Architect. Designer. Renaissance man. Hector Guimard believed in the unique. His designs embody the essence of the French Art Nouveau movement, incorporating superb materials, fine design and carved wood in a curvilinear and plastic style; looking at once like soft twisted satin or a sinuous living plantform, yet totally balanced in its entirety.
Hector Guimard was an architect, who is widely considered today to be the most prominent representative of the French Art Nouveau movement of the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.
Guimard did not originally have such a high reputation, because he did not have any followers; however, recently, people have come to realize the extraordinary formal and typological profusion of his architectural and decorative work, the best of it done in a relatively short fifteen years of prolific creative activity.
Like many other French nineteenth-century architects, Guimard attended the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he became acquainted with the theories of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. These rationalist ideas provided the foundations of the future structural principles of Art Nouveau. Some say that Guimard became devoted to this style when he visited the Hôtel Tassel in Brussels, the prototypical Art Nouveua building designed by Victor Horta.
In 1898, he designed the Castel Béranger, which displays a tension between a medieval sense of geometrical volume, and the organic "whiplash" lines Guimard saw in Brussels. The Castel Béranger made Guimard famous. The building was a “gesamtkunstwerk,” a total work of art in which Guimard designed everything from the arching stonework façade to the rain gutters of blue copper, even the door handles that recall sinuous vines. More remarkably, this attention to detail was for a building marketed to Paris’ emerging middle class.
Soon Guimard had many commissions. He continued working in the Art Nouveau style, especially devoted to its ideal of harmony and continuity, which led him to take over the interior decoration of his buildings as well. This culminated in 1909 with the Hotel Guimard (his wedding present to his rich American wife) where ovoid rooms contain unique pieces of furniture, which are considered integral parts of the building.
Guimard undertook astonishing experiments in space and volume. Some of these include the Coilliot house and its disconcerting double-frontage (1898), La Bluette and its beautiful volumetric harmony (1898), and especially the Castel Henriette (1899) and the Castel d’Orgeval (1905), radical demonstrations of a vigorous and asymmetrical "free plan", twenty-five years before the theories of Le Corbusier. But other buildings of his, like the splendid Nozal Hotel, in 1905, employ a rational, symmetrical, square-based style like that of Viollet-le-Duc.
Guimard also employed some structural innovations, as in the extraordinary concert hall Humbert-de-Romans (1901), where a complex frame splits the sound waves to lead to perfect acoustics, or as in the Hôtel Guimard (1909), where the ground was too narrow to have the exterior walls bear any weight, and thus the arrangement of interior spaces differ from one floor to another.
The curious, inventive Guimard was also a precursor of industrial standardization, insofar as he wished to diffuse the new art on a large scale. The idea is taken up – but with less success – in 1907 with a catalogue of cast iron elements applicable to buildings: Artistic Cast Iron, Guimard Style.
His greatest success here – in spite of some scandals – was his famous entrances to the Paris Métro, based on the ornamented structures of Viollet-le-Duc. The sinuous, organic lines of Guimard's design and the stylized, giant stalks drooping under the weight of what seem to be swollen tropical flowers, but are actually amber glass lamps, make this a quintessentially Art Nouveau piece. His designs for the Métro entrance arch and two others were intended to visually enhance the experience of underground travel on the new subway system for Paris. His Métro gates, installed throughout the city, effectively brought the Art Nouveau style, formerly associated with the luxury market, into the realm of popular culture. As his creations for the subway entrances gained popularity, Art Nouveau became known as “Style Guimard.”
The Métro designs remain among the most recognizable and admired Art Nouveau examples and have been faithfully restored and reproduced in cities and museums outside of Paris. America’s National Gallery of Art acquired a complete Metro and unveiled it at their landmark Art Nouveau exhibition in 2000. An original Guimard Métro entrance was donated to the city of Montreal and erected in 1967 (pictured right). Chicago also has a similar Guimard reproduction framing a commuter rail entrance.
Guimard's art objects have the same formal continuity as his buildings, harmoniously uniting practical function with linear design. His inimitable stylistic vocabulary suggests plants and organic matter, while remaining resolutely on the side of abstraction. Flexible moldings and a sense of movement are found in stone as well as wood carvings. Guimard created abstract two-dimensional patterns that were turned into stained glass (Mezzara hotel, 1910), ceramic panels (Coilliot house, 1898), wrought iron (Castel Henriette, 1899), wallpaper (Castel Béranger, 1898) or fabric (Guimard hotel, 1909).
In spite of Guimard's innovations and talent, the press and the public quickly grew tired of him--not so much with his work, but his personality. His relationship with the clergyman who commissioned him to build the Humbert de Romans Concert Hall (arguably the most complete expression of his Art Nouveau style) soured by the time of its completion in 1901, and the clergyman left France. Within five years the magnificent concert venue was demolished; it is now only known through photographs and articles from art journals.
Guimard's work is itself victim of inherent contradictions of the ideals of the Art Nouveau movement: except for the Castel Béranger and Métro entrances, his best creations remained financially inaccessible to the general public, and his attempts at standardization of materials, parts, and measures never could keep pace with his very personal architectural vocabulary. Guimard was completely forgotten when he died in New York in 1942, where the fear of war and anti-Semitism (his wife was Jewish) had forced him into exile.
Many of Guimard's buildings were destroyed after his death, but he started to be rediscovered in the 1960s after New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired the lissome lampposts of one of Guimard’s Métro entrances and “planted” them in the museum’s garden. Now, scholars have reconstructed his career and he has been the subject of much research. Original architectural drawings by Guimard are held in the Dept. of Drawings & Archives at Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University in New York City. Mme Guimard donated a number of objects designed by her husband to the MOMA’s permanent collection, including multiple metal picture frames, carved door handles, a wooden desk, chair, and side table, and other small decorative objects. Guimard furniture is part of the permanent collections of both the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
Many of Guimard’s most impressive buildings still stand in the south end of the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Exiting from the Porte Dauphine Métro station, one of the last standing Guimard Métro entrances, Le Castel Béranger is located nearby at 14 rue La Fontaine, further along at 17, 19 and 21 rue La Fontaine and 8 and 10 rue Agar stand multiple apartment buildings designed by Guimard, comprising the Square Agar. The Hôtel Mezzara at 60 rue La Fontaine is open to the public and the original Guimard interior remains intact. The Hôtel Guimard, designed for his American wife as wedding gift still stands at 122 avenue Mozart, as does one of Guimard’s last creations located at 1 Villa Flore.