Victor Horta: Architect, Freemason and Visionary

Κυριακή, 11 Οκτωβρίου 2009

by Katy Hounsell-Robert

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The exit from the Gare Midi in Brussels leads straight out into the wide square named after Baron Victor Pierre Horta. Further along, in the rue Americaine, is Musée Horta and you cannot go far in Brussels without encountering places and buildings bearing his name, and sporting the romantic curves and classical proportions of Art Nouveau, with which he is associated. He was undoubtedly one of the most famous 19th century architects and skilled lecturers in architecture, but perhaps it is less well known that he initially drew much of his inspiration from his dedication to Freemasonry.

This ambitious perfectionist was born in Ghent on 6 January 1861. He was initially attracted to music as a career, but soon found he was more interested in art and design, and decided instead to study architecture. He had the good fortune to become an assistant to Alphonse Balat, Architect to the King and lecturer at L’Université Libre de Bruxelles, who led him to expect the highest standards of himself, in realising his own potential.

In the 1880s, partly in coming to terms with the reality of the new independent state of Belgium with its new boundaries, and partly because of the enormous power of the established Roman Catholic Church, Belgian architecture and artistic design became embedded in nostalgia, harking back to the days when Flanders was a wealthy power. Only Neo-Gothic or Flemish renaissance designs were used, and no reputable craftsman would think of using new materials like steel or glass.

Furthermore, only the nobility and the rich were thought worthy and able to appreciate beautiful houses and gardens and to have elegant ornaments, and even they were discouraged from using anything outside the old-fashioned designs. Horta, inspired by the astounding British Crystal Palace master-minded by Queen Victoria’s Consort, Prince Albert, and influenced by the French impressionists, was one of many designers who wanted to use new shapes, colours and materials, and also to give the less privileged the chance to enjoy public places that were beautiful and uplifting as well as serving their intended purpose.

ART AND FREEMASONRY

With Horta’s high ideals and youthful desire to express his creative ideas, it was natural that he should join forces with other young men with similar ideals, among them Autrique, Tassel, Charbo and Lefebure. They all belonged to “Les Amis Philanthropes”, one of the most liberal and politically powerful lodges in Belgium, No. 5, in the Grand Orient.

  They invited him to join and his first meeting in the lodge, in rue du Persil next to Place des Martyrs, thrilled him. He found in it a movement of like minds and uplifting ideals as he later wrote in his memoirs: ‘Great returns from a small investment, especially since a meeting of Masons wasn’t an architectural association!   

But it was a respite for the spirits, an excitation of one’s energies . . . Just as there are those born to be in government, there are those who are moulded in the “dough” of opposition: I was one of the latter politically, aesthetically, in my sentiments. By nature, without flattering ourselves, we all were. In this closed circle, with its views about the infinity of knowledge, there could only be amicable understanding; what pleased one pleased the others.’

He was initiated on 31 December 1888 and was passed to the second degree in December 1889. His close friends in his lodge thought so highly of his skills that they tried to persuade the Academic Council to appoint him to a vacant post as a lecturer at L’Université Libre de Bruxelles. This had been founded in 1834 by the “Esperance” masonic lodge, under the leadership of the famous Belgian painter and engraver Fernand Verhaegen, as an alternative to the Catholic Universities such as Louvain, and was based on masonic principles, where the curriculum supported ‘freedom of conscience . . . rejecting all principles of authority in philosophical, intellectual and moral matters.’

This incensed the Catholic bishops so much that they condemned all masonic lodges in 1838, which led to them all combining to form the first Liberal Party, “Alliance Liberale”. Article 135 decreed by the Grand Orient in 1833 forbade political and religious discussion in the lodges. From 1854 to 1866 this was repealed, and even after it was reinstated lodges got round it by regrouping outside official meetings.

As well as Horta’s friends, Alphonse Balat, his teacher, also approached the president of the University, Emile de Mot, a high ranking mason. However De Mot disapproved of “preferential treatment for Masons” and nearly rejected Horta out of hand. Horta did eventually get the job, largely because of his own talent and dedication, but it caused considerable disagreement on the Academic Council for some time.

MAISON AUTRIQUE

His friends continued to support him, and one of his first commissions in his second year after becoming a Master Mason in 1892, when he was not yet 30, was to design a house for Eugene Autrique, now a qualified engineer. Horta was determined that although it would be a fairly small town house in an ordinary road, it would be given all the latest innovations and attention to detail that he employed in all his work.

The Maison Autrique in Chausée de Haecht has recently been restored, and with clever projection and use of audio tapes has been brought to life as it was in the late 19th century. In the semi-basement kitchen white sheets hang up to dry in the heat from the stove, while sounds of cooking are to be heard. In the bathroom there is a projection of a lady bathing and the sound of running water is heard. Every room is beautifully proportioned and delightfully light and Horta has considered all the needs of the family both above and below stairs. He even used hand-painted linoleum, the latest easy-to-clean flooring and an improvement on draughty ill-fitting boards. It is on the outside of the house however that Horta, with the approval of Autrique, embellished it with the many symbols which said to the world that it was a house whose owner and architect were not afraid to proclaim their masonic affiliation.

The actual design of Maison Autrique is more medieval Tuscan than anything else, perhaps as a protest against Catholic conservative architecture. The designs on the mouldings, frames and brackets are abstract, but the wrought iron grilles on the kitchen windows contain certain symbols of triangles and shapes of hooded cobra or the uraeus on a pharaonic crown. Higher up are similar symbols on the parapet of the pseudo loggia and bel étage window, echoing the Egyptian motifs decorating the Grand Temple in Brussels. It is interesting that the pyramid triangle identified Autrique and Horta as members of ‘Les Amis Philanthropes’, as this symbol appears on the reverse of the lodge medal.

EGYPTIAN SYMBOLS

By the time Horta built Emile Tassel’s house, although he used a number of Egyptian symbols in his original design, the only ones to be seen are two purely decorative iron columns on either side of the staircase leading up to the main floor which probably represent the two pillars of Jachin and Boaz standing at the entrance to Solomon’s Temple. Horta was never short of masonic clients, but rarely used masonic symbols on the buildings after this, as the clients often held high positions in authority and needed to be discreet about their loyalties.

The Catholic authorities were horrified with Horta’s designs and Art Nouveau in general, and condemned it ‘on the ground that its sinuous curves appeared to be the mark of a totally pagan lubriciousness, and forbade its teaching in the [Catholic] architectural schools of Saint-Luc.’

From that time, Art Nouveau became associated with Freemasonry and its liberal politics. However Horta never involved himself in political fighting. He agreed with the masonic moral and ethical issues, but his particular style of Art Nouveau was unique and apolitical.

THE GRAND PLACE

In 1899 he designed a masonic plaque, executed by the sculptor Victor Rousseau, in commemoration of Charles Buls, a former Master of ‘Les Amis Philanthropes’ who had played an important part in the development of Belgian Freemasonry. As he was also largely responsible for preserving the beautiful historic Grand Place, it is placed there under the arcade of La Maison de l’Etoile. On the plaque a girl holding a compass and scroll represents homage to Master Architects, while a boy holding a lighted oil lamp represents the beginning of the quest for esoteric knowledge, enlightenment and immortality. Around them are acacia branches symbolising rebirth and by which the Master Masons identified the tomb of the murdered Hiram, architect of Solomon’s Temple.

As Horta’s career progressed, he was commissioned to design many public buildings, among which, in 1896, was La Maison du Peuple for the Workers Party. The inaugural speech in 1899 congratulated and thanked him for his “sensitive understanding of our needs and our aspirations”. Horta has symbolised these and the work of the party in his glorious edifice. He was also responsible for the Gare Centrale, the Palais des Beaux Arts and several prestigious shops, and even found time to build his own house in 1898, now Musée Horta, and give lectures at the Academies of Brussels and Antwerp.

In the First World War when he was over 50 and a famous architect he left war torn Belgium and came with other masons to London. Here, together with Count Eugène Goblet d’Alviella and others, he founded the “Albert de Belgique” Lodge, under the Grand Orient of Belgium, but meeting in London. They met at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Aldwych where, on 29 May 1915, Horta himself gave a lecture entitled ‘The Reorganisation of the Brussels Art School’. Horta also came to London in the Second World War, by which time King Albert had conferred on him the title of Baron for services to Architecture.

He died in September 1947 at the age of 86 and is buried in the cemetery of Ixelles, a suburb of Brussels. His grave is simple; he is only fourth on the list of the interred, and his achievements hardly mentioned. La Maison du Peuple was later demolished. He lived for his work, which cost him his marriage and most of his friends, but he was completely true and loyal to art and its ethics. If the cost of building his design exceeded his quotation for example, he would waive his fee. It could be said that he reflected masonic ideals within his work all his life.

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