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 Victor Horta  (1861 - 1947)

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Lived/Active: Belgium      Known for: Art nouveau architecture

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Victor  Horta
An example of work by Victor Horta
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Victor Baron Horta was a Belgian architect and designer.  John Julius Norwich described him as "undoubtedly the key European Art Nouveau architect." Indeed, Horta is one of the most important names in Art Nouveau architecture; the construction of his Hôtel Tassel in Brussels in 1892-3 means that he is sometimes credited as the first to introduce the style to architecture from the decorative arts. The French architect Hector Guimard was deeply influenced by Horta and further spread the "whiplash" style in France and abroad.

In 1932 King Albert I of Belgium conferred on Horta the title of Baron for his services to architecture. Four of the buildings he designed have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Born in Ghent, Horta was first attracted to the architectural profession when he helped his uncle on a building site at the age of twelve.

Horta had had a great interest in music since childhood and, in 1873, went to study musical theory at the Ghent Conservatory. After being expelled for bad behaviour, he joined the Department of Architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent instead. In 1878 Horta left for Paris, finding work with architect and designer Jules Debuysson in Montmartre. There he was inspired by the emerging impressionist and pointillist artists, and also by the possibilities of working in iron and glass.

When Horta's father died in 1880, he returned to Belgium and moved to Brussels, married his first wife, with whom he later fathered two daughters, and went to study architecture at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. In Brussels Horta built a friendship with Paul Hankar, who would later also embrace Art Nouveau. Horta did well in his studies and was taken on as an assistant by his professor Alphonse Balat, architect to Leopold II of Belgium. Together they designed the royal Greenhouses of Laeken, Horta's first work to utilise glass and iron.

In 1884 Horta won the first Prix Godecharle to be awarded for Architecture (for his unbuilt design for Parliament), as well as the Grand Prix in architecture on leaving the Royal Academy.

By 1885 Horta was working on his own and was commissioned to design three houses which were built that year. The same year he also joined the Central Society of Belgian Architecture. Over the next few years he entered a number of competitions for public work, and collaborated with sculptors (notably his friend Godefroid Devresse) on statuary and even tombs, winning a number of prizes. He focused on the curvature of his designs, believing that the forms he produced were highly practical and not artistic affectations.

During this period, Horta socialised widely and, in 1888, joined the freemasons as a member of the lodge Les Amis Philanthropes of the Grand Orient of Belgium in Brussels. This ensured a stream of clients when he returned to designing houses and shops from 1893.

Horta was appointed Head of Graphic Design for Architecture at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 1892, before being promoted to Professor of Architecture in 1893, a post he left in 1911 after the university authorities failed to offer him the opportunity to design an extension to the university buildings.

After receiving great acclaim for his designs, Horta was commissioned to complete many other important buildings throughout Brussels. Enhancing this new architectural style, Horta designed the Hôtel Solvay (1895-1900) and his own residence (1898) employing iron and stone façade with elaborate iron interiors.

In tune with the public mood, after some ten years designing in the Art Nouveau style that he pioneered and for which his is best known, from the turn of the century Horta's designs gradually started to become simplified and less flamboyant, with more classical references.

With World War I in progress, Horta left Belgium for London in February 1915 and attended the Town Planning Conference on the Reconstruction of Belgium, organised by the International Garden Cities and Town Planning Association. Unable to return to Belgium due to the war, at the end of the year he decided to go to the United States, where he gave a number of lectures at universities including Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Smith College, Wellesley College and Yale and, in 1917, became Professor of Architecture at George Washington University, and Charles Eliot Norton Memorial Lecturer.

On Horta's return to Brussels in January 1919 he sold his home and workshop on the rue Américaine, and also became a full member of the Belgian Royal Academy.

The post-war austerity meant that Art Nouveau was no longer affordable or fashionable. From this point on Horta, who had gradually been simplifying his style over the previous decade, no longer used organic forms, and instead based his designs on the geometrical. He continued to use rational floor plans, and to apply the latest developments in building technology and building services engineering. The Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, a multi-purpose cultural centre designed in a formal style that was new at the time, but which foreshadows Art Deco as well as having cubist features, is a particularly prominent example.

In 1927, Horta became the Director of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, a post he held for four years until 1931. In recognition of his work, Horta was awarded the title of Baron by Albert I of Belgium in 1932.

Horta actually began working on his longest running project - the modernist Brussels-Central railway station - in 1910, although (despite having been commissioned to prepare drawings in 1913) work didn't start until 27 years later. Horta was still working on the station when he died in 1947, and the building was completed to his plans by his colleagues led by Maxime Brunfaut. It eventually opened on 4 October 1952.

After Art Nouveau lost favor, many of Horta's buildings were destroyed, most notably the Maison du Peuple, demolished in 1965, as mentioned above. However, several of Horta's buildings are still standing in Brussels to today and available to tour. Most notable are the Magasins Waucquez, formerly a department store, now the Brussels Comic Book Museum and four of his private houses (hôtels), which were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site:

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