In the previous post in this series I referred to a unique office building in Liverpool, England completed in 1864 and how it had influenced architectural thinking about high rise buildings in late 19th Century America.
This post is about the architect Victor Horta.
I knew little about him until recently, when I began researching the origins of Art Nouveau as a revolutionary architectural style which flourished across the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. This connects with investigations related to Augustus Pugin, as well as into the relationship between architectural aesthetics and engineering form, some of which is recorded on this website about the civil engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry.
Horta appears to me to have been a remarkable man. But he was also a reflection of the time and place he lived. Born in Ghent, Belgium in 1861, he eventually moved to Brussels, the Belgian capital, where his unique approach to architecture struck a chord with key members of the city community. One particular building stands out for me and many others who have like me appreciated his efforts. This is the Hotel Tassel.
It was to be the home of a professor of geometry who was a Freemason like Horta. It seems the architect was given complete artistic licence. But he approached this, as Morris and Webb had done with their ground-breaking Red House in England, with a philosophical bent which captured the full expression of his talent in design and the detailed application of materials and techniques.
My new project will look at how this created vision still reverberates within the community that is Brussels.
This follows on from my previous blog in the series.
In that I outlined my interest in a project looking at the Secessionist style of architecture and its impact on local communities. I explained the connection to Sir John Wolfe Barry through his father the architect Charles Barry, who worked closely with Augustus Pugin on the New Palace of Westminster.
In the next blogs I will expand on the development of the Secessionist from the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement in England and the link to a wider style of nascent modern architecture that hit a number of major European and US cities at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Were local communities really involved with these changes? Clearly certain key representatives would have been, but nothing like the levels of consultation we are supposed to have in the present day democratic structures of these cities. Society was different and change could only happen if endorsed by those with influence. New construction materials and techniques were arriving on the scene through developments in steel and concrete. There was risk involved in using them, so someone had to be prepared to stick their head above the parapet and answer to the public acclaim or shame involved. Human lives were less valuable then.
One pivotal moment for me which followed the completion of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Red House in quiet Bexleyheath, England mentioned in the previous blog, was the building of Oriel Chambers in the heart of the busy City of Liverpool a few year later in 1864. Unappreciated at the time it has since been recognised as a unique early modern inhabitable structure using an iron frame and glass panels, originally the preserve of greenhouses and exhibition spaces such as the Kew Palm House and the Crystal Palace. In deed the building continues to be used as office space more than 150 years later!
Many suggest that this building inspired the architects of the Chicago School to create the first steel and glass skyscrapers in the late 19th Century, which were to become so commonplace globally and are still being constructed to this day, with the use of concrete rather than brick support. One of their number was Louis Sullivan who in turn worked with his protege Frank Lloyd-Wright before they fell out. Lloyd-Wright turned Sullivan’s phrase ‘form follows function’ into ‘form is function’. He himself coined the term ‘organic architecture’ to show the close connection between structures and their natural environment.
To be continued ….
Life seems to have two choice of strategies. You either specialise in a niche area or you broaden your outlook and cover all the bases. There are risks with both strategies but it seems to me the generalist one offers the most opportunities.
The construction industry is full of specialists: architects, surveyors, structural engineers, interior designers, builders etc. But it is technically possible to construct your own house. You may need people to check on your work from time to time, and if you make too many mistakes it can prove costly either in money terms or more seriously with implications for the health of the inhabitants. However it can be done.
Specialists come into their own when you want to try something different. A good architect will be able to respond to a challenging design brief by using their creative abilities to blend vision with reality. They in turn will work closely with a structural engineer to provide technical solutions to the new problems that arise from pushing the limits of construction. Materials specialists may also become involved. No generalist could manage this on their own.
Saying that, many project managers are generalists who are able to bring together specialists into combined teams for defined periods of time. They exist in all spheres of life and started to appear in their own right during the 20th Century. John Wolfe Barry might have been a possible candidate for this role if he had been born a century later.
Architecture has its modern day heroes such as Enzo Piano or Norman Foster or the late Zaha Hadid.
Civil and structural engineers are less well known nowadays compared to the legends of the past.
What has happened?
I would venture to suggest that people are more impressed nowadays by creativity and aesthetics than by downright structural solidity.
Is this fair?
No, but then it’s not fair that medicine attracts huge numbers of applicants and quite happily rejects large percentages of them in the upper echelons. No shame in not making the cut, you can always try another profession (by implication, easier).
I hope very much that this bias will change over time. I don’t believe it helps any profession. It’s not the obvious that matters, rather the less well perceived.
However beautiful a skyscraper or a bridge, what we need to be sure of is that they will last serving a good purpose. They won’t if they collapse or if they produce more problems than solutions for the communities in which they are built.
I’ve commented previously on this site about the relationship between civil engineering and architecture.
The Barry family are an interesting case study because John was the only civil engineer amongst a father and two elder brothers who were all successful architects. It isn’t clear whether it was his choice to follow a different profession or his father’s decision. But we do know that he worked together with his brothers on a few projects.
One of these was the construction of railway stations with adjoining hotels at Charing Cross and Cannon Street in London during the early 1860s. Edward Middleton Barry was the architect for both hotels. John worked as a civil engineering assistant to Sir John Hawkshaw who had overall responsibility for the two extensions to the rail line from London Bridge Station.
Another project which linked brothers was the construction of a new HQ for the Institution of Civil Engineers at the time John was it’s President. His other brother Charles was asked to advise on the design from an architectural perspective. Sadly the building was demolished not long after it was completed to make way for the Government’s new Treasury offices in Westminster.
It would be interesting to know how the brothers discussed built environment issues together, whether informally or in a business context. How passionate did emotions get over the use of form as opposed to aesthetics or vice versa?
What matters when designing and planning a building: its aesthetic appeal or the nature of its form and materials? People will have different views about this depending on their tastes, which makes the built environment such a fascinating and sometimes controversial area of practice.
Debates have continued ever since humans first began to shape their environment and introduce the concept of ‘style’ to each other. Different generations may hold vastly differing views about why a particular structure appeals or not.
I’m happy to defend my appreciation of 19th Century architecture and engineering, based as it is on my background as an historian of the first Industrial Revolution, which happened to take place in my country of origin. I suppose when I first studied economic and social history at university I was fascinated by human ingenuity and organisation as an evolving complex system, less so by individual acts of creativity. As time has passed and I’ve moved along with my generation, clearly I’ve started to appreciate the aesthetical side more than I used to.
My challenge now is to address a general misunderstanding of how historical precedent can best be used to help pave the way forward for ‘modernity’, whichever way we may choose to interpret the future.
I believe looking back with hindsight at engineers such as John Wolfe Barry and his contemporaries aids us in this process.