement that has an underlying principle of making everyday objects artsy (or the application of artistic designs to everyday objects). The rationale is to make beautiful things easily available and eye-catching accessible to everyone. In another way of putting it, it has an underlying philosophy that no object was too utilitarian to be “beautified” and “aestheticized.” With this, the tradition of “fine arts” is somehow translated into the decorative and/or ornamental objects. The movement is highly stylized that normally artists use curves in the designs. When it was starting, artists used expensive materials but later artists incorporated the style in cheaper materials.
Born in Ghent, Horta designed several art nouveau buildings all over Europe. Four of which are found in Brussels and are UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2000.
The UNESCO website writes: The four major town houses – Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay, Hôtel van Eetvelde, and Maison and Atelier Horta – located in Brussels and designed by the architect Victor Horta, one of the earliest initiators of Art Nouveau, are some of the most remarkable pioneering works of architecture of the end of the 19th century. The stylistic revolution represented by these works is characterised by their open plan, the diffusion of light, and the brilliant joining of the curved lines of decoration with the structure of the building.
Luckily, I visited three of the four: Tassel and Solvay in October 2016 and Maison and Atelier Horta in September 2018.
Tassel is attributed as the first art nouveau townhouse. It was owned by a Belgian scientist Emille Tassel. Horta was not only responsible for the exterior of the house (architecture) but also every single detail of it: doorhandles, woodwork, panels and windows in stained glasses, the mosaic floors and the furnishing.
Solvay was commissioned by Armand Solvay. Like Tassel, all designs related to the house was Horta’s. From the building’s furniture, carpets, light fittings, tableware and even the doorbell. The building is also remarkable for Horta’s use of expensive materials such as marble, onyx, bronze, tropic woods, to name a few.
When I visited both buildings in 2016, I was not allowed to enter inside because both houses are privately owned. I believe Tassel is a private office while Solvay is a private residence.
On my way to Maison and Atelier Horta in September 2018, I got lost – but it was a happy and amazing experience seeing several art nouveau buildings all over the busy streets of Brussels.
After almost an hour of locating 25, rue Américaine, 1060 Brussels (Saint-Gilles), it was a site of relief upon seeing the magnificence exterior of this Horta masterpiece.
Housed in this art nouveau interior is a permanent display of furniture, utensils and art objects designed by Horta himself (and some of his contemporaries). The display serves as archival document related to his life and time. Yes, I was able to explore both the outside and the inside of the masterpiece because it is now a museum: a Horta Museum, which also organizes temporary exhibitions on topics related to Horta and his art. Unfortunately, taking photograph is not allowed inside the museum.
I made a vow to myself that I will return to Brussels and make sure to see the one last Horta inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site: Hôtel van Eetvelde. Not to mention, I was told by a good friend from Gent that sometimes the current owners of the Solvay open its doors to visitors. I am hoping that on my next visit, I will be luckier. Or perhaps, do the risk – write the owner a letter and ask them about my fascination with Horta and art nouveau. They might allow me to see the Solvay in all its glory.