Lars Spuybroek, the contemporary architect and architectural theorist, defines, describes, and and explains Art Nouveau as "vegetal," as having curves "rooted at one end and loose at the other [that] move with the wind or the water" (262). Although he finds it powerful as an inspiration, he also believes Art Nouveau's fundamental reliance on hand labor at a time when machine work came to dominate European culture destroyed the possibility of its either becoming more popular or even continuing very long as a living style:
Its success had to be short-lived because, as with Gaudí, its view of technology lay too much in the framework of craft — poor, underpaid artisans quenching, bending and hammering iron into fabulous ornament that ended up in the palaces of the middle class in Brussels and Paris. The riveted steel columns intertwine so beautifully with the wooden railings, and then, cut open at the top, they become complex tendrils, finding their way over the painted whiplashes that sprawl out over the ceiling. There is an activity that runs through the materials, making them connect without jointing. It's simply incredible, but it's all executed by manual labor. Inevitably, riveted steel was replaced by the fully standardized H-beam, the extruded profile we know today.
For this reason, according to Spuybroek, Guimard — "known for the Paris Metro entrances" — was more developed than Horta, "since he opted for the more industrial cast iron rather than wrought iron. The whole Arts and Crafts movement simply had to come to an end because their artisans ended up as workers in factories." In other words, "Art Nouveau was no longer possible within the realm of steel."
Spuybroek does not proceed to argue, as one might expect, that steel-based architecture necessarily rejects the kind of curves and variety that characterized Art Nouveau. Instead, admitting that every new dominant material at first tends to produce uniformity, he claims that it soon "diverges again into variation." Therefore, "The emergence of steel doesn't mean that structure is suddenly subordinated to massing, uniformity and discipline. Steel has its Roman, Miesian side as well as its Gothic side of changefulness and variety." From here he turns, as he so often does, to John Ruskin, that advocate of architecture "open to change, not finished and not perfect."
Spuybroek, Lars. "The Aesthetics of Variation." The Architecture of Continuity: Essays and Conversations. Rotterdam: V_2 Publishing, 2008.
Last modified 21 July 2009