Art Nouveau Architecture in Brussels
Saving the Artist and Creating a Feast for the Senses
by Richard Harris, Brussels
What do wild curves, crazy shapes, eye-popping mosaics, colorful Sgraffiti, stupendous wrought ironwork, intricate brickwork, and gorgeous stained glass all have in common? They are the striking elements of the Art Nouveau style of architecture which capture people’s imagination in an unforgettable way. They are also the product of a brilliantly successful campaign to save ancient arts and crafts from the onslaught of industrial assembly line efficiency.
the fact that many of Brussels’ Art Nouveau buildings were destroyed
between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies, the city is still a
treasure trove with entire blocks built in the style. Instead of being
torn down, they are being lovingly restored—reinvigorating the various
artists and craftsmen trades. In fact, some of them are Unesco World
A reaction to Academic Art of the nineteenth century—the recycling of old styles—the Art Nouveau movement was inspired by the natural forms and structures of flowers, plants, and curved lines. Art Nouveau architects tried to harmonize their works with the environment. Art Nouveau furniture was designed to be in concert with the design of the whole building.
That industrialization was especially acute in Belgium is illustrated by the fact that in the second half of the nineteenth century, Belgium—the size of the state of Maryland—was the third industrial power in the world. The artists and architects of the Art
Nouveau movement feared industrialization would lead to the extinction
of the age-old crafts that had been the pride of the country. In
resistance to mass production, Art Nouveau designers insisted on using
artisan-produced wrought iron, tiles, mosaics, paintings, Sgraffiti—a
technique of wall decor, produced by applying layers of tinted plaster
to a moistened surface—and lavish stained glass in and outside a
building. Art Nouveau buildings,
furniture, and furnishings, including the silverware, were handmade.
The result is a feast of the senses, a voyage of discovery in which each
house façade holds a myriad of carefully executed details, from the
front door’s lowly boot scraper to the magnificent bay window filled
with stained glass.
Every two years the Art Nouveau Biennial—the next in 2013—attracts thousands of tourists with special tours and exhibits. However, one need not wait for that! Many visitors come year-round to wander the Art Nouveau neighborhoods and visit the various houses that are now museums or everyday businesses such as cafés, floral shops, restaurants, government buildings, and even swimming pools.