A total work of art
Adolphe and Suzanne Stoclet epitomised the early 20th century haute bourgeoisie aesthetic. As Edmond de Bruyn reflected in his memoir, “It was self evident that the floral decoration of the house—always kept in one colour tone—and the neckties of Monsieur Stoclet matched Madame’s dress.” The
1 most obtuse and daring of their projects was the Stoclet Palace, a private mansion designed to transport its inhabitants into a wonderland of grandeur and luxury. Walter Benjamin described the mansion as a retreat into a ‘counter -world’, a case or shell protecting its occupants against the increasingly harried and hurried life of the modern big city, while the world outside of its façades armed itself for the First World War. The Stoclets commissioned Josef
2 Hoffmann, a leading figure of the Vienna Secession Movement and one of the founders of the Wiener Werkstätte—a Vienna based community of visual artists. The mansion would become one of the rare examples of 20th century modern architecture and a Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art), appraised for its unity of style.
Like his father, Adolphe was a shareholder in the Société Générale pour Favoriser L’industrie Nationale (The General Society to Promote Domestic Industry) that built railways in several countries. Suzanne, in turn, was the daughter of the art critic and art dealer, Arthur Stevens, who had first sparked her interest in art. Together they had an insatiable hunger for art and architecture, often finding themselves on long walks to explore the architecture of Vienna. On one such stroll, the couple discovered a villa on the Hohe Warte, a residential area on the outskirts of the city, where Josef Hoffmann had built a colony of modernist houses for artists and supporters of the Vienna Secession Movement. The Stoclets were fascinated by the British influenced design of the villas, the most notable belonging to the painter and Secession member Carl Moll.
Before Moll introduced the Belgian couple to Hoffmann, the Wiener Werkstätte had already come to the conclusion that a colossal investment made by a wealthy figure was the only way to fully realise their potential vision and demonstrate the possibilities of their modern design sensibilities. The Stoclet Palace would become the most prominent and prodigious project undertaken by Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätte. This fervent devotion to prove their design acumen did not come without complications; the project experienced constant delays and devoured extravagant sums of money. Yet, the Stoclets were so overwhelmingly convinced with the execution of the palace, they accommodated for its tumultuous development.
The Stoclet Palace was initially planned for the Hohe Warte until the sudden death of Adolphe’s father, Victor, forced the family to return to Brussels in 1904. Nevertheless, Adolphe persisted with the commission but only in a different location. On 8 April 1905, Adolphe Stoclet purchased the parcel of land on the Avenue de Tervuren in Brussels and construction began.
3 To realise the ambitious building, Josef Hoffmann commissioned the best designers working with him in the Wiener Werkstätte including Koloman Moser, Carl Otto Czeschka, Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel, Emilie Schleiss- Simandl; and notable artists such as Gustav Klimt, Richard Luksch, Georges Minne and Franz Metzner. The company Ed. Francois et Fils, of Etterbeck, was in charge of the construction with Emil Gerzabek assigned to supervise. Hoffmann wrote, “The ground plan should be consistent with [Adolphe Stoclet’s] convenience and refined outlook. Light-grey Belgian [sic.] marble was the given material for facings inside and out. At the edges the slabs were set in pressed metal parts of simple ornament, which provided for all possible cuts and joints”.
4 Referencing both the English country house and the Baroque palace, the three-storey brickwork building with slab ceiling extended along the street on a rectangular footprint of approximately 37 by 13 metres. Both the façades, about 10 metres high, with a 20 metre high stairwell tower—reminiscent of the towers of Belgian city halls—were extensively clad in white Norwegian marble with all the windows contoured by oxidized copper moldings with gilded ornaments. The building shell was already completed to the full height of the first floor by the winter of 1906. The next intensive building phase took place in 1908 and then the mounting of the marble slabs on the façade in the autumn of 1909. Although the furnishings and appointments were not complete, the family moved into the Stoclet Palace in the spring of 1911. Josef Hoffmann, repeatedly distracted by new projects, amplified the unusually protracted building programme of five years. Exacerbated by the disjointed process, Adolphe Stoclet halted further payment in the hope of forcing the Wiener Werkstätte —already struggling with financial difficulties—to complete the construction.
5 Every detail of the Stoclet Palace, from doorknobs to cutlery was designed according to the client’s wishes. When “utility objects are treated like works of art,” analysed the art historian Werner Hofmann, “all activities are given an aura of solemnity and the entire everyday routine becomes a ritual.” This
6 was where the Wiener Werkstätte could put its potential to proof, and when the Stoclet family could personify the clientele that best suited their vision. Even an organ perched on top of a stage was built into the music room, which was lined with yellow and black marble. As Hoffmann and Moser reflected in a 1905 Wiener Werkstätte publication, “As long as our cities, our houses, our rooms; our cupboards and cabinets; our utensils, our clothes, our jewellery, as long as our language and our feelings do not epitomise the spirit of our age
in a plain, simple and beautiful way, we are being left far, far behind our ancestors.” The family had subjected themselves to what the architect Adolf
7 Loos in his parable Vom armen reichen manne (The Poor Little Rich Man), denounced as the “patronising dictates of art”. What Loos understood as
8 the subjection of the human being to a dominating code imposed by the all-encompassing applied arts, was in fact an expression of a felicitous life in a private paradise for the Stoclets.
One of the most iconic elements of the mansion was the mosaic frieze that Klimt designed for the dining room. Having experienced several tumultuous years within the Secession Movement that eventually led to his resignation, Klimt was eager to produce a spectacular piece. The frieze and the preliminary drawings, which are today kept in the MAK: Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Arts in Vienna, Austria, are seen as masterpieces from the highpoint of his ‘Golden Phase’ (1899-1910). In his drawings for the monumental Stoclet frieze, Klimt conceptualised three mosaics— Tree of Life, The Expectation and The Knight— when connected represented a complex metaphor. In the centre is a blossoming tree symbolizing the Tree of Life. It is accompanied by two figures to the left and right: a dancer, The Expectation, and an embracing couple, commonly referred to as the ‘fulfilment’ to that expectation. Knight was designed for the small wall of the long dining room while the Tree of Life was mirrored in a mosaic on the second long wall of the room. Between 1905 and 1908, Klimt began his studies for the frieze, submitting the first designs as basis for a contract before the preliminary working drawings in original size. In 1910, according to surviving correspondence, the preliminary drawings were completed and the execution of the mosaic frieze began. In 1911 the frieze was carefully transported from Vienna to Brussels and installed under Klimt’s supervision. The drawings and mosaic frieze were to become the last monumental work Klimt was able to realise before his early death in 1918.
The Viennese art critic Ludwig Hevesi was the first to comment on the Stoclet Palace; he saw the model in the rooms of the Wiener Werkstätte and reported on 8 November 1905, “It is of course a supremely elegant house. In Hoffmannesque white and black, but the white is formed by marble slabs on the walls across the whole building, and the black of the edges is black Swedish granite…as in Purkersdorf, the outside of the house is significantly characterised by a structure with projecting masses.” The mansion invariably
9 became a symbol of the Stoclets social standing. As their guest book proclaims, they received members of the artistic avant-garde including Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev, Anatole France, Sacha Guitry, Robert Mallet-stevens, Darius Milhaud, Karl Ernst Osthaus, and of course Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann. Benjamin viewed the Stoclet Palace as a ‘dream house’. Few things could reproduce the atmosphere of the dining hall at night when a mixture of electric light and candlelight merged against the Stoclet Palace walls. Guests were able to enjoy the amenities afforded to them by the most advanced technology of the time, including electric sockets installed in the marble wall under the frieze, which supplied the energy to warm the rechauds as well as central heating system installed beneath the windows.
The Stoclet Palace plays an important role in representing a Modernist form of luxury. It not only influenced the style of the French architect Robert Mallet-stevens (1886-1945), a nephew of Suzanne Stoclet, but also became an iconic symbol of Art Déco style and American Modernist Luxury Architecture from 1920-1950. The synthesis between refined taste and bespoke design principles would only last for two generations and within the possession of the current generation of the Stoclet family. Although under UNESCO World Heritage protection and listed as a Belgian landmark since 1976, the Stoclet Palace has still experienced several cases of thefts as well as structural degeneration. Its future hanging in the balance by the fraught relationship between the four Stoclet grandchildren, who have struggled over conflicting attempts to both preserve and benefit from their grandparents legacy. This brings to question how such a monumental representation of artistic vision could be preserved. Nevertheless, Adolphe and Suzanne Stoclet held onto their vision until the end; their obituaries stressing that ‘such puritan grandeur’ demanded an ‘ascetic lifestyle’, indeed a lifestyle that made the very best of the Wiener Werkstätte and Secession Movement possible.