Hector Guimard (Lyon, March 10, 1867 - New York, May 20, 1942) 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 past structural principles of Art Nouveau. Some say that Guimard became devoted to this style when he visited the Hôtel Tassel in Brussels, designed by Victor Horta, however of a very different style.
The Castel Béranger made Guimard famous and he soon 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.
If the skylights favored by Victor Horta are rather absent in his work (except in his 1910 Mezzara Hotel), 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. His greatest success here – in spite of some scandals – was his famous entrances to the Paris Metro, based on the ornamented structures of Viollet-le-Duc. 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.
Guimard's art objects have the same formal continuity as his buildings, harmoniously uniting practical function with linear design, as in the Vase des Binelles, of 1903) or this sketch of his furniture.
His inimitable stylistic vocabulary suggests plants and organic matter, while remaining resolutely on the side of abstraction. Flexible mouldings 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: 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. Now, scholars have reconstructed his career and he has been the subject of much research. Still, one hundred years after what Le Corbusier called the "magnificent gesture" of Art Nouveau, most of Guimard's buildings remain inaccessible to the public, and he has no museum devoted to him. However, 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.