In the 1800s, it was common to see Maisons Du Peuple, or “homes of the people,” throughout Europe. As countries industrialized, these buildings provided diverse communal functions for working-class citizens in busy, urban centers. An especially-famous example of this principle is Victor Horta’s Maison Du Peuple in Brussels. Requiring 8500 square meters for its schematics, the building encompasses a sprawling network of rooms framed in iron and glass. Even today, 121 years after it was first built, its image lives on as the apotheosis of Nouveau Art intertwined with the historic rise of Socialism.
Though he avoids politics in his memoirs, Victor Horta taught art classes for the Belgian Workers’ Party and was even friends with its intellectual leaders, such as Max Hallet, Leon Furnemon, and Emile Vandervelde. When the political group sought a people’s house as their main headquarters, Horta thus accepted the commission. On Easter of 1899, the structure was inaugurated to front-page news in Brussels. The event was so resounding that several politicians traveled from abroad to attend—Jean Juares, French Socialist leader, even headed the red parade from South Station towards Sablin.
All this pomp was for good reason. Despite its less-than-ideal site—irregularly shaped, on a slope, and bordering a circular plaza—Horta’s Maison Du Peuple filled its purpose with style. Functionally, the 4-storey building was streamlined for efficiency. Each floor was dedicated to a different purpose: shops on the first, Party offices on the second, multi-purpose rooms on the third, and the iconic 2000-seat auditorium on top. Of course, not only was the building elegantly versatile, but it was beautiful as well.
“If it is correct that logic is the basis of the creator’s slightest reasoning,” explains Horta, “I believe it must not be allowed to interfere with one’s dreams of ‘charm,’ that delicate, superfluous entity that often adds to harsh necessity”
Aesthetically, the Maison Du Peuple was a paean to the industrial honesty of its occupations. The iron frame, punctuated by rivets, was visible along its curtain walls, making it Belgium’s first building with an iron and glass facade. Inside, interlaced iron beams decorated the ceilings and classic red brick reflected its pedestrian purpose. Given its dense, tightly-packed structure, Horta created large skylights to illuminate the rooms. The building also gave more explicit nods to its Socialist cause, with the names of significant Socialist icons, like Karl Marx and Leon Blum, lining its roofline on various plaques and signs.
Within years of its construction, Horta’s Maison Du Peuple became one of the most influential Art Nouveau buildings in Belgium. Beginning in the 1890s, this movement originated in Brussels before quickly spreading to France and the rest of Europe. With the purpose of unifying the fine and applied arts, it emphasized flowing organic forms like the whiplash curve, which became one of Horta’s trademarks. The effect of these filigree shapes with the innovative use of new materials, like iron and glass, created a refreshing marriage between the natural and the man-made. Here was a style both elegant and industrial—both flowing and grounded. While its decorative aspect was more “restrained” than other buildings by Horta, the Maison Du Peuple perfectly captured this concept.
For around half a century, the Maison Du Peuple served as both a symbol of community and a meeting ground for much of the working population. Even after the Socialist party moved to another, larger building, it remained an architectural landmark. Beginning in the 1960s, however, a wave of urban development brought the destruction of many buildings integral to Brussels’ cultural fabric. Chief among the buildings lost was Horta’s Maison Du Peuple in 1965—a fact considered one of the “greatest architectural crimes” of Brusselization. Though over 700 architects protested worldwide, Maison’s components were scattered in vacant and a 26-storey concrete skyscraper soon loomed in its place.
Today, the fate of the Maison highlights an important issue circling in discourses on urban planning. In an ever-evolving world filled with technological advancement and urbanization, what is the value of historic buildings? What rights do the general population possess to prevent municipalities from sacrificing historic buildings to urban progress? And to which point can we still consider this “progress” when weighed against the cultural significance of what’s being torn down?
To many, the loss of buildings like the Maison Du Peuple is an unjustifiable tragedy. The remnants of such structures are thus commonly displayed in museums, as a reminder of the consequences of unchecked development. Another way architects are preserving lost buildings is through virtual reconstructions. Since 2014, Professors at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles have partnered with the Horta Museum to recreate aspects of the Maison du Peuple, such as its entrance hall, cafe, staircases, and concert hall. The result: 8 minutes of photorealistic video and an app with interactive, 360-degrees renderings. At least for now, there seems to be room for such historical buildings yet.