The Traveller's Guide To: Art Nouveau Brussels

The elegant architecture of the Belgian capital inspired many areas of art and design with its ornate forms. Cathy Packe takes a tour


A QUICK DEFINITION?

A QUICK DEFINITION?

Art Nouveau is the name given to a style of architecture and design that flourished in several European cities at the turn of the 19th century. Buildings were designed using materials traditionally associated with industrial construction: iron, exposed brick and glass. The style is easy to recognise, with its wide, flattened arches, floral motifs and female silhouettes, and predominance of stained glass and polished wood. At the turn of the century, Brussels was a lively place, receptive to new ideas, with a wealthy bourgeoisie that was happy to finance new construction. As such, more than 1,000 buildings sprang up in the Art Nouveau style by architects such as Victor Horta. After some 20 years, Art Nouveau fell out of fashion and many of these structures were pulled down, but around 500 Art Nouveau buildings still exist in Brussels. Originally designed as private homes, restaurants and shops, many are clustered in suburbs like Ixelles, where a number of attractive houses line the streets just west of the Ponds, and Schaerbeek. In this run-down district to the north of the city centre, elegant homes along Avenue Louis Bertrand contrast with a social housing development, the Cite des Oliviers, built at the same time at Rue de l'Olivier 16-48.

WHICH WAS THE FIRST BUILDING OF THE STYLE?

The first Art Nouveau buildings in the world were the Tassel House at Rue Janson 6, commissioned by a professor, and the Autrique House at Chaussée de Haecht 266 (00 32 2 215 66 00; www.autrique.be), commissioned by a lawyer. In 1893, both patrons asked Victor Horta to design a home for them, establishing him as the leading architect of the movement. The Tassel House must have been a striking sight in its time: the bay window at the front, and the iron structure, panels and tracery mark it out as different from anything that had gone before. This house can only be viewed from the outside, but following a recent restoration the Autrique House, built in the same year, is now open to the public. Although the façade is innovative, the interior is very much in transitional style, an adaptation of the "maison de maître" design that was so popular in Brussels in this period: a tall, narrow house with the ground floor divided into three interconnecting reception rooms. A visit to the house gives a good insight into the way architecture was to change in years to come. It opens Wednesday to Sunday from noon to 6pm, admission €5 (£3.60).

At the turn of the century, Horta created his own house and studio, two adjoining buildings at 25 Rue Américaine which now form the Horta Museum (00 32 2 543 04 90; www.hortamuseum.be). These are an excellent illustration of what Art Nouveau design involves: an industrial structure of iron and brick, both exposed to view but glamourised by the use of marble, stained glass panels and skylights, and highly polished wood in warm shades. Details in the banisters, door handles and light fittings show the flowing natural curves that are so typical of the style. Beautifully restored, it's the best example in Brussels of Art Nouveau architecture. The Horta Museum opens daily except Monday from 2.30-5pm, admission €5 (£3.60).

WHAT ELSE DID HORTA DESIGN?

So many of Brussels' Art Nouveau buildings are by Horta that it is easy to imagine he was the only architect working in this style. In his early days he worked as an apprentice on the glasshouses at the Botanical Gardens. In his later years, during his Art Deco period, he designed the Palais des Beaux-Arts, the city's main cultural centre at Rue Ravenstein 23 (00 32 2 507 8444; www.bozar.be). But the greatest of his Art Nouveau houses is the Hotel Solvay at Avenue Louise 224, finished in 1903. The façade - all that is usually seen in this building that is not open to visitors - is in two-tone stone, with characteristic large windows, iron balconies and steel girders. Inside is a magnificent staircase, lit from above by a skylight, which opens up the interior in a way which had not been done before.

ANY PUBLIC BUILDINGS?

Horta did not focus entirely on domestic structures. One of his best-known buildings is now the Belgian Comic Strip Centre at Rue des Sables 20 (00 32 2 219 19 80; www.stripmuseum.be). Its contents chart the development of the comic strip, featuring prominently Belgium's best-known cartoon character, Tintin, and on the ground floor is a photographic exhibition of the building's history. It's open daily except Monday, from 9am to 6pm, and tickets cost €6.20 (£4.45). It is worth visiting for the building alone, which was originally designed in 1906 as the home of the Charles Waucquez textile shops.

Not far away are Magasins Wolfers, another Horta design, at Rue d'Arenberg 13, and Daniel Ost, a classy florist's shop at Rue Royale 13, which now provides flowers to the Royal Palace. The shop has a beautifully preserved Art Nouveau window.

On an altogether grander scale is the Old England department store at Rue Montagne de la Cour 2, which once epitomised elegance for women of a certain social standing. Designed by Paul Saintenoy, it now houses the Museum of Musical Instruments (00 32 2 545 01 30; www.mim.fgov.be), and contains a comprehensive selection of musical exhibits. It is possible, with the headset available at the entrance, to pick up the sound of many of the instruments being played. The museum opens 9.30am-7pm, Tuesday to Friday, until 8pm on Thursday, and 10am-5pm at weekends; admission €5 (£3.60).

I NEED A BREAK

Head for the restaurant on the top floor of the Museum of Musical Instruments (00 32 2 502 95 08), and from its terrace, itself a masterpiece of glass and iron, there is a fantastic view across the city. Art Nouveau style was applied to the design of a number of cafés and restaurants, several of which have survived. These include the restaurant of the Hotel Metropole at Place De Brouckère 31 (00 32 2 217 23 00; www.metropolehotel.com); Le Cirio, at Rue de la Bourse 18 (00 32 2 512 13 95), and Le Falstaff at Rue Henri Maus 17-23 (00 32 2 511 87 89). But the best-known and most impressive of them all is the Ultieme Hallucinatie at Rue Royale 314 (00 32 2 217 06 14; www.ultiemehallucinatie.be), a gem of Art Nouveau design, with stained glass panels, ceiling lights and the original sofas built into shelf units in the area where regulars sit to play chess. The restaurant opens noon-2.30pm and 7.30pm-10.30pm daily except for Saturday lunchtime and Sunday; the bar opens from 11am on weekdays, and from 4pm on Saturday.

WHERE NEXT?

Although until recently there was a rather cavalier attitude towards the preservation of old buildings in Brussels, a surprising number of Art Nouveau homes remains, scattered across the city's residential suburbs. If you are visiting the European quarter, take a detour into the Squares, Marguerite, Ambiorix and Marie-Louise, linked together by Avenue Palmerston. One of the most whimsical of all is the Maison Saint Cyr, at Square Ambiorix 11. It is a tall, narrow house on four floors, painted in pale turquoise. Each of the first three floors has a single, rectangular window, all glass, curves and balconies, and each slightly different from the others. At the top is a round window, with an ornate wrought iron decoration appearing to float above it. Nearby, at Avenue Palmerston 4, is the Hotel Van Eetvelde, designed by Horta in 1894 with a visible metal structure. An extension was built next door in the same style.

DID ANY OTHER ARCHITECTS RIVAL HORTA?

Horta was certainly the most prolific, but there were others. Paul Hankar designed several of the buildings on Rue Defacqz, just off the main shopping street, Avenue Louise. The Hotel Hannon, at Avenue de la Jonction 1 in the Saint-Gilles district was built by Jules Brunfaut. It now houses the Espace Contretype (00 32 2 538 42 20; www.contretype.org), a centre for photography exhibitions which offers a worthwhile opportunity to look inside the building. It opens Wednesday-Friday 11am-6pm, and weekends from 1-6pm, and admission is €2.50 (£1.80).

But one of the most striking buildings is the Maison Cauchie, at Rue des Francs 5 (00 32 2 673 15 06) which was designed by Paul Cauchie for his own use. The façade of this building is covered with "graffiti" - figures which have been carved into the stone around the top floor and between the windows on the middle floor, but appear to have been painted. This year, to mark the building's centenary, a number of art exhibitions will take place here. When there are no exhibitions, it opens only on the first weekend of the month, from 11am-1pm, and 2-6pm; admission €4 (£2.85).

WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO SEE EVERYTHING?

As you will have noticed, visiting hours tend to be highly restricted. Taking a guided tour may not be your idea of a good day out, but it is one of the best ways to see much of Brussels' Art Nouveau legacy. Most of the companies who operate such tours have negotiated to get inside many of the buildings that are not otherwise open to sightseers. One of the most respected of these companies is Arau, which operates from Boulevard Adolphe Max 55 (00 32 2 219 33 45; www.arau.org). Bus tours in English take place every Saturday morning from 7 May until the end of October, starting at 9.45am. They last for three hours and cost €12 (£8.60).

Other operators that sometimes offer Art Nouveau tours include Itineraires at Rue Hôtel des Monnaies 157 (00 32 2 534 30 00; www.itineraires.be), and Pro Velo, which is based at Rue de Londres 15 (00 32 2 502 73 55; www.provelo.org); this company can organise guided cycle tours, or rent bikes so that you can explore the city yourself. Bike hire costs €9 (£6.50) and €12 (£8.60) for a day.

CAN I BUY SOME ART NOUVEAU OF MY OWN?

Rummage through the stalls at the weekend antiques market in the Place du Grand Sablon in the hope of finding a bargain (Saturdays 9am-6pm, Sundays 9am-2pm). If you are in town during the week, try Cento Anni (00 32 2 514 5633; www.centoanni.be), a small shop at 31 Place du Grand Sablon, at the corner of Rue Allard. Opening hours are erratic, so if you are seriously interested you should phone ahead to make an appointment.

In March every year, 150 antiques dealers descend on Brussels for Eurantica (00 32 2 474 84 77; www.artexis.com), an annual antiques fair at which there is usually plenty of opportunity to buy Art Nouveau artefacts. The next will be held in March 2006 in the Parc des Expositions in Heysel, one of the city's northern suburbs.

NOUVEAUX RICHES: EXHIBITIONS CELEBRATING THE ART

Several shows celebrating the Art Nouveau movement take place in Brussels this year, as part of the celebration of the history and culture of Belgium, founded 175 years ago. The most important of these is Art Nouveau and Design 1830-1958, which show the development of the decorative arts during this period; more than 250 works will be on display. Much of the exhibition will cover the contribution of Art Nouveau to interior decoration. It will be held at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Cinquantenaire Park (00 32 2 741 72 11; www.kmkg-mrah.be) from 25 May until New Year's Eve; daily except Monday from 10am-5pm, admission €9 (£6.45).

The Biennale Art Nouveau Festival, every weekend in October, will offer guided visits to Art Nouveau buildings that are not generally open to the public. A different suburb will be featured each weekend. The festival will start with Ixelles Ponds on 1 and 2 October, and then cover Cinquantenaire Park and the Squares; the Horta Museum district; the city centre; and Schaerbeek. Further information is available from Brussels Show and Tell (00 32476 43 36 32; www.voiretdirebruxelles.be). Admission prices will vary, but start at €8 (£5.70).

The Art Nouveau Façade at the Architecture Museum "La Loge", at Rue de l'Ermitage 55 (00 32 2 642 24 62; www.aam.be), takes place from 12 April until 18 September. It will open noon-6pm daily except Monday, and until 9pm on Wednesdays, admission €3 (£2.15), examining the importance that Art Nouveau architects attached to the façades of their buildings,.

Art Nouveau day to day at the Red Cloister Centre for the Arts, Rue du Rouge Cloitre 4 (00 32 2 660 55 97; www.rouge-cloitre.be), from 12 May until 17 July, will demonstrate the role that Art Nouveau played in daily life from 1890-1910 through a collection of objects and photographs (open 2-6pm daily, except Monday and Friday; admission €5/£3.60).

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