A revised and updated study of Victor Horta (1861-1947), the Belgian architect who created some of the first Art Nouveau buildings. It’s a sumptuous and engrossing account of an explosion of creativity. Before and after the 1890s, Horta’s output was modest and unremarkable, and he died in exile, destroying nearly all his drawings in a moment of despair. That makes his decade of success all the more extraordinary. Fourteen of Horta’s best surviving buildings, mostly houses concentrated in one quarter of Brussels, are featured here, with illuminating texts and dazzling imagery, and the authors put them in the context of earlier and later work and the adventurous spirit of the time.

A century later, Art Nouveau looks like the last gasp of the 19th-century’s passion for ornament. The whiplash lines of murals and balustrades, the swelling forms and intricate carvings, the patterns of stained glass and tile, are exhilarating but overpowering. It’s hard to imagine living amid such excess. But the style was initially seen as avant-garde, a daring departure from ponderous classicism and historical pastiche. As Dernie explains, “The material richness and spatial integrity of Horta’s Art Nouveau drew on the wealth of craft skills practiced by the Belgian building industry and on the technical knowledge preserved in the traditions of glassmaking, carpentry and ironwork. Bringing together an exotic palette of materials, Horta’s interiors express the sensibilities of an age.

It was a beguiling mask for an era of cruelty and materialism. The new wealth of Belgium derived from the exploitation of industrial workers and the rape of the Congo, for which King Leopold II was personally culpable. Horta had socialist leanings and designed the Maison du Peuple (inexcusably demolished in 1965) as a gathering place for workers. But he lavished his greatest artistry on houses for the elite and, happily, many of these have survived intact, most notably the Hôtel Solvay. Horta’s own house and studio are almost as fine, and are impeccably maintained as a museum.

Victor Horta: The Architect of Art Nouveau. Text by David Dernie, photography by Alastair Carew-Cox (Thames& Hudson, $60)

Michael Webb

Author: Michael Webb

Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.