The artistic movement at the turn of
the century had many names: Nieuwe Kunst, Stile Liberty, Juqendstil and
Art Nouveau. Even within reqional centres of
artistic activity there were often fundamentally-opposed stances, even
disputes, and at all events divergent departures. The only common factor
was the conscious desire to be "modern" -
whatever that might mean. This desire finally led architecture away from
the now dubious terrain of traditional values and towards fashionable,
current trends which - as with Art Nouveau - were frequently only
The late nineteenth century saw the middle classes, feeling more and
more politically threatened, escape into the world of decoration. The
Makart style in Vienna, Alban Chambon's theatres in Brussels, London and
Amsterdam, Charles Baudelaire's poetry in "Les fleurs du mal" and Ludwig
ll's greenhouses and fairy-tale castles built to motifs by Richard
Wagner all represent a post-Romantic flight from the overpowering world
of industry. Obsession with decoration seems a form of self-deception
on the part of a middle class in the face of responsibility for the
social upheavals which were already clearly making themselves felt, even
though their effects were still hardly imaginable at the Time. Unusual
flora under filigree glass domes were a set piece of exoticism. Towards
the end of the century, romantic nostalgia sent tourists fleeing to the
cult and cultural centres of Italy and Egypt.
Meanwhile, discussions on
architecture were dominated by theoretical exchanges on the aims of the
Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain, on Eugene-Emmanuel
Viollet-le-Duc's "Entretiens" and Gottfried Semper's writings and works.
The vehemence and passion of these discussions had many causes. Immense
population expansion and increasing mobility had precipitated the
building of numerous railway stations, town halls, covered markets, post
offices, apartment buildings, schools, hospitals and prisons. These
various building categories led to the emergence or a typological
architectural order. Pavilions served as hospitals, the model of the
pcnoptical prison building prevailed, cultural centres were built in
primarily classical styles, while new solutions needed to be found for
railway stations, department stores and indoor swimming pools.
Ornamentation, it seemed, was a sine qua non, and aesthetic postulates
such as "Functional buildings should be without ornamentation" was
simply an excuse for budget cuts by French hospital administrators.
The achievement of architecture in the nineteenth century lay above all
methodical development of building programmes. Stylistic specifications
often decided by central administrative bodies and reflected standards
communicated nationally through the many new architectural journals.
Architects got used to offering their designs in a number of alternative
styles. What were not produced, however, were houses with which the
progress-oriented middle classes could identify themselves. This
explains the development of new movements, especially in the provinces,
which sought to incorporate both regional thinking and modernity. This is
true for Nancy, Darmstadt and Glasgow as well as for Barcelona, where
Antoni Gaudi designed highly unusual works in the name of Catalan
Modernism. The trend began, however, in Brussels, where an economic
boom, combined with the strength of the middle class and the Socialist
party, produced a new breed of architectural patron. Rich from profits
made in the colonies, and yet in no way opposed to the ideas of
Socialism, these sponsors awarded building contracts to their young
architect friends. Since the city of Brussels incorporated many rural
land plots, building sites were quite small. The street front of the van
Eetvelde house, for example, was only nine metres wide. Attempts to
redesign the city on the basis of Georges-Eugene
Haussmann's Paris model failed. The large multi-storey buildings which
had become the rule in other metropolises were unsuccessful here.
Brussels remained characterized by the narrow bourgeois residence. Its
form was rigidly governed by municipal building regulations. The heights
of building and rooms, the measurements of plinths, cornices and
balconies, even the sufficiency of insulation were all monitored. But it
was precisely such limitations in the basic form and the lack of overall
town planning which challenged the architectural imagination.
Many theoreticians had already taken a stance against the - now somewhat
moderated - doctrines of academic architecture and the ornamental
arbitrariness of the handicrafts industry. Viollet-le-Duc in France for
one. In arguing for a return to the ideals of antiquity, and
particularly of the Gothic, he propagated a philosophy of "honest"
building appropriate to materials used. His writings were widely known.
William Morris and John Ruskin opposed the evils of industrial
production with their ideals of an arts and crafts culture, which did
not prevent them, however, from designing machine-printed fabrics and
John Ruskin, too, found the Gothic the only style worth emulating
besides the Pisan Romanesque. At the same time he wrote, in "The Seven
Lamps of Architecture" in 1849: "... the time is probably near when a
new system of architectural laws will be developed, adapted entirely to
metallic construction.'' Viollet-le-Duc expressed a similar sentiment.
In practice, however, Ruskin shied away from the consequences, for "true
architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material, and ...
such works as ... the iron roofs and pillars of our railway stations ...
are not architecture at all."
The new theories and approaches allowed the use of all available
building materials, as long as they were openly exposed and their
integration within the building was logical and stylistically
harmonious. The basic concept of the building was hardly questioned.
Victor Horta's split levels, for example, were thoroughly common in
their day. His facades blended quietly into their surroundings and were
relatively inconspicuous and reserved. Only once inside, in interiors
usually featuring glazed roofs and generous lighting, were their novelties first revealed: sweeping trains of ornamentation, a sensitive use
of colour and surprising material combinations of steel, marble and
precious woods Flat iron was coiled into artistic banisters and lamps,
while load-bearing supports were revealed to the world.
Inspiration for this new ornamentation, its enthusiastic curves
masterfully developed by Henry van de Velde in particular from
constructive elements came from the graphic art of the day. In France
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was designing posters in a new style, while in
England artists such as Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and Walter Crane were
working on the revival of book illustration within the framework of the
reform movement. Nor should the refined erotic fantasies of Aubrey
Beardsley for example be ignored. New design impulses also came from the
pictorial world of the Far East, and decorated the salons and studies of
countless contemporaries in the form of floral graphics Colour woodcuts
by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hakusai were available as
reproductions, and his motifs were to be found in many Art Nouveau
Against this background of orientalism and historicism, Ruskin and
Morris's reform ideas may be seen as a call to honesty in design. Art
Nouveau was therefore hardly able to provide a satisfying response to
this challenge in the long term. All too offer it created artificial
forms which, although cloaked in the language of mystic-sounding thoughts
on artistic unity, were nothing more than decoration. Which is precisely
what earned Art Nouveau its popularity.
The fashionable character of Art
Nouveau emerges particularly clearly in its French development, its
history virtually inseparable from events at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
After the crisis in 1863, when Viollet-le-Duc had to abandon his
official lectures and teach in a privately-organized circle, discussions
between formalists and non-conformists intensified, albeit without
bearing particular fruit.
It was not until Hector Guimard used a
modified version of a Viollet-le-Duc drawing from the seventies during
the new construction of the Ecole de Sacre-Coeur that it become clear to
all that the concept of visible ironwork was not alone a success. In his
first house in the "new style", the Castel Beranger, Guimard
went further: he exchanged the ornaments of the neo-Gothic
planning for florally-animated motifs similar to those he had seen on
Horta's buildings, ana placed an asymmetrical wrought-iron gateway in
the main entrance. As arbitrary as this may seem, it illustrates the
proximity of the Gothic Revival and Art Nouveau. This preference for
Gothic Revival was one shared by patrons commissioning middle-class
homes all over Europe. Its relatively plain facades, natural stone
brickwork and expressive details seemed to express the mood of the times
as successfully as did Art Nouveau. But the artist-architects of Art
Nouveau rose above rigid, conventional plans in the rich fantasies of
their open interiors.
At all events, the liberality of Art Nouveau made it excellently suited
for commercial purposes, and many large department stores exploited its
potential to great effect. The artistic products of this symbiosis,
geared towards profit and fame, were palaces such as Frantz Jourdain's "Samaritaine"
in Paris. In Berlin, the "Warenhaus", as the Wertheim brothers called
their new department store,
became a veritable den of temptation. Sales spaces took up entire
floors, and the whole street front was made into one large shop window.
"Liberation! That's the feeling with which the layman cranes his neck at
this magnificent facade, more impressive than a hundred public
edifices", as an overwhelmed Alfred Lichtwark described it. The
arbitrarily-compiled, mainly neo-Gothic ornamentation had nothing to do
with Art Nouveau, but rather with the abandonment of stale design
maxims. The awkwardness of its combination of technical structure with
flamboyant form became even clearer in its successor, the Tietz
department store. While all the elements of a new architecture were
present, it was still lacking the masterly fusion of its diverging
aspects which would unite technology and form into a single picture.
The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 also saw the official opening
of the Metro. Its entrances and cashier's booths are the high point of
Hector Guimard's work and masterpieces of Art Nouveau. Many contemporary
observers criticized the inadequate integration of its
serially-conceived architecture into the traditional cityscape. Typical
for the Metro stations was their use of standardized elements of cast
iron. Unlike Horta, who rejected the material, these elements were
Guimard's speciality. His own foundry distributed As would later become evident, this bold
entree into the new century was more the glittering end of an epoch than
the birth of a new era. The age of so many imitated styles and forms
appeared to have provoked no momentous beginnings.
The future lay not
with the pleasing works of such as Jules Lavirotte and Paul Saintenoy,
but with the systematic reductions of Hendrik Petrus Berlage and Henry
van de Velde. Count Harry Kessler noted in his diary in 1901: "Breakfast
at Frau Richter's ... spoke about van de Velde. His style in furniture,
everybody agreed that he is not suited to luxury rooms ... Axel
Varnbuhlen Why luxury art for aristocrats? That's practically a thing of
the past." Fashionable and rational design were also in conflict in the
Netherlands. Although many architects here were expressing themselves
through curved lines, the works of a group calling itself "Architecture
et Amicitia", centred around Berlage and Petrus Cuypers, were closer to
the rectilinearity of their English and Austrian colleagues, although
they, too, dismissed the Vienna Secessionists as "upholsterers,
wallpaperers and furniture makers". Interior design was, in fact, the
most important field of activity for the young Viennese.
Perhaps that explains why their architecture is occasionally reminiscent
of a giant item of furniture. The Viennese guest house "Die Traube"
frequently saw Josef Hoffmann, Max Kurzweil, Theodor Gottlieb Kempf,
Karl Moll, Koloman Moser and Joseph Maria Olbrich discussing
architecture together. Here, too, Max Fabiani, who had awarded the
contract for the celebrated Cafe Museum to the young Adolf Loos, finally
ended up calling even Olbrich a "decorativist". Such dismissive
attitudes, which long remained widespread, failed to acknowledge the
stimulus that Art Nouveau had given the stagnating art world. Even
Walter Benjamin saw the confrontation of new artistic will and old
ideology as an internal conflict of the age still awaiting resolution:
"Van de Velde's houses are an expression of personality. Ornamentation
is to these houses what a signature is to a painting. The true
significance of Art Nouveau is not revealed in this ideology. It
represents the last attempt by art to escape from an ivory tower
besieged by technology."