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Stroll through Brussels to discover the jewels of Art Nouveau

The Belgian capital was the cradle of Art Nouveau. Several hundred facades bear witness to this. Walk around with your nose in the air and push open a few doors. Starting with that of the Solvay hotel, a masterpiece recently opened to visitors.

It is said to be the most beautiful house in Brussels… A mansion that once belonged to the Solvay family. The wealthy industrialist had given carte blanche to a young architect: Victor Horta. It will make the building a true jewel of Art Nouveau. A masterpiece of architectural modernity, both technical and aesthetic. For more than a century, only a few rare guests were able to enter the Solvay hotel. But recently, its owner decided to open it to visitors. There is no better place to start an Art Nouveau walk and go back to the time when Brussels was Brussels…

From Horta to Guimard

In the Solvay family, we know Ernest – the father. In the 1860s, this self-taught chemist perfected a process for making soda ash. From metallurgy to soap making, the product quickly found many industrial applications. In 1894, fortune made, Ernest Solvay retired from business and ceded control to his son Armand. The young man turns 30, prepares for his wedding and buys building land on the most prestigious thoroughfare in Brussels: Avenue Louise. He called on an architect recommended by a friend: Victor Horta. We know today that Horta will be the master of Art Nouveau in Brussels. He will convert Hector Guimard to this style, who will apply it to the entrances of the Paris metro. But at the time, Horta was still unknown. Armand Solvay was nevertheless impressed by the Tassel hotel that he built in Ixelles. The house is far from finished, but Solvay understands that it is revolutionary. Brussels houses are traditionally made up of three adjoining rooms, so that the central room does not benefit from natural light. Horta trained with the King’s architect when designing the Laeken greenhouses. There he learned the work of iron and glass. And he has the idea of ​​applying these techniques to the construction of houses. The metal structures make it possible to break down load-bearing walls, to pierce very large windows and to let in light.

A total work of art

Built between 1898 and 1901, the former residence and studio of the prestigious architect Victor Horta are today a museum dedicated to Art Nouveau. Visit Brussels

Armand Solvay gives carte blanche to Victor Horta. He will bite his fingers the day his young wife prepares to give birth to their third child while the site is still not completed! The works will last eight years. It is that Horta conceives the house as a total work of art. Besides the plans, he draws every detail of the building. The lights, the carpets, the doors and their frames, their handles, their locks… Everything. This is the first thing that impresses when you have the chance to enter the Solvay hotel. Armand Solvay’s monogram is encrusted in the parquet floor of the dining room, the patterns on the ceiling mirror the patterns on the floor, the doors are arched where the walls are curved… And what modernity! Hot water, central heating, and even a complete electrical installation when there is no network yet! Without forgetting what will make the reputation of the architect: beautiful exposed metal structures and curved windows.

Protected from promoters

If the design of the Solvay hotel is exceptional, so is its conservation. When Armand Solvay died in 1930, his son might have been tempted to trash the house. Many others did, considering Art Nouveau to be cheesy. But he keeps it as it is. Better still: at the end of the 1950s, when Brussels was experiencing a real estate boom, he refused to sell it to promoters interested only in the location. He prefers to sell it to another Brussels family, which still owns it today. Result: the house remained as it was. We discover it exactly as it was the day Armand Solvay and his family settled there. With all of its furniture, including the billiard cue rack, sculpted in the same pattern as the woodwork in the living room where it is installed. And thanks to the ingenious ventilation system with which Horta equipped his houses, everything is intact. You are in 1900!

The master’s house

Hotel van Eetvelde. This astonishing mansion, designed in three phases, is the work of the famous architect Victor Horta at the request of the diplomat Edmond van Eetvelde. Visit Brussels

Of the four major dwellings in Horta classified as World Heritage by Unesco, the Hôtel Solvay is the only one that has not been modified in any way. The Tassel hotel was divided into accommodation in the 1950s. Although it has since been restored, it only exceptionally opens its doors to the public. Same for thehotel van Eetveldetransformed into offices during the sixties. There remains the Horta house, which the architect built between 1898 and 1901 to house his family and his workshops. Today transformed into the Horta Museum, it has however known many vicissitudes. Victor Horta parted with it in 1919, after an exile in the USA which introduced him to other architectural trends. His Art Nouveau house seems completely outdated. It will be inhabited and transformed by others for several decades, before being saved and restored. Entering the dining room or the bedroom, one has the impression that Horta was there the hour before. In reality, however, there are fewer original elements than probable restorations. And most of the furniture pieces come from other houses designed by the architect. The visit is no less interesting.

Along the facades

The impressive Ciamberlani hotel designed by Paul HankarL Visit Brussels

Following Horta, several hundred Art Nouveau houses will see the light of day in Brussels. Most are concentrated in a few districts, between Saint-Gilles, Avenue Louise and the Ixelles ponds. Via Visit Brussels, you will find various operators (Arau, Brussels by Foot, Bruxelles Bavard, Routes, etc.) offering walking tours. You will stop in front of the impressive Hotel Ciamberlani imagined by Paul Hankar. Or in front of the Otlet hotel, which we owe to Octave van Rysselberghe and Henry van de Velde. It is only rarely possible to enter these buildings, but connect your smartphone to Inside Art Nouveau. This site allows you to discover the interior of 69 places thanks to period photos and other archive documents. Last tip: get the Art Nouveau Pass. For 19 euros, it offers you the choice of three visits among seven jewels of Art Nouveau in Brussels. The Horta Museum and the Solvay hotel are obviously part of it.

Hotel Solvay, avenue Louise 224, 1050 Brussels (Ixelles), hotelsolvay.be. Visits are by reservation only. Ask for a guided tour to immerse yourself in the history of the place.

Horta Museum, rue Américaine 27, 1060 Brussels (Saint-Gilles), hortamuseum.be. Also by reservation.


Travelogue

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MORE INFORMATIONS

Brussels Tourism Agency: www.visit.brussels

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