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According to Schmutlzer, "The buildings of Horta reveal the full importance of architectural initiative" (114).
In his book, a History of Modern Architecture, Joedicke (1959) reports that, "In the nineteenth century a circle of adventurous artists, known as 'Les XX,' had already appeared in Brussels, who were strongly influenced by William Morris and his followers. In 1893 Victor Horta, who belonged to this group, built the house in the Rue de Turin in Brussels at a period when there were still few signs of the new movement on the Continent" (44). A number of innovations can be identified for the first time in this project, as well as in Horta's the Maison du Peuple (1897), wherein iron was systematically used; prior to these pioneering efforts, iron had only be used in factories and exhibition buildings. "Iron as a building material," Joedicke enthuses, "which permitted a more open floor plan, now made its undisguised appearance in domestic building" (44). According to Boyd and his associates (1963), the Maison du Peuple was "Built at the same time as Berlage's Stock Exchange in Amsterdam, this is far more advanced in its use of glass and iron. They fill the entire facade" (324).
Although the cast-iron stanchions used in Horta's Rue de Turin remained, at least from a decorative perspective, Horta's efforts in the Maison du Peuple were clearly inspired by botanicals, and the horizontal, vertical and diagonal structures evinced in the structural frame of the Hall in the "Maison du Peuple" are likewise "connected to a delicately articulated network, which in its transparency and lightness goes beyond ornamental effect and becomes an expression of the principles of construction" (Joedicke 45). In this regard, Goldwater (1998) suggests that, "Horta composed in terms of space and structure and although he 'interpreted his metal structures... As something plant-like' this biological analogy contained no broader suggestions" (70). According to Farmer and Louw (1993), the Maison du Peuple has since been demolished, but "with its elegant concave facade, and its undulating iron trusses, it was among the most inventive of late nineteenth-century buildings" (331).
In this regard, Horta modified the techniques and the style of engineering to the requirements of functional architecture, but as he clearly showed in his Maison du Peuple in Brussels, he also adapted them the needs of private home owners, a combination that Schmutzler suggests truly made him a pioneer in his field; however, the steel skeleton was not developed as an architectural element only in France. For example, "Paxton Crystal Palace of 1851 certainly remains as an important example of earlier English achievements in this field; but later French examples appear to have inspired the architects of Art Nouveau more directly" (Schmutzler 114).
As to his Maison du Peuple in Brussels, Kohn (2001) reports that, "By far the most significant house of the people, from the architectural standpoint, was Victor Horta's Maison du Peuple in Brussels. Commissioned in 1895, the massive building was inaugurated on Easter of 1899, dubbed 'red Easter' in the press" (503). Besides being regarded as being one of the important examples of Art Nouveau, the Maison du Peuple also featured a number of innovative approaches to realizing the unique function of the building. In this regard, Horta summarized his objective as follows: "To construct a palace that wouldn't be a palace but rather a 'house' in which the air and light would be the luxury so long excluded from the workers' hovels" (47 quoted in Kohn at 503).
In truth, Horta developed the effect of grandeur through his innovative use of light and air instead of the traditional finery and ornamentation that characterized the bourgeois palaces of the day (Kohn 503). Moreover, Horta managed to communicate a sense of power through his use of a skeletal frame of iron and steel, a process that created an impression of stability and massiveness without the associated heaviness characteristic of the concrete used in most monumental architecture; in addition, Horta's application of new industrial materials such as steel symbolized the progress, achieved through labor and industrialization, that would result in a new society (Kohn 503). According to this author, "The two main central spaces of the Maison du Peuple were the bar-cafe-restaurant on the first floor and the 1500-seat auditorium on the top floor. The building was organized to create the greatest possible opportunity for communal life. Whereas the restaurant was designed primarily for social life, the auditorium emphasized the exigencies of political life" (Kohn 504).
In his book, Modern Architecture since 1900, Curtis (1996) makes the point that, "A good plan would be one which found the central meaning, as it were, of the institution housed" (313) and this is just what Horta's design accomplished. For instance, Lenning reports that, "The requirements of the building, now used by the Socialist Party, defined the interior plan: the ground floor housed cooperative stores and a large cafe; the upper stories were given over to administration offices, exhibition galleries, and a large auditorium. There was also a roof garden" (77). Likewise, "The furnishings and fixtures for which Horta was also responsible, were simple and substantial, in keeping with the spirit of the building itself" (Lenning 77).
The interior of the Maison du Peuple is shown in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Interior of Maison du Peuple, 1896-1900.
Like Frank Lloyd Wright's consideration of the physical place in which a building would be situated, Horta too carefully considered the space in which the Maison du peuple would be constructed: "The dimensions and features of a site are important in other ways. Some sites are an awkward shape and this may determine the form of the building. The Maison du Peuple in Brussels, was located on a circular place and its curved facade was designed by Victor Horta to reflect this" (Conway and Roenisch 126).
These features can be clearly seen in Figure 2 below.
Figure 2. facade of Maison du Peuple, 1896-1900.
It should also be noted, though, that both of the above-described spaces defied the traditional concepts of such architectural initiatives by incorporating things people would actually want to use and enjoy on a daily basis. For example, "Daily newspapers were available in the bar/cafe, which was also the setting of informal political discussions. The auditorium employed new acoustical principles in order to provide a state-of-the-art space for musical and theatrical performances" (Kohn 504). To this end, Horta's auditorium was situated on the top floor, thereby enabling it to take maximum advantage of the available natural light; likewise, in the restaurant/bar area, Horta introduced the innovative technique of employing removable panels in order to adjust the available space to achieve its most effective use at a given point in time (Kohn 504).
In his book, Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning, Roth (1993) points out that Horta's modernity "came from the use of metal for both structural and decorative elements and the artistic assimilation of lighting fixtures, all woven together in a continuous curvilinear pattern" (455). According to Roth, Horta "deliberately rejected historical styles and invented a new architectural idiom for his progressive, wealthy industrialist clients, using ornamental motifs in metal and glass derived from plant forms" (456). Noting the similarities between rococo architecture, this so-called "new art," or as the Parisian collectors termed it, "Art Nouveau," was used primarily at first for interiors:
It appeared fully developed in the interiors of the Tassel house, Brussels, that Horta designed in 1893. The Tassel house staircase, with its integration of pattern and line in floor mosaic, foliate column with budlike capital, wall painting, tendrillike gas lighting fixture, and curvilinear stair balustrade, was the prototype for the other houses Horta designed in Brussels and was matched by similar work by Hector Guimard in Paris at the turn of the century. This was a self-consciously modern expression, owing little in a strictly formal sense to earlier historical periods. (Roth 456)
These continuous curvilinear patterns can be clearly seen in the graphics of Tassel house's staircase and a detail from a staircase in the Maison du Peuple shown below:
Figure 3. Interior Stairwell of the Tassel House, 1892. Brussels.
Figure 4. Detail of Staircase from Maison du Peuple, 1896-1900.
In the Horta House Museum in Brussels, Levin reports that the three concepts of light, space and air are used harmoniously throughout the structure and as well as its decor: "Horta used many kinds of high-quality woods, and his designs feature many elements of nature, such as butterflies and other insects - especially the dragonfly - flowers, trees and clouds. Those…[continue]
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