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Victor Horta and La Maison du Peuple: A Semiological Approach to Structure

Part 2 Dissertation 2010
Pier-Luigi del Renzio
University of Kent | UK
Many years ago, at home I discovered a small blue and white slide container, hidden behind some books. I opened it to reveal twenty or so slides with the title ‘Horta: Maison du Peuple. RE: Art Nouveau’ marked upon their frames. I held one after the other up to the window revealing their tiny images and was captivated instantly, for I saw an array of rich structures, complex interiors, variedly articulated and undulating elevations with precise detailing. This building was like no other I’d ever seen. Intrigued, I searched for it on the internet and the first result told me it had been demolished! Its mystery provoked within me the desire to learn more.

I’ve gazed in fascination at the imagery discovered and I’ve read through an extraordinary number of books and articles related to La Maison du Peuple (House of the People) and from many of these, I’ve developed a wariness towards the rather naive and over-simplified theorising of much written material, often revealing itself to a vast labyrinth of contradictory assumptions.

Victor Horta’s La Maison du Peuple, built in Brussels over the years 1896-99 and destroyed in the year 1965 as an act of barbarism in the squalid interests of speculative development, appears to have resisted most attempts at analysis. Perhaps because its complexly determined and expressed structure stood in the tendential conflict between historical inhibition and revolutionary rupture in both political and technical domains.

However, two significant evaluations of it have been carried out. Firstly, by Paolo Portoghesi and Franco Borsi, professors at the universities of Milan and Florence, in their book: Victor Horta (1977).1 Secondly by Jean Delhaye, Horta’s former assistant who worked to preserve the remains of Horta’s legacy in a terrific picture book: La Maison du Peuple de Victor Horta (1987).2

La Maison du Peuple’s resistance is due perhaps because we’ve misunderstood it, for it’s not the simple schematic type of building familiar to us, so any methodological appraisal crumbles at first analysis. Any understanding of this building demands a much more sophisticated account of what it actually was and how it operated.

Pier-Luigi del Renzio

Our nominee wrote his independent study project in the form of a dissertation on Victor Horta’s now-demolished ‘Palace of the People’ in Brussels. For us, this represents an exquisite piece of writing, fully researched and referenced. The text displays a clear passion for discovery and understanding of the subject matter and a critical analysis of the evidence uncovered. The author’s challenging assertion that the history of modern architecture has failed to acknowledge the influence of La Maison du Peuple, jumps off the page with gleeful impertinence for general histories of modernism, and the two significant texts written about it to date.

An exhaustive but not exhausting forensic examination of the evidence unearthed, from original sources where possible, means this dissertation is never derivative, but always fresh, challenging and engaging. The vigorous narrative thrust of this ‘semiological approach’ is such that the reader is immersed in the building as if it still existed.

The result justifies the belief that the author could well develop this dissertation towards something that could be offered for publication.

Michael Richards
Dr Gerald Adler
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