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Get involved with Brussels' year-long celebration of Victor Horta
2018 is a big year for fans - both locals and tourists - of the work of master architect Victor Horta. Twenty Brussels cultural institutions have joined to present Horta Inside Out, a complete programme surrounding the work of one of the greatest designers of his generation.
Beyond the flowing décor that springs to mind when one hears the words Art Nouveau, what was revolutionary about Horta’s work was his creation of open plan designs - resulting in the diffusion and transformation of light throughout each building. This was achieved by using new materials (glass and steel) and introducing modern technical utilities. Using metallic structures often visible or subtly dissimulated, he conceived light and airy living areas, directly adapted to the personality of their inhabitants.
“Horta Inside Out is something totally new,” says Yaron Pesztat, head of the modern architecture department at CIVA Foundation. “The general idea is that anyone coming to Brussels at any time this year will be able to see several exhibitions as well as participate in guided tours, including going inside Horta’s houses, and lots of other activities.”
There will be guided tours on foot, by coach and bicycle. There are also two virtual tours. The first, by IRPA, is an online tour and will be available all year, featuring more than 1,500 photos illustrating almost Horta's complete body of work, including demolished masterpieces such as Maison du Peuple and Hôtel Aubecq.
The other virtual tour is a mobile app called Inside Art Nouveau and will enable users standing outside an Art Nouveau building or from a distance to see interiors of buildings that are not open to the public. The user will also be guided to other buildings, both in the area and further away, by means of a dynamic map.
A year of shows
There are 10 exhibitions planned, five all year long, and five temporary. Among the year-long exhibitions is Horta and the Waucquez Stores, which by using exceptional photographs and documents, retraces the birth, life and almost destruction of the Waucquez fabric stores as well as its resurrection and transformation into the Comic Strip Museum.
Among the temporary shows is Light in the Work of Victor Horta: From Hôtel Tassel to the Central Station. This exhibition allows the visitor to appreciate the variety of ingenious solutions Horta came up with to let light into the innermost parts of his buildings.
There is also a photo competition on World Art Nouveau Day. The competition is entitled My Favorite Art Nouveau Architect and will take place on 10 June, organised by Réseau Art Nouveau Network. And the fourth edition of the Artonov Festival presents performing arts (music, dance, fashion and theatre) in Art Nouveau settings. This year the theme is Victor Horta and Freemasonry.
Visitors will also be able to combine a visit to At the Birthplace of Art Nouveau, CIVA’s year-long show, which is an in depth introduction to the architect’s work, with the Victor Horta and Art Nouveau Book Fair, featuring lots of books as well as talks, book signings and other activities for one weekend in October. And all year, especially during the school holidays, there are a variety of organised activities for children.
Arau: Preserving the past for the future
There will be no shortage of tours of Art Nouveau gems in Brussels during Horta Inside Out, but two long-time organisations offer perspectives that enrich the visitor experience.
Arau has been active in the Brussels development and preservation scene since the late 1960s. Though it offers some of the capital’s best tours of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, its mission is much broader: to defend the interests of residents when it comes to development projects and urban renewal.
Back in the 1970s, for instance, Arau saved the early 20th-century houses in Rue aux Laines from demolition. “The city was planning to destroy many of the houses in this street in the Sablon district to put up new buildings,” says Carlos Ramos of Arau. “We researched the project and advised the city that it would be possible to preserve the houses and split them into apartments. Eventually the demolition was cancelled. Now it’s one of Brussels’ most significant historical streets.”
Arau was founded in the period following the demolition of Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple, still one the most embarrassing incidents of the destruction of priceless architecture in the capital. “Today it’s impossible to imagine that you could destroy a house built by Victor Horta,” says Ramos, “but then it was very possible.”
The work continues, even if now more attention has turned to transport infrastructure.
The tours, launched in the 1970s remain central to Arau, as they link the past with the present in visitors’ minds. “Arau tours look at Brussels in general, its growth, changes and development,” explains Ramos.
Arau offers the tour Brussels 1900: Art Nouveau in English and French on Saturday mornings starting in April. The other tour offered in English is Totally Horta, which runs from May to November.
During March’s Banad Festival, which celebrates Brussels’ Art Nouveau and Art Deco heritage, Arau will offer more tours in English, including Brussels Art Nouveau and Art Nouveau to Art Deco.
Korei: Getting the bigger picture
Tour organisation Korei, meanwhile, immerses visitors in historical periods. Olaf Winkler has been doing Art Nouveau tours in German, Dutch and English with Korei for five years.
“With Art Nouveau, it’s never just the architecture that’s interesting,” Winkler says. “It’s also about why architects decided to change architecture, to come up with innovations. And how this is connected to general developments in society.”
Korei launched 22 years ago and is behind the autumn Brussels Biennale of Modern Architecture. It also does a tour of downtown Brussels’ arts scene, visits to artists’ workshops and tours of heritage buildings outside of the capital.
One of the most crucial aspects of Korei's tours, Winkler says, is to impart an understanding of why Horta and his fellow architects founded a new design movement. “Most people just think about Art Nouveau as decoration, but, to be honest, decoration is the least important thing about it.”
There’s certainly a style, but more crucial is the movement, he explains. “It’s more about how Victor Horta changed the very ideas inherent in building residential housing. He changed the entire floor plan by using new materials and developed an entirely new way of thinking about how you live in a building. He prepared the way for modernism in terms of functionalism.”
During Horta Inside Out, Korei will also do tours of the Winssinger House, which is rarely included on tours; the only school Horta ever built; and, of course, the Horta Museum. Korei also does a unique tour detailing Horta’s masterplan for the Mont des Arts area in the city centre of Brussels. Although Horta only ever finished Bozar and Central Station, they were once part of an architectural plan to span a much larger area.