HORTA, Victor
(b. 1861, Gent, d. 1947, Bruxelles)

Biography

Belgian architect and designer. Trained at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (1876-81), Horta became a pupil of the Neoclassical architect Alphonse Balat. His first independent building, the four-storied Hôtel Tassel in Brussels (1892-93), was among the first continental examples of Art Nouveau, although it incorporated Neo-Gothic and Neo-Rococo stylistic elements. An important feature was its octagonal hall with a staircase leading to various levels. The curved line, characteristic of the Art Nouveau style, was used on both the façade and interior. Other buildings in Brussels in his rich, elegant style are Hôtel Solvay (1898-1900), notable for the plastic treatment of its façade, and Hotel Winssingers (1895-96), as well as his own house on the rue Americaine (1898).

His masterwork is the Maison du Peuple, Brussels (1896-99), the first structure in Belgium to have a largely iron and glass façade (demolished in 1965). In its auditorium, the iron roof beams were both structural and decorative. After 1903 Horta simplified his style, using decoration more sparingly and eliminating exposed iron. His later output demonstrates a safer and more academic approach.

In 1912 he became director of the academy and designed the Palais des Beaux-Arts (1922-28) in a simple, severe classical style. His last major undertaking was the central railway station in Brussels, which began just before World War II.

Although his work was confined almost entirely to Brussels, the ten years (1893-1903) of his active career working in the Art Nouveau style had a revolutionary effect on European perceptions of 19th-century rules of design. Apart from initiating and developing the style in Brussels, he created interiors in which furniture and decoration were remarkable for their stylistic unity and were in complete opposition to the eclecticism of 'conventional' contemporary interior decoration. He was one of the first architects to consider the potential of the open plan. He also applied the rationalist principles of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc regarding the exposure of the iron structures of his buildings. He was the first to make extensive use of cast iron in domestic architecture, combining the taste of an artist with the skill of an engineer in fashioning iron into the sinuous organic outlines characteristic of Art Nouveau.

The achievement of Horta's earlier career was extraordinary, his skills as a decorative and structural designer and as a planner coming together to create works of rich visual and spatial experience. His buildings were highly influential, in particular for Hector Guimard, who met Horta in 1895. Because of his innovations in structural expression and free planning, Horta came to be regarded by many as a precursor of the Modern Movement; it is, therefore, curious that he did not participate in the new movements in architecture that gathered momentum after World War I and reflected many of the same preoccupations.

Horta ranks with Henry van de Velde and Paul Hankar as a pioneer of modern Belgian architecture.