Horta's residence, a priceless legacy

Muriel de Crayencour
11 novembre 2014
Established in the private house and studio that architect Victor Horta built at rue Américaine in Saint-Gilles, the Horta Museum is a place visited mostly by foreign tourists fond of Art Nouveau rather than Brussels residents. Its elegant and discreet façade is a typical example of a mansion at the turn of the 19th century. Located in a new district at the time, it epitomizes a house as a work of art.

Victor Horta was a Belgian architect born in Ghent in 1861. In addition to many private mansions in Brussels (Autrique, Solvay, Tassel, Aubecq, etc.), he also designed public buildings such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Tournai, and in Brussels The Maison du Peuple, the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) and the Central Railway Station. He died in 1947, after destroying most of his files and drawings.

The municipality of Saint-Gilles bought Victor Horta’s house from a private owner in 1961 and opened it to public viewing in 1969. The studio was eventually purchased in 1971 as a result of architect Jean Delhaye’s convincing mediation. Delhaye then spent time revamping this priceless building without authorisation, damaging it a great deal in the process by fitting neon lights, dismantling Horta’s daughter’s built-in bedroom furniture (the furniture vanished), or by installing a lift in the stair-well, for instance.

Twenty-five years of restoration

Françoise Aubry, curator of the museum since 1981, is proud to announce the end of 25 years of restoration work on the buildings. Trained in Art History, Francoise Aubry was the first ULB graduate to write her degree paper on Henry Van de Velde. She actually had trouble finding a dissertation supervisor. She was hired at the museum fresh from graduating in 1976.

In 1988, she started drafting a maintenance and restoration master-plan. That year, the sponsorship committee of the Société Générale bank went on a guided tour of the museum. Delighted by their experience, the group members asked the curator how they could help preserve the buildings. With perfect timing, the master-plan was presented to them. This triggered a lengthy restoration campaign which began in 1989 with the restoration of roofs and skylights. Since the Direction des Monuments et Sites (Belgium’s National Trust directorate) was covering 80% of the budget, the Société Générale funded the remaining 20%.

The plaster work on the rear outer wall was another major project. Since the house and studio had belonged to different owners, their rear façades no longer matched. A traditional lime plaster was applied on both to create a unified appearance. The staircase was also reinforced. However, simple steps were taken (unfortunately not always understood by visitors) to preserve the structure. One was to prohibit people from stopping in the staircase and only allow a maximum of 45 visitors at the same time inside the house. Indeed, the large numbers of visitors lingering in the staircase to admire the decorations and take pictures had weakened the timber structure, which was initially not designed for such volumes and had reached its physical limit. Compared to the 1,000 visitors in 1969, the museum is now welcoming 64,000 people a year, which comes to a total of 128,000 hands likely to hold on to the banister of the staircase, and consequently wear it down.

The unsightly lift installed in the centre of the stairwell was dismantled in 2012. This meant that all the steps which had been reduced by a third of their length had to be rebuilt the way they used to be.

A new space

The adjacent house was purchased in 2006 in order to extend the museum. This project was carried out by Beliris with the help of the Brussels Guarantee Fund (federal budget supporting Brussels’ influence). This extension is scheduled for completion in April 2016 and will then open in September of the same year. It will accommodate the archives, the library, the photographic library as well as offices. The Horta Museum, which includes the architect’s residence and studio, is a listed historical monument. It is hoped that by moving the offices and archives into the neighbouring building, Horta’s house will be protected from the everyday wear and tear caused by the museum staff.

The museum is part of the Art Nouveau Network (www.artnouveau-net.eu) which includes joint projects, publications, and educational booklets on Art Nouveau locations scattered around Europe. The network is coordinated by two individuals whose offices are in the museum. The museum employs 10 people (including security and maintenance staff).

We asked Horta Museum curator Francoise Aubry a few questions

How did you become so passionate about Art Nouveau?

Francoise Aubry: What interested me most in Art Nouveau was the way nature was re-integrated into architecture. I come from the countryside and I love plants and animals. Only later did I learn about the scientific dimension of Art Nouveau, the influence of japonism, of Arts & Crafts… My passion was that of the young woman who moves from the countryside to the city. In Art Nouveau, there are a lot of twining plants, such as clematis, honeysuckle, vines, deploying their feelers to climb, but also butterflies and birds.

Where does this Art Nouveau come from?

Horta wanted a house to be a work of art.  This idea comes from the Aesthetic Movement enthusiastically promoted by Oscar Wilde. The movement was a reaction to mass production, and advocates of the House Beautiful wanted everything to work harmoniously in their homes. The 1851 exhibition at the London Crystal Palace, the first of the World Fairs, marked the successful emergence of mass-produced objects. Yet, many artists and writers rebelled against this manufacturing method. Wilde wanted to defend hand-made objects, one-off pieces. And consequently, he was also defending the status of the artisan craftsman.

How would you rate your 33 years at the helm of this museum?

I am proud to say that I launched the working tool that this place represents. In the annex due to open in 2016, I hope to be able to organise once a year a temporary exhibition on a contemporary of Horta, and also once a year on a modern artisan (a goldsmith, ceramist, or jeweller). I will be retiring in a few years. When that happens, I would like to spend time gardening or volunteering for natural reserves. I would be going back to nature.
Musée Horta
25 rue Américaine
1060 Brussels
From Tuesday to Sunday, 14:00 - 17:30 
www.hortamuseum.be

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Muriel de Crayencour

Rédactrice en chef

Voir et regarder l’art. Puis transformer en mots cette expérience première, qui est comme une respiration. « L’écriture permet de transmuter ce que l’œil a vu. Ce processus me fascine. » Philosophe et sculptrice de formation, elle a été journaliste entre autres pour L’Echo et Marianne Belgique. Elle revendique de pouvoir écrire dans un style à la fois accessible et subjectif. La critique est permise ! Elle écrit sur l’art, la politique culturelle, l’évolution des musées et de la manière de montrer l’art. Elle est aussi artiste. Elle a fondé le magazine Mu in the City en 2014.

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