This text was written by Hector Guimard for Architectural Record, vol. XII, n° 2, 1902. It was published in english.
THE ARCHITECTURAL RECORD has done me the honor of asking me to define « l’Art Nouveau. » It is difficult, at a time of transition—I might almost add, of trouble and commotion—to state exactly what would be the best solution of a given problem; but it may be said that the close of the nineteenth century witnessed the beginnings of a general evolution which is destined some day to give tangible and permanent results, and art has shared in this movement. During the past twenty years or so, various attempts at modern art have been made, in a more or less timid way; and these attempts have been based on the interpretation of the elements of the flower. I will cite, in this connection: in France, Rubrick Robert and the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs de Paris; in England, Ruskin, Walter Crane and Morris; and in Belgium, Victor Horta. In the lastnamed country the decorative base is no longer the leaf and the flower, but simply the stem.
Returning to a sound logical view of the matter, and abandoning the ostracism of all the classical schools, it is my belief that, by studying the principles of art which have guided artists from the very earliest period down to the present day, it is possible to make a selection, and that if we will take the trouble to find out how our predecessors managed to discover them, we can by applying the same method to the conditions prevailing in our own times, deduce therefrom the proper modern rules. In spite of the profusion of old examples, it cannot be denied that there exists something else, and this « something else » should be the main object of the researches of those who want to work for their epoch. It is upon us architects that falls more particularly the duty of determining, by our art, not only the artistic, but also the civilizing and scientific evolution of our time.
Nature is a big book from which we can draw inspiration, and it is in that book that we must look for principles, which, when found, have to be defined and applied by the human mind according to human needs. From this study I obtain three principles which should have a predominating influence in all architectural productions, viz:
I. Logic, which consists in taking into account all the conditions of the case, and they are infinite in variety and number, which the architect has to deal with.
2. Harmony, which means putting the constructions into full accord, not only with the requirements to be met and the funds available, but also with the surroundings.
3. Sentiment, which, partaking at the same time of logic and harmony, is the complement of both, and leads by emotion, to the highest expression of the art.
These are the principles which I have desired to exemplify in all my edifices, and particularly in the Castel Beranger, the Humbert de Romans Hall, and the stations of the Paris Metropolitan Railroad. It is these works, together with those of such men as Victor Horta and Van de Velde, which have inspired (chiefly in Germany, Austria and France) those productions described by the term « Art Nouveau. » Unfortunately, I cannot say that all these productions illustrate the three principles which I have just laid down. For the most part they infringe them, for that undefinable thing called taste, which makes us like a chair, a clock,
a vase or a jewel; taste, which is the embodiment of esprit, charm, emotion, life, whether in cloth or metal, an article for use or an ornament, is a quality which is lacking in the greater number, of those who believe themselves to be modern creators, who in reality plagiarize more or less a motive made to ornament a necessary structure.
Every great epoch has had a stylization of art. It is thus that all the styles which have preceded us came into existence, and it cannot be disputed that we are witnessing at present the creation of a style; but individual influences cannot have a universal effect. A style of architecture; in order to be true, must be the product of the soil where it exists and of the period which needs it. The principles of the middle ages and those of the nineteenth century, added to my doctrine, should supply us with a foundation for a French Renaissance and an entirely new style. Let the Belgians, the Germans and the English evolve for themselves a
national art, and assuredly in so doing they will perform a true, sound and useful work.
Although it may be a daring thing for me to speak of the Americans, who are so generously extending to me their hospitality in your review, I will venture to say that my American confrères have been, and are still, in the most favorable position for reating an « Art Nouveau. » I am sorry that they have not thought proper to strive after a national art, evolved from their own temperament; that is, an art produced on the spot and instinct with the life of that spot. The artist does not create his environment; he is the product thereof. When I see your monuments and your architecture, I think I am again looking at that of the houses and monuments of Paris, of Berlin, or of Italy, so utter is the lack of all special mark of the soil.
Seeing that the « Art Nouveau » is now crossing the Atlantic to your shores, I hope that my American confrères will not rest content to be mere copyists, but will be creators, and it is my belief that the principles by which I am guided in producing French architecture would enable them just as easily to create an American art, a thing which your leading fellow countrymen ardently wish to see.