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Palais Stoclet (eng)

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Palais Stoclet (eng)
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  THE STOCLET PALACE Brussels, Belgium arch. Josef Hoffmann This Patrician residence was built in Brussels between 1905 and 1911 by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann for the coal magnate Adolphe Stoclet, an engineer belonging to one of the most important families in Belgium in the development of Europe's rail network, and reflects the great passion for art and collecting cultivated by Stoclet and his wife.  Architecturally, this mansion is typical of the Art Nouveau style, those “ castles ” that the bourgeois commissioned early on in the century as a symbol of their new social position; a space, then, whose wish was to be a container for the most refined belongings along with the moral values of its owners. This aim was translated by the systematic use of rare and precious materials, exquisite inimitable objects, interiors made to measure, and a team of artists that would spend years sending wagon loads of creations made ad hoc   for the residence from the Wiener Werkstätte  (Vienna Workshops): Gustav Klimt, with his famous frieze for the dining room, but also Kolo Moser and Metzner (the maker of the sculptures that top the tower). But for contents like these, the container itself had to become a suitable jewel box, so Hoffmann did not stint on quoting illustrious works of architecture whose authority was firmly rooted in the glory of the most eminent Renaissance residences, without forgetting the garden, of course: lengthy avenues, flowerbeds, trimmed plants, fountains, sculptures, even a children's play park, all traced out in a languid geometric sequence. To build such a mansion, the architect turned to the unceasing, multi-faceted activity of the Wiener Werkstätte , the last chapter of the craft revival before the Great War: these were workshops where fine artists and craftsmen were on the same plane, to the point that the objects produced bore two signatures, of the creator and of the artisan, and which, with a highly refined production of furniture, utensils, jewelry, lamps, saucepans, and textiles, all designed to marry beauty and style with functionality and technical perfection, marked the aesthetic taste of that art conventionally (albeit often improperly) termed "decorative". Hoffmann's name is linked to the Wagnerschule  and so inevitably to Otto Wagner, the maestro who urged him to build the true, the straightforward and the functional, as fanciful as they might be, as well as to travel to Italy where the young student was to study spontaneous Mediterranean architecture. After having a determinant, subtly critical role in the activities of the Viennese Secession, after observing the srcinal elegance of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and drawing inspiration from the social prompts that led to new collective needs, in 1903, he founded the Wiener Werkstätte  together with Kolo Moser, an inseparable life-long friend and colleague, thanks to capital invested by Friedrich Wanundorfer, a dealer in fabrics and household linen.   A work that is considered the peak of the Austrian architect's production, the Stoclet couple's residence has been interpreted as a forerunner of Rationalism for its clean, austere façade, but is in itself definable within the limits of the Wagner method. In fact, it remains “ the conclusion of a long process of taste ” in which the emerging aspects of Art Nouveau (the volumes, planes and lines) are still obvious and synergic, but have been enriched by that strategic ambiguity so typical of twentieth-century taste. The mansion is split into freely juxtaposed volumes that rebuff the notion of a building contained in a plain wrapping, and create a dynamism that is not merely down to the ornamentation. The façades are made up of Belgian grey marble panels, while the corners and joints between the various solid planes are framed in elegant modelled bronze. The use of these tablet-panels, which almost give the façades a two-dimensional Le Corbusier look, was a favorite of Wagner, who wrote in Moderne Architektur  : “ New architecture will be dominated by flat lamellar surfaces ” . Just one example of many  – the Stadtbahn  station buildings on Karlsplatz, Vienna, where Wagner used marble slabs supported by exposed angular iron frames. However, in the Brussels mansion, dematerialization is not limited to the usual game of fullnesses and emptinesses, as Bruno Zevi efficiently summed up: “ a key quality of the Viennese maestro is to dematerialize by means of the line [...] that divides and outlines the partition walls.   Hoffmann does not let the wall joints reveal the static substance of the masses: every corner, every volumetric junction, every passage from one rectangle to another, is marked by a bronze stringcourse that the eye glides along; and when the planes of flat color grow larger and tend to heaviness, he subdivides them further  . ”  Hence, there are two considerations to be inferred from such a treatment of the curtain walls. From a technical point of view, this solution is the result of technology that would be used increasingly in the years to come, which excludes the walls from being load-bearing, making them infills of pure cladding, thereby lightening the building. The second consideration, of an aesthetic kind, brings a new autonomy to walls that are no longer obliged to follow the horizontal lines of bricks or stringcourses nor the vertical ones of lesenes or pilasters; this opens the field up to that decorative practice that often gains the upper hand in the overall look of a project, but that here hangs on to a clear constructional rationality.  Another important transition in studying the building is the join between the roof and the vertical surfaces. The architect opposed the traditional function of the roof as a heavy cover by eliminating the typical large protruding cornice that would have added weight to the volumetric bulk and hampered the view of the roof from the ground. As a result, the perimeter walls seem not to coincide with the start of the roof, or rather, their upper edge is marked off by the same bronze line that runs over the corners of the other three sides. The third-storey windows even jut out compared to the edge of the join between the wall and the roof, letting the façade extend upwards, to masterfully show off all of its stately simplicity.  The residence's ground plan is of the descriptive  variety, and echoes the “ Poetics of the List ” of the  Arts and Crafts  movement, albeit tending to separate the floors, to make them independent, or to assign them different functions. A sequence of forty rooms spread over three floors, including an immense hall for music with an organ; a bedroom measuring 9 x 5.5m; a kitchen of 8 x 6m; a toilet of 6 x 6m, in which each interior is perfectly defined to constitute an autonomous utterly mineable microcosm that plays with the building's global tale in a ceaseless recurrence of roles. The Viennese architect created a main axis on the plan that crosses the ground floor at an angle and extends along the bow-window-hall-covered terrace line (the latter being a negative of the bow-window in the main façade) and that runs orthogonally to the tale told by the ground plan of all the house's rooms. In so doing it frees itself from the centrality of the hall, which nonetheless remains the intersection of all the crossings and the polar center of all the mundane activities included in the building's project brief. The atrium is double height and around it gravitate the vestibule, the dining room, the music room, the smoking room and the main staircase; instead, on the second floor a balcony-gallery runs around the perimeter and expands its space. The internal claddings of the hall play on marriages of different marbles: the floor in black and white with geometric motifs; the pillars that, in rising to the first-floor ceiling become lines of dark gold marble, mimicking the bronze stringcourses of the façade; while again on the façade, are panel-walls again in dark gold Italian marble, that warm the cold surface of the materials, also thanks to the natural light inside the room with its generous openings, for instance the two-storey bow-window, and others towards the covered terrace that overlooks the interior garden. The scheme of this atrium recalls that of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's “ Haus eines Kunstfreundes ” , a project for a contest called in Darmstadt in 1901, the drawings for which were published the following year. Hoffmann must have looked at this project too for the solution to join the façade to the roof, mediated by a row of windows that folds the slope of the roof towards the vertical wall, as if around a hinge. It would also be possible to cite, as precedents, certain country houses by Charles Voyesy and Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, however the particular interweaving of rich detail and rigorous forms guarantees here a rare and subtle alternation of function and decoration. The vestibule too, albeit at a smaller scale compared to the residence's main rooms, because of its function as the primary entrance to the house, constitutes a sort of microcosm: the floor is again in black and white marble with geometric motifs, antique green marble is used for the walls, while the ceiling was realized in onyx, strengthened by a gilded pattern. However, to reach the most vibrantly colored interiors, in a glut of materials that don tactile rather than visible forms, we need to venture into the music and dining rooms. The former features walls covered in slabs of Portovenere marble, enclosed by a line-frame in gilded copper, while the floor is of parquet in Australian teak that as a whole warms and lightens the space; the curtains and the upholstery of the armchairs is in scarlet silk; an organ was built for the stage in the apse at the end, as was a grand piano, again designed by Hoffmann. The dining room, made famous by Klimt's  celebrated frieze, develops longitudinally accentuated by the horizontal movement of the Secessionist mosaics located along the two long sides of the room, underscored further by two long sideboards in “ Makassar  ” ebony placed beneath them. The remainder of the vertical surfaces is in Paonazzo and Portovenere marble, while all of the furnishings, from the tables to the chairs, the vases and the silver ornaments was painstakingly designed and made by the Wiener Werkstätte . This presence, in perfect harmony with the ideals of the haute bourgeoisie  who were then living their last moments of glory, made it possible to fuse the house and its contents into one single unit, just as Hoffmann's personality was a perfect blend of craftsman and fine artist. His activity fell entirely into “ doing ” , as testified by copious graphic material, and in the verification of the relationship between structure and form on different scales, from the object to the project. In this way, he sought to place himself outside history and any sort of ideology, not however with an indifferent or narcissistic attitude, but in the sense that for him ideas sprang from the work itself. The Wiener Werkstätte  shut down in 1933. The dailies of the time recorded its last moments: “ In front of the Karntnerstrasse shop in Vienna luxury cars are parked; the famous firm's last customers have gone to buy the final objects. So refined and exquisite, a lord of fashion: in all of this lies a mystery  . ” By now the bourgeois buyers were on the wane, and resistance to the era of mass commercialization could not continue to pay no heed to the changed social circumstances. Unquestionably paradoxical in its partial representation of society, the Stoclet Palace stands as a witness to the research that was common to all the arts, and to the attempt to relate form and style to the most flourishing ideas and tastes of that time.
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