The Architecture of Change

More than a hundred years later, Art Nouveau or ‘New Art’ continues to define many-a-structure with its characteristic whiplashes, coils and foliage. With just a difference in the material, it passes off as ‘New Style’ in some parts of the world, even today. As a movement, Art Nouveau replaced the Neoclassicist and Romanticist tendencies of the Beaux-Arts, with more natural and organic ornamentation. The movement spanned across Painting, Literature, Architecture and other spheres of art. 

Movements like Art Nouveau cannot be analyzed singly as they are often, the consequence of a number of social and political under-currents that make themselves visible sooner or later. As a concept, change is quite difficult to accept as we tend to vouch for the familiar everywhere. The slightest degree of dissimilarity strikes us as ‘foreign’ and we take time to adjust to it, consciously registering every effort towards it. The first sound of a human being is the ‘cry’ after his birth. It is the first in many episodes of change that naturally, triggers an uncomfortable response- a cry.

Similarly, when social upheavals make their way into our lives, we respond by what we do best- resist. While many might say that Art Nouveau eventually did categorize itself as a decorative style and in that respect, was not much separated from the earlier romanticist styles but the flexibility of iron and the idea of decorating structures- irrespective of public or private domain- along with signboards that looked like an extension of the aesthetic language that Art Nouveau was propagating. For instance, the Metro entrance pavilion in Paris by Hector Guimard, or the interior of the Van Eetvelde House or Hotel Tassel in Brussels by Victor Horta, exemplify the extensive use of cast-iron panels and arches that swept across with animated precision, creating a surreal environment punctuated with whiplashes and scrolls. 

Newer structures, as they are built, either shock passers-by or engage them in their stylistic qualities. These reactions are part of the larger picture, the revolution brought about by small changes, dissent with the status quo and a need for change. These ‘revolutions’ often raised uproar accompanied by supporting theories and a vibrant visual scenario with people expressing individuality by either supporting the trending style or opposing it. Gradually, people accept newer styles when they become the norm and are not ‘new’ anymore but as that happens, a section of the population is already voicing concerns about its relevance and the cycle continues. Trails of leftover styles, theories and formal language mark their once-celebrated presence.

Interestingly, Art Nouveau has its origins embedded in typography and poster design. Graphic design was riding the wave of ‘modernism’ which made itself apparent in the works of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and Walter Crane. The nascent effects of globalization were evident in the ubiquity of floral graphics as seen in far-Eastern imagery and motifs used by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai in woodcuts. Hokusai’s fine, wriggly lines with emphasis on the organic, curvilinear nature of his subject- usually nature itself, replicated themselves in the works of crafts persons working with iron and other materials that could imitate nature as closely as possible. As balustrades, sign boards, door handles and window frames began curling into leaves, creepers and exotic grasses, an architectural language began being developed- one that took the curvilinear and organic vocabulary a step further, banishing edges and rectilinear forms for smoother, line-free facades. 

The beginnings of Art Nouveau lie in Brussels, where an economic boom led to the development of the middle classes and an interest in patronizing architecture. Brussels was defined by a conglomeration of tiny, rural plots and Haussmann’s Paris model could not be applied to it. Land was divided in small plots and as a result, houses were small, narrow and many in number. The challenging urban scenario with restricting municipal building regulations led Belgian architect Victor Horta to design what later became known as a characteristic Art Nouveau feature- the whiplash, which was essentially an elongated or elliptical curve that was quite commonly seen then in the decorative arts. In Barcelona, Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi who was also skilled in carpentry, ironwork etc, designed buildings and undertook a number of landscaping projects like Can Artigas Gardens, Guell Park, Casa Vicens etc. Gaudi’s style was categorized as ‘Catalan Modernism’ and he morphed spaces into an undulating continuity of solid and void, heavily referencing natural habitat, ecology and other organisms. From its initial stages, the movement took a turn towards merely pleasing the eye and works produced later, exhibit flamboyance in the use of material resources more than a reaction to the social or political environment. 

Gradually, due to its ornate nature, and the widespread borrowing of motifs from starkly different contexts, Art Nouveau as a group of ideals that strived to create something ‘new’, eventually stagnated and got reduced to a repetition of patterns and symbols without any relationship of to the whole. The idea of using a resource that was not as freely or economically available, to build something that had little or no function, apart from appearing stylistic became redundant. The next leap clearly seemed to be towards getting rid of excessive decoration and as many at that time said, “being honest” to the methods of architecture or ‘honest architecture’. 

What people meant by ‘honest architecture’ was highly subjective as the years that followed, saw a variety of honest buildings- for some, honesty was about leaving facades unembellished and for some others, honesty was about accepting the rectilinear form. Many versions stayed and till today, they have evolved and adapted to newer cities and changing times. 

Yasra Daud Khoker