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Over the centuries, navigating through various trends and movements, the triforium (triple bay) showcased remarkable adaptability, embracing diverse forms and the rich influences surrounding it. Resilient and unyielding, it has consistently reinvented itself. Morphing its three arches into a singular curve, it has evolved with the times, ensuring its enduring presence in the landscape, and firmly establishing its distinctive identity.

Art Nouveau flourished mainly between 1890 and 1910, but World War I ultimately brought an end to this dynamic creative expression. This artistic movement arose in reaction to the excessive rationalism and coldness associated with industrialization. It also sought to break free from the academic constraints rooted in Renaissance prototypes. Seeking to transcend historical forms rather than re-explore them, Art Nouveau offers an alternative to official historicism. It embodies a quest for originality and artistic innovation, expressing sensitivity through contemporary modes.

Feminine sensuality

Art Nouveau is distinguished by its naturalistic and feminine design, influenced by decorative abundance, flowing curves, vivid colors and asymmetry inspired by the whims of nature. Here, the female muse is portrayed as ethereal, mysterious, sensual and erotic. Much like the flowing undulations and curves, she is vibrant, free, indefinable and elusive. Art Nouveau challenges the constraints of uniformity and blossoms in diversity, adhering to the motto of merging art and life. It is a quest for new forms adorned with ornamentation inspired by fauna and flora, seizing the vibrant color palette of Japanese prints that permeate stylish interiors. The scientific work Formes artistiques de la nature by German biologist Ernst Haeckel, published between 1899 and 1904, served as a major source of inspiration. Artists also delved into illustrations from botanical to anatomical, drawing inspiration from the visuals found in Jules Verne’s books.

Nature as a model

In the 19th century, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc stated that architecture should align with the logic of nature. This will become the guiding philosophy of Art Nouveau, aspiring to evolve with similar organic flexibility. The three iconic architects of this movement adhered to the principles set forth by Viollet-le-Duc. In Brussels, Victor Horta embodied this philosophy. In Catalonia, Antonio Gaudi, the architect of the Sagrada Familia, viewed Viollet-le-Duc’s work as his “architectural bible.” Meanwhile, in France, Hector Guimard conceptualized industrial cast iron in the Gothic style endorsed by his esteemed mentor.

The prowess of these architect-artists lies in their ability to convey, through their works, the organisms in a state of growth rather than presenting finished products. They breathed life into their creations, similar to the sap coursing through plants, displayed through the veins and undulating movements. They unleashed infinite curves that embrace wood and stone, steel and glass. Victor Horta experimented with these materials at the Tassel Hotel in Brussels in 1892. Antonio Gaudi did the same in Barcelona at Casa Mila (1910), Park Güell (1900-1914) and the Sagrada Familia.

A youthful emerging art

Art Nouveau is an art movement driven by a generation of young artists. In Germany, it is known as Jugendstil, meaning “youth style.” It epitomizes the concept of “total art” by embracing a wide spectrum of disciplines, ranging from architecture to everyday objects, including posters, mosaics, stained glass, sculpture and woodwork. Belgian architect Henry Van de Velde extended the dynamic curves into his design of women’s dresses. In his publication Le déblaiement de l’art, he intellectualized the principle of continuity between decorative arts and the so-called fine arts.

The term “Art Nouveau” seems to have been introduced by Van de Velde. However, the name gained popularity in Paris, mainly with the opening of Siegfried Bing’s gallery, known as the “Maison de l’Art Nouveau,” in December 1895. This gallery showcased glassware and furniture by renowned artists like Tiffany, Lalique, Van de Velde, Gaillard and De Feure.

In distinct urban settings, Art Nouveau has indelibly shaped public spaces through the design of storefronts, building entrances, but mostly entryways of the 1900 Parisian metro stations. These are masterpieces created by the young Hector Guimard, who was back then under the age of thirty.

Some Haussmann-style buildings in Paris have adopted the curves and asymmetries inspired by nature, typical of Art Nouveau. This artistic movement is mainly urban and flourishes in major cities like Paris, Brussels, Vienna, Glasgow, and Barcelona, as well as in smaller cities such as Reims and Nancy.

In Lebanon, the influence of Art Nouveau was mostly reflected in furniture and decorative items. However, in the field of architecture, a notable transformation did not really materialize before the end of World War I. This is when a series of arches emerged, skillfully embracing the three Lebanese archways in a seamless and refined design. In the 1920s, a new style, Art Deco, emerged and quickly supplanted Art Nouveau and dominated the Lebanese architectural landscape, especially in urban settings. Much like in Europe, Art Nouveau countryside residences in Lebanon were commissioned by urban clients.

Except for the house of the Arts et Métiers garden (Sanayeh Beirut), adorned with forms and colors in a blossoming display of asymmetries, Art Nouveau in Lebanon was mostly displayed through graceful arcades divided into three sections, supplanting the traditional triforium (triple bay). Its influence rarely extended to wrought iron or the ornamental woodwork of doors and windows.

One must explore the interiors of the apartments to uncover sideboards, buffets, serving tables and coat racks adorned with curves and botanical motifs. Scattered throughout are pieces of jewelry and book bindings embellished with golden undulations, along with lithographs capturing the essence of the styles of Toulouse-Lautrec or Pierre Bonnard, complemented by Art Nouveau lettering reproducing Jules Chéret’s font. In addition, vases and other decorative objects crafted from glass paste grace the surroundings. Some of these authentic pieces are the creations of the naturalistic artist Emile Gallé, highly sought after in the fashionable late 1890s Parisian circles.

Flexibility and ergonomics

Art Nouveau furniture embodies organic and ergonomic shapes. The carved wood of the chairs creates a tactile impression of softness tailored to the human body. The lines are supple, undulating and seamless, eliminating all visible technical connections. Few pieces have survived the Lebanese War of the 1970s and 1980s. Occasionally, in abandoned apartments or countryside residences, a Belle Epoque coat rack stands in a corner of the entrance.

In Europe, World War I abruptly ended this creative quest infused with a carefree spirit, tenderness, hope and vitality. After the war, Art Deco took center stage, characterized by its robust, cubist and industrial forms. Soon enough, between these two movements, the Lebanese triforium swiftly evolved.

The three arches, that morphed into a single curve, were redesigned to align with contemporary taste, maintaining its presence in the landscape and leaving behind the indelible mark of its identity.

A national art

Over the centuries, navigating through various trends and movements, the triforium (triple bay) showcased remarkable adaptability, embracing diverse forms and the rich influences surrounding it. Resilient and unyielding, it has consistently reinvented itself. 

This notion was accurately articulated by a prominent intellectual of the Art Deco movement, John Ruskin, who wrote in The Seven Lamps of Architecture: “The greatness of a nation’s architecture achieves greatness once it is universally embraced and firmly rooted, much like its language.”

In Lebanon, Catalonia and Hungary, Art Nouveau deviated from its universalist principles to craft a national architecture that would thrive even more in the Art Deco era. Beirut exported these innovative forms to other cities in the Levant, just as it had previously done so as the capital of the Ottoman vilayet.