A to­tal work of art

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Dr Rainald Franz

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.

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