Major Town Houses of Victor Horta, Brussels, Belgium
The thing about the architecture of houses is that, for the most part, a casual observer only ever sees the outside. The whole point of a house, a private residence, is that the interior stays private. It’s a haven for the occupants, not an exhibition for the public. To protect what goes on behind closed doors, the doors must remain closed.
This means that for people who are interested in architecture, it can be harder than preferred to see the work done inside houses. It’s unfortunate because there is more than just aesthetics hidden away. All around the world, from large cities to rural properties, houses tell us so much about the cultures and societies in which they are built.
This is especially true when you consider the works of the architect Victor Horta in Brussels. His creations in the Belgian capital are the focus of this story.
Think about your city – or one that you have visited recently. It’s highly unlikely that all the houses were built at exactly the same time (unless you live somewhere like Le Havre in France). It means that you have an archaeology of architecture, in a sense. Just like you could cut down into the ground and see remnants of every era that has come before, the houses in a city show you the development of different stages in history.
In Brussels, there are four houses that have been listed together as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. They were all designed by an architect called Victor Horta and they represent an important time in the architecture of the city – the end of the 19th century.
You can see the locations of the four houses on this map I’ve put together:
The houses were part of the beginning of the Art Nouveau movement. They have an open plan, a diffusion of light, curved lines in the decorations that blend with the overall structure, and great attention to detail. Whether it’s a staircase, or a doorknob, or a light fitting, or a wall, everything is designed in a certain way so it fits with everything else and is a work of art on its own.
Or at least, this is what I have read in my research.
You see, the houses of Victor Horta in Brussels suffer from the problem I described at the start. They are private properties and, with one exception, you can’t go inside and see them as a general member of the public.
The one exception is the Victor Horta Museum. This does give you the opportunity to go inside one of the original buildings and get a sense of the design and layout. Rather than just read about the influence on Art Nouveau architecture, you can see it for yourself. Rather than just look at each element in books or online, you can feel how they merge together.
Even here, though, there are some constraints. The museum has limited opening hours and you can’t take photos inside. So unfortunately I’ve got none to share with you today.
So, aside from the museum, you are limited to seeing each of the our buildings just from the outside. They do stand out from their neighbours an you can start to give an idea of the ingenuity from these facades. But, of course, you’re missing out on really appreciating the genius of Victor Horta.
It was disappointing to find out how hard (impossible) it is to get access to these buildings. Especially when you consider that another of the World Heritage Sites in Brussels – the Stoclet House – is also privately owned and off limits to the public. I have written about my feelings on visiting the Stoclet House, and I think it’s worth a read in the context of these houses.
Brussels actually has three World Heritage Sites and it’s very rare to find that many in the one city, let alone two that focus on a specific style of architecture (you could argue the third one, The Grand Place, also has an architecture focus). It just goes to show how important the development of building design is in the city and how it links so closely with the culture.
If we are to truly appreciate this, we need to be able to see it for ourselves. Brussels has done a good job of protecting the heritage. It now needs to ask whether it can do a better job of showcasing it.