Victor Horta (1861-1947), Belgium’s most famous Art Nouveau architect, lived and worked in Brussels. In 1898 he built his house and architectural studio in the 19th century neighborhood of the municipality of Saint-Gilles. He designed them as two independent buildings, with separate entrances, yet connected on the ground and second floor.
The facades display clearly the different functions: this can be seen, for example in the bow window and balcony, two components of the traditional townhouse and in the large windows of the second floor draughtsman’s studio, in the single window frame that provides light to the employee’s ground-floor offices and the sculptors’ basement atelier. Horta’s ultimate goal was …”to create a personal oeuvre in which social, architectural and structural rationalism were combined”... , as he wrote in his Memoires. He conceived his house and studio as a total work of art. Characteristic is the innovative plan layout, the fluidity of the spaces and the visual interrelation between spaces and levels as well as the open stair construction, crowned by a stained-glass dome, which allows light into the hearth of the home. Moreover Horta audaciously combined industrial and luxury materials, blending them with a craftsman’s skill. In the dining room the use of steel in construction and decoration is combined with glazed brick and various marbles and woods.
After 20 years of occupation Victor Horta sold the buildings to two different owners; one of them remodeled the studio to adapt it as a home. In the 70-ties the house and studio were purchased by the municipality of Saint-Gilles and the two buildings were reunited and furnished as a monographic museum. In 1963 they were the first Art Nouveau buildings to be protected as A historic monument in Belgium and in 2000 inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as one of the four major townhouses of Victor Horta. Finally in 1989 we (Barbara Van der Wee Architects) developed a global plan for the rehabilitation of the complex as a house museum and carried it out in 6 restoration campaigns over 20 years.
Preliminary research and global conservation plan
Our research into the buildings’ history, undertaken in collaboration with Françoise Aubry, enabled the chronology of construction to be understood and to determine the buildings’ period of splendor from an architectural and historical viewpoint. For this it was necessary to fully measure the house, the studio and the garden, and to compare Horta’s original plans with more recent ones.
Thus, it could be established that, Horta himself had enlarged the house and the sculpture workshop on the garden side and had reformed the front façade of the studio to include a garage. After the buildings were sold to two different owners, the studio especially suffered from considerable transformations.
The results of the research were assembled on the synthesis plans of the building history, demonstrating clearly which parts of the building phases were still preserved in 1989. This information turned out to be crucial in the decision making process of the conservation project.
Ultimately the historical study determined that the heyday of Horta’s house and studio complex should be situated between 1908 and 1911, after the various enlargements on the garden side yet before the addition of the garage. This was the period set as the historic frame of reference in the master plan for the restoration. As a result, it was decided that all transformations carried out after 1911, were to be dismantled.
Then the master plan defined the spaces with high heritage value, particularly the entire family home and the workshop’s first and second floors, as the house museum. Other functions, such as accommodation spaces for the visitors, Horta’s personal archives, an impressive library and office rooms were housed in zones that had already been reformed or had little architectural value.
As soon as we removed the modifications, added after 1911, the original volume of the sculpture workshop at the studio’s garden side was rebuilt and the garden facades and roofs were restored.
Then, the ground floor and cellar of the studio were furnished into the visitor’s reception with a cloakroom, museum shop, sanitary facilities and exhibition spaces.
During a third campaign the restoration of the facades intended mainly to repair the initial situation of the studio was carried out: the large windows of the draughtsman’s workshop, the single window frame on the ground-floor offices and the sculptors’ basement atelier, as well as the iron fence in front were reconstructed. Furthermore all the ironworks of both facades were repainted in an ochre color, as it was the oldest layer of paint, that was revealed.
Concerning the reconstruction of the window frame on the ground floor, it is important to mention that a detailed study of Horta’s 1898 plans and an old photo from the museum archives enabled us to establish the original composition of the large window as well as to define the drawing of the extremely complex fence in ironwork. The creation of this window, along with its corresponding railing, was the result of a close collaboration between excellent craftsman.
At a certain moment diverse structural problems had been identified on the main staircase of the house, mainly due to the overload of more than 45,000 visitors a year. Therefore a fourth campaign consolidated the interior structure of the 8 landings and timber joins of the stair stringers in an invisible manner using metal plates glued to the timber stringers and reinforced by stainless steel pins. This restoration phase made it clear that the museum’s very success had disastrous consequences for the building and resulted in reducing the museum’s capacity and limiting the staircase use.
Following the consolidation works, we restored the glass roof and stained-glass skylight over the stairwell as well as the mural paintings.During the last restoration campaign the main rooms of the house were decorated into their original setting and with original materials: special attention was paid to wall paintings, fabric wall coverings, curtains, furnishing, light fittings and even technical installations. These works lasted over 10 years and were especially carried out in the bathroom, the petit salon, the winter garden and in the kitchen area.
Concerning the domestic area it is important to mention that, after we removed the former housekeeper’s apartment, we revealed enough evidence to make the refurnishing of the original kitchen possible. Also the small elevator, which connected the former housekeepers’ living room with the bedrooms in the attic, was dismantled and a new staircase was built to the original model.
Due to the above mentioned restorations, visitors can finally visit Victor Horta’s house and studio, relishing the atmosphere and organization of both family and professional life.
As a conclusion, to prepare a 20 year restoration project, profound preliminary research is indispensable as well as a global conservation plan within which different sub-projects can be defined and executed in phases. However, the success of a long lasting building process, also depends on the flexibility and the mutual confidence and respect of overall stakeholders and contractors. Therefore I am sincerely grateful to all team members who made this project an exceptional learning experience.
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